Case study

Postdoctoral research associate — Bonnie Laverock

Bonnie enjoys the flexibility of working in an academic environment and relishes finding new solutions to old problems

How did you get your job?

After graduating with a degree in environmental geoscience, I opted to study a Masters in science communication, which led to a job working as education officer for the Royal Society in London.

In this job, I worked closely with some really talented scientists whose enthusiasm for their subjects was infectious, and I gradually found myself feeling nostalgic for the life of an academic.

After two years in the job, I began to look around for PhD topics that interested me and I was accepted to do a PhD in marine microbial ecology with the Plymouth Marine Laboratory. Although this was a bit of a career change, I found my MSc degree and work at the Royal Society beneficial throughout my PhD, as they developed my critical thinking and gave me good experience in communicating scientific ideas.

In the final year of my PhD, I was given my first postdoctoral position, which took me to Perth in Western Australia. After three years I moved to my current role in Sydney, where I am working in the marine water column microbial habitat, looking at sulphur cycling.

Show your enthusiasm, get involved and say yes to every opportunity

How relevant is your degree to your job?

My undergraduate degree provided a good, broad scientific basis for my PhD study. It's not so much the specific subject of my PhD thesis, but the experience and skills I gained during my PhD (e.g. molecular ecology techniques, biogeochemical rate measurements) that remain my area of expertise now, and are entirely relevant to my continued employment.

During my PhD I gained experience of working as part of a multi-disciplinary team, in an often challenging environment, and had the chance to get involved in other people's projects. Practical science requires a certain amount of flexibility and being able to work in multi-disciplinary environments showed that I was willing and able to learn new skills.

What are your main work activities?

The job is really variable depending on what stage of a project I'm in. For example, at the moment I spend most days in the lab processing DNA samples that we collected on a recent research cruise. In between hours in the lab, I've also been writing and giving lectures, searching for funding opportunities, teaching lab skills to PhD students and talking to honours students about potential summer projects.

In a month's time, I'll probably be splitting my time between routine lab work, data analysis, writing papers, reviewing other people's papers and preparing for the next research trip.

How has your role developed and what are your career ambitions?

For me, previously, the emphasis of my role has been on networking for future collaborations, funding applications and career development, whereas my focus now is very much on technique development and data generation, as well as teaching skills to the group's PhD students.

I would like to reach a position where I can pursue my own research interests: this usually involves gradually setting up your own group and seeking research funding - both, unfortunately, take your time away from the lab and field.

What do you enjoy about your job?

Collecting samples is always enjoyable, whether it's filtering litres of water onboard a research boat, digging around for mud samples in an intertidal sand flat or diving for corals while bronze whaler sharks swim by.

Planning projects to answer specific questions (within a budget) is challenging and stimulating, and communicating your research to a specific audience can be fun. But perhaps my favourite part comes near the end when I've done all my lab work and data analysis and it's time to build a cohesive story about my findings based on what previous studies have shown - adding to our knowledge of how the world works, bit by bit.

What are the most challenging parts of your job?

Postdocs are generally temporary contracts and it can be exciting, but challenging, to move (sometimes across the world) and start again in a new lab every couple of years.

Apart from this, the most difficult aspect is the pressure to publish a large quantity of scientific papers, which means that scientists never really feel like they're away from their work, as every minute spent 'relaxing' is one in which they're not writing.

Any words of advice for someone who wants to get into this job?

Show your enthusiasm, get involved and say yes to every opportunity. And know how to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

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