Applying for postdoctoral positions in the sciences, part II (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

Last week I began a list of things I learned from my recent experience applying to postdoc positions — here is the second half of the list.  As I mentioned in the previous post, keep in mind that the process can vary a lot across disciplines, besides the fact that even in the same field different people can have quite different experiences.  So this just represents my own experience in biophysics, but I hope it will be useful to someone else!  We will start the second half with what I think is one of the most important points… Continue reading “Applying for postdoctoral positions in the sciences, part II (Throwback Thursday)”

Applying for postdoctoral positions in the sciences, part I (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

Having recently gone through the postdoc application process along with some of my peers, I thought it might be useful to summarize some of the things I learned.  But first one major caveat: the application process varies considerably across disciplines, even across subfields of the same discipline.  Just within physics, the process is fairly different for particle physicists versus condensed matter physicists versus biophysicists.  (NB: my area is theoretical and computational biophysics.)  Thus the universality of any one person’s experiences may be fairly limited, so please bear that in mind with everything I say!  So here goes… Continue reading “Applying for postdoctoral positions in the sciences, part I (Throwback Thursday)”

Why attend conferences? Here are 5 reasons (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a second year STEM graduate student, and she turns to me and asks, “This may be a stupid question, but why do we go to conferences?”

It made me pause to think for a moment. As graduate students, we get a lot of advice on making the most of conferences, and how to present at conferences, but it’s always assumed that we understand why we go to conferences in the first place. Clearly, for young grad students, this is not always the case, so I decided to make a short list of my top reasons for attending conferences (in no particular order). Continue reading “Why attend conferences? Here are 5 reasons (Throwback Thursday)”

Your job, found at iJOBS

Whether it is a sad or happy thought, it is true that a PhD or MS program has an end.  So what does one do after?  The number of academic jobs decline each year, and the future state of higher education is very unclear.  So what other opportunities are there for newly minted graduates?

This is exactly the question that a new Rutgers program is addressing.  iJOBS, Interdisciplinary Job Opportunities for Biomedical Scientists, provides opportunities for current graduate students to network with and learn about relevant industries beyond academia.  Implemented with Biomedical Science students, iJOBS is expanding to include students in many other academic fields.   It is a multi-year program for students, with phases of participation.  In Phase I, students participate in career fairs, workshops on skill development and similar events.  Students must accumulate a certain number of participation hours to apply for Phase II which includes more personal training and shadowing opportunities.

Why should you consider it? Because this is an opportunity for you to begin developing skills and contacts that will help you pursue a career beyond a tenure track position, such as science and health policy, business management and data analysis. The workshops alone are worth a look, including resume/cv development, interviewing skills, communicating science to politicians and networking skills.

There are certainly interesting topics for any graduate student, and I encourage everyone to consider participation in the program.  Find more information at http://ijobs.rutgers.edu/

Career Advice For PhDs

Inside Higher Ed Q&A with the author of a new book on career advice for faculty members and grad students.  The article is HERE.

New York Academy of Science Opportunities

Graduate students and postdocs in NY area:  Consider becoming an Academy mentor at Dept. of Youth and Community Development summer camps during July, teaching food and nutrition science. Mentors who complete 24 hours of teaching and training will receive an Academy Mentor Teaching Credential, as well as a $1,000 stipend.

Start planning ahead: From Scientist to CSO: Experiencing the Scientific Method as your Guide to Career Success takes place October 27 – December 5 at the Academy.

Sacrifices

In the past month, two of my three closest friends from high school have either gotten married or placed a down payment on a house. Two weeks ago at the wedding, the single one, whose house is still currently in the process of being built, showed me pictures of the structure and mentioned how real it felt as they began to put the windows into place. Being stuck in grad school while close friends make these huge commitments is less than ideal to say the least. As their future gets clearer, they pose questions about the cloudiness of mine and as I’ve posted on the blog before, my aspirations of going into academia don’t necessarily impress my trio of friends: The Dentist, The Surgeon, and The Homeowner.

Seeing their lives progress while much of mine has remained at a stand still somewhat made me question my chosen path. These interactions combined with the barrage of academia job applications I’ve sent out without much any response hasn’t been positive reinforcement that this is going to be my career.  Even if I thought industry was a good fit for me, I haven’t had any sort of formal experience since my internship in 2009 and wouldn’t really know where to begin to make the switch. Most of my professional experiences the last 4 years have been so focused on teaching, I’ve been honing skills that I’m not sure how valuable they would be in an industry setting. Sure, my public speaking is much better, and I’d argue I can communicate science better than most of my peers, but even students from my department who have much more impactful research and leadership experiences than I do have struggled finding a job.

About a month ago, I set a deadline of June 1st as when I’d start looking for positions in industry,  just to see what was out there and if I could find a position that would work for me.  That was Monday.  However last week, the instructor for the summer course I’m TAing for had a conflict and needed me to cover her lecture.  I’ve given talks at conferences and departmental seminars, but this would be the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken to probably outside of my high school graduation.  It was an introductory lecture, Biological Molecules, teaching the building blocks of proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleic acids, something I had no problem teaching but given this was my first time, I had this odd feeling of nervous excitement, similar to Christmas morning as a child, heading into the lecture. 2 hours later…okay, you caught me, I let them out early. 1.5 hours later, I felt inspired and confident that that all the sacrifices I’ve made to be here have been worth it, and that the wedding and the house are still in my future and I’ll get to them.  First comes the hard part, finding someone to let me teach.

The Waiting Game

I’m also looking for academic positions and there is so much truth in Rebecca’s post from a couple weeks ago, that I highly recommend reading it.  I also wanted to speak a little bit about my experience, specifically in relation to the interviews.

In addition to making (small) steps towards graduating and enjoying the NBA playoffs, this past month I’ve had two different types of interview experiences and wanted to shed some light into what to expect. Disclaimer, I’ve only focused on applying to positions that focus on teaching, specifically at smaller PUI schools and community colleges.

Phone Interview

I’ve had two phone interviews which were very different from one another, both in the types of questions and tone. However, count on several different people being there, usually at least 3-4 different faculty members, with the interview being led by the department chair.  For one of the positions, it was a tenure-track position and questions were much more direct and specific, such as “Please provide some ideas on how you would use research as a learning tool” with the committee looking to gain insight into my expectations with working with undergraduates.  The other phone interview was for an instructor position and felt more like a conversation as opposed to an interview. Here, I was asked more broad questions like “How did you first become interested in chemistry?”  Like I mentioned, I’ve focused on positions with primarily teaching responsibilities, so I did not get asked any questions about my research and would imagine this would be different for research oriented positions.  I was somewhat surprised by this, but I can say that having seen faculty hired through our department here at Rutgers, final candidates were asked to come and give a short talk about their research, so it’s possible this was the next step in the interview process.

In-person Interview

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to an “Adjunct Invitational” at a local community college. I’ve spoken to some other colleagues about what this experience would be like, but it seems like most community colleges do this process slightly differently. About 4 weeks ago, a representative from Human Resources contacted me about selecting a time slot for their Adjunct Invitational giving me options of 2 hour-long slots.  When I arrived at the college, there was a large waiting area with tables surrounding the waiting area in a large circle, similar to a Career or Involvement Fair. At each table was a different academic department, and when your name was called an HR representative would come and escort you to your “interview” with your respective department.  I use interview loosely here as it was more of an informal conversation asking about my teaching experiences and philosophy only lasting between 10-15 minutes for myself in both circumstances.  I interviewed with two departments and spoke with 2 and 3 faculty respectively,  so despite signing up for an hour long slot, I was only there for about a half hour, but that could change depending on how many candidates are interviewing for your position.  Some of the other people in the waiting area spent more time waiting to be interviewed than the actual interview.

While I haven’t heard back from either yet, getting these “reps” and practice for these positions was really important helping calm my nerves a little bit, so the only thing I will add to Rebecca’s post is that not getting an offer is STILL progress. Good luck to anyone else on the job hunt!

A few things I wish someone had told me before I went to my first conference

As conference season approaches, I always have mixed feelings about going. I feel like I’m going to be missing a lot of work time and giving a big presentation can definitely be daunting. Honestly, however, attending conferences and presenting my work have been some of the most important factors in shaping my research.  After chatting with other conference goers and getting feedback on my talk, I came back from a conference last fall with an entirely new game plan for tackling my next research phase. There’s a couple of great previous posts on why to attend conferences and how to get the most out of going to conferences. Here’s my two cents on some things I wish someone had told me before I went to my first conference:

  1. There’s going to be A LOT of talks and posters to see: choose wisely, make a schedule. One of the first things you should do is open up the abstract booklet with the conference schedule (or download the online version). Make notes of which talks/posters to see and have a schedule for where to be and when.
  2. Go to some talks outside of your expertise. Find something that genuinely piques your interest. You never know where you might find inspiration or what you might learn from seeing how work is done outside of your personal research bubble.
  3. Bring business cards. Check out Rutgers Visual Identity website for a downloadable template for designing business cards. I got 250 cards printed at Kinko’s for cheap and they look good.
  4. Have an elevator speech ready for explaining your research. One of the most common ice breakers when you meet people is, “So what do you do?” Be ready to concisely explain what you do and why it’s important at the level of an educated person who has no idea what you’re talking about. Don’t use jargon. Make it quick; up to 30 seconds is fine and if they want to know more, they’ll ask.
  5. Dress nicely. Talk with people who’ve attended the conference before and ask about recommended attire. If in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to directly email the conference organizers. Always air on the side of dressing up than dressing down. You want to make a good impression – you’re probably presenting yourself and your work to almost everyone in your field.
  6. Make a summary of your conference experience. After you return home, go through the notes you took during talks and type them up. Reference the papers you meant to look up. Organize the business cards you got and follow-up with people you said you’d contact. Talk to your adviser about your experience and compare notes with any other fellow students who attended too.
  7. Try to see the city a little bit. You’re there to go to a conference, but why not plan ahead to see some sites while you’re there during break times? There’s typically group dinners organized at local restaurants, like for a school’s alumni or hosted by a sponsor company – check with your adviser on which ones they recommend you seek out. Maybe you could even extend the trip through the next weekend and do some touring!

The Job Search. Gulp.

Of late the job search within academia has been popularly compared to the Hunger Games.  It would be funny if it weren’t actually true.

Having worked for two years between my completing my Master’s degree and entering the Ph.D. program in art history, I’ve had the benefit of going through this ringer before.  While I have no idea if my experience was typical, it was definitely a trial, and I suspect that writing about it can only help anyone else going through this phase of graduate school.  Either you’ll relate, or you’ll enjoy a bit of schadenfreude.  Without further ado, What I Learned About the Job Search:

1. Don’t take it personally.  If you didn’t get the job, or even an interview, it sure feels like the hiring committee has weighed you, measured you and found you wanting. But having been on the other side of the hiring process too, I think I can say with some certainty that nobody was sitting with their feet up on a conference table, throwing darts at a copy of your CV tacked to the wall and joking that you must have been mad to apply in the first place.  I have been in the room when hiring decisions were made, and no one cackled like a Bond villain over rejected résumés.  A rejection letter often has nothing to do with you.  In my field of art history, for instance, perhaps a museum’s upcoming exhibition schedule dovetailed beautifully with another applicant’s thesis on Rembrandt.  It didn’t mean other applicants couldn’t do the job.  So it’s not you. You’re lovely.  And qualified.

2. It could take awhile.  After my M.A. program, I spent about six months sending my CV to anyone who would take it, applying for anything remotely within the realm of possibility.  In all, I sent out 52 applications and got two interviews and one offer.  A few months later, I was chatting with a senior member of the museum staff at an office happy hour, comparing war stories.  After his Ph.D., he’d sent out 125 cover letters.  Maybe you’ll find something immediately, but be prepared for a marathon, not a sprint.

3. It’s not the end of the world.  It just feels like it. Every day I made a point of checking the same sites and searching the same fields – and then trying new ones just in case they yielded anything.  Most days, it came to nothing, and it was so very easy to be glum.  But chin up.  Sometimes things get worse before they get better – it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason.

4.  Network.  Eat something.  Network.  Coffee break.  Network.  Then network some more.  I have to admit, I’m not so great at this, since networking in academia can entail attending conferences, which in turn entail registration fees and travel expenses. While they may not amount to a fortune, a small pile of coins can be a fortune in grad school.  But things like alumni associations can be useful as well, along with social media such as academia.edu or LinkedIn.  And not all functions are pricey – be on the lookout for things you can afford to do.

I’m no expert, and for all the advice I’m dishing out, I will probably let the job search get to me every now and then.  It’s hard out there for a prof, especially if you have to take a series of adjunct jobs to string together a meager income.  (It happens.  A lot. When even fashion magazines are talking about this, you know it’s officially a thing.) But armed with the knowledge that hiring decisions, while not always in my favor, are often the result of a perfect storm of events having little or nothing to do with me, maybe I’ll have fewer sleepless nights.

What advice do you have for people entering the job search?

NY Academy of Sci events for grad students & postdocs

Visit NYAS Science Alliance for professional & career development opportunities for grad students and post-docs.  For example:

Feb. 12: Perspectives in STEM: An evening with Dr. Cherry Murray discussing her career trajectory, sharing insights on innovation, followed by Q&A and networking

March 6-7:Software carpentry: Learn basic computing skills to be more effective in the lab

April 18: Personal branding

Why attend conferences? Here are 5 reasons

I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a second year STEM graduate student, and she turns to me and asks, “This may be a stupid question, but why do we go to conferences?”

It made me pause to think for a moment. As graduate students, we get a lot of advice on making the most of conferences, and how to present at conferences, but it’s always assumed that we understand why we go to conferences in the first place. Clearly, for young grad students, this is not always the case, so I decided to make a short list of my top reasons for attending conferences (in no particular order).

1. To meet people
A big reason for going to conferences is to meet and meet up with people. Conferences bring together people from all different geographical areas who share a common discipline or field, and are a great way to meet new people in your field. At a conference you will be able to get together with people from a wide range of backgrounds or from a number of institutions, whom you may not encounter at your home institution. As you build your professional network, conferences also become a good place for meeting up with people in your field that you haven’t seen in a while.

2. For people to meet you
It may not seem like a notable thing, but conferences are also a good way for people to meet you. Yes, you, the lowly second year grad student, presenting for the first time. You may meet someone at a meal, or they may stop by your poster, and within a few minutes, you can make a connection with someone that you might not even have met if you hadn’t attended the conference. This is especially important when you are looking for collaborators, or jobs and postdocs, or, in some fields you may even be looking for committee members. Or perhaps you are just trying to build your professional network. Conferences are another way to get your name and your work out there as you begin to establish yourself in your field of study.

3. To present your work to others
This is one of the more obvious reasons for attending conferences: to present your work! It’s good practice in talking about what you do with a variety of people from similar, related and/or completely different areas of study. Presenting will make you more confident about the work that you do, and gives you new perspective about your work as people may ask questions that make you think about your project differently. At a conference you have the opportunity to get feedback on your work from people who have never seen it before and may provide new insight, as well as from people other than your graduate adviser who are experts in your field.

4. To learn new things in your field
As you view different posters or attend different talks, you hear a lot about things in your field that may be new to you. These could be new techniques, new types of equipment, data that is yet unpublished, or investigators that you may not have heard of. Conferences allow you to get a good sense of what’s going on in your discipline that you might not be aware of living in your neck of the woods. You get to hear about the research of some of the biggest names in your field and of some of the newest faces in it. In addition, conferences give you the opportunity to talk to these people one-on-one about what they are working on, and they may even give you advice on how to develop your project. You have the opportunity to ask presenters questions about their work and the rationale behind it, which you can’t do when reading journal articles!

5. To learn new things outside of your field
This is a two-fold benefit of going to conferences, since not only may you learn things outside your field about other areas of research in your discipline, but conferences also have many sessions for professional development and career advice, particularly at large national conferences. Chances are, when you go to a conference the attendees are united by a single broad topic, such as immunology, but they have many different sub-fields of study, and many projects will be multidisciplinary. Thus you have the opportunity to learn about a different area of your field as a way to develop your dissertation project, for your own personal pursuit of knowledge, or if you are looking to change your research focus. Moreover, conferences (especially the big ones!) have many professional development workshops and seminars for graduate students, where you hear from career professionals about skills such as networking, creating a CV or resume, different types of careers, and interviewing skills.


So why go to conferences? I guess a short summary reason would be: for your continued personal and professional development. Take advantage of these opportunities, even if you can only attend smaller local conferences. Meet people. Network. Learn new things. Who knows, you may even end up leaving a conference with a job offer!

What are some other reasons that you might have for attending a conference? Share them in the comments below!

Workshop: Faculty Careers in Community Colleges

Last Friday, I attended a workshop titled, “Faculty Careers in Community Colleges”, where several former Rutgers alumni and current faculty members from local community colleges gave some perspective on their experiences. I’m considering the field of academia after graduation, and more recently have given some thought to the prospect of teaching at a community college, so I was curious to hear from them.

If you weren’t able to make it to the workshop, based on the panel of 4, here were some of the interesting comments.

  1. There are some community colleges that mandate research and publications from their professors. The environment described actually sounded closer to the expectations of a faculty member of a standard 4-year institution. This is important to note as these community colleges would likely care more about your research plan in cover letters and applications, than schools where research is not expected.
  2. Teaching loads vary from about 4 to 5 classes a semester, which wasn’t that surprising to me, however the class size of some of them are capped at 40 students which means you are only teaching 120 students a semester. Quite the jump from teaching as a TA!!
  3. As with most job markets, positions to teach at community colleges are becoming increasingly competitive, sometimes receiving up to 120 applicants for 1 position which have increased the qualifications of the candidate pool.  It’s becoming more and more common for the Ph.D to be “preferred” which actually means it’s a requirement, especially for the tenure track positions.
  4. Just like at most colleges and universities, the student body of community colleges is becoming very diverse. However, at community colleges it’s more common to find a wide array of experiences and backgrounds, ranging from the exceptional high school student looking to get a head start on college to the working full time adult looking to get to the next level of their career. I’m sure preparing content to fit all students would be quite the challenge.

And importantly, community college job announcements may not be listed in the same places as those for other faculty positions, so if you are interested, you might need to peruse their respective websites. Good luck!

Applying for postdoctoral positions in the sciences (part II)

Last week I began a list of things I learned from my recent experience applying to postdoc positions — here is the second half of the list.  As I mentioned in the previous post, keep in mind that the process can vary a lot across disciplines, besides the fact that even in the same field different people can have quite different experiences.  So this just represents my own experience in biophysics, but I hope it will be useful to someone else!  We will start the second half with what I think is one of the most important points…

  • Have alternative plans.  I once heard a professor claim that people should only do a postdoc if they are “academia or bust,” and it really irritated me.  There is no “or bust” in life — even under the best of circumstances, there is always a chance things won’t work out the way you wanted, and we all must have alternative plans for every aspect of life.  Do think carefully and realistically about your career goals and whether a postdoc is a good fit, but even if you decide a postdoc is your first choice right now, it should definitely not be your only choice.  (Corollary: doing a postdoc because you don’t know what else to do is usually a bad idea.)  So spend some serious time contemplating what your next moves will be if the right postdoc doesn’t work out.  Even if you end up doing a postdoc anyway, careful planning now may pay off if you arrive at a similar juncture later.  But moreover, knowing that you have other options will make your whole application experience much less stressful.  You can rest easy knowing that even in the worst-case scenario for your postdoc search (i.e., no offers), you’ll have other options and life will go on.
  • But still be persistent.  Don’t give up if your first few applications or inquiries go nowhere (of course, having those back-up plans will help to make this less discouraging, too!).  Unfortunately, many applications or inquiries to professors receive no response.  If you are just contacting individual professors asking if they even have a position available, I think it’s worth sending a follow-up e-mail after about a week if you don’t hear from them.  If you’ve formally applied to a group or fellowship program, you may need to wait a few months to hear back, although I think it’s still worth following up at some point if you haven’t heard a response.  If someone really isn’t interested in you or just doesn’t have an opening, you deserve to hear them say so.
  • Be prepared for your visit/interview.  After applying, you may get invited to visit the group or department.  Sometimes you’ll give a formal research seminar to the whole group; other times there is private interview with just faculty.  The Graduate School-New Brunswick has held workshops on such interviews in the recent past, and they are worth attending.  You also usually have a series of meetings with faculty, current postdocs, and possibly grad students.  Besides having ready a good spiel about your research and career goals, do your homework on the people you’ll be meeting.  Make sure you know what kind of work they do, and plan some things to discuss with them.  Of course you may discuss each other’s research in these meetings, but they are also key opportunities to get inside information on what the group is like and whether you’d be happy working there.  Don’t discount the meetings with the postdocs and grad students.  Besides the fact they can give more honest feedback on the working conditions, their advisor may ask them later what they thought about you, so try to leave a good impression.
  • Negotiate.  Once you receive a formal job offer, you should go over the terms of the contract carefully and consider what is negotiable.  Salary and the length of the contract are obviously important, but also find out about health insurance, access to funds for travel and equipment, if they will help you with relocation expenses, employee privileges (can you use the campus gym?), and any other benefits.  My understanding is that salary is usually not very flexible for postdocs (since salaries are often set by grants from the federal funding agencies), but some of these other things, like relocation expenses, are.  Talk to your current advisor or other postdocs to find out what’s typically negotiable in your field.  It usually doesn’t hurt to ask if you are reasonable about it.

So that’s it.  I hope the above points are useful to others out there, but if you disagree with something or have other points to add, please post a comment!