Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

Two Faculty Members Share Insights and Tips for Landing Post-Doctoral Positions

PHILADELPHIA—Landing a postdoctoral position is a lot like pursuing other jobs in one key respect, Trevor J. Pugh, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto and Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, told attendees Monday at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting.

It comes down, he said, to answering: Where do you see yourself in five years?

“That's a bit of a cliché question, but that's certainly something I’ve tried to do throughout my whole career, in terms of answering, Where am I going to be in five years? Where is my field going to be? And where are the voids or vacuums that I can help fill?” Dr. Pugh said.

For him, the answer was integrating wet lab science with computational biology: “I was looking for really bringing those two groups [of research] closer together, and that required articulating at least a clear career plan for where I wanted to go after my postdoc, and showing up to a postdoc interview and application with a very clear, three-four sentence articulation of exactly what I wanted to do,” Dr. Pugh recalled.

Dr. Pugh and Susan E. Olivo-Marston, Ph.D., of The Ohio State University and The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, shared insights on landing postdoctoral positions before an audience heavy with prospective postdocs during a career-focused session at the annual meeting, held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Both agreed that postdocs should do their homework: “Just be thoughtful in what you write. When I get an email and they don’t even spell my name right, I automatically delete it,” Dr. Olivo-Marston said.

Answering an audience question, both speakers agreed postdocs should put as much care into evaluating prospective mentors and labs as their PIs are spending evaluating them.

Dr. Olivo-Marston recalled how as a postdoc, one of the first things she told her lab was that she had four kids: “I told them my hours were going to be crazy, that I’ll get the work done, but you may not see me on a typical 8-to-6 schedule like some other postdocs. I wanted to make sure that wasn’t going to be a problem. You can tell a lot when you say it, because people react, whether they realize it or not.”

She knew she found a good fit with her postdoc advisor when she learned why he kept looking at his watch during their first meeting: He was about to be a grandfather. “He was very family oriented, and that meant a lot to me as well.”

Dr. Olivo-Marston also said she chose a 60-person lab because she could draw on the knowledge of cancer prevention fellows further advanced in their studies, and could find the independence she sought as she moved past grad school toward pursuing her own research.

Dr. Pugh said postdocs should begin with the mentors whose research interests them, then attending their talks at conferences, and gauge the environment in which those PIs work: are they working in isolation or surrounded by grad students and postdocs? Are they being productive? Are they collaborative? Do they openly share their data with lab colleagues?

While his Ph.D. advisor was “extraordinarily supportive,” Dr. Pugh said landing his postdoc required “a lot of footwork just to find labs, contact them, shake people’s hands, and really put a face to the name.”

“It was a lot of cold emailing, writing, meeting at conferences. Inevitably there’s going to be a potential follow-up from your potential mentor back to your new one. Every single time there’s a phone call or a letter, that interaction happens whether you know it or not,” he added.

Both speakers said prospective postdocs would do well to move beyond where they went to grad school: “My dean has said, and I agree, that by moving from where you’re in grad school and going someplace else for your postdoc, you really expand your network,” Dr. Olivo-Marston said. “As you move forward in your career, just having that expanded network and people to collaborate with, people that know you and know what you do is really invaluable.”

Added Dr. Pugh: “Applicants who demonstrate that they’ve looked at my lab, and thought very carefully about what I do and how what they do is actually a fit with not just the science, but also the culture and the environment. If they’ve contacted ahead of time, and they can say I went to XYZ conference and I saw you talk—just really showing that you’ve actually done that homework, and can articulate why you're trying to trying to transition in method areas or disease areas, and really how that fits with your future environment. The form letter that gets mailed out , that’s really just a nonstarter. If you really show that it is a hand-in-glove relationship and that there’s value to be added on both sides, that’s really how you want to tailor your search as a postdoc.

Continue reading GEN’s related coverage of the 2015 AACR Annual Meeting

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