Getting Started as a Marie Curie Postdoc

Organisation central at my desk, CTR [photo E.Y.]

Here it is: you have signed your contract, (hopefully) found a decent place to live, got the keys to the office and bought a new coffee mug with your new digs’ logo. Now it is time to get the ball rolling and work!

You know the intricacies of your project by heart, well ordered as they are in your grant application. You most probably have spent months on each aspects of your project, dreamed about them, sold them to potential partners, polished them…just so you could build the best application and win the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Holy Grail. But that was 10, 12, or maybe even 18 months ago?! Since then, your world has turned a lot: international move, new work projects, new avenues of research…and frankly that could be a bit overwhelming. Quite natural of course, but in a 24 months project, every week counts. So let’s jump in I say! Here are 5 tips which have helped me getting a good start.

Settle ahead of time

Especially if you are moving with your family, or from far way, give yourself enough time to install everybody and everything in their new positions. Obviously, it is not always possible and that depends a lot on your previous work and financial situation. But if you can save enough and manage to afford it, it is the best way to start working directly and efficiently. Since you are at it, solve the visa issues, open a bank account, and (try to) understand the local tax system. Wish I would have done more of that!

Meet and integrate with your team

Take the time to meet everybody you work with, your supervisor of course, but also all your colleagues and all the administrative staff members relevant to your project’s implementation. Besides helping you through your research and logistic difficulties, they will safeguard you from hysteria/depression/brain death that might assail you in the future!

Take a step back and review your project

Plenty of things have changed since you put your project together. Re-assess your objectives, in terms of research but also in terms of career strategies. Choose to focus on the most important, relevant, and beneficial of those goals. For example, I personally wish to focus on 2 research objectives that I “re-tweaked” a bit to accept more recent ideas and potentially open to a next project. I also choose teaching and project management as two “transferable” skills to develop further. 

Plan. Everything.

Now that you have clear objectives, lay out in front of you every sub-projects, activities, research trips, courses, conferences, and publications that you want to accomplish and attend. Assign to each item a value and a due date…and budget them. Let’s face it, us academic types are not the best at financial planning, but depending on your grant, your research budget isn’t going to cover all of your fantastic ideas! So you might have to prioritize and/or decide to apply for extra funding. Either way, you will need advance planning to make it work. 

Once your budget is done, hopefully allowing a sizeable chunk for unforeseen activities and expenses, you can start allocating your most precious resource: time. Your own to-do-list is already chockful of items, directly related to you project, but joining a new workplace also means participating in its activities. The solicitations will be as numerous as they will be attractive! First advice I received here at CTR: “Say no!”. When you want to say “yes” though, invest in a calendar, planner, to-do-list app or whatever works for you, and PLAN! Discover and embrace the beauty of Gantt charts, project trackers and tasks lists!

Save time for real work

Meetings, presentations, email correspondence, event planning, Excel spreadsheets, Marie Curie admin…all well and good. We have to do each of these things, and make the most of it. But it is surely not why we entered academia, and not why we slaved over our grant application! So give yourself a favour: save plenty of time on your calendar for deep work. Allocate blocks of at least 3 continuous hours for reading and writing, all over your week and as often as possible. In the long run, it will have the best return on investment. You will be up-to-date with recent work, your own research will be continuously nourished with new ideas and concepts, and you might have a chance at writing all of the articles you listed as deliverables!

Two pieces of advice for expectant postdocs:

  • Be prepared. A lot.
  • Build a good relationship with your supervisor and your team.

Best of luck, and good writing!

Tags : marie curiepostdocproject management
Elsa Yvanez

The author Elsa Yvanez

I am an archaeologist, researcher and post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Textile Research, Copenhagen University.