The challenges of obtaining a postdoctoral position in a new field and model organism in our current academic climate        

 

Water bear (tardigrade), scanning electron micrograph by Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden

Finding a postdoc position in a new field or with a different model organism can be challenging. Water bear (tardigrade), scanning electron micrograph by Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden

Those of us who will be earning our PhD in the near future will most likely be facing challenges when it comes to transitioning to the next step. The most obvious choice for graduate students inclined to stay in research is to pursue a postdoctoral position. However, in the current academic environment where there seem to be many more qualified applicants than there are positions, finding a postdoc is tough. To add to that, those of us who represent the small minority of individuals interested in switching to a new area of study with a different model organism face even greater challenges. The purpose of this article is to suggest ways to accomplish this goal and avoid a few of the pitfalls, while maintaining realistic expectations of the outcomes.

 

My goal had been to find a postdoc that would enable me to learn about a field directly relevant to an undergraduate setting, and to be able to study this in a model organism better suited for such a student body (ex: Zebrafish, C. elegans, etc.). This would allow me to accomplish my long-term goal of having a lab catered to providing undergraduate students research opportunities, for which there is a growing need. Apart from the need, my attachment to working with this particular student body stemmed from the direct impact my undergrad research experience had on the trajectory of my life. Thus, after extensively thinking about my long-term goal, I put my energy into finding a postdoc that would allow to me to achieve this.

 

The Haze of Getting Started: The Search & Your Application:

As advised, I began my search a year in advance and cast a broad net when it came to fields of study with the use of different model organisms. Since I was essentially starting from scratch, I primarily deferred to sites like Science Careers, Indeed.com, Postdocjobs.com, and the ASCB Job Board for recent postings. I would also check the current funding status of the PI and the read the grant(s) currently and previously funded by cross-referencing the PI in Grantome and NIH RePORTER. Both of these resources were also helpful in finding other individuals who were funded and working on similar research topics. My application package included a standard cover letter and CV with a list of references. However, because I was looking to gain experience outside my field and in a new model organism, my cover letter emphasized the following: how my training (technical and theoretical) would be relevant to their research and how this experience would allow me to achieve my long-term career goals. Addressing these issues upfront in the cover letter pre-empted a few of the questions that would be on a PI’s mind during the interview process.

 

The Daze of the Interview Process:

In my experience, a telephone conversation or Skype call precede a formal offer to interview. It is important to keep in mind that while this is an opportunity to learn a little bit more about the PI and their current research, this is also a critical opportunity for you to share your familiarity with their published work and reiterate how your training and unique perspective will elevate their research. Once you receive and accept the offer for an interview, you now have the rare task of preparing a seminar (45-60 mins) geared toward a scientific community unfamiliar with your field. My formula for success is simple: heavy on the background and light on the data. This allowed me to show only data that were essential to the story, thus improving the quality of my seminar. I realize that this seems counter intuitive, but it ensures that the audience stays engaged and leaves the seminar understanding the main goal of your thesis project. Once they are engaged, they are more likely to ask questions, allowing you to showcase your knowledge in the field and experience with the model system. This will also serve as an advantage and a nice ice-breaker when you are meeting with potential lab members during the one-on-one meetings. However, unlike most postdoc interviews, during these meetings the topic of why you want to switch fields of study and model animals will undoubtedly arise, so be prepared to readily address their concerns. Lastly, during your one-on-one with your potential PI, it is important that you address how you plan to overcome the obvious learning curve associated with switching fields/organisms. The easiest way to do this is to turn your learning curve into an asset by stating that you intend on writing a review article to familiarize yourself with the current state of the field, with the intention of applying for a fellowship soon thereafter. Keep in mind that postdocs applying for certain fellowships in a field different from their graduate work are looked upon favorably by the NIH and can be more likely to receive funding.

 

The Aftermath:

It is important to keep in mind that interviews do not often lead to formal offers. As mentioned before, there are many more postdoc applicants out there than there are positions. In my experience, I quickly noticed a pattern in the responses I was receiving post-interview. The reality was rather obvious, in our current funding climate, potential PIs are more likely to avoid any additional risk by hiring an individual with experience in their specific field of study and model organism(s) of choice. Thus, graduate students interested in pursuing a postdoc in a new field need to be realistic when it comes to their professional expectations. To avoid being unsuccessful in your search for a postdoctoral position, I recommend that individuals also apply to labs using the model organism and/or field of study you are experienced in. Even though this may not be the most direct path to pursue to accomplish your long-term goals, it allows you to be more competitive for a position. In turn, you may have the opportunity to leverage your experience for the chance to collaborate, ultimately gaining the skills you need to attain your goals.

About the Author:


Dolly Singh is currently a graduate student in the laboratory of William Wright at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her doctoral dissertation is focused on understanding the role and mechanism of the growth factor GDNF (Glial cell -line derived neurotrophic factor) in regulating human spermatogonial stem cells and spermatogenesis. The long-term goal of this project is to translate these findings into the clinic as a mode of therapy for a sub-population of infertile patients. E-mail: Dsingh14@jhu.edu
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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