I believe that the period spent as a postdoc can be very happy, rewarding, and well paid too. This is not only because I am an optimist, but also because it has been my personal experience.
I was halfway through my Ph.D. studies in molecular genetics in my home country of Italy when I decided to go for a postdoc job. I had thoroughly enjoyed my time in the laboratory and had found research thrilling, so I was enthusiastic about the idea of spending some more years at the bench. What I wanted, above all, was to work in a good laboratory in order to satisfy my thirst for learning and to go abroad.
My research into possible locations brought me to Cambridge, an extraordinary place for science that, with a critical mass of research institutes, facilitates synergies among scientists. Moreover, in Cambridge there was an excellent laboratory working on a subject I was very keen on, and I could live in Europe, close enough to my family and very close to my boyfriend, who was also there for a postdoc.
Having decided where I wanted to work, I prepared a CV and contacted the boss of my target laboratory, expressing my interest in working with him. I was confident of being considered for a job. After all, I earned my Ph.D. at a renowned institute, I had a good publication track record, and my background and work experience during my doctorate were relevant to the laboratory where I wanted to work. And indeed, my potential employer appreciated my CV and skills, but he also explained to me that the laboratory was full and that he was not looking for a newcomer at that time. Not to be put off, however, I exploited a stopover in London and managed to get an invitation to Cambridge for a chat.
To prepare for meeting my would-be boss, I read up on my subject, drafted a research project to be carried out in the new laboratory, and made a list of all the benefits his laboratory could expect to gain from importing my skills. In addition, because I desperately wanted to work there, I thought that if I was able to bring my own money to pay my salary, maybe it would be easier for him to find room for me in an otherwise crowded laboratory.
When we then met, I saw for myself that the laboratory was packed. Nevertheless, my interest in the job was renewed, and I suggested that I would apply for postdoctoral fellowships. So we made a deal that I would have room in the laboratory if I provided my own salary. Looking back, however, I believe that the prospect of getting a postdoc for free was not the reason I was eventually given the chance to join the laboratory. On the contrary, I think that when I volunteered to find my own salary I proved to be committed and proactive, and this, more than money, allowed me to reach my goal.
I knew very little about grants available to European postdocs willing to work in a foreign laboratory, but fortunately several of my friends had gone through the same experience. They were an excellent source of information and helped me to go through heaps of application forms. In this way, I discovered that there were three main sources of funding open to me: the Marie Curie Fellowships, which are supported by the European Union (E.U.); the Human Frontier Science Program ( HFSP); and the European Molecular Biology Organization ( EMBO) long-term fellowships.
Generally, the E.U., HFSP, and EMBO all fund basic research in life sciences, although there are some differences in the specific areas that each of them supports. The fellowships are all very similar in duration (from 2 to 3 years) and application procedures (although in my experience the E.U. was the most bureaucratic, laborious, and sometimes obscure of the three). Importantly, all the fellowship programmes support cross-border research and therefore require that postdocs leave the country in which they did their Ph.D. work and move to a different state--exactly what I wanted to do!
Beyond that, however, these fellowships appeared very attractive to me. In addition to a generous salary, they contribute to research and travel costs. Undoubtedly, this extra money enables the postdoc to be more independent within his or her chosen laboratory and to attend more conferences. For all these reasons I thought it was worth participating in the tough competition!
To increase my chances of success, I applied to all three funding bodies. In fact, I found this was not too stressful at all. The most enjoyable part was the writing of the research proposal. This had to be only about 1000 to 1500 words long, so it was not a big deal, and I used the same project for all three applications. In addition, I was asked to provide information about the target laboratory and potential host institute--a tedious task, but only the first time around. Moreover, deadlines for applications were scattered all through the year (E.U. and HFSP fellowships are awarded annually, whereas the EMBO deadlines are twice a year), so I had enough time to prepare and send the first application and then customise it for subsequent applications.
Typically, the outcome of the selection is known a few months after the closing date, and successful applicants are informed of the earliest and latest dates that their fellowships can be activated. This means that one has to plan one's postdoc a long time in advance and start the application procedure early, because it may well take a year or more to get things sorted out. In my case, I started to apply in 1997. Six months and many forms later, I was awarded an E.U. grant, and finally I could arrange my new job, which I started at the beginning of 1998. My determination and perseverance had paid off!
Having moved to Cambridge, I was delighted to learn that I had won the HFSP fellowship, too. (Despite trying twice, I was unsuccessful with EMBO.) Of course, you are not allowed to combine two fellowships, but you can initiate your work under one lot of funding and then switch to another one. This is exactly what I did, and by postponing the start date of my second fellowship as much as I was allowed, I could enjoy a much longer time in Cambridge. Moreover, I had benefits from both fellowships. My flight to Cambridge was paid, and I could use the research fees to buy myself a books and laptop and subscribe to several journals. Thanks to the travel money, I attended a few conferences and a 2-week summer school in Corsica! I would have been a fool not to apply for these fellowships!
What makes for a successful application? Most of all, your academic record, your references, and the scientific merit of your research proposal will determine whether you get the fellowship. Also very important in the referees' decision is the excellence of the receiving laboratory and host institution. All in all this makes sense, because placing a good candidate in the right laboratory within a stimulating and supportive environment is an insurance policy against a disappointing research outcome.
The two fellowships I received allowed me to work in the laboratory I wanted and gave me the opportunity to do more than I ever imagined: The HFSP fellowship even included money for English lessons in my first year! Not only did I benefit from all this, I also learnt how to tackle application processes and manage my budget. Now, I can proudly state on my CV that I have been both an E.U. and an HFSP fellow.