Planning Your Career During Your Ph.D.

8. August 2013

Yanina Shevchenko

 
This spring I attended a talk given by Greg Morrisett, Harvard University, who spoke to graduate students about how they could best use their time while pursuing their Ph.D. I recently finished my own Ph.D. and have just started to transition into my postdoctoral work, and I found that his ideas lined up very well with my own observations. Although getting your degree might seem like a never-ending endeavor at times, it will be over before you know it and you need to be prepared. Below are a few tips to get you started.

Strategize. Try to plan six or seven years ahead in your career. If you don’t have an ideal track in mind, just come up with an option that seems most attractive to you right now. You can always adjust your career plans as you move forward. A bad strategy is better than no strategy at all.
 
Learn and practice. Use this time to figure out how you learn most effectively, and put that technique to good use. Enroll in courses outside your discipline—now is the time to sign up for that Chinese language class that you’ve always wanted to try. In addition to academic learning, take every opportunity to prepare yourself for teaching and management roles. Practice giving talks and hone your public speaking skills in any way that you can. These are all abilities that will serve you very well later in your career.
 
Explore both academia and industry. Apply for internships in different areas and attend conferences and workshops. Ask your advisor and colleagues for advice on the way that funding works and how to obtain it. Get comfortable applying for grants and other available funding resources. In general, develop a habit of asking for more--it never hurts to ask, as long as you do it the right way.
 
Analyze. It’s a good idea to keep a journal of your career plans and research ideas so that you can chart your progress. Be constructive with your appraisal of yourself, but don’t be too critical--there is some truth to the saying that cynics don’t make breakthroughs. Use this time to take some risks and experiment.
 
Collaborate. Work with other graduate students and different research groups as often as you can. Exploring various research styles will help you to identify your own preferred methods, and learning to work with a diverse range of people will teach you to be flexible and adaptable.
 
Socialize. Make friends and spend time with your colleagues and others outside the lab. Invest in these relationships, because these people will be your support network when you transition to your next position. The same applies to mentors and faculty. Get to know them and what they do before you leave the institution. Online interaction can be also quite helpful for making connections. Volunteer to blog and get your name out there.
 
The prospect of deciding your career post-Ph.D. can be daunting, but with careful planning you can make the transition much smoother.
 
Yanina Shevchenko (yshevchenko@gmwgroup.harvard.edu) is the NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Whitesides Research Group, department of chemistry and chemical biology, Harvard University, U.S.A.

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How to Prepare for a Postdoc

12. March 2013

Yanina Shevchenko

Although a postdoc appointment might only last for a few years, it can have a tremendous influence on a scientist's career. A good way to approach the process of choosing one is to think about your long-term career objectives, identify your research interests and find a laboratory where you can leverage your strengths.

Like many people, I started my postdoctoral work right after finishing my Ph.D. I enjoyed joining a new lab and starting fresh research projects. Here I offer a few tips that could help current students to prepare for this important transition.

Plan ahead.

There is no such thing as preparing for your postdoctoral position too far in advance. I have colleagues who started planning two years before they completed their degrees, and it completely paid off. It takes time to choose a new research direction, identify the main players in the field, go through the interview process, and move to a new place. Last-minute arrangements might not be as rewarding as a well-researched decision.

Seek external funding.

There are generally two ways to fund postdoctoral work: through the research grants of a professor for whom you work, or with your own funding from an external source.

I highly recommend researching the scientific funding agencies in the country where you plan on working and applying for existing external postdoctoral fellowships. Having your own funding not only looks good on your resume; it also provides you with some flexibility in choosing an institution and a research group. Additionally, the application process is a useful exercise that allows you to polish your grant-writing skills and think about specific projects that you would like to work on. It is helpful to ask professors and other postdocs about available sources of funding as some of the fellowships are not very widely publicized or may be offered only within certain organizations.

Consider your long-term career objectives.

Are you preparing for an academic career and need to publish intensively in a certain research domain? Or are you thinking of broadening your research skillset in preparation for transitioning into industry? Depending on the answers to these questions, some people prefer to work in the area where they completed their Ph.D. in order to build a stronger reputation and deepen their expertise. Others choose to work in a completely different field in order to diversify their skills and learn about emerging research trends. Which direction you choose depends on your long-term career goals.

Choose a research group with care.

Before selecting a specific research group, find out as much information as possible about their work. Everything is relevant: the group's research priorities, their size and dynamics, the principal investigator's management style and expectations, etc. It helps to discuss these issues with other students, postdocs or former lab members. Time invested in learning these details will pay off, as it will help you to find a lab where you will be the most comfortable and productive.

"Try to find a group, not a place," says Carlos Lopez-Mariscal, a research scientist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. "That is, get a postdoc at XYZ group because of its merits and reputation, rather than getting one with ZYX group at Harvard just because it is at Harvard."

Approach a potential supervisor.

Some postdocs meet their supervisors at a conference or through collaboration during their Ph.D. Others are referred by a mutual colleague or someone who knows a professor personally. However, soliciting people directly via email can also be a great way to find someone to work with. Before contacting a potential supervisor, it is important to spend time putting together a comprehensive cover letter. Showcase how your experience would be useful for that particular lab and include ideas for future research. Familiarize yourself with the group's current efforts, and make sure that the cover letter is personalized--not just a copy of a letter that was sent to another researcher.

Overall, working as a postdoctoral researcher allows you to learn new skills, broaden expertise and establish new connections. Even if you have not made up your mind about your ultimate career goals, doing a postdoc can help you figure out your next steps. It can also provide you with an opportunity to relocate to a different country or start working in a new field. Although a postdoc takes some planning, it is a very rewarding experience that is worth all the hard work.

Yanina Shevchenko (yshevchenko@gmwgroup.harvard.edu) is the NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Whitesides Research Group, department of chemistry and chemical biology, Harvard University, U.S.A.

 

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A Conversation with Yanina Shevchenko

30. August 2010

By Kylee Coffman

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Yanina Shevchenko, Ph.D. student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and President of OSA’s Ottawa-Carleton Student Chapter. We discussed her research and her new career-focused column in Optics and Photonics News (OPN). Always active in the OSA community and busy balancing a million different projects, this female scientist is one to watch!

You are in your third year of a Ph.D. program at Carleton University, where you are working under supervisors Dr. Jacques Albert and Dr. Maria C. DeRosa. What is the focus of your research and what has been your biggest challenge?

My Ph.D. research has been very interdisciplinary from the moment it was started. I am working on developing surface plasmon resonance biosensors in the Advanced Photonics Components Lab at Carleton. In two projects that I am doing for my Ph.D., I have to apply a sensor platform for measuring different chemical and biological processes. For these particular projects, we have been collaborating with colleagues in the department of chemistry, and from the onset it has been challenging to form bridges into the worlds of chemistry and biochemistry because my background is primarily in photonics. Although this experience has been quite difficult, it has also been incredibly stimulating and interesting. I always wanted my research to be applied in the biomedical field, so I am very thankful that I had this project for my graduate research.

You received your bachelor’s degree in engineering and technology at Saint-Petersburg State University in Russia, the country where you grew up. Has it been difficult studying at universities in two different countries (Russia & Canada) with different science cultures?

Without a doubt, it was a very useful experience to study in two countries with very different educational systems. It was not particularly easy for me to adjust immediately from one system to the other, but it was an experience that has allowed me to develop a well-rounded education, and I would not exchange it for anything. There are obviously advantages and disadvantages in both systems, but the exposure to both can provide you with a very fresh perspective. Sometimes students hesitate to move to a different country in order to continue their education, especially if doing so requires them to learn a new language. I would suggest taking the risk because the advantages of traveling to a new country while starting work in a new field is definitely worth all the trouble.

What do you hope to accomplish after obtaining your Ph.D.? Do you think the current economic climate will have an impact on your degree and/or career opportunities?

If we look at the statistics, we can find that only 20-30% of Ph.D.s stay in academia as researchers, and less than 50% remain in the R&D sector. These are very strong numbers indicating that the majority of students will have to apply themselves somewhere else. During any scientific Ph.D. program, students have the opportunity to develop very strong analytical and problem-solving skills that are required by the nature of research itself; these abilities are key for finding employment in other fields. There are numerous examples of people going into industry (R&D and sales), starting their own businesses, and positioning themselves in consulting and science communication roles. I have not completely decided what I am going to do. I know that I enjoy the intellectual challenge of doing research, and I hope that, after my Ph.D. studies are completed, I will continue to be driven by the challenge.

You have been such a voice and friend to so many students in the OSA community. Over the past few years, you’ve served as President to the Ottawa-Carleton Student Chapter of the OSA. How did you first hear about OSA student chapters? What is your secret to sustaining it for so many years?

I first heard about OSA chapters during my undergraduate studies in Saint-Petersburg, and I thought it would be great to get involved, given the opportunities that OSA provides to members of the student chapters. When I started graduate studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, I saw that the Ottawa-Carleton Chapter was looking for new executive board members, and I decided to take that chance.

I think that student involvement with OSA chapters is beneficial in many ways, but mainly it provides the opportunity to meet with peers and discuss research in an informal atmosphere. To sustain an active chapter, it is important to have members who have a sincere interest in being involved, while also ensuring that the group environment is welcoming to all, and that the topics discussed are relevant to the student’s research.

My involvement with OSA over the last three years has exceeded all of my expectations. I have participated in and helped organize several conferences-which in turn helped me to grow as a researcher. By taking part in the activities organized by OSA, I have had the chance to get involved in the Young Professionals program and have since started working on the ‘Career Focus” column in OPN. Last but not least, I have met numerous students from different countries, many of whom have become very good friends. Overall, I would definitely recommend the student chapter experience to anyone who has an opportunity to be involved in one.

That’s very exciting news about your column in Optics and Photonics News (OPN)! Can you please tell us more about the focus of this new career-focused column?

This is a very exciting project that was started earlier this year. After speaking with several students at the OSA Leadership meeting last October about possible career prospects for recent Ph.D.s, I learned that Optics and Photonics News magazine was starting a new initiative aimed at exploring various career-related issues. The main idea was to create a column in OPN that would be of interest to Ph.D.s, postdoctoral fellows and everyone else who is interested in further career development.

The column will focus on different career options for professionals with science and engineering backgrounds, internships, interview tips and the use of social media tools for job searches. I plan to finish my Ph.D. next year, and my work on the column in this context has been undoubtedly useful in terms of identifying new career prospects and speaking with people who chose different career paths. The first column appears in the July/August issue of OPN, so be sure to check it out. I encourage anyone who has an interest to become involved by contributing an article, raising points for discussion, or starting their own blog on OPN’s website. I find the OPN editorial advisory committee and staff to be exceptionally welcoming of new ideas, and this is a great way to become engaged with the OSA community.

You are also the founder and vice president of the Women in Leadership Foundation Club at Carleton University, which you started in 2008. What is the main mission of this group? Being in a younger generation of scientists, do you see a change in the traditionally male-dominated field of science? Do you have suggestions for how female scientists can support each other’s career and development?

My experience with the Women in Leadership club was very good; it helped me meet with students from other departments, and that in turn allowed me to understand the gender issues occurring in other areas of study. Disregarding the field of study, it became immediately apparent that all fields need more role models, mentors and support networks. I think it is important to have someone who not only inspires you, but who also helps to shape your future career path. Currently there are considerable changes occurring in the field of science, and women in graduate and postdoctoral studies are part of this recent push for change. Although there has been quite a lot of progress on this issue, there are still so many outstanding issues that need to be addressed, such as the salary gap between male and female colleagues (which is characteristic to many fields), and, more important, understanding that women usually take on the biggest part of the household load at home.

Amazingly enough, during your many years of studying, research, and volunteering, you’ve also managed to develop so many hobbies like yoga and your art school studies. You must be a master at time management. What is your advice for balancing one’s professional and personal life? Do you have any new interests you’d like to share?

I wish I could say I am very good at time management, but I think this is where I definitely could learn more from someone else. Through my graduate study experience, I came to the realization that time management is one of the most useful skills that graduate students can learn and utilize while at school. I think the key is to prioritize and always try to improve upon your existing skills. I also noticed that, if you work on something that you find very interesting, you will exceed your own expectations and will always find extra hours to complete the project.

You’re an active presence on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, GroupSite, and LinkedIn. Have you found technology to be a useful tool for connecting to other scientists? Who are your favorites to follow on Twitter?

Very often people ask, “So, what is in it for me? What can I get from spending time on these social networks?” It definitely takes time to sustain your presence on all social media websites and the benefits of being there can seem somewhat subtle. One of the main reasons why I use them is that they enable me to connect with like-minded people around the world. In general, one’s circle is limited to people from the same school, to colleagues, to people living in the same city and maybe to people attending the same conferences. With the help of social media, you can go beyond your already established network and meet people who you would not normally meet or approach.

I really enjoy using all kinds of social media tools, but probably my favorites are LinkedIn and Twitter. On Twitter, I mostly follow OSA tweeple, some of the personal branding experts and various science news outlets. I would definitely recommend that people at least try social networks; it can be a lot of fun and lead to unthinkable opportunities.

A few of Yanina’s Favorite Follows on Twitter: @Brandyourself, @Scientist Coach, @PolymerPhD, @OSASC, @kikilitalien, @MsEditor, @KyleeCoffman, @keithferrazzi, @MacleansMag, @PostDocsForum 

Kylee Coffman (kcoffm@osa.org) is OSA's Education and Membership Specialist.

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