Life after Grad School

The other day we were lucky enough to have a chat with a graduate of our program (who will remain nameless). She graduated in 2008, having to deal with the post-market crash job market, underwent two postdocs, was offered a tenure-track position in 2012 and recently moved to another university. To add to the job-market difficulties, she has a husband in a similar area in academia and they had to deal with being competitors for the same jobs.


“What did you end up choosing in regards to research vs teaching load?”
“I wanted to be in research, with research as primary position. Tenure-track positions comprise of differing requirements in research, teaching & service hours. Offers are structured either as a solid percentage (for example, teaching two 3 credit courses = 40% teaching) but I knew I wanted research as primary focus. I entered job market post-recession, there weren’t many options. I needed to cast a wide-net and decided to make the tough decisions when they happen. Of course, this debate is only a problem when you get an offer. My first position was primarily research.”


“Can I ask why in why you’ve been interested in research?”
“I think it stemmed from scientific curiosity – something you can foster in grad school. The faculty here are scientists at heart, it was something I really found satisfaction in. I love mentoring, it allows you the chance to connect with students that’s hard when you’re teaching a large class.

I wanted to be in an academic environment, to operate there & enjoy learning the science behind it. My advice would be to take advantage of teaching opportunities you have. If you haven’t had much experience in teaching before you have a first faculty job, then you find out you hate teaching, you have to write a bunch of grants and buy yourself out!”


“Can you comment on how you sort out postdoc opportunities, timing and who you talk to?”
“I can’t recommend this as the right way to find a postdoc, but it’s the way I did it. As a lab, we attended the same conferences each year – make sure you’re presenting & going to the same one several years in a row. Figure out who’s who in the field, see who do you want to work for. Talk to current lab personnel and find out the direction the lab’s going in, and what sort of advisor the PI is. A byproduct of attending conferences is finding out who’s work is of interest to you. There was an individual I’d gone out with and had beers with over the years, and he told me to apply for his un-advertised post-doc position, that I ended up taking. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time.

That sounds fatalistic, but if you position yourself the right way you can take advantages of opportunities as they present to you. Go with your gut! At every stage in my career, if there was a decision to make, I went with what felt like the right fit. It’s not permanent. People move and switch gears a lot. There’s lots of time-points in your career to go try new things. You can always change the course of your career, it takes the pressure off the sense that it’s a ‘now or never’ thing.

Think about what sort of skills you want to gain; what sort of networks you want to build. Post-docs can really be a springboard for your career. The things you can look for – can I get grant writing experience & can I publish? Can I take some of the work I do with me to my next position? In the last 4 years I have sat on committees and gone through the academic search process myself & I can tell you there’s criteria on CV’s that you need. You need first-author publications!

When I accepted my first position it was the best fit at that time. You take a hit in productivity when you relocate but I felt I was unable to grow my career, expand my research questions, in part because I wanted to answer clinically oriented questions. I was looking for critical mass of faculty interested in similar things. I get the most out of informal conversations about science, checking each others work & I was lacking those opportunities. I either had to change my expectations or change my position. I put myself out there to see if I could change position; it just happened that I could. I was happy there but not forever. As a side note, at points in your career you have more negotiating power than other times. And I’d also say that the world is extremely small – your scientific field is so small. Never badmouth anyone or any place because it gets back to people pretty quickly.”


“How do you find yourself in your own research group? How do you find your groove & go your own way?”
“Great question – that’s what makes or breaks junior faculty, whether they find that groove. It’s difficult because post-docs are grant funded so you have an obligation to do science that’s not your own. A good conversation to have with your post-doc advisor is to strategize about how to develop your own ideas and become an independent researcher. You can get dinged at promotion if you continue to publish with old mentors because it shows lack of independence. I found my groove being driven by the data: ‘what do these data suggest?’ design a follow-up study & you spin off and find your own questions. It ended up happening without me really realizing – driven by data & the scientific process. Every study generates more questions & you spin off from that. One of the challenges as a faculty member, judging which projects to give to whom, what can this person handle? There’s value in postdoc, you may get different perspective on mentoring too.”


“When do you decide to give up on a track of research?”

“You circumvent some of that when you design your study correctly – we’re testing hypotheses rather than supporting hypotheses. Certainly some lines of work are more fundable than others – that’s where going to conferences & having mentors – not you’re your advisor but other career mentors too. There’s more to academia than just science. Mentors may be excellent in time management, teaching, work-life balance etc. Making sure a line of work is fundable is important as junior faculty member. No single study is conclusive.”


“What’s the process going from academia to industry or bridging that gap?”

“In academia you have a CV, in industry you have a 1-page resume. You need to think about whether your experience is going on a CV or resume. If you’re interested in industry, make a CV now. What’s missing? Go get it now! There are things you can do now to make sure you have a compelling resume and compelling CV. Internships, industry connections. In academia you can rely somewhat on pedigree, the connections aren’t going to hurt you but you have to build an industry network.

There’s a bunch of post-docs are funded by companies. There’s post-docs who present to the companies, making connections. You can do post-doc & go into industry & tailor what you’re doing.”


“Did you go through a spousal hire process?”
“I was offered the position and I said I wasn’t taking it unless there was a position for my husband too. I didn’t have to give up other things in my negotiations. When to disclose that is a hard thing to say. Talk to mentors who’ve sat on search committees, find out how they view things. How does the university handle spousal accommodation?”


“What’s the negotiating process like?”
“If they’re state universities, faculty salaries are published. Ask your peers what they make. For estimating start up funds, you can get a rough idea from your peers – that’s where conferences can work in your advantage. It’s so dependent on type of research that you do – talk to people who have the lab you want. I didn’t negotiate my salary when I moved because I had a grant.

In academia, there’s lots of things you can negotiate on. You don’t want to ask for too much, ask for what you need at the moment. It’s much better to go to your department head that you outgrew the space that you got and the two of you sit down and figure out a solution. That means you’ve been productive, successful, and if they don’t give you what you need you can go somewhere that will. There’s things like salary, although there’s not really room for negotiation at state universities. I don’t recommend pushing on salary, it gives you less wiggle room for start up or teaching releases.

When you hit your groove (about year 3), I suggest asking for a reduced teaching load, or a pot of money for students to travel with. You can negotiate what benefits are available, how much your one-time chunk of money is and what that’s linked to, for example an external speaker fund. Everything is negotiable too.”


“Can you negotiate your post doc salary?”
“It depends who’s funding it. A lot of times that salary is written into the grant. And it’s such a big pay bump from what you’re making as a grad student! Unless your PI is rolling in dough, it’s going to be pretty fixed. A lot of fellowships pay better than state-funded postdocs where you get for example $70k a year instead of $40k, and they’re a lot more competitive.”

“There’s always postdoc funding that’s not always listed, put it out there. “Hey I like your work, if you ever have a postdoc let me know”. A lot of times you write a grant with a PI, talk to them years in advance and think about how to write a grant together. As a PI now, I have expectations for my postdocs – they have to write grants. It’s relevant work experience. Also, you never know when you will relocate, there are opportunities where post-doc position might be written into a new position’s start up.”


“If you have a shortlist for people you want to do a post-doc with, how many people would you recommend reaching out to?”
“I don’t think there’s an upper limit on it. Personalities may come into play. Everyone knows that this is going on. Everyone’s incredibly busy & self-absorbed to remember whether someone contacted them or swing by the lab. Persistence & commitment are key!”


“As far as looking for a postdoc, what’s your opinion on the amount of retraining you should undergo?”
“That’s a conversation to have with potential mentor. You want someone to come in and be your right hand person. But the level of hands-on retraining is probably project dependent. Are you there to help train grad students? Many times you may be hired for a specific skillset, and you’re there to learn. There’s a balance between where you want to learn and what they want you to do.”


“How do you make the jump between clinical populations? Is a postdoc the time to do it?”
“That’s a good post-doc move e.g. switching from researching MS to stroke. You can also find those people via conferences – go to the medical conferences – but it’s largely going to be self-taught, or lucking out and finding a mentor in that area.

You can make career shifts but you have to plan in advance. When you give a job talk you tell a story. This is how I started, this is the transition phase and now I’m interested in this. My advice would be to not come across as someone with shiny ball syndrome. It’s hard to develop a strong national reputation when you haven’t spent a lot of time in that field. A post-doc is a good time to get that experience though. This applies with new techniques too, not just populations. I’ll also say that collaborations are great for increasing your knowledge in a new-to-you area.”


“How do you find the balance between the projects you’re doing for your research vs the side projects that explore other interests?”
“You need to make sure you have a body of work which is yours, showing independence before you hit the job market/tenure. I guess you need to make sure you’re not spending the time on others work. Make sure you’re addressing your own work; you need clear conversations upfront who’s going to be senior author will be for different papers. In my lab, we have that conversation up front, and make sure everyone’s on the same page on leadership role. Make sure you’re taking that role on your area and, otherwise, collaborate away. There are also people who don’t want to collaborate and that’s fine too.


I want to end by saying NEVER SAY NEVER. I started out in the west, it was a big move to come to Penn State for grad school. I’ve loved everywhere I’ve lived because the common thread has been the academic environment.”


Thanks for your time and answering our questions!



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