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!

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!

Informational interviewing: Getting your foot in the door before you need a job

As I wrote in a previous post, this past summer I was an intern at the Department of State in the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary.  In addition to experiencing the State Department work culture I attended invaluable career development workshops.  I’ve summarized here the information I obtained on Informational Interviewing, a skill I used extensively to build my network while in DC.

We have all heard that networking is the key to getting a job, so we attend conferences, career fairs, and join relevant professional societies.  However one type of networking students may be less aware of is informational interviewing.  This is when you meet with “connected” or “knowledgeable” professionals in your career field of interest.  The purpose of these meetings is not to obtain a job offer but instead to gather information, advice, referrals, and support.  These interviews are different from a job interview in that you take the initiative in conducting the interview by asking the questions.

These meetings allow you the opportunity to gather valuable information about potential career fields, companies, schools or organizations that you may want to work for in the future.  It lets you discover and explore previously unknown areas in your field and potential job leads.  It may expose you to important issues in your field of interest and also allows you to enlarge your network of contacts, by building on referrals.

When arranging for an informational interview briefly introduce yourself and explain why you want to meet them.  Let them know what type of information you are interested in and clarify that you are not looking for a job.  If you were referred by someone else make sure to mention that person’s name.  Make sure to acknowledge the value of the other person’s time so ask for only 20-30 minutes of their time.  If you are going to initiate contact over the phone have a script ready so that you cover all these aspects without having to think about what to say.  If you prefer contact by email, you should include what you are currently doing, a brief background on yourself, your referral or connection, and what you are looking for from that person.

In preparing for the interview learn as much as you can about the organization and the individual with whom you will meet.  Make sure to prepare and write down the questions that you will ask.  Develop priorities for the interview so that you get the most important information from the contact that you can.  Some example questions are:

– How did you get into this line of work?

– What has been your career path?

– What skills do you need to be successful in the job/field/organization?

– What associations and professional membership organizations do you find most useful?

– Whom else should I talk with and may I use your name when I contact him/her?

When conducting the interview make sure to arrive on time and restate the purpose of your meeting.  Focus on getting answers to your most important questions and don’t forget to ask for advice, information and referrals.  Make sure to stick to the time frame that you asked for originally and do not offer a resume unless asked.  Thank the individual and ask if you may keep in touch, typically by connecting on LinkedIn.  Within 24 hours you should follow up with a thank you note.  You can then periodically keep in touch.

Informational interviewing can help you to make better, more informed career decisions, and be more knowledgeable about positions or organizations of interest.  It also gives you experience and self-confidence in discussing your career interests for job interviews.  This is also an invaluable way to make you visible and connected to the job market.  Additionally, potential contacts are much more likely to take time out of their busy schedule to meet and help you if you are a student.  Informational interviewing is the method by which 70% of people get their next job offer and allows you to develop your networking skills even when not looking for a job.

Adapted from Department of State: Career Development Resources Center PowerPoint “Informational Interviewing: A powerful networking tool”.