Summer 2016

The Nth degree

Postdocs can take risks while seeking their niche

Feature Image
Jonathan Cohen
Tamara Fitzwater, MA '04, PhD '08, is in her second postdoc position at Binghamton University.

Tamara Fitzwater, MA ’04, PhD ’08, spent an undergraduate summer combing through patient records for a spina bifida study. Later, she milked cows as part of a project on mastitis. And when she finished her doctorate in psychology at Binghamton, she went right back to work as a postdoctoral fellow.

“It’s like being born and raised by your scientific parent,” Fitzwater says. “You have to go live in someone else’s household and see the way they live their life and the way they think. It opens some doors and allows you to step outside your little box.”

The postdoc route has become a well-worn path for many researchers. There were fewer than 20,000 U.S. postdocs in science, engineering and health in 1980. By 2000, there were 43,000, and in 2014 — the most recent figure available from the National Science Foundation — there were more than 63,000.

At Binghamton, postdocs are still relatively rare. The campus had 27 in 2014–15, up from 10 a decade earlier.

Christopher Bishop, chair of Binghamton’s psychology department, sees postdocs as a sign of the University’s expanding strength as a research institution. “They are a source of novel perspective and technical ingenuity that drives science forward,” he says. “These burgeoning scholars are the next generation of faculty, and we are fortunate to have their ranks growing at Binghamton University.”

Kate M. Sleeth, chair of the National Postdoctoral Association’s Board of Directors, is a veteran of three postdoctoral fellowships. Postdocs and the schools where they work both benefit, she notes. When universities hire postdocs, they gain skilled workers who are also motivated to publish and able to invest time in high-risk/high-reward projects.

“The really big papers that are coming out are often from postdocs,” Sleeth says. “At that point in your career, you can take on research that’s on the riskier side.”

Testing the professional waters

Fitzwater, who earned a PhD at Binghamton, pursued a postdoc at Medical University of South Carolina before returning to Binghamton for a second postdoc with a different scientist.

“I decided that I was not going to go right to a teaching position,” she says. “If you do that, you’re kind of closing the door on research. If you’re not sure if you want to keep doing research, then keep doing it. Go somewhere new, do something different and give it another shot. It’s invigorating to do it in a new place and with a new perspective.”

Sleeth agrees that postdoctoral fellowships give researchers a chance to see if an academic career will be a good fit. “A lot of people don’t want to go the professor route,” she says. “They want to go into industry, where they can earn more money. … There are so many alternative careers that you can use a PhD for.”

Postdocs may also explore changing their research focus or even switching disciplines. “It’s a good opportunity for people to go off, learn new things and work out what they’re going to devote their life to,” Sleeth says.

Binghamton postdoc Olga Petrova ’05, PhD ’09, says Karin Sauer, professor of biological sciences, makes sure scientists in her lab train in many different aspects of research. Sauer, she says, has become not only a mentor but also a collaborator. “It’s not simply teaching us laboratory techniques, or how to write a good proposal or a paper,” Petrova says. “It’s also: ‘You have to be able to do this on your own.’ She encourages us to go to international conferences and to network. … You become well-rounded.”

Maturing as a researcher

Fitzwater and Petrova say their skills in the laboratory and beyond have evolved during their time as postdocs.

Petrova studies colonies of bacteria, called biofilms, that are implicated in a range of health problems, from ear infections to chronic wounds. She and her colleagues want to understand what makes them form or break apart.

“As a postdoc, once you have more experience, it’s easier to get projects started,” she says. “It’s easier to troubleshoot. You’re more used to the fact that sometimes an experiment doesn’t work. You’re better at multitasking. You’re more efficient with your time.”

Petrova would like to transition into a research professor position with more independence. Already she has worked alongside Sauer on grant proposals, traveled to European conferences and won postdoc funding from Hoffmann-La Roche Inc. In 2012, she co-authored a paper published in the prestigious journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

Fitzwater sees herself as more creative and targeted now than she was as a grad student. She studies how alcohol exposure during adolescence might affect an organism’s response to stress.

“We know that stress and alcohol are important and interconnected,” says Fitzwater. “People drink to alleviate stress. But there’s also an idea that a history of drinking might lead a person to be more vulnerable to the impact of stress.”

Fitzwater, who recently received her first independent funding through the Binghamton-based Developmental Exposure Alcohol Research Center, has also had moments of frustration. A journal rejects a paper; experiments produce unexpected results.

“One of the most predictive characteristics of people who are successful in science is perseverance,” she says. “You get run over again and again. You just stand up and dust yourself off and try again. You have to get used to rejection. … Each rung you climb on the ladder, the stakes get higher and the rejection gets more intense.”

The process of maturing as a researcher may look different in the humanities and social sciences, but postdocs are increasingly common in those disciplines as well.

In 2015–16, Tadashi Ishikawa was the first recipient of a postdoc sponsored by the Journal of Women’s History and Binghamton’s History Department. His dissertation, which he is revising as a book manuscript, focused on public and legal discourses, and judicial practices concerning family and marriage in the Japanese Empire.

He says the fellowship gave him time and freedom to reinvent himself as a professional scholar. “The journal promotes interdisciplinary history beyond the U.S.,” he says. “Intellectually, I’m indebted to the journal.”

Unexpected professional choices

Academic career paths often hold surprises, even for the most ambitious and directed researchers.

Fitzwater was pregnant as she was finishing her doctorate and recalls dreading sharing the news with her first postdoc advisor. He was incredibly supportive, however, and she’s now a mother of two. She found life as a postdoc to be more family friendly than she expected.

She says she has taken the path of least resistance at a few key moments in her professional life, but the choices have led to some invaluable opportunities. For example, she returned to Binghamton for a postdoc in the lab of Terrence Deak, professor of psychology and new interim dean of Harpur College of Arts and Sciences. During her first stint at Binghamton, she worked under Linda Spear, a distinguished professor of psychology.

“Most people would say, ‘Don’t go back to where you got your PhD. It’s a bad career move,’” Fitzwater says. “But it allowed me to stay in science and not lose that flame that’s so easy to lose.”

Family considerations kept Petrova in Greater Binghamton, too. A native of Russia, she moved to upstate New York as a child and graduated from Vestal High School. She came to Binghamton University for an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and never left, not even when she was offered a position at a prestigious British university.

“Between the professional and the personal, it worked out,” Petrova says.

She says she always wanted to be a doctor or do biomedical research. “At the end of the day, I have fun,” Petrova says. “I do the work, I see the outcomes and I learn something new. It sounds idealistic, I know.”

Sometimes those early career plans fall apart, though. Ishikawa studied to be a lawyer. But when he failed the Japanese equivalent of the bar exam he was forced to consider other careers.

He worked in finance before deciding to pursue a master’s degree at Washington University in St. Louis. There, he developed what had been a hobbyist’s interest in history into something more. He went on to earn a doctorate in history at the University of Chicago.

At Binghamton, Ishikawa taught two courses as part of his postdoc and will start a one-year term as a visiting assistant professor in Binghamton’s Asian and Asian American Studies Department this fall.

Petrova and Fitzwater also taught as postdocs, and Fitzwater’s next job is as an assistant professor at Ithaca College. “Doing two postdocs has given me time to see what I like and dislike,” she says. “I love training undergraduates and seeing them through projects, which is what I’ll be doing at Ithaca. It’s a cool sweet spot. I get to keep doing research but with a teaching perspective.”

She considers herself fortunate to have landed a tenure-track job in a challenging environment for faculty hiring. “We’re churning out the researchers, but the jobs aren’t there, especially when it comes to the traditional academic track,” Fitzwater says. “PhDs are being forced to think about alternative careers. I’m seeing greater awareness of other options. The tenure-track faculty job isn’t the be-all end-all. People do other things.”