Navigating the postdoc journey in NZ & Australia

Recently I’ve been asked by quite a few newly or soon-to-be fledged PhD students about where to look for postdoctoral jobs in academia. Everyone knows finding a postdoc isn’t easy, but it is good to know what is out there and start applying for as many opportunities as possible. Here, as well as describing a little about my own experience so far, I wanted to put together a list of postdoc funds that are available in NZ and Australia for (non-medical) biologists.

My own postdoc journey so far has been the result of a combination of luck, incredible support from my mentors, and of course a fair amount of hard work. As well as landing two one-year postdocs I have also strung together smaller pots of cash to make things work, resulting in an almost continuous 2.5 years of funding since completing my PhD. I think the postdoc years are rarely smooth and it can be stressful to find a job that suits your skills as well as being a good fit for you personally (especially thinking about juggling relationships with loved ones and how to balance the whole research abroad thing). Somehow though, I’ve made it work for me so far despite the journey not necessarily being all that well thought out, and my little hodge-podge career so far has resulted in some fantastic experiences with super interesting people and study animals.

I handed in my PhD thesis in June 2013 and was able to jump immediately into a previously applied for University of Auckland Faculty of Science Postdoctoral Fellowship. This one year award was given to Greg Holwell (also my PhD supervisor) to employ me as a postdoc to build up data in support of a new project that we were trying to get more funding for. Continuing on in Greg’s lab and at the same university as my PhD turned out to be hugely beneficial to me for a few reasons. One of the most important benefits was being able to have time to write up the major papers from my PhD thesis in a reasonably fast amount of time, without worrying about annoying a new boss. Of course I spent a lot of time laying the foundations for the new project on harvestmen weaponry, doing lab and field work, and supervising honours and masters students,  but I felt lucky to be granted valuable work hours to also get this writing done. As a side note, I think it should be ok for postdocs to work on some writing from previous stages of their career during work hours. Obviously your current project should be the major priority and most time spent on this. However, my experience so far has shown that I’ll always be writing up something from an earlier project, but I like to think this flows on and will benefit my current boss later when I am writing up my manuscripts at a time when he is no longer paying me. I have talked to other postdocs about this who strongly feel they should only work on those manuscripts after hours, but I think if you can negotiate some freedom around this with your employer then that would make life easier for you!

Another nice part about sticking around Auckland for a little longer was that I picked up a lecturing stint to cover another faculty member going on maternity leave. During this time I was able to gain loads of experience writing and delivering lectures, labs and a field trip for a reasonably large class (~175 students). I think this was a fantastic way to pick up more teaching skills, and it was nice to learn that I really enjoy that aspect of what would  become a major part of my job if I ever pick up a permanent faculty position.

After the end of my first one-year post doc I did two shorter term stints. A chance meeting with Prof Pat Backwell at ANU resulted in the invitation to visit her field site for 6 weeks in late 2014 and do a short-term paid project on fiddler crab behaviour. Although a short time in the field, I managed to help complete an older project with the agreement to write up the manuscript (trying to publish this now) as well as setting out my own experiment in the field (with mixed success). I also wrote and won a Kate Edger Postdoctoral Award which gave me 4 months of half-time salary over the 2014/2015 summer to work on a project that I wanted to get off the ground on weapon shape in anthribid weevils. These awards are designed for women who have recently finished a PhD and want to do a short-term project in the Auckland area. Again this wasn’t much time to get the project off the ground but I’m pleased to have some pilot data that I can use to develop this as a more robust project in the future.

In 2014 I was also writing or co-writing grant applications, most of which were not successful. Eventually though, I was offered a postdoc in A/Prof Daiqin Li‘s lab at NUS in Singapore and in the same week an Endeavour Research Fellowship to work at Deakin University with Dr Matthew Symonds. I chose to go to Singapore given it was an opportunity for several years of salary and research funding as opposed to the Endeavour which was a shorter 4-6 month research experience. More recently, after several years of trying, I managed to land a 3 year postdoc back in NZ via the Marsden Fund through a grant that Dr Greg Holwell and I wrote with our collaborators (Dr Glauco Machado at University of Sao Paulo, and Prof Gonzalo Giribet at Harvard University). Although this means skipping out on an extra year in Singapore, the time was right for my husband and I to move back to New Zealand so it has all worked out rather nicely.

I guess all this rambling is to show that there are lots of ways to put together a career in academia in Australasia (with jaunts to SE Asia!). It is definitely not easy and I know luck has played a significant role in where I’ve been so far, but I think if you are keen, creative about making new collaborations and finding opportunities, and doing good research then it is quite possible to make it work….at least for a few years!

What I’ve taken away from all of this so far:

  • Be brave about making connections with new people that you want to work with – knocking on Pat Backwell’s door on my visit through Canberra turned out to be a really fortuitous meeting for me!
  • Apply for lots of funds & jobs to increase your chances of success. I’ve had the advice to apply widely and worry later about whether you really want to take the position if you get an offer, but personally I like to only apply for things I realistically would take up.
  • If you are in a relationship, talk to your loved one about expectations of where in the world you both want to live/work, how to compromise and whether either of you are ok with living apart if need be. Set time limits. Another scientist I know made 6 month check in points with her husband when they were living apart to see if both were coping ok and if anything needed changing.
  • It’s hard to cope with the unknown that comes with going from short-term contract to short-term contract. I was lucky to have a supportive partner who had a full time job outside of academia during the periods where I wasn’t sure what would come next, and this certainly made me feel more secure financially. I tried to go with the flow about this with the thought in mind that if it really started to bother me and opportunities ran out I could look at other options outside of academia (i.e. government agencies, consultancies, teaching). I also talked a lot with my mentors and other postdoc friends to bounce ideas and reduce the anxiety.
  • A possibly negative aspect of my dabbling in various shorter-term projects is that I haven’t really been able to sink my teeth into a larger scale project and get bigger and better publications. I’ve had a lot of fun hopping around the place but output productivity is something to consider when taking on smaller contracts. I’m hoping my next, longer postdoc will allow me to develop my longer term research plans.

Below are some suggestions for grants and ways to find postdocs in Australasia. This list is by no means complete as these are just the options that I am currently aware of and have applied for or considered myself. They are aimed at earlier career researchers, rather than postdocs further down the line (so less than ~5 years post-PhD). I’ve got a mix here of bigger awards, as well as some of the smaller pots of cash that I’ve applied for over the last couple of years. Obviously this ignores all the possibilities for jobs away from Australasia, but hopefully it is helpful to those that might want to come and work down under, or for those that want to stick around the region.

Nationwide awards (Australia & NZ)

Rutherford Foundation New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellowships: Two year-long funding, $75,000 per year salary + $10,000 research funding.

Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) Australia: Up to three years of salary + research funds for the awardee, up to 5 years post-PhD and can only apply twice – so best to apply for these once already quite competitive!

Marsden Fund Fast Starts: (NZ) Supports researchers already employed at a University of research institute, although you can negotiate for an institute to host you during the award period. Up to $100,000 per year for 3 years, up to 7 years post-PhD. Go here for the 2016 application details.

Australian Museum Chadwick Biodiversity Fellowship: (Australia) Two years of salary + research funding, must be an Australian citizen. There are a few other fellowships offered by the Australian museum too.

Australian Biological Resources Study Research Grants: (Australia) Three year grants. Can support a postdoctoral fellow + research funding but requires co-funding from another source to support application.

Ian Potter Foundation: (Australia) Large grants of $100,000+

University postdoctoral schemes (a couple of examples)

Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellowship: Deakin University, Melbourne, Two years of salary + $10,000 research funding.

Macquarie University Research Fellowships: Sydney, Australia, Three years salary.

Quite a few other Australian universities offer their own postdoctoral fellowship scheme. I can recommend checking out Professor Scott Keogh’s fantastic & helpful list of postdoc opportunities on his website. It’s worthwhile to note that university postdocs usually require sponsorship from a faculty member that you want to work with, but I’ve often heard that staff can only support one applicant per funding round. Get in touch early with the person you want to work!

Smaller pots of cash (sometimes with small stipends)

Endeavour Research Fellowship: One round opening in April, closing in June(?) each year, up to AUD$24,500 of stipend and travel funding. Good for Aussies wanting to go abroad for a few months or for postdocs from other countries wanting to visit Australia.

Fullbright Scholar Awards: Various awards for Kiwis & Aussies to go to the USA or vice versa for short research/teaching stints.

Australia & Pacific Science Foundation: up to $15,000 research funding per year for 3 years to do a project in Australasia. Not a salary but great for funding the project itself.

Hermon Slade Foundation: up to $30,000 per year for up to 3 years for research in Australia at Australian institutions. Generally not used as salary for research staff or students but can employ a technician.

Australian National Geographic: project sponsorship of up to $15,000 + the Nancy Bird Walton sponsorship for female adventurers ($5,000)/

National Geographic: various awards for research around USD$15-$20,000 for research projects, no salary.

Mohammed Bin Sayed Conservation Grants: up to $25,000 to support conservation projects.

Also check out Dr Kate Umbers great list of smaller research funding opportunities. It’s also worth asking around your department or talking to faculty at other universities about small funding opportunities within the school that may offer some salary or cover research costs. These could tide you over between larger contracts.

Women in Science Awards

Kate Edger Trust Postdoctoral Award: Two rounds a year in February & July, NZD$16,000 research funds, part of which can be used as a stipend, for research in the Auckland area of NZ.

Zonta Science Award: Biannual award for New Zealand women in science, NZD$15,000 award + $3000 travel (NOTE: this one is closing really soon on 8th Feb 2016 if any women based in NZ are keen!)

L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Awards: Annual, 2016 round closes in April 2016, $25,000 one-year fellowships in NZ & Australia.

Websites and listserves to check out:

I can highly recommend signing up to alerts from EvolDir and Ecolog-L as these are a great source of opportunities for advertised postdoc jobs, usually funded by a PI who has won a large grant.

Lots of societies post job opportunities, so its good to join up to some relevant societies in your field. For example, I look after the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB) social media pages (Twitter & Facebook) and try to keep my eye out for postdocs and faculty jobs to share with our followers. We also post jobs on our website and through the mailing list too.

In general, if you are not already doing so, Twitter is one of the best places for spotting jobs and networking with other scientists – get onto it!

#### Please feel free to suggest other funding opportunities for postdocs in NZ & Australia and I’ll add them to the list here! ####





2 thoughts on “Navigating the postdoc journey in NZ & Australia

  1. Pingback: Teatime tips on how to get a postdoc – Chrissie Painting

  2. Pingback: Fiddlers on the mudflats – Chrissie Painting

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