This post is intended to be the beginning of a discussion of best practices for postdocs in order to place themselves in a good position for the next step in an academic career. I encourage mentors and junior investigators who recently finished a postdoctoral term to chime in with additional suggestions.
Take care of unfinished work right away. New postdocs typically have some unfinished work that stems from their dissertation or other previous research. It is important to take the time to take care of any loose ends as soon as possible. This applies especially to work that is nearly finished and should be submitted for publication right away. Good postdoc supervisors understand and will give you the time to do this.
Read, read, read. A new postdoc position often involves starting new projects in areas that might be slightly outside of your previous projects. Any new project requires a thorough review of the literature in order to get to the current state of the research and the relevant open questions. Your goal should be to read so many papers that you become an expert on the subject.
Publication rate. In the long term, the quantity is not as important as the quality of publications. However, there must be a balance between them, especially at the beginning of your career. It would not be a good idea to work your entire postdoc tenure on a single publication regardless of how difficult the project is. The significance of any work usually becomes apparent over the years and is not yet apparent at the time you look for jobs. On the other hand, dividing a project into many publications, each of them representing a small increment of work, is not appropriate (and leads to a bad reputation). I suggest learning from your supervisor and other mentors what is the appropriate amount of material to submit for publication as a single article. A publication rate of N papers or more per year is adequate for seeking faculty jobs (where N=2 in mathematics and N=3 in engineering fields).
Listen to advice. You should develop two types of relationships with your supervisor. One is as a collaborator and the other one as a mentor. As a collaborator, you should strive to meet and exceed your supervisor’s expectations as the research projects develop. Always do the work you are expected to do by the next meeting and try to go beyond by following ideas that you had. The latter is especially important as you mature in research. Do not think of your postdoc as a 9-5 pm job.
Develop independence. It is a good idea to develop new project ideas and keep notes on them. These will turn into the basis for new collaborations and/or individual projects that continue after your postdoc years. Ideas of new research projects involve doing some preliminary work on them, testing their feasibility, and discussing them with your supervisor (in confidence). See next item.
Write a grant proposal. Expect to write a first grant proposal before you finish your postdoc years. Your supervisor and other mentors should guide you on how to find funding opportunities and how successful proposals are written. It is not enough to have a good idea to pursue; it is necessary to show that the idea has a good chance of working out and advancing the knowledge in the area. For this reason it is important to have done some preliminary work on it. As a postdoc, one often does not have a large collection of projects to propose; however, keeping notes on new ideas over time will help you put together a good proposal.
Teach. Teaching experience is indispensable when looking for jobs. Many postdoc positions include teaching duties. One course per semester is adequate. If your postdoc does not include teaching, ask to teach at least one course per year so that you can develop experience in the classroom.
Go to conferences. It is difficult to overstate the importance of knowing people in your field. The best way to start developing a network of contacts is by attending conferences and presenting your work. Do not do this prematurely because your presentation must be as good as possible. When you go to conferences, do not just hang out with your friends (which we tend to do), make an effort to meet other scientists, including more senior ones.
Develop technical proficiency that gives you and edge. In applied fields it is very important to be able to collaborate with researchers from other disciplines. To be effective, it is critical to bring something to that collaboration that identifies you as a key (or critical) component. To do so, one must not be a generalist.
Be smart about the problems you choose. It is very tempting to choose problems that are ‘popular.’ Unless one has a very special approach or truly novel insight, this may not be the best approach. Consider choosing problems that are not mainstream and for which you can develop a competitive advantage before others.