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)”

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!

Applying for postdoctoral positions in the sciences (part I)

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…

  • Start early.  In some fields there is a well-defined application season (e.g., starting in the fall and concluding in January) and in others applications are accepted all year, but starting early is important in either case: you want to have the longest possible window to find opportunities.  In general, I think you should start looking about one year before you intend to graduate and start the new position — so start looking now if you will graduate in the spring of 2015.
  • Cast a wide net.  As you make a list of groups, fellowship programs, etc. you’re interested in, be as broad as possible.  Ask your advisor, other faculty, current postdocs, and other students for suggestions; there may be lots of interesting opportunities out there that you haven’t heard of.  You want to have as many options as possible.  For one thing, unlike undergrad or grad school applications, there’s usually little cost in applying to a huge number of these things (no fees and many have identical application requirements).  But besides that, many of these opportunities are very competitive and also subject to a good deal of luck.  Sometimes your dream group just isn’t hiring the year you’re looking for a job, or you just happen to apply when they are changing directions or when a rising superstar applies as well.  So your top few choices may become unavailable for lots of reasons, and you want to be prepared for that.
  • Apply for competitive fellowships.  Besides postdoc positions in individual research groups, many fields have fellowships for postdocs.  Some are federally funded (e.g., NSF or NIH), others are funded by private organizations, and others are specific to an institution.  The Graduate School-New Brunswick’s GradFund program has lots of resources on these, so check out their website and appointment offerings.  Fellowships tend to be extremely competitive, but you should apply for as many as you can anyway (remember the previous point?).  Many require the same materials you’d submit for any other postdoc application, so they require little additional effort.  Even if you don’t get a fellowship, applying to them can still have benefits.  Writing research proposals is an important skill, and the more practice you get, the better.  Maybe you’ll at least interview for one or two, providing another chance to meet people and practice interview skills.  Or maybe they’ll get your foot in the door for another opportunity.  Something like this actually happened to me: I applied for a fellowship that I ultimately didn’t get, but the process got my foot in the door with the group that sponsored my application and enabled me to receive a separate offer from them.
  • Write a research statement, but first figure out how it will be used.  Most applications ask for a “research statement” without specifying what this should include or how it will be used.  Since this may vary across disciplines and types of postdoc positions, I recommend trying to figure out the conventions for your field so you prepare your statement accordingly.  For example, one field I know consists of two subfields, and faculty merely use the research statement to determine which of those subfields you’re in.  So in this case the details of the statement don’t matter much and therefore aren’t worth a huge amount of your effort.  This was generally my experience as well — I doubt anyone read my statement in much detail beyond skimming the general topics I listed.  (Note: this is in contrast to a research proposal for a grant or fellowship, which likely WILL be scrutinized carefully!)
  • Have a decent CV and website.  Besides your research statement, most applications will require a CV.  I won’t cover how to make a CV here, but spend some time making it organized and easy-to-read if you haven’t already.  I also recommend setting up at least a basic website if possible.  I made a personal website early in grad school, but for the most part it hasn’t served much purpose.  So I was a little surprised to realize people were looking at it when I applied for postdoc jobs.  I’m sure they didn’t peruse it in detail, but they at least saw my picture and probably glanced at my papers, research interests, and teaching activities.  This probably doesn’t make a big difference, but it’s another data point to confirm your legitimacy, especially for a professor drowning in dubious applications.  So if you already have a website, make sure it’s up-to-date and be aware of what you put on it; if you don’t have a website, consider setting up a basic one.  It doesn’t need to be fancy, just a place to post contact information, your CV, maybe a photograph.  If you don’t know HTML, web services like WordPress offer easy-to-use templates, and even simple composers like iWeb or Microsoft Word will get the job done.  Get it linked somewhere on your department’s or advisor’s page to make it easier to find.

I hope these thoughts are useful to some of you — next week I will post part II.  In the meantime, feel free to share your experiences and ideas in the comments!

Crowdfunding – An NYAS eBriefing

See the New York Academy of Science (NYAS) Science Alliance eBriefing on Crowdfunding: An Emerging Funding Mechanism for Science Research.  Science Alliance is an NYAS initiative designed to “foster lifelong career and professional skills through education, development, and training”

Communicating science: the elevator speech

In a previous post, I described my experience at a workshop (organized by the Rutgers Graduate School-New Brunswick) on communicating science.  I described the importance of preparing descriptions of your work for a spectrum of likely audiences – having at least some idea of what aspects of your work to emphasize to different audiences and what language or ideas to use are critical.  However, in addition to these more customized versions, having a more generic but highly-polished description of your research that you can recite from memory at any time is probably worth having.  This is often known as the “elevator speech,” since it’s supposed to be something simple and short enough that you can say it during the time you’d spend with a stranger in an elevator.

I’ve had a murky version of this for a while, but it was largely a vague set of examples and analogies I liked to use when describing my research to a friend or family member rather than a well-crafted summary.  But the workshop motivated me to finally develop a better version, so here is my latest attempt:

Every cell in your body contains thousands of different kinds of molecules, stuffed into a very small space and interacting with each other in complex ways.  How does this mess of molecules ultimately do all things that cells do, such as making new cells, extracting energy from food, and transporting nutrients?  And how did the precise interactions of all these molecules develop over millions of years of evolution?  This knowledge is important both for treating human diseases in which these cellular functions go wrong (e.g., runaway cancer cell growth), as well as engineering microorganisms to perform useful jobs, such as synthesizing biofuels with bacteria or making better beer with yeast.  My research uses mathematical models and computational techniques to understand how natural selection changes these molecules and their interactions over time.  We want to use this both to understand how organisms naturally evolved in the past and to predict how they might evolve in the future.

Communicating science: simple language for complex ideas

For those who don’t know, the Rutgers graduate school (through Project AGER) regularly offers a variety of outstanding workshops on professional development for grad students.  I recently attended one on science communication.  The workshop was run by Sangya Varma, of the Rutgers Professional Science Master’s Program and an alumna of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.  (In his post-M*A*S*H career, Alan Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers on PBS for many years and has been a vocal advocate for popularizing science.)  The center at Stony Brook offers multiple courses, a master’s program, and various workshops to train scientists to better communicate their work with different audiences.  It’s a fascinating and one-of-a-kind place, and I for one would love to take part in some of their activities.

The two-hour workshops at Rutgers provide a small sample of what the center at Stony Brook offers.  After highlighting the basic motivation for scientists to cultivate communication skills and some general principles of how to convey complex ideas in simple ways, we embarked on exercises of “translating” our own research into accessible language.  We also chose from a list of specific audiences (e.g., a family member, a group of investors, a newspaper reporter, etc.) and spontaneously tried to present our research to that audience.

This last activity really hit home for me, since a few months ago I participated in an interview with members of my group about our research for The Daily Targum.  Neither we nor the reporter had much experience with this, and while the resulting article was a nice plug, I was rather dissatisfied with it.  We ended up saying very little in the interview about our specific research activities, instead being sidetracked on general issues about the state of the field.  I also realized how terrible the spontaneous things we say aloud look when put into print.  I learned that one really has to prepare for these things: you have little control over what the reporter will pick to include in the final article from whatever you said in the interview, so you have to give them a very polished set of statements (pretty much at the level of sound bites, which is what they will end up using) that you won’t regret having in print.  Speaking off the cuff makes it too easy to say something careless, incoherent, or just plain silly.

This previous experience and the workshop (plus all those times I felt dissatisfied after trying to explain my work to friends and family) have inspired me to take a more deliberate approach in the future for communicating my science.  I’m starting with a list of audiences that I may likely interact with, based on my research and career interests:

  • Family members and friends
  • Basic life scientists outside of my specific subfield (e.g., molecular biologists)
  • Physicists outside of my subfield (e.g., condensed matter physicists)
  • Biomedical scientists (e.g., cancer biologists)
  • Biotechnology scientists and entrepreneurs
  • Science news media (e.g., Scientific American)
  • Mainstream news media (e.g., NY Times, Rutgers Today)
  • Program officers and review panels at funding agencies (e.g., NIH, NSF, private foundations)

My goal is to prepare short descriptions of my work customized for each of these audiences.  Most of us have at least partially done this implicitly — say, by writing applications to different funding sources or concocting one spiel about your work for your parents and another spiel for your grad student friends.  But I think a more systematic approach is a good future goal.  Even a list of important points or key words to emphasize for each audience is probably helpful; for most of us, we will definitely emphasize slightly different points or use different words for distinct audiences.  For me, I would likely emphasize the “coolness” and basic science relevance of my work when speaking to my friends or peers in science (especially from physics), while to an audience of biotech people I would definitely emphasize future potential applications.

Intergalactic Planetary Research is Useful Too

Fellow blogger Michael posted this entry recently, and rather than just write a comment, I thought I would chime in on this issue as well. I won’t try to summarize completely his relatively short blog entry, but to put it briefly, Michael reminds scientists that to solicit funding from the public or public policy-makers, scientists must engage the public and inform them of the content and benefit of their scientific work.

I think a fair amount of what Michael said applies across-the-board to any variety of scholarship, and on the whole, I very much agree with his point and support it. However, I would like to pose a question. Scientific work may suffer a lack of funding due to waning interest, familiarity, or other such motivation on the part of the public and/or policy-makers, and I would agree that there is some onus on scientists to reinvest in relations with said parties. But is it not also true that statements such as “I personally don’t see the benefit, or “understand” or “like or “appreciate” this research (or science as a whole)” are not an excuse to fail to support the endeavors of scientists that work toward the public good, be it through basic or applied science, research or education?

I agree that public relations, outreach, etc. are very important, and raising awareness of the importance of science (or any other type of scholarship) would very much help bring back much-needed public support to the policy debate regarding funding for research. I suspect improving public education would do likewise. But I don’t think efforts to gain public support should hinge on whether the public is properly educated about a specific scientific endeavor, nor on whether this endeavor has an immediate & direct impact on the public good (e.g. climate change or healthcare). Basic research science and mathematics has sometimes been described as a money-pit into which we dump millions of dollars and get no “products” or “solutions” because researching bugs or quasars or quarks or Lie groups seems to be useless. This belies the fact that the applied sciences, as well as most fields of engineering, technology, communications, etc., rely heavily on the existing and expanding body of research in basic science and mathematics.

NASA is one example of a publicly-funded institution that supports not only scientific research but also its own space-exploration program. It has been a leader in the scholarship of astronomy, engineering of many types, and scientific leadership. Now its funding has been cut because policy-makers (and perhaps the public) think space exploration is not important.  And there are many reasons this is the case, among which I do count Michael’s important and very agreeable point. One role of scientists (or any researcher, publicly funded or not) is to communicate effectively the nature, role, and importance of his/her work to the general public. However, I am arguing that this should not extend so far as to require researchers to educate the public on the entirety of science, as this is impractical and infeasible.

Research is a long-term endeavor that navigates twists and turns, hinges on unknowns, and takes long spans of time. It also requires us to accept that projects may fail to produce good results, or that the results may not lead immediately to new solutions to applied problems. The same is true of funding scholarship and research — not every researcher will be successful as an “investment” in the short term, and some may leave research altogether, but we do not subject every first-year graduate student to an inquisition to determine if they will solve a world-changing real-life problem in 10 years and only fund those who demonstrate this. In aggregate, it is important to fund research (and researchers) sufficiently well without demanding guarantees of success, or an accounting of immediate gains from this investment.

Fight for your right — no, your privilege — to do science

At the American Physical Society March Meeting a few weeks ago — the biggest confluence of physicists in the world, with over 9000 in attendance — there was a session titled “American Science and America’s Future.”  Now, who could miss a session with a grandiose name like that?  Well, it seems that a lot of people could, since the cavernous ballroom they reserved for it was less than 10% full.  To be fair, I attended a similar session last year, which featured much better attendance.  Having a Nobel Prize-winner on the panel probably helped.  But this year’s disinterest disturbed me, as did the small number of people who signed the periodic form letters APS prepares for members to send to Congress.

The fact of the matter is that most of us do science at the pleasure of the public.  We as a society have decided that scientific research is something we value — ostensibly because of its future economic dividends but also because, frankly, it’s one of the things that makes a civilization great — and since it’s something the market won’t carry out on its own, we pay for it with taxes.  So our ability to continue the scientific research enterprise that has made the United States the most powerful economic, cultural, and intellectual force in the world rests squarely on taxpayers, and more importantly, their political representatives, continuing to value what we do.  If they don’t, our privilege could be taken away.

My fear is that many scientists view this support as an entitlement, a right to follow their scientific curiosity wherever it takes them on taxpayer expense.  This hubris is not only selfish, but dangerous.  Without proper advocacy and education, the public and the political leadership are at serious risk of losing sight of science’s value to society.  There is already frequent grumbling about cuts to federal funding agencies, widespread ignorance of scientific issues affecting society like climate change and healthcare, and the growing weaknesses in science education in the U.S.  While the NSF and NIH aren’t going to shut down anytime soon, it’s very possible that science funding could face gradual cutbacks or at least radically slowed growth, especially in the face of competing funding priorities.  If and when this happens, scientists shouldn’t blame the ignorant public or politicians — they will have to blame themselves, because that ignorance is our fault.

So the time is now for scientists to take action.  Get in touch with your political representatives, both local and federal.  Write letters to the newspaper.  Be active in your community, so your neighbors can be in that small minority of folks who know a real, live scientist.  Get involved in public outreach.  But whatever you do, don’t take your research support for granted.  Let’s get the science that we all pay for with our taxes into the public consciousness.

GradFund, or, How to Stop Worrying and Start Writing Grant Proposals

Well, it’s finally gotten to that point in the semester. I think you know what I’m talking about (especially if you’re in the humanities): class presentations, expeditions to the library to secure any last minute arrivals from E-Z Borrow, and that final push to finish off seminar papers.

Before I hole myself up in my apartment and get to writing, I wanted to give a quick plug for Grad Fund Rutgers’s incredible (and free!) resource center for graduate students seeking external support. Not only do they run workshops to help you become a better grant writer, they also maintain a vast database of fellowship and grant-offering organizations to help you find the right one for you at each stage of your research. Did I mention they offer free one-on-one sessions with  knowledgeable fellowship advisors to review your proposal drafts?

What’s more (yes, it keeps getting better!), each summer they run a Graduate and Postdoctoral Mentoring Program which provides incoming and current students the structure and support to go from identifying a “funder” to completing a proposal before Fall deadlines.

I participated last summer, even before setting foot on Rutgers, and through constant feedback and practical advice, GradFund provided me with the information and guidance I needed to make my application as competitive as possible. While I didn’t get the fellowship this time around, the process of applying gave me a chance to build rewarding relationships with faculty members who continue to offer support and encouragement. I feel so much more confident in my grant writing skills and got a great head start on refining my dissertation project.

Not every school has an office devoted to helping graduate students win fellowships, so I encourage you to take advantage of this real gem at Rutgers.

OK, back to those papers!