So you wanna do a postdoc...

Feb 23 2014 Published by under academia, mentoring

In my part of the science world, it is very common to do some postdoctoral training. I'm not going to get into whether or not doing a postdoc is a good idea, nor debate whether there are too many PhD's or anything like that. For the purposes of this post, let's assume that you have considered options and have decided that you just can't leave the academic bench yet and that you want to do a postdoc. Now what? Applying for a postdoc is not as structured as applying to graduate school. And I'm sure that the process is different for different disciplines. In my world of the "basic" biomedical research, this is basically how it goes (YMMV, etc):

1. Pick out some potential postdoc mentors.
You need to start this about 12 months before you are defending. For realz. You need to give us PI's a chance to figure out if we have the money and space to add a member to the team. If you contact me and want to start next month you might get lucky - but if you give me some notice then I may be able to juggle things and make something work. Starting early has the added bonus that you can apply for fellowships early and often! woot! ;-)

There are a million ways to find labs in which you might want to postdoc. However, IME most labs don't advertise open postdoctoral positions. It's weird. We just sit there waiting for applicants. Maybe there is a announcement on our website (which may or may not be up-to-date :-/). Maybe. So don't be discouraged if a lab you are interested in doesn't seem to be looking for any new fellows. The right fit for you is going to depend on what, exactly you want to get out of your postdoctoral training. Want to learn a new technique? Move your research into a new field or subfield? Transition to industry? Get training in outreach/journalism/policy? Make a run at a tenure-track faculty position? Whatever it is, you need to identify the PI's that you think could help you advance your career.

After you generate a list of labs that you think would be a good fit for you, it is time to start vetting. Figure out how previous postdocs in the lab have done - are they in the kinds of jobs that you would like to have? Talk to people your advisor and anyone else that you trust. Ask them about the folks on your list. Do folks working in the same sub-sub-field think particularly highly of anyone on your list? Does anyone have a reputation of being difficult to work with, or unfair? Gather all the information that you can. Then pare down the list to something manageable. You should try to settle on a final list of 3-5, at most.    

2. Prepare your application.
Ok, there isn't really an application. Just a letter that you are going to send to PI's to tell them you are interested in working with them. More importantly, to convince them that THEY should be interested in having you as a postdoc. This is the key. What can you bring to the group? You don't need to go on about what you did as a grad student (that is why you are enclosing your CV!). Basically, I want to be able to quickly figure out the general area of your graduate research, including whose lab you are in, and approximately when you would want to join my lab. I also like to see some indication of WHY you picked my lab. Finally, explain to me what YOU bring to the table that should make me want to recruit you. How would you make my group better?  Put your letter in front of anyone that will read it. Constructive feedback is your friend. Also, you really don't want to have a typo in your letter.

3. Update your CV.
Your curriculum vitae - you life's work. If this is a mess, I assume you are a mess. Don't be a mess. Your CV should highlight your achievements. Organize it so that you put your best foot forward. There is no standard format for a CV, so you have some flexibility here. You should lead with your name, contact info, education, and research experience. After that the order depends on what job you are applying for. If you want to work in my lab, the next thing I want to see is publications and research funding you have been awarded. I don't need to see a list of research techniques, or a list of all the computer programs you know how to use (and please, please don't tell me how you are proficient in Word. please). If you have special skills, make sure that is obvious. If you are really good with Python or R, I should know that looking at your CV. List things in reverse-chronological order so that your most recent achievements (which are probably the most relevant) are at the top of the list.

The post-doc application CV is the only time I think it is OK to include manuscripts that are "in preparation". There are some projects that work out so that all the publications happen at the end, and you might not have them out when you are applying for postdocs. That can be OK. But DON'T list anything that isn't actually in preparation. If I ask your advisor about an "in prep" manuscript and they don't know what the hell I'm talking about that is bad.

I strongly encourage everyone to always keep the CV up to date. I have a "long-form" CV in my dropbox that I update anytime anything happens. It has EVERYTHING on it. When I need to send a CV for something I simply save this under a new name and cut out the parts that I don't need. Easy peasy.

4. Contact potential postdoc advisors.
Go time! Send an email to the potential postdoc advisor that includes your letter (in the body of the email), CV (attached as a PDF), and a list of references with contact information (can be included in CV or attached as a PDF). Now you just have to wait (sorry!). If you are writing to me you will probably wait longer if there is an approaching NIH grant deadline. If you haven't heard back in 2 weeks, you should follow up with another email asking if there is any other information that they would like to see. If you still hear nothing, then move on to someone else on the list.

And just like that, you too can be a post-doc! Good luck :-)

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6 responses so far

Uninteresting questions

Sep 21 2012 Published by under academia

I have been to a lot of seminars over the years. One of my favorite parts of seminars is the question session at the end. It is fun to interact with the person about their work and see how their interpretation fits in with your perspective of the results. It is also a lot of fun as a speaker, IMO. Almost always someone will ask a question which you, the speaker, won't know the answer to. It may be that there is no answer, or it could be that YOU just don't know what it is. Either is OK. There are graceful ways out of this situation. I think the best option is to start with "I don't know" and then expand on either what you know is NOT the answer - based on experiments you've done or other published work - and/or discuss ways that you could address the issue. These are also good strategies for grad students giving a qualifying exam, by the way. A skilled (non)answer makes it clear that you are well-read and knowledgeable, because you are able to understand the question, but recognize the limits of what you know.

BUT this assumes that you have been asked a question that is interesting. This is not always the case. I ask a LOT of questions at seminars. It is possible to ask misguided, out-of-context, or just plain ridiculous questions. I know, I have done it (NOT ON PURPOSE!). And this is why I find it SO irritating when speakers start every answer (or just answers to the questions that they don't know the answer to) with "that is an interesting question!" or something similar. Because it is NOT always an interesting or even good question.

It is OK to not answer a question that is not interesting, and it is possible to do it while being pleasant and diplomatic. If you are really good, you may even be able to twist the ridiculous into something interesting. YAY!

But please, don't pander to me.

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10 responses so far

so you need to write a CV

Sep 12 2012 Published by under academia

This morning on the twitter, there has been a discussion about CV's. What do you include, format, etc. DrugMonkey reacted to the conversation. And he's correct, of course. EVERYONE should have a long-form CV. That has everything (it is your "life's work"). And it should be updated frequently.

I actually have two CV's. The one formatted for MRU and my NIH Biosketch (rules for formating and template here). So I'm going to focus on the free-form version for the rest of this post. First: make it look nice! White space, consistent margins, etc. If you give it to someone and it looks crappy then they may assume that you are generally inattentive to detail. Use section headings so that it is easy to find what you are looking for. This is the order of mine (YMMV):

These are my "headings" on the long-form CV
Contact information - you know, how to get a hold of me! I include my lab webpage here. But don't include personal info that is irrelevant (such as your birthday, marital status, etc).

Education - what degrees and where.

Professional appointments and research experience - more detailed than the education section. includes who i did my grad and postdoc work with.

Faculty Affiliations - departments and grad programs that I am affiliated with

Awards and Honors - all the way back to the National Merit scholarship (that's from HS). I have lost some "little" awards from this over time. But I keep things like National awards, phi beta kappa, etc.

Peer Reviewed Publications - these are sub-headed into "research articles" and "reviews and book chapters". I also have a separate sections for "in review". If in your field abstracts are peer-reviewed then i would put a separate section here.

Presentations - these are sub-headed into "speaking engagements" and I note which were selected abstracts and which were invited lectures. If you are BFD then you may also want a section for named lectures, etc. I also have a "poster abstracts" section here. In my field for many meetings basically every abstract submitted is allowed to give a poster.

Patent Filings - you know, for your IP

Research Support - these are subheaded as "ongoing", "pending", and "completed". My role (PI, fellow, etc) the dates and total award amount are included.

Teaching Experience - for MRU teaching I include ~# of students, level of course, and my role in the class (if team-taught). I have a separate subheading "prior to faculty appointment" which has this info but is a little shorter.

Mentoring - these are subheaded as "postdoctoral fellows", "graduate student trainees", "undergraduate research associates", "high school research interns", "graduate rotation students", and "graduate thesis committees". I include what program grad students are from, when they defend, and where my grad students and postdocs go after they leave my lab.

University Service - committees, etc.

Other Professional Activities - service to the science community, outreach, peer review service, grant panel review service, and any SAB

Professional Societies - where I am a member, and the years that I was a member

 

Now that is a LOT of info. And it is really hard to remember all that shit after the fact. So start your CV NOW and KEEP IT UP TO DATE.

 

 

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35 responses so far

myIDP - a test run and quick evaluation

Sep 06 2012 Published by under academia

Today while I was playing on the internet I ran across myIDP, an online career development tool at Science Careers. You can find the article explaining the rational behind myIDP here. According to the myIDP website:

An individual development plan (IDP) helps you explore career possibilities and set goals to follow the career path that fits you best.

I encourage my trainees to come up with an IDP, and I work with them on this. I think it is useful to consider what options there are, but also to make sure that you are engaging in the career development activities necessary to advance professionally. I did not intentionally make an IDP myself (I had never heard of it when I was a postdoc, TBH), though writing my K99 application certainly made me think explicitly about career development and what I was doing to make up for deficiencies (real and perceived).

I decided to give myIDP a test drive to see how it worked.

This schematic from the myIDP website shows the general methodology

First, I filled out the assessments, trying to be brutally honest. IMO this is important if you want a IDP that is worthwhile. There are three lists of questions (skill, values, interests). Then you get a list of career options with "scores" of how well your skills, values, and interests match up. So how well does it work? Well...kinda?

my top five "matches"

In what may be a horrible sign of things to come, tenure-track research PI was not even in the top 15*!! Research admin was #7 (blech!), Research staff was #12, and Industry research was #13. But I actually like my job, and think I'm pretty decent at it. I guess I don't give myIDP high scores in prediction FWIW. I can tell you for SURE I would suck at "public health related careers" and technical support (I really don't have the patience OR technical knowledge). And SALES?! FFS HELL NO. ahem.

To summarize, I think that any IDP has to be, well, more personal. I am not sure that the question sets are really thorough enough to actually start sending someone down one career path or another. But they are a great starting point. It doesn't take that long, and might be useful. I think postdocs should try it out. But then also work with your PI to develop a real, actionable IDP for yourself.

 

*for all I know, this isn't even an option. But if it is then how in the hell is in not in my wheelhouse??!!!

 

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24 responses so far

Snarky advice for undergraduates

Sep 05 2012 Published by under linky links

Prof. Snarky has some great advice for undergrads that are working in a lab this year. Go check it out.

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I'm sorry, but...

May 19 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

...sometimes Cocktail Moments are bossy. I think that Dr. Becca would approve. Seriously, I absolutely <3 Rachel Maddow. You can see a whole line-up of past cocktail moments here. Not to mention recent shows, which are always freaking awesome.

source

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4 responses so far

Yeah. So, this happened. FML

May 18 2012 Published by under exhaustion, venting

I sit in my office, alternatively staring at my computer screen, drinking coffee, and typing in bursts. I'm a little sleepy and highly caffeinated. My office is attached to my lab, and the door is open. Because I am an accessible fucking PI. There is a little knock on the door...but it is not anyone from my lab. It is a postdoc from another lab. Here is the exchange (not verbatim):

Me: Hi.

pd: Hi.

Me: What's up?

pd: Soooo...I am trying to do an experiment that is tangentially related to things that people in your lab do. With a reagent that you have used.

Me: OK. I used the reagent basically the same way that was published by Other Lab.

pd: I used it in a totally different way, and I'm confused about why it didn't work.

Me: But...that reagent won't even work for the experiment you want to do. That reagent detects process A, but you are trying to look at process B.

pd: Huh. what reagent should i use?

Me: [blink]

pd: [stares]

Me: I don't know. I have never tried to study process B. Maybe you should ask the other people in your own lab that study B.

scene

Please explain to me the following: Why? What have I done wrong? Am I too nice? Is that why it should be my job to help postdocs from other fucking labs? AAAAARRRRRGGGGHHH.

Please, students and postdocs of the world. Try to think about what you are saying when you interact with faculty members, especially those that are not actually your mentor. I actually like chatting about your project. But throw me a bone here. It is not my job to do your work for you. I know that perhaps most folks don't know that the next NIH deadline is June 5. That will not stop me from being even more cranky about this interaction because I'm in the midst of grant writing.

Get off my lawn.

that is all

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18 responses so far

Welcome to the lab, Dr. Postdoc!

Mar 21 2012 Published by under academia, mentoring, on the job training

It wasn't that long ago that I was a new postdoc (shut up! It really wasn't that long ago). IME being a postdoc is awesome! You learned the basics of how to be a scientist as a graduate student. Now is you chance to develop your research skillz in a protected and supported environment. It is about as close to a CareBear Tea Party as you are gonna get in this business.

Being a postdoc is not always easy, and I know there are some disgruntled postdocs out there. There can be issues with your mentor, issues with the science. There are always going to be struggles as you work to find your own path and develop your career. It is hard work, and can be scary. You will most likely move to a new city. Maybe you moved to a new place for grad school, but this time you will not be entering with a bunch of classmates. You will be thrown into a fully-formed lab that may already have political baggage and/or a defined hierarchy. At some point you will start wondering what is expected of you. There is no universal answer, because every lab and every postdoc is different. But, here is a list of advice based on what I think helped me when I was a new postdoc and that I hope postdocs that join my lab will follow:

1. Don't assume that you know more than techs or graduate students because you have a PhD. Coming in as a n00b postdoc with a superiority complex will not help you. You will need help from your new colleagues, so don't act like a douche. Be a good lab citizen, and build a relationship with the lab folks.

2. Be ready to learn something new. Maybe you enter a whole new field and have to learn brand-new techniques and approaches. Perhaps you are in a lab that has some overlap with what you did as a grad student. Learn how folks in your new place do things. Realize that there is more than one way to do most things...and yours is not necessarily the "best".

3. Take the initiative. Don't expect for someone to "give" you a project. Find and read the important papers and come up with ideas of your own. Consider advice from your new PI, and people in the lab, but argue for your own ideas and approaches. Own your project. Find fellowships that you can apply for. Apply for them.

4. Get to know your colleagues. Find other new postdocs and get to know them. Actively build a network. You are going to need mentors, advice, and letter writers. You will have to talk to people that are not in your lab (or your institution) to do this. Don't wait to approach people until you need something. Build a relationship from the beginning. This includes other postdocs and grad students as well as faculty.

5. Think about what you want to do with your career. It is great if you want to stay in academia, but try to imagine a Plan B. If you don't want to stay in academia, figure out what you want to do. Then find out what skills you need to develop and find opportunities to do that. This can be teaching, writing, working with policy, interacting with tech transfer, etc.

6. Be realistic. It takes time to get a new project up and running. Science (and career development) takes time.

7. Don't play it safe. Your postdoc is a great time to try a high-risk/high-reward project. Be creative. You can have a back-up, "safe" project, but don't shy away from trying something "hard". Try to avoid the temptation of taking on the easy, obvious, "can't fail" project.

8. Ask questions. Lots of questions. At lab meetings, in seminars, walking through the hallways.

9. Make sure you know what is expected of you. Many of the poor postdoc-mentor relationships that I have seen stem from miscommunications. You need to make sure that you know if there are expectations about how many hours you are in lab. If you want to stay in academia, make sure you know whether you will get to take your project with you (have this conversation early in your postdoc, before it is clear how awesome your project is. Even if it is non-binding and is not a guarantee that the lab will not compete with you).

10. I honestly think that most PI want to be good mentors. Help us out! Be a good mentee.

Please add to this list in the comments! I have no doubt that there are other nuggets of advice out there for the newly-minted postdocs.

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16 responses so far

finding small pots of cash

Feb 08 2012 Published by under academia, grants

The vast majority of my time and energy as an assistant professor is spent trying to get funding for my lab. Without money, there is no one to do my kick-ass science. Start-up funds don't last forever, and (at least at my MRU) if you don't get an R01 from the NIH you won't get tenure. Even if you don't need an R01 in your gig, if research is a big part of your job you are probably expected to secure some sort of federal funding. So, yeah. You are gonna write applications for the big grants.

But at many places there are other, smaller pots of money that you should also keep an eye out for. These can be called "pilot grants" or "seed money" or "intramural funds". These are usually small grants, IME from 10-50K/yr. They generally last only 1 or 2 years. Just enough to do a fun experiment, develop a reagent, or pay part of a salary. In the first years my lab has cobbled together a not-insignificant amount of cash from the pilot/seed programs around here.

I <3 THE SEED $$!!

The question is: how do you find the seed money and get some for yourself? This is clearly going to be specific to your home institute/MRU. If there are any consortium or project grants around these sometimes will have funds for pilot grants. Some Uni will also use some of the money they earn from licensing IP to fund new pilot grants. You may have to keep your ear to the ground, because these opportunities tend to pop up without much warning. Another great thing is that the money can also show up pretty quickly. I have had less than 3 months from application to budget number, for example.

The applications are generally short. You need to propose a project that you can do in just a year or two, after all. It is not realistic to drop a 3-Aim R01 on a pilot grant. When I write for a pilot grant, I try to make it as explicit as possible how doing the proposed research will set me up to write an R01 (or equivalent) in the future. Most of the seed money sources that I am familiar with really want to know that they did something to start up a new project and that their money has been leveraged into something bigger.

The review of these grants can be internal, or your grant could be sent out to external reviewers. Either way, you will want to be familiar to the folks that have this kind of money and run these programs. You gotta get to know the folks that are running the big project grants in your area. Just like any other area, networking is a Good Thing. Even if there isn't a pilot grant on the line (now), you want these BSD folks to know who you are. Pitch your research program to them, and see what they think is most interesting. I have used these kinds of interactions to get an idea of how folks outside my MRU are gonna respond to different research ideas. And it is helpful to know what outside folks will think are the weaknesses, so you are ready to defend them.

There is almost nothing to lose from applying for pilot grant seed money. IME, junior faculty can be really successful in getting these kinds of funds. In fact, some of these programs are actually LIMITED to us jr. faculty. And it may be that more established researchers aren't going to go through the trouble for such a little pile of cash. But little piles of cash can be a big deal when you are starting out. You can generate some preliminary data, and get some feedback on a future Aim for a Big Grant. So, fellow assistant professors: I say, go for the seed money! Good luck :)

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7 responses so far

Not the time to say No

Jan 05 2012 Published by under academia, tenure-track OTJT

Hey everyone! I'm still buried under my grant. I'm trying desperately to beat it into submission. Right now I think the odds are pretty even about who is going to win, but I'm working hard to not get beaten up too bad. I'm lucky to have supportive friends like Namnezia and PLS to make me feel better about freaking out. Here are their responses to one of my tweets (read from the bottom up):

Fig. 1: thanks, guys...I think

That's right. I might be peaking in my freaking. Awesome. While I duke it out with this grant, though, I realize that some of you out there are having your own struggles. One tweet earlier today caught my attention, from @dr_gena:

I agree with PLS's reaction to this that turning down an interview isn't really a good idea. Negotiating a two-body problem can be tough, even if the other body is not looking for a spot on the tenure-track. And it may very well be that there is not really anything for Body #2 at this institution. But (as mentioned by @SciTriGirl), interviews are about more than just trying to get a job. Interviewing for tenure-track positions is a networking gold mine. You will get to speak to a lot of people, some who are very important. You will automatically be on the radar as a person that is "good" (I mean, you interviewed in their Dept., right?) and as a new independent PI. So I say, go to interviews. You never really know what is going to happen until it does. There can be surprises. At the very least you get practice interviewing, have a chance to market yourself and may even get an offer that you can use for negotiating.

My advice: keep your options open, and don't limit your possibilities before you even have the offer.

What do you all think? Are there good reasons NOT to accept an interview when you are on the job market?

 

 

 

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