DIY career guidance: Tips and tricks on organizing a career seminar series

Adriana Bankston (right) and John G. Tooley (left), postdocs and co-founders of the CRAFT seminar series at the University of Louisville, pose with Dr. Keith Micoli (middle), Postdoctoral Program Director at NYU Langone Medical Center, following his CRAFT seminar presentation in 2014.

Adriana Bankston (right) and John G. Tooley (left), postdocs and co-founders of the CRAFT seminar series at the University of Louisville, pose with Dr. Keith Micoli (middle), Postdoctoral Program Director at NYU Langone Medical Center, following his CRAFT seminar presentation in 2014.

During your graduate education, you acquired many intangible skills, such as grant writing, scientific presentation, critical thinking, and experimental troubleshooting. Armed with all these skills and with a brand-new PhD in your pocket, you excitedly start a postdoc, an elusive training position in which you are supposed to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life and subsequently train for it. For most people, academia is the default choice. After all, you have been trained to become an academic scientist, so your brain may be wired to blindly follow this path. However, with NIH funding decreasing, and only 10% of PhDs ending up in tenure-track positions, you need to consider other career paths. But how do you find out about these other possible career paths? You could participate in career seminar series offered at your university, where you can approach speakers from various fields to discuss their career paths. But if your university does not have such a program, and you are motivated and want to meet a lot of people, you might consider starting such a program at your university. Here are some tips and tricks on how to do that:

  • Decide on a direction for your seminar series. First things first: You need to decide what the seminar series will consist of and what you hope to accomplish with it. The general idea is to enrich the postdoctoral experience at your university. Think about possible topics that people might find useful by browsing websites of universities with well-established postdoctoral programs. For example, you might want to set up a program where you invite speakers from various fields to discuss their career paths—teaching, industry, business, policy, etc. You may also want to set up some talks about grant writing and other topics of potential interest for postdoctoral fellows. Additionally, it might be helpful to make this a forum where postdocs can discuss their research to practice for a job interview.
  • Decide on a name and a mission statement. You need to decide what you want the seminar series to be called. You want it to have a catchy name that people can remember, preferably a catchy acronym whose letters exemplify what the seminar series embodies. An example of such a name would be the “Career Research Advancement Focused Training (CRAFT) Seminar Series.” An example of a mission statement for such as seminar series would be: “The CRAFT Seminar Series is intended to be a forum for postdoctoral fellows to present their own research, with the goal of obtaining feedback from colleagues, practicing for a job interview, or speaking at a conference. In addition, the seminar series will occasionally feature speakers from various fields into which postdocs may venture following their current training.”
  • Select a day and time for your seminar series. You don’t want your seminar to overlap with major seminars at your campus, so be sure to make yourself aware of those seminars before settling on a day of the week for your seminar. The time of the day is also important—you may have low attendance very early in the morning or too late in the day, so probably sometime in the middle of the day is ideal. A lunchtime seminar with free food is a good idea.
  • Get support from your office of graduate and postdoctoral studies. Without official university support, it will be difficult to start any new programs. Oftentimes, the office of graduate and postdoctoral studies will help advertise and encourage people to attend your seminar series while you get it off the ground. You may also want to apply to that office for some funds to support food as well as other expenses such as an honorarium for invited speakers.
  • Utilize the resources at your university. Sometimes your university may have resources that you can tap to help you with your seminar series. Browse university websites to see what might be offered. One such resource might be your career center, or the office of graduate or postdoctoral studies. You could also invite school alumni who have gotten PhDs and transitioned to different careers to come and give talks at your university. The office of graduate or postdoctoral studies should also have a list of graduates and information about where they are currently employed, as well as their contact information.
  • Hook people with a good first seminar. While your aim is to have interesting seminars every week, getting the seminar series off the ground with a good first seminar is crucial. People may be reluctant to attend something new that they have never heard of. Try to schedule a particularly interesting speaker for the first session. If you can’t do that, start with a fellow postdoc who has a well-developed research story and ask him or her to give the first presentation. At the first seminar, be sure to introduce yourself and talk about what your seminar series is all about.
  • Advertise the seminars. Advertising is a key component of any seminar series. Put up flyers in the lobbies of various buildings, in the elevators, and in other high-traffic areas such as the library or the cafeteria. Make sure to advertise early using flyers —about two weeks in advance is good. Send e-mail reminders two days before, and a final reminder the morning of the seminar. Post the seminars on university calendars as well, if available. Finally, social media can also be a good way to advertise these seminars. Don’t forget to mention the free food on all of these advertisements.
  • Keep a sign-in sheet. Make sure people sign-in every time so you can keep track of who is attending your sessions. You can also use this group to draw from when you are looking for future presenters. It is also a good idea to put a column on the sign-in sheet asking people if they are interested in presenting in the future.
  • Ask people what they want to hear about. Once the seminar series is more established, you can conduct a poll to determine what kinds of topics people want to hear about. This will surely keep people coming if their needs are being met.
  • Find speakers. One of the hardest things about setting up a seminar series is finding speakers. Most often, postdocs at your university might be willing to step in and talk about their work. Or you may have someone in your lab who has previously worked in industry and could provide some contacts to get you started. Conferences are also a good place to interact with someone who might be willing to come back to your university to give a career talk. For example, if you see a great career seminar at a national meeting, do not hesitate to approach that person and invite him or her to give that same lecture at your university. If you wind up hosting speakers from out of town, consider giving them an honorarium, taking them to lunch, and allowing them to socialize with the postdocs at your university. Always make sure to thank the speakers after their presentation both in person and by a more formal email follow-up.
  • Make connections. The best way to expand your network is to make connections with people from various fields, which might also help you find your next speaker. For example, someone in business might be looking for scientists with certain skills. That person might even know someone who is looking to hire people or can talk about what he or she looks for when hiring. If your university is geographically close to several other universities (within a 1–2 hour drive), consider finding out about career seminar series at those universities and determining if some of those speakers could give a similar talk at your university.
  • Document the seminars. Since this is a new seminar series, it is helpful to document these events by taking pictures of the speakers in action, to eventually make a portfolio of the speakers that participated in your seminar series. This could later be used as future online advertising by your university.

Overall, organizing such a career seminar series is no small feat, but there are numerous advantages. Having to approach and talk with people from various fields builds your interpersonal skills. Leading the career series develops your creativity and leadership skills. By organizing such a series, you are able to contribute something significant to your university, which may evolve into a durable program that exists long beyond your time there. In addition, you are expanding your network and learning about potential career options for yourself. Who knows, you might even decide to change your career path based on one of the talks from a speaker you invited to your career seminar series, and that person would serve as the perfect contact to help you launch your new career

About the Author:

Adriana Bankston is a Principal Legislative Analyst in the University of California (UC) Office of Federal Governmental Relations, where she serves as an advocate for UC with Congress, the Administration, and federal agencies. Prior to this position, Adriana was a Policy & Advocacy Fellow at The Society for Neuroscience (SfN), where she provided staff support for special and ongoing projects, including SfN’s annual lobby event and the society’s annual meeting. In addition to working at UC, Adriana also serves as Vice-President of Future of Research, and is Chief Outreach Officer at the Journal of Science Policy and Governance. Adriana obtained her PhD in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology from Emory University and a Bachelor’s in Biological Sciences from Clemson University.
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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