principal investigators

You have your PhD, now what?

Recently, I have been asked by a number of my younger (in terms of degree, not necessarily age) friends and colleagues about how to find a postdoc, what to look for, and what questions to ask.  As I am currently in my third postdoc, I feel I am somewhat an expert on how to find a mentor and what makes for a good postdoc experience, and I am honored that people think enough of me and my career to ask.  So, the following are some tips based on my experiences…

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Before you do anything else, decide if a postdoc is really for you.  Sure, a postdoc seems like the next logical step.  Maybe your current PI is not supportive of a career outside academia or you have dreamed your entire life of running your own lab.  Whatever your circumstances are, make sure that your heart is in it.  The current world economic status does not make life easy for an academic scientist.  Grants are hard to come by.  Faculty positions are elusive.  There are plenty of hurdles that you have to jump over.  It is possible to be a successful academic, but if you aren’t committed, maybe you should think about an alternative career.  There are several options…medical science liaison, entrepreneur, policy, scientific writer, clinical research associate, industry, patent lawyer (with a law degree)…many of which pay more than being an academic researcher and have better hours.

 A new program designed by Science Careers called My Individual Development Plan is a great resource for scientists looking to pursue alternative career paths.   You can learn more about it here.

Start looking early! 

It is never too early to start making connections, thinking about how you would like your research career to evolve, and what you are willing to sacrifice (location?) to get what you really want (the ideal mentor?  a specific research project?).  This is especially important if you will be moving to a different country (you will need time to apply for the correct visas and other documents).  I suggest coming up with a short list of people you would like to work for or the type of research you would like to pursue (be as specific as possible) about a year in advance, if possible.  Start asking your current PI, your committee members, and other connections if they know the person or anyone at the university.  Get on LinkedIn and see if you know anyone that could make an introduction.  Make a point to introduce yourself at a conference and talk to their current and past students and postdocs.  These are the people that will give you an honest interpretation of the laboratory environment that you’re looking to enter.  Or better yet, visit RateMyPI.com to see if they have been reviewed or to search for PIs with good reviews at specific universities or by location.  The more information you have the better. 

Apply for your own funding.

If you have an idea for the research that you would like to do, apply for your own funding (most grants/awards have border restrictions, so be sure to check).  There are several avenues to obtain funding, not just federal.  Think outside the box.  You are much more appealing to PIs if your salary and/or research is already covered.  This might be the only way to work for your ideal PI since funding a post doctoral research takes a large chunk of funding from already tight budgets. 

Get everything in writing.

You are about to graduate or have recently received your degree.  You have a postdoc lined up.  Things are great!  Hopefully everything goes as planned, but be prepared for some bumps.  Before completely committing to a postdoc (or any position, for that matter) get a signed (by you and the PI and even another authority at the university if possible/appropriate) offer letter detailing anything and everything.  It should include your salary/year, the hours/week you are expected to work, the project you will be working on, the length of the commitment, the amount of paid vacation and sick days, where your funding will come from, and anything else you think might be important.  It should detail what is expected of you and what is expected of your supervisor.  This is not only for your benefit (you don’t want to pack up and move to another country only to realize that your new supervisor does not have the funds to support you…and I speak from experience on this one), but also for your new PIs benefit (the standards that you will be held to are spelled out).  I cannot stress the importance of this enough.

Think ahead.

I personally think that experiencing a postdoc in another country is a wonderful idea.  It puts you outside your comfort zone, you get to look at your research from another point of view, you can start making worldwide collaborations, and you get a chance to travel and grow both personally and professionally.  However, if you decide to do this, the day you start your new position, is the day you should be thinking about your next.  Will this postdoc only last a year or two and then you will do another one?  Maybe you plan on staying there longer and then go straight into a faculty/professor/research position?  Whatever the case, know what will be expected of you to make the next transition.  Did you know that it can be harder to obtain funding from your country of citizenship if you do not currently reside/work there, even if you are planning on returning?  Even if you have a great research plan, you may need to be associated with a university in that country before you can get funded.  This could mean doing another postdoc before you get funded so that you can have a strong application for that faculty position.

There you have it.  That is my first round advice for researchers that will graduate soon or have recently received their PhD.  Please help others by leaving your comments and let me know if there are some other questions you want answered.

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Five Things You Might Not Know About RateMyPI.com

Did you know….

You can create a membership for free?  This allows you to search and review scientists.

You can review any researcher you have ever worked with, not just your principal investigator?  This includes labmates, committee members, and other colleagues.

You can review researchers not found in our database?  Simply go to the “Submit a Review” tab, enter the name of the researcher to be reviewed and if their name does not appear, click on “add new name”.

Your reviews are anonymous?  Your name or member profile does not show up on your submitted reviews.  

You can claim reviews written about you?  You can associate reviews with your profile by viewing the review and clicking on the “This is me” button.

So, what’s stopping you from letting other know the great researchers you’ve worked with?  Review someone today at RateMyPI.com!

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“My” Individual Development Plan

There has been a lot of excitement about myIDP (Individual Development Plan) offered by Science CareersIn case you haven’t heard about this, myIDP is an interactive web-based career-planning tool developed to help graduate students and PhD level scientists determine potential career paths beyond the traditional tenure track scientist.  By answering a series of introspective questions regarding your scientific skills, interests and personal values, myIDP will match these to potential career opportunities and help you develop a career plan to reach your goals. 

I’ve read a lot of promising comments about this program, so I decided to take the time and create a career plan for myself.  While I have been working in product development for almost 1 year already (I’m stating this in the interest of full disclosure), I thought it might be interesting to see if I chose the best career for myself.   Who knows?   It’s never too late to mix things up.    

When you first go to myIDP you’re asked to create a new account with all the basic information including a username, email address and password.  Once an account has been created, you’re greeted with a flow chart explaining the steps to creating your individual development plan. 

The first step is a self-assessment designed to identify skills, interests and personal values.  Honest, introspection is required to answer these questions since the responses are used to help identify relevant career paths.  Each category contains several subcategories with a series of questions.  Questions are answered on a simple 1-5 rating scale.  Once you have completed each subcategory, responses are summarized into a table.  This table helps you to easily identify skills that need improvement and interests important to a future career. 

Once the self-assessment is complete, you are transitioned to the career exploration tab.  myIDP compares the answers to your self assessment to characteristics important to roughly 60 different career paths.  These careers are then ranked from best to worse fit based on how well they match your skills and interests self assessment.  Clicking on a specific career path, you are provided with numerous articles, books and even professional societies to join that will help you to learn more about each career.  An event planner lets you keep track of meetings or other gatherings for networking.  There is even a guide on how to conduct an informational interview with an industry expert that can help you better determine the pros and cons of a particular career path.

With a long term career goal (or two) selected, you have the option to create career, skills and project goals.  This feature helps you to set and achieve small steps to reaching your career goals.  These are turned into a 12 month planner to keep you on track.  Consider it your yearly committee meeting with yourself.

Finally, you can create your mentor team to provide you with personal and professional guidance.  Ideally, your PI should be involved in this process (I’ll touch on that later), but you should also try to have mentors from different backgrounds to provide unique perspectives.  This is essential for obtaining invaluable personal and career advice that will be essential to you meeting your goals. 

Overall thoughts?  This is an extremely intuitive and highly beneficial program that I strongly suggest for all graduate students and postdocs.   Of course, the earlier into your PhD career that you start this program, the more time you will have to develop a network that can help guide your career path.  It would be great if your PI was involved in every step of this process, and myIDP strongly suggests you include your PI in this career development training.  Unfortunately, some PI’s are more open to their students pursuing alternative career paths than others.  I’ve met plenty (and have worked for) PI’s that feel the only true path for a PhD is in academia and they will do little to nothing to help you advance outside of academia.  If this is the case, you will need to be more proactive and find a network of individuals willing to support you in alternative career goals. 

So, how did the myIDP match to my current product development career path?  Well it ranks fourth on the list.  Interestingly, the intellectual property career path (patent agent / attorney and technology transfer specialist) ranked just above product development.  That’s something I never considered as a career and know very little about this path.  But with the myIDP informational resources, I know where to learn about this career.  My number 1 and 2:  sales and marketing (medical liaisons or sales representatives) and science policy (public/government affairs or think tanks).  While I did consider some potential opportunities in sales and marketing, I really didn’t want to be on the road for extended periods of time away from my family.   Surprisingly though, entrepreneur was ranked rather low on my chart…don’t tell my RateMyPI.com co-founder.  

Speaking of RateMyPI.com, look for us to go live in a matter of days.  We’re just finishing some BETA testing.  Hopefully we can be instrumental in helping you meet your career goals as well.

P.S.  Happy National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week!

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2012 Postdoc Experience Survey

The results of the Science Careers biennial postdoctoral survey were released this past week.  In case you’re unfamiliar with this survey, Science Careers sent emails to 38,000 current and recent PhD’s worldwide asking them to rate and discuss criteria essential to a successful postdoctoral experience. 

What’s the take home message of this year’s survey?  Answer: the struggling economy is the driving force behind the results.  Ten percent of respondents were unemployed at the time of answering this survey.  Similar to the unemployment rate in the EU and slightly higher than the current 8.3% unemployment rate in the US.  This is probably the major reason why “advancement opportunities / career options” was selected as the most important factor, with  “funding / grants”,  “employer / situation”, “networking”,  and “mentoring” rounding out this year’s top five attributes to a successful postdoctoral research experience.   

One can easily make the case that any of these factors are integral to career success.  But I did notice a common theme; the importance of having a principal investigator able and willing to enhance these factors.  A PI to introduce you to network contacts for career advancement.  A PI that can teach you the ropes of successfully obtaining grant funding.  A PI that creates a comfortable work environment and helps you further your scientific career.   After all, isn’t that part of the responsibility of being in a tenure-track position; to nurture the growth of future scientists?

Principal investigators willing to train the next generation of scientists do exist.  This is evident in the success stories of several survey respondents interviewed for this article.   The difficult part is finding them and convincing them to take the time, energy, resources and money to train a young scientist even when the career choice is outside of academia.  But, what do you do when your PI is less than helpful?  That’s when you need to be proactive and create your own network of collaborators.  And today social media has made it easier than ever to keep in contact with collaborators and colleagues.  They can help you get a foot in the door for a potential job opportunity. 

Remember, it’s your career…take control of it.

The article can be found here, and it’s great reading for every scientist looking to further their careers.  If you have any other ideas for networking or what makes for a successful postdoc experience, please leave your comments below.

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