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 Find the Right Postdoc Position

16. July 2013
Ming Li
 
Many recent Ph.D. students would like to land a faculty position at a university or research institute soon after graduating. However, there are only a few of these opportunities available every year. For each opening, there will likely be many qualified applicants from all over the world, with very strong CVs and publication records. In this climate, it is extremely challenging to break into academia immediately following grad school, and so a postdoctoral position has become an important springboard to a tenure-track academic job.
 
For the past four years, I was a postdoctoral research fellow in two Canadian photonics research groups: the Microwave Photonics Research Laboratory at the University of Ottawa, under the supervision of Jianping Yao, and the Ultrafast Optical Processing group at the Institute National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS), under the supervision of José Azaña. My time as a postdoc has been a great experience that others could benefit from as well, and so here I provide my personal perspective and advice about how to find and take advantage of a postdoctoral position.
 
Find the right match for your research interests. A postdoctoral research contract is usually for about two years. Due to this short timeline, professors are looking to hire researchers who can be immediately involved in the research activities of the group and make meaningful contributions, particularly in the form of journal publications or conference presentations. The capability of the postdoc to bring new ideas into ongoing projects is critical to hiring professors when they are assessing candidates.
 
Use your network. A nice recommendation letter from someone who is familiar with the professor with whom you’d like to work can play a key role in successfully applying for a postdoctoral position. Professors often approach friends and colleagues to recommend a candidate who has the necessary background and capabilities. Try to take advantage of your existing connections, and work to broaden your network in addition to strengthening your CV.
 
Hone your communication skills. In Canadian labs, a postdoc serves as the liaison between students and the professor. In addition to working on his or her own research, a postdoc also assists the professor in guiding students, scheduling experiments, arranging group meetings, etc. Therefore, interpersonal skills are crucial, in and out of the lab. I learned these abilities from my two supervisors and practiced them throughout my time in Canada. Now, I use these important skills when working with my own students in China.
 
Seek out useful collaborations. On a related topic, it is important to take advantage of opportunities to form helpful relationships between different research labs. A postdoc must be able to negotiate and communicate with the people in other groups in order to complete projects in the most effective way. These collaborative experiences not only helped me to finish some of my most interesting research, but also to build a large professional network—which can be even more important in the long-term.
 
Although it can be difficult to get the tenure-track position that you’re hoping for immediately after finishing your Ph.D., don’t be discouraged. There are many valuable skills that you can learn as a postdoctoral researcher, and this experience will put you on the right track to accomplish the rest of your career goals.
 
Dr. Ming Li (ml@semi.ac.cn) is a full professor at the Institute of Semiconductors at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. 

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The Career Uncertainty Principle

2. July 2013
Rocío Borrego-Varillas 
 
In physics, the uncertainty principle states that we cannot precisely measure the position and momentum of a subatomic particle at the same time. Many students approaching the completion of their Ph.D. experience a unique career-related variation of this principle: The closer they get to graduation, the more difficult it is to make plans for the future.
 
Although it’s exciting to complete your degree, facing a new professional stage can be stressful.  You can minimize this anxiety by planning early and developing the skills you’ll need to reach your long-term goals. Certain abilities are valuable regardless of whether you want to pursue a career in academia or in industry. These “transferable skills” include networking, communication and fund management. 
 
There are many ways to develop your transferable skills. In fact, some doctoral programs even include specialized courses on these proficiencies. Here are some of my suggestions:
 
Develop your oral communication skills. You can find many resources on the Internet. I especially like “English communication for scientists,” a free tool from Nature Education with tutorials on topics ranging from giving conference presentations to preparing lectures. Many conferences also provide very helpful seminars on scientific communication (for example, Jean-luc Doumont’s video and OPN article on “Creating Effective Slides”).
 
Become a better writer. Although we have many day-to-day writing obligations for school or work, it is a good idea to build your non-technical writing skills as well. There are a wide variety of outlets where you can practice: write for a blog, local newspaper, magazine or outreach book (like “El laser, la luz de nuestro tiempo”). For example, you can write for Optics & Photonics News (OPN), the membership magazine of The Optical Society; OPFocus, an independent magazine reviewing important recent developments in the fields of optics and photonics; and of course OPN’s Bright Futures career blog! 
 
Create a network. Student-oriented conferences such as the IONS meetings offer a great chance to build a professional network and meet colleagues. Conferences and technical meetings in general will help you to learn about different subject areas and introduce you to potential employers. Many offer professional development events, such as presentations by journal editors or meetings with entrepreneurs, which provide insight into different professions and the qualifications they require.
 
Learn fund raising and grant management. A good way to practice is to help your supervisor with his or her proposal by writing the paragraphs corresponding to your project description. Another good opportunity to get experience in this realm is through an OSA student chapter, as you will often file activity grants applications and raise funds to support chapter events. 
 
My advice for those of you running up against your “uncertainty principle” is to make it work in your favor—by keeping as many doors open as possible and learning as you go. With so many exciting possibilities to explore, perhaps certainty is overrated.
 
Rocío Borrego-Varillas (rborrego@uji.es) received her Ph.D. from the University of Salamanca, Spain. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Universitat Jaume I, Spain, and has been recently awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship to conduct her research at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy.

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The Marie Curie Actions: Tips to Apply for a Postdoctoral Fellowship

6. June 2013

Rocío Borrego-Varillas 

Are you about to finish your Ph.D. and thinking of doing a postdoc? If so, the Marie Curie Actions Research Fellowship Program (MC) could be a great opportunity for you. A European Union (EU) initiative to promote research and innovation, the MC is one of the most renowned postdoctoral fellowship programs. As Yanina Shevchenko pointed out in a recent Bright Futures post, “having your own funding not only looks good on your resume; it also provides you with some flexibility in choosing a research group.” These fellowships are a good way to achieve this goal.

Individual MC grants are available to experienced researchers, regardless of their nationality, through three programs: Intra-European Fellowships for Europeans who wish to carry out projects in the EU, International Outgoing Fellowships for Europeans willing to pursue their projects outside the EU and International Incoming Fellowships for non-Europeans who wish to receive research training in the EU.

Apart from the generous funding (they are probably the best paid postdoctoral fellowships in Europe), these fellowships provide young scientists the opportunity to join an excellent research group and gain experience abroad. This allows you not only to expand your technical knowledge, but also to learn practical skills that will be useful for your career. Additionally, fellows are provided with a monthly stipend to cover expenses derived from research training.

However, the MC is very competitive—the acceptance rate is around 16 percent. To give you an idea, the last Intra-European Fellowship call received more than 3,700 proposals, of which almost 3,000 had a score above 70/100. Only those with scores above 89/100 received funding. Writing a good proposal is crucial and can be the deciding factor in getting your application funded. Below are some tips to help you apply successfully:

• Attend a workshop. Many universities organize colloquia and workshops about the program, so stay tuned for these events at your institution.

• Prepare in advance. Take into account that writing the proposal requires a lot of time (it took me three weeks!), so plan well in advance.

• Be sure your application is complete. The referees check carefully to see if all the parts of the application have been covered, so be sure you have addressed every point. It may be useful to structure your proposal with subheadings and sections, closely following the “Guide for applicants”.

Be aware of the aims of the framework programme. “In each framework programme (currently FP 7), there are particular points that are supported with increased emphasis,” says Dr. Zsuzsanna Major, a former MC fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics. “It is very useful for the proposal to be aware of these particular aims while writing it."

• Avoid vague statements and provide specific examples. Don’t use generic phrases that could be applied to any field in any context. For example, instead of writing “this project will help to develop professional skills,” state that “the fellow will supervise two Masters students and help the group leader to write grant proposals. This will allow him/her to cultivate professional skills such as leadership and fundraising.” You can also include any relevant training courses that you plan to take at the host institution or professional societies you belong to (see the OSA Young Professionals Program).

• Be realistic. The project must be ambitious but feasible to complete in 1-2 years. Give a detailed plan of tasks and objectives including a Gantt chart. Provide a backup plan in case some parts of the project fail.

• Ask for advice. Your own university or the host institution should be able to help you with legal issues or other questions about the application.

• Get feedback from your peers. In addition to reviewing your proposal several times with your future supervisor, I also recommend getting feedback from colleagues whom you trust. I sent my proposal and the evaluation criteria to two of my peers and asked them to act as referees. Their revisions were tremendously helpful.

If you would like to apply for a MC fellowship, the call for 2013 is now open with a deadline of 14 August. Good luck!

Rocío Borrego-Varillas (rborrego@uji.es) received her Ph.D. from the University of Salamanca, Spain. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Universitat Jaume I, Spain and has been recently awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship to conduct her research at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy.

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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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Lessons from a Faculty Search

9. January 2013

David McGloin

This post is reproduced from the blog Dundee Physics with the kind permission of the author.

When my department was hiring for a life sciences-related position this past fall, I was on a search and selection committee for the first time. It’s an interesting and tough process, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on how we went about assessing our applicants in the hope that other job seekers can benefit from my insight. We cast a wide net and ended up with a large number of very high quality candidates. It was a tough choice–so how did we decide?

Fit to specification: My first piece of advice is to make sure that your cover letter, CV and research statement clearly communicate how you fit the specific position advertised. While our call wasn’t restricted to those working in a certain topic area, applicants still needed to state how their work aligned itself to the life sciences. Writing that you were “really interested in biology” wasn’t going to cut it, and for some really strong physical sciences applicants, this is where they fell down. We wanted to see at least some evidence of how the applicant’s work had been applied to biophysics research or how it might be applied in our department (and not just generically).

Experience: Your experience to date matters a lot – it shows the trajectory that you are on, what kind of thinker you are and what you might be capable of. The areas you have worked on, your general productivity and the papers you have produced make a big difference. However, the reality is that this is only part of the package. You might have been unlucky in where you have worked, or the projects you were assigned may not have gone according to plan. We recognize this. When your papers and background are a little lacking, then your research statement becomes even more important.

Research Statement: So you want to come and work with us, but what exactly are you planning to do? Your research statement should outline a coherent program of work and describe an interesting project in an innovative way. Incremental changes are not as persuasive as plans on a larger scale. However, you also have to be realistic, and this is where the challenge lies: to outline something of grand ambition in such a way that we can believe you will be able to deliver. In my mind this is perhaps the most important section: It gives you the opportunity to showcase your talent regardless of what you have achieved.

Metrics:  Does your h-index matter? Your publication count? Number of citations? Where you publish? In modern academia, these things are very significant, probably much more than they should be. The wide variety of postdoc positions that people have means you can’t always compare such factors in any meaningful way. One of my colleagues thought that postdocs should produce at least one decent paper per year. We used this as a general standard, but not a hard-and-fast rule. We did consider numbers of citations, but only as one factor to help us get a sense of the value of the papers published. Ultimately, I think the panel paid more attention to where papers were published over other numbers, but we really tried to look at the whole picture rather than just one metric. We put more emphasis on the applicant’s research ideas and his or her potential to deliver than pure numbers.

Interview: You might make a good impression on paper, but you also have to talk the talk. We decided on a full day visit for each interviewee, so the candidates got to speak to a range of people across the university. We asked them to think specifically about which faculty members they might like to converse with, in order to push them to think about why exactly they wanted to work with us. They were also asked to give a talk. All this information gave the interview panel a rounder picture of each applicant.

Ultimately, we hired someone with great potential, who we believe will take on big challenges. We were looking for—and found—a person who is a good colleague, who fits in with the department and who interacts well with undergraduates. I hope you find a similar good fit in whatever position you seek!

David McGloin (d.mcgloin@dundee.ac.uk) is head of the division of physics and a senior lecturer at the University of Dundee, Scotland.

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Postdoc Perspectives: Looking Back on My Year in France

3. February 2012

by Elena Silaeva

I got the idea the first time I traveled abroad to attend an international scientific conference. Wouldn’t it be exciting to do a posdoc abroad?

It was an ongoing dream during my doctoral research, and I actively networked throughout my studies. However, when my thesis defense came around, no one was clamoring to welcome me into his or her lab. Like many of you, I faced the inevitability of having to write 100 emails to lab managers in the hopes of getting at least one positive answer. (I knew the sad statistics from the experience of my peers.)

Then I got lucky: One of my colleagues forwarded me an email announcing a postdoc position in Saint Etienne, France. I sent my CV immediately. Quite soon, I received a couple of emails back with relevant questions about my thesis and abilities. My future employer also asked my colleague about my work during a conference. In the end I received an offer, which I was very happy to accept. The following are my reflections on the experience as well as my advice to others who are looking to pursue a postdoc abroad.

Prepare for paperwork. For the two months before starting my contract in France, I had to get all the paperwork in order. The bureaucracy is very strong there. I was not shocked because it can be worse in Russia. However, for someone who is accustomed to a neat and quick process, such as in the United States or Germany, it can be daunting. If you are considering a foreign postdoc, make sure you understand which documents you will need and build in enough time to deliver the required information.

I was asked to provide some documents that don’t even exist in my country. For example, I had to get a medical certificate in Moscow … from a French doctor! I also had to track down my birth certificate, which I had not used since I was 16 years old. Fortunately, I found it at my parents’ home.

Learn the language. Another important thing to consider in any foreign position is the language barrier. My future supervisor advised me to learn some French before arriving in the country. I took a short intensive course that proved to be very helpful. In France, most people don’t speak English. I had to speak French to the administration of the University, in the bank, and in order to rent an apartment. In the lab, it was easier: Everybody knew English, although they preferred to speak French.

In general, it was easy to get to know people and become part of the lab. Everyone was very friendly. Every morning there was an all-lab coffee break, and my lab mates and I went to lunch together as well. Our most important decisions were made over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

Test your limits. My postdoc brought with it a new level of responsibility. Since my research is related to numerical simulations, the way that I worked—in an office, on a computer—was not very different in the two countries. However, the subject of my research changed a lot. My thesis was devoted to nonlinear optics and laser pulse propagation, whereas my postdoc project was about material science and laser-matter interaction. The particular problem I was studying was new to the lab, with only one postdoc (me) responsible for its solution. Since my supervisor was busy coordinating many other projects and applying for new ones, I was largely on my own. I even had to install the necessary software on my computer. This was very different than my doctoral research, which was a continuation of earlier work and for which I received a large degree of guidance from my advisor.

Starting from almost zero was scary. I was expected to get results and have papers published by the end of the year. I worked hard and accomplished more than I thought I was capable of. I acquired new skills and knowledge. At the end of the project, I was offered the opportunity to continue working on the same subject in another French lab.

This year was very exciting and unforgettable. In addition to my professional achievements and growth, I took advantage of the wonderful French culture, great cuisine and beautiful mountains. And now I speak French.

Elena Silaeva (elena.silaeva@gmail.com) is a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Rouen, Materials Physics Group, France.

 

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Postdoc Perspectives: My Experience Working Abroad

25. March 2011

By Elena Silaeva

One of the great advantages of having a Ph.D. is that it gives you the opportunity to work abroad. Compared to people in other professions, scientists seem able to work in another country fairly easily. When I was pursuing my thesis in my homeland of Russia, I often dreamed about taking a position in another country after I graduated.

This year, my dream came true. I have been in France for two months for a postdoc position in the laser-matter interaction group at the University of Saint-Etienne. I have already adapted to the local culture, regulations and climate. I have become accustomed to my everyday life and absorbed in my work.

Expectations vs. reality
Before I left Russia for France, I felt completely differently. My excitement about getting a job quickly gave way to anxiety—about everything from shifting to a new research topic, meeting and getting along with people, and communicating when I did not know the language. (Although there are people from all over the world in the lab where I work, most of them are fluent in French.)

Happily, my transition went much more smoothly than I had imagined. After I arrived in France, my panic quickly turned into euphoria: My exciting new life had begun. In the laboratory, my advisor and colleagues were all very friendly and welcoming. They showed me where everything was in the lab and clearly explained the objectives that I was expected to meet. I quickly made friends who have helped me to address all the challenges I have encountered as a foreigner. Although I have not been in my new position very long, I have already had an invaluable experience.

Science and scientists in France and Russia
Overall, I think that people from the scientific community are quite similar to one another, despite their differences in citizenship and nationalities. Thus, it has not been all that difficult for me to integrate into a new research group in another country.

At the same time, science in France is different from that in Russia. At Moscow State University, where I did my Ph.D., most of the work that was being done was fundamental in nature, and it moved at a rather slow pace. In France, however, I notice that researchers direct maximum effort into real applications—and that requires fast, dynamic work. I have also observed a big difference from the financial side. Academia gets more funding in France than in Russia. To be honest, this was also an important factor that I considered when I was choosing a position.

In France, my laboratory equipment is generally in better condition that it was in other universties where I have worked. That has opened up many more possibilities for realizing scientific ideas and achieving my goals.

The benefits of a “real job”
I have often thought of my Ph.D. studies as a stepping stone on the way to earning a degree and choosing a career. By contrast, my postdoc already feels like a “real job.” It is strange and at the same time exciting to realize that, after many years of studying, I am not a student anymore. Having some financial independence is also very satisfying.

Overall impressions
On the whole, I think that science is international. It does not matter much what country you come from or where you choose to do your work. The most important thing is that you choose your position wisely and that you have smart and supportive colleagues. I was very lucky.

Elena Silaeva (elena.silaeva@univ-st-etienne.fr) is a postdoc in the laboratory Hubert Curien at the University of Saint-Etienne, France. She is also a member of the editorial advisory committee for Optics & Photonics News.

 

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