Dr Emily Johnston’s #PostdocResearcherRealities

Name: Dr Emily Johnston

School/College: School of Biological Sciences

Research Area: Biomanufacturing

Role Name: PDRA

Webpage/Profile: Dr Emily Johnston | Rosser Lab (ed.ac.uk)


I’m originally a plant scientist by training, and have been working as a postdoc on engineering biology projects in the School of Biological Sciences since 2016. I suppose I’d be classed as a long-term postdoc now. This isn’t something that I’ve particularly planned, but a consequence of so far always being curious to explore the next research idea. I really enjoy the flexibility in academia to get excited and explore new research ideas as they develop. It can be a challenge to balance wet lab research with writing, teaching and other academic citizenship activities, and I’m certainly guilty at times of over-committing, and squeezing a bit too much into my calendar. The most useful advice that I’ve been given to handle this is to allocate tasks to time slots in my calendar directly, rather than keeping a ‘to-do’ list, and to be more aware of my energy levels throughout the day- I now try to schedule more demanding tasks for when I have the most energy (first thing in the morning), and less demanding tasks for when energy levels are low (the post-lunch carb coma).

I took a year’s maternity leave in 2020, and the transition from lockdown maternity leave to nursery was challenging. It has, however, been a delight to see our son grow and form his own friendships in the nursery environment (and I now feel no obligation to have play duh at home- hurray!). The first year following childcare induction is a notorious time for childhood illness, and in 2021 I was especially grateful for the flexibility that comes with the postdoc role, and the support from my PI. Although I certainly have less time available now, I do think (/hope!) that I am more efficient as a result, and whilst previously it’s been hard at times to ‘switch off’ from research, parenthood has forced me into attaining a better work-life balance.

Whilst I really appreciate the variety and flexibility of the postdoc role, the challenge of fixed term contracts would be too much of a strain for me if I did not have a partner with a relatively secure job. In this respect, I’m concerned that long-term postdoctoral work is not a particularly inclusive career option, and that universities risk losing some outstanding talent and expertise.

Since autumn 2021 I’ve been part of the BioDocSoc committee which supports postdocs in the School of Biological Sciences. I’ve found BioDocSoc fantastic for connecting with other postdocs, and I’d encourage others to similarly get involved with committees, and/or to reach out with suggestions for how committees and the IAD could best support them. A virtual suggestions box for initiatives that would support a positive Research Culture is available here: Research culture | The University of Edinburgh

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