science collaboration

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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Support for international Science collaboration: A good start, but…

In an effort to promote collaboration and the number of U.S. scientists in Europe, a joint venture between the U.S. NSF and Europe’s ERC was finalized earlier this month at the Euroscience Open Forum when NSF Director Subra Suresh and European commissioner for research and innovation Máire Geoghegan-Quinn signed the agreement.  The deal allows for selected early career scientists funded by the NSF CAREER awards to spend 3-12 months in labs funded by the ERC.  While at first glance this seems like a good way to accomplish their goals, the funding might better be directed towards scientists still in the postdoctoral role.  In an era when scientific funding is scarce and the average age for a scientist to receive their first grant as a PI is in their 40s, it is imperative that early-career scientists remain in their own lab to establish themselves, their lab, and their careers.  A new PI does not have the luxury of leaving their lab without leadership and an established crew.  Their lab needs oversight and leadership to be productive and pump out papers so that they can obtain more funding and have a successful career.

A better idea is to target postdocs as tools to increase worldwide scientific collaboration.  Postdocs are often more available and willing to move to a different country/lab where they can learn new techniques and establish connections with future collaborators, provided that it will help them further their careers as scientists.  However, the current situation for the U.S. postdoc abroad is dismal.  While it should open new doors and promote future collaborations, there is very little funding for postdocs to explore these options and it is harder still to return to the U.S. and obtain a PI postition, mainly because of the difficulty in getting your first independent funding.  One thing that makes it easier to get your first independent funding is to establish yourself as a fundable postdoc, which must almost exclusively be done within the borders of the U.S.  It is a vicious cycle that makes it almost impossible to remain in academics for those that try.  If today’s scientific leaders and policy makers truly want worldwide collaboration, they should aim more of their efforts at postdoctoral scientists and reward those that have spent time honing their skills abroad.

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