Changing track with a new postdoc position – a personal account

in That Makes Sense by

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Postdoc life is tough. It is the life of a nomad, where you are forced to change base every couple of years, sometimes every year. Add to it further considerations of visas and work permits (because like others before you, you too want to go abroad, mostly to Europe or US, no less!) and you have a plethora of concerns about your next job. In such a scenario, it always makes sense to plan ahead, to know at least 6-8 months in advance if your contract is going to get extended, if your PI has enough funding and if you do want to stay on or move to another place.

 

I faced similar dilemmas last year when I knew my term at Hopkins would end in 2016. I still had about a year to plan and prepare for my next move. And so, the first step I took was to register for a small conference where most of the speakers were those whose work interested me. This, I thought, would give me a good opportunity to gather information first hand about what was out there, who was hiring and how the PI was in general. I chose a small conference for this as it is better suited for personal interaction than annual large conventions.  

 

My research interests lie within the realm of systems biology which is one of the few fields that holds a perfect balance between theory and experiment. And, coming from a theoretical background myself, I was keen on working in close contact with experiments, even better if I could do them myself. With these specifics in mind, I set about preparing for the q-bio conference, which was to be held in August 2015. But, this is just what I wanted. Reality could be totally different. In fact, advertised postdoc positions have very specific requirements, and it is possible that you do not fit the bill even if you work in a related topic. Since my expertise lay only on the theoretical side of things and most PIs were looking for someone who could do experiments as well it wasn’t an easy nut to crack. But, it was during the conference that I met a Professor (from the UK) who himself was a theorist but also had very strong experimental collaborations. This was exactly what I wanted. I spoke to him and he showed interest after looking at my CV.

 

In about a week’s time after the conference, I followed up with him and proposed that we apply for the Marie Curie fellowship. This followed a back and forth discussion of project ideas at the end of which he was clearly satisfied with my dedication to match him. He also went so far as to say that even if the proposal fell through, he would consider me for a position in his lab. This was a relief as I now had a solid connection.

 

But, my PhD advisor warned me against complacency until I had something concrete. So I set about writing custom emails to several Professors. I got an interview with a Professor at a school in New York. But this fell through, as he probably wanted someone more familiar with virus pathways and such. Like I said, postdoc positions are very specific. In retrospect though, I am glad it didn’t work out, as I got more interview calls from even better places, one among them being with a PI from Harvard.

 

Incidentally, I had already casually met him at the q-bio conference and I knew he was a friendly person. His lab used both experimental and theoretical tools for research on C. elegans, a model organism in biology. Additionally, with some google search into his background, I found that he was a theoretical physicist who had started doing experiments only during his postdoc. So, I took a chance and in my email to him I wrote that in addition to theoretical modeling I would like to learn and carry out my own experiments as well. This set the tone for the interview process over Skype and then in person, during which he asked me to design an experiment or propose a hypothesis to either test or confirm the results of some ongoing research in his lab. Even though the in-person lasted 1.5 days and I had to think on my feet the whole time, the PI somehow made it seem easy, like he was churning my brain to get the right answers. It was a very fulfilling discussion at the end of which I was certain that I wanted to join his lab the most. Ten days later, I got my job offer. This was in February 2016.

 

During this time, my Marie Curie proposal fell through, but the Prof. from UK had asked me to apply for a position in his lab after he put up an official advertisement. He too made a formal offer which I politely declined. This was a tough email to write. But, I was glad to be in a position where I could choose between two very good offers.

 

From my experience, I now know for sure that preparing ahead is always better. I started planning my next move sometime around May 2015, when I first submitted an abstract for the conference. And, it was in Feb. 2016 that I finally got a formal offer. This took many many emails, some interviews, a conference, a proposal and a few turn downs. But, in the end, if you plan it right way in advance and keep at it unrelentingly you can get what you want. This stands true at least for a postdoc position. (Getting a permanent job is a different ballgame altogether.) I joined Harvard this June, and am excited to be taking the first steps toward experimental research on C. elegans.

 

-Rati Sharma

 

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About the author: Rati Sharma is a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University. She is trained as a theoretical physicist, applying the tools of statistical mechanics to model stochastic gene networks, but is now also setting forth into the experimental world on the same. In her spare time, she likes to write (http://ratisharma.blogspot.com/) and try every sport that catches her fancy. You can also connect with her here https://www.linkedin.com/in/rati-sharma-15b68726

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Hello, nice to find your post. I am a master’s student who is also planning to work with systems biology, I too love stat mech and hope to apply it to gene and neural networks. Currently I have two offers for grad school, one is in a theory lab and the other from a semi-theory lab. My current work is in theory, I don’t want to compromise on that and want to learn more. Yet, like you I felt that I need to learn experiments to understand the system better. Could you help me out with some advice? Your article was a nice read. Thanks for that.

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