Thoughts of a Postbac logoIt was a brisk January morning in Maryland. I was making my way towards Building 6, full of nervous energy and my head swarming with thoughts. I was so excited to be at the National Institutes of Health—the epitome of biomedical scientific research. I had made it. I expected to do great scientific research. I expected to gain invaluable skills and knowledge for my career. I expected that by the time I left the NIH I would feel confident in my skills as a scientist and ready to take on graduate study. Suffice it to say, I had high expectations.

What I didn’t expect were some of the struggles I experienced. I struggled navigating full-time research and learning how to effectively communicate my thoughts and ideas with my Principal Investigator (PI). I struggled with imposter syndrome. I struggled learning that a postbac can be more stressful than undergraduate studies. I now realize that most of this was placed upon myself. I wanted to succeed—to be accepted into a good graduate school and to prosper in science. I learned that to struggle is to achieve.

What I didn’t expect was to not only gain a greater understanding of myself as a scientist, but to gain valuable knowledge and skills outside the laboratory. During my postbac, I completed a year and seven months of research at the NIH. I worked on three projects, during which I conducted experiments that honed the skills I need for my career. I analyzed and presented data, and I learned how to talk and write about science. I attended seminars, meetings, and workshops. I presented at Postbac Poster Day and the NICHD Fellows Retreat. I volunteered in the NICHD Office of Education for three weeks. I learned to push my boundaries.

Carissa Stover and colleagues

Postbac Poster Day 2019. Left to right: Dina O'Connell, Rima Sakhawala, and Carissa Stover. Photograph courtesy of Carissa Stover.

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What I didn’t expect was the support I received outside of the lab. During my postbac, I came to realize that I needed to learn to ask for help. I grew up as the oldest sibling and one of the oldest cousins in a large family, and I was used to being completely independent. It was during a resilience workshop that I realized it was important to seek guidance and a support system, and that you don’t have to be in the depths of despair to need it. The Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) and the NICHD Office of Education offered guidance and support when I needed it—and sometimes when I didn’t know I needed it. The people in these offices helped me navigate my time at NIH and gain the most I could from my experience. I learned how to respond to struggle and stress with resilience, with my project and within myself. 

What I didn’t expect was the community I built with my peers. I became close to some of my fellow postbacs. We talked about science and went to workshops and seminars together. We shared our ups and downs. We took time to make sure we enjoyed ourselves outside of the lab by eating lunch in the sunshine and going to postbac events. Having peers to connect with and share the postbac experience with was fun and incredibly valuable. They are the only other people that know the experience you’re going through. I learned the value of community.

My postbac met my expectations. I grew as a scientist, gaining valuable skills and knowledge for my career. I am attending George Washington University starting in the fall.

My postbac also exceeded expectations. I learned about myself and grew as a person.  If I were able to give myself advice at the beginning of my postbac, I would tell myself to embrace my expectations but also look beyond them. I would tell myself that an experience at the NIH is what you make it: take advantage of your time here, seek opportunities and make your own, and remember to have fun.

My expectations and my actual experience were not the same—and I wouldn’t change that.