Postdoctoral Fellowships at NCEAS: The Inside Story 2008

Summarized by the NCEAS Postdoctoral Associates, Spring 2008

In 1999, four years after NCEAS was created, NCEAS' Postdoctoral Associates summarized the benefits and limitations of their positions.  The document they produced provides a snapshot of the NCEAS postdoc experience at that time, and captures many aspects that potential postdocs should consider when applying today. 

In light of a recent nationwide survey-based report on what makes a successful postdoc experience, the 2008 NCEAS postdoc cohort thought it was time for another snapshot.  We’ve tried not to duplicate information, so this should be considered a companion document to the one written in 1999 and not a replacement.  We hope the two together will further help prospective applicants decide whether an NCEAS postdoc is right for them. 

The basics haven’t changed.

There was broad agreement on the benefits of an NCEAS postdoc as listed in the 1999 document, and on some of the limitations.  Regarding exposure to leading scientists in ecology and evolution, the 1999 summary put it well: “Most postdoctoral positions are isolating.  At NCEAS the world comes to you.  NCEAS postdocs get exposure to a broader range of people and ideas than one could ever get in a single local institution, given all the visitors coming through and diversity of postdoc backgrounds.” 

Also, there are still few places where ecology postdocs are in such numerous company (we have 15-20 postdocs in residence at any given time).  Having a community of other scientists at similar stages in their careers with whom to discuss scientific and career matters is a great benefit of being at NCEAS.  Want advice on how to write a cover letter for s?    Need a friendly review on your manuscript before the end of the week?  Need advice on your job search?  Having trouble with a concept, statistical procedure, or computer program?  Just walk down the hall and you will always find a willing colleague.

And NCEAS still offers postdocs great freedom, good job prospects, and a chance to diversify their research experience. 

Of course, many of the limitations still apply.  Applicants must balance the freedom they gain against what may be their last chance to work closely with a mentor.  The Sigma Xi survey underscored the importance of structured oversight for postdoctoral success and satisfaction.  There is little oversight of NCEAS postdocs, so self-motivation is extremely important.

But we have a few points to add (and a few notions to dispel) about the NCEAS postdoc.

Research at NCEAS is only as collaborative as you make it.  NCEAS offers the opportunity to get involved with working groups, which can produce papers with many authors.  Still, many postdocs and sabbaticals spend the bulk of their time working on their own research, or research with outside collaborators.  Furthermore, although collaboration with other NCEAS postdocs is possible, opportunities to do so depend heavily on the research subjects of the current cohort, which can vary tremendously.  And, although many excellent scientists pass through NCEAS on a regular basis, the ability to interact with these individuals can be limited, and postdocs need to be proactive in soliciting these opportunities.

NCEAS is focusing more on training.  Much of the training is informal, and comes in the form of practice job talks or having an Open House (our weekly discussion forum) dedicated to subjects like strategies for scientific paper writing or the pros and cons of a career at a conservation organization.  But we do have regularly scheduled workshops on job hunting skills such as writing cover letters, interviewing, and negotiating.  We also have occasional workshops on statistical methods, software, and programming, and postdocs are encouraged to organize such workshops or invite experts to NCEAS to provide training.  

NCEAS postdocs have teaching opportunities.  The Kids Do Ecology program offers the opportunity to teach ecology to 5th graders, by conducting ecological experiments in classrooms.  Postdocs can also organize workshops or write proposals to teach distributed graduate seminars.  There is less opportunity for traditional undergraduate lecture experience.

NCEAS offers excellent computing resources and access to scientific programmers.  It would be an overstatement to say these programmers will be at your disposal, since they have many responsibilities including working group support.  But they can provide advice and limited programming time, and will occasionally organize workshops on topics such as the R statistical computing package and open-source GIS packages.

You don’t have to give up field work entirely.  It’s true that NCEAS does not fund projects that require experiments or data collection.  However, postdocs sometimes use their vacation time (1 month per year) to maintain some field research.  Still, ecologists with primarily experimental and field-based backgrounds should think of NCEAS as a place to develop skills like modeling, meta-analysis, and literature mining, rather than a place to continue their existing research.

We’re not all planning to go into academia.  Well, most of us are.  But there is an increasing interest in working for government agencies, conservation NGO’s, and teaching colleges among NCEAS postdocs.  Applied research proposals are welcome, and the Conservation and Resource Management Program has increased the amount of applied conservation work done at NCEAS.

UCSB faculty and students make good collaborators.  NCEAS is in downtown Santa Barbara (a pleasant, albeit expensive place to live), and is 12 miles away from UCSB.  It’s a bit of a hike to get there, but faculty and graduate students at UCSB have exceptional strengths in disciplines like marine biology, computer science, and geography.

Santa Barbara isn’t cheap, but it’s a great place to live.  The town is pleasant, bikeable, family-friendly, and has excellent outdoor opportunities.  It’s expensive, though, especially for families, and finding daycare is challenging.  The current post-docs maintain an internal-use only wiki page with lots of good recommendations for daycare, doctors, mechanics, etc., which new postdocs can access.

So is an NCEAS postdoc right for you?

You’ll have to decide whether your research ideas fit into the NCEAS “analysis and synthesis” model.  Aside from that, the NCEAS experience will best benefit those who are highly self-motivated, and who either do not wish to work closely with a mentor or can identify an outside mentor early on (NCEAS still offers limited travel funds to meet with mentors).  Postdocs also need to be social to take full advantage of their time here.  You’ll need to come out of your office to discuss science, job hunting, and other matters important at this stage of your career.  But you need not only produce multi-author publications, and you won’t have to completely swear off field work.

Further reading:

Davis, G. 2005. Doctors Without Orders. American Scientist 93 (3, supplement).
Postdoctoral Fellowships at NCEAS: The Inside Story