Over the last year or so, I have had several discussions with my friends at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) regarding the search for post-doctoral research positions that almost all Ph.D. students go through near the end of their grad school days. One point that featured prominently in these discussions was the curious fact that despite several people applying for postdoc positions every year, most students approach their postdoc search with little awareness of the strategies or even procedures involved. It would be fair to say that many Ph.D. students are quite secretive about their postdoc applications and do not pass on the knowledge they gain through their successes and failures to their juniors. Further, Ph.D. advisers also do not always play an active role in helping their students find the ideal postdoc position. From a career standpoint, this lack of awareness about the intricacies of securing postdoc positions can put the student at a disadvantage, considering that the quality of postdoctoral research can significantly impact his or her job prospects, academic or otherwise. Thus, as the first and rather small step towards addressing this issue, I resolved to pen down the story of my own search for postdoc positions in the hope that young Ph.D. students might find one or two pointers that help them secure their own dream postdoc position.
My story begins back in December 2008, when I had to make one of the most important decisions of my life. I was finishing my master’s degree program in physics at IIT Bombay, had a good GRE score and was all set to apply abroad for Ph.D. programs. But my girlfriend was already pursuing her Ph.D. at IISc, so I chose to pursue a Ph.D. at IISc myself! More importantly, however, I knew that ultimately, I wanted to become a good scientist and simply getting into IISc was not going to ensure that. So I decided to do a summer project in IISc before the interviews, in order to get a better idea about the research atmosphere there. Accordingly, during the two months that I spent in the Physics Department of IISc as an IAS Summer Research Fellow, I spoke at great length to several Ph.D. students, often bombarding them with a barrage of questions. Who does exciting research? Who publishes well? Who allows students to be independent? How are the alumni from the lab doing professionally? How many get good postdoc and faculty positions? As a result of this intense background search, I was extremely well-informed about research in the department that I had applied to for a Ph.D. position. As soon as I got to know that I had done sufficiently well in my interviews, I immediately approached the professor whom I thought would give me the best chance of developing into an independent scientist without compromising on the quality of publications. It proved to be the beginning of a truly rewarding scientific journey over six years.
One question that I kept asking myself throughout the first half of my Ph.D., was what sort of research I would like to do for a postdoc. This was in full knowledge of the fact that I could only realistically aim to apply for a position three or four years down the line. But the continuous brainstorming really helped me zero in on the most promising labs in my field (experimental soft matter physics). The countless hours I spent browsing webpages and scanning publications on scopus helped create a concrete and coherent map of potential opportunities in my mind. On the research front, my adviser as well as my co-adviser and collaborator at JNCASR consistently set me challenging goals, and I put in a herculean effort to meet their lofty standards. Scientific research is not always kind to those who devote themselves to its service, but I was fortunate that my efforts were rewarded with publications in respected peer reviewed journals. It is at this point, about two and a half years into my Ph.D., that I made a pivotal decision concerning my search for postdoc positions. I chose to switch from physics to biology. At that point, the last time I had received any education in biology was tenth grade. But my girlfriend was doing a Ph.D. in structural biology and I used to have many technical conversations with her, particularly about evolution. I asked a plethora of questions, most of which were rather stupid, given my ignorance, but there were some that my girlfriend, or for that matter any biology student I spoke to, was unable to answer. That was purely because none of these people had approached evolution from the perspective of physics. My approach to the subject appeared to be quite unconventional. That is when I became convinced that here was a potential niche that I could exploit. So I decided that having discussions with my girlfriend was not enough and started reading as many research papers on evolution as I could in my free time. One of these, a beautiful paper that experimentally demonstrated concepts from evolutionary game theory using baker’s yeast, made an especially deep impression. I realized that the first author of the paper had recently been hired as a faculty at MIT and I thought to myself, “I should really watch out for this guy. I could do a postdoc in his lab”. At that point, it was a dream. More than two years later, I met him face to face in his office at MIT and he offered me the position that I hold today. The next part of the story tells how I worked towards translating the dream into reality.
The first thing I realized, and more importantly acknowledged, was that I did not know any biology. So the obvious thing was to learn biology. But biology is incredibly vast, and I had to pick up what little I could without compromising on my Ph.D. research. So I started by identifying topics that the professor at MIT worked on and tried reading about those as much as I could. In December 2012, I wrote an email to a graduate student in his lab, expressing my interest in eventually pursuing a postdoc in his lab and asked him if he could suggest books or references that I should look up in order to familiarize myself with the conceptual tools employed by them. He was extremely helpful and readily provided me with a long list of books on biophysics, ecology and evolution, some of which I read and learned from. I also taught myself game theory by watching video lectures online. In August 2013, I first wrote to the principal investigator (PI) himself, expressing my interest in his research and my desire to meet him in an upcoming conference in the US. I mentioned explicitly in this email that I was not applying officially for a post-doctoral position because I would take at least another year to finish grad school, but I would be grateful for any advice that would make me a strong contender for a position in his lab. His response was kind and encouraging, and although I was unable to attend the conference, I considered our exchange to be a positive start. In fact, when I formally applied to him in August 2014, I wrote my new email as a response to our first correspondence, so as to remind him of my enduring interest in his lab’s research.
The account that I have given so far might appear one dimensional, since I have only written about my interaction with one scientist. In truth, I had been actively following several other scientists’ research and was always on the lookout for promising labs. I had several criteria in mind while sifting through these options. First, I wanted to work with people who had established labs, so that I would not have to devote a part of my valuable postdoc time towards setting up the lab. However, I was also wanted to work with someone who was relatively young, so that I would get a certain amount of personal attention. I felt that was essential because I was making a major field switch and wanted the PI to be involved with my research. Next, I looked at the publication record, and by that I mean not only the number and quality of publications, but also finer aspects such as the fraction of papers that had a postdoc from the lab as the first author. The one point where I could not arrive at a decision by myself easily was which sub-field of biology I should consider working in. It was clear that I needed some overlap either with the experimental skills that I had picked up during my Ph.D. or the conceptual tools that I was familiar with. But even within these constraints, the set of possibilities was too vast. So I decided to seek advice from faculty members in IISc and the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). In particular, I sought out people who had a background in physics but had shifted to biology. These interactions proved to be immensely enlightening and fruitful. The people I spoke to were extremely amiable and helpful. Through one of these personal meetings, I got to know about a winter school on quantitative systems biology that was to be held in IISc in November 2013. It featured lectures from renowned scientists from some of the top universities in USA and Europe. The school covered a wide range of topics and was instrumental in helping me figure out which aspects of biology appealed to me the most and would be easiest to contribute to given my background.
Further, I actively sought to create opportunities for myself by engaging in vibrant scientific discussions with the guest lecturers during lunch intervals and coffee breaks. These efforts bore fruit in the form of an offer of a postdoctoral position from a renowned scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). Notably, this offer was made a good eighteen months before I submitted my Ph.D. thesis, without any questions about my list of publications. One of the lecturers in the meeting was a professor emeritus from Princeton University, whose younger colleague featured close to the top of my list of prospective postdoc advisers. So I approached the emeritus professor and expressed my desire to work with his colleague. This time, the professor asked me about my publications and on hearing my answer, encouraged me to write to his colleague. Moreover, he asked me to mention that I had met him at the winter school. I wasted no time in writing to the young PI. I got an immediate and positive response, informing me that the emeritus professor had mentioned my name with the ‘highest recommendation’.
An important aspect that I have hitherto not alluded to is my discussions with my advisers regarding my postdoc applications. I was frank and forthright about my intention to switch from physics to biology right from the onset and my advisers provided me with sage advice on the matter. They warned me of the potential risks associated with changing one’s area of research drastically, but also acknowledged the benefits, should I succeed in making the transition. Also, they expressed confidence in my abilities, which was extremely reassuring. And so it was, that in August 2014, after two years of extensive searching, reading and meeting people, I had set my sights on two promising young professors, one at Princeton and the other at MIT. I cannot overestimate the importance of the two cover letters I sent out at that time. It is a much neglected, but potentially the most critical aspect of postdoc applications. There are several detailed articles devoted to the art of writing cover letters and I will not dwell on the matter here, except to mention a couple of important points. My postdoc adviser told me that he and many other faculty members at top universities get several applications each year, especially from India and China, with completely generic cover letters. All of these applications are discarded without so much as a glance at the applicant’s CV. He also told me that it was evident from my cover letter that I had thought deeply and concretely about his research, which is quite rare, and my application stood out because of that. Without my meticulous preparation, my cover letter would not have been anywhere near as convincing.
As it turned out, my cover letters triggered extended correspondences with the PIs at Princeton as well as MIT. Since I had a strong publication record, they also encouraged me to apply for fellowships in the physics departments of their respective institutes and also offered to help me with my project proposals for the same. I responded diligently by coming up with ideas for research proposals based on on-going research in their labs. It must be said that a strong publication record is a major asset, especially while applying for fellowships. For the purposes of getting a postdoc position, though, it is not an absolute necessity. For instance, my wife secured a postdoc position at Harvard Medical School with a decidedly underwhelming publication record, largely because she gave an impressive account of herself during her personal interview. Coming back to my story, while I worked on my project proposals, I realized that if I was selected to be interviewed, I would need to obtain a US visa on time. Accordingly, I requested both PIs to send me a letter of invitation mentioning any funding that they might be able to provide for my travel and accommodation. Both PIs were prompt in sending this letter, promising to cover my stay in Princeton and Boston respectively. In fact, the PI at MIT even covered most of my travel expenditure for the round trip from India to the US and back! This goes on to show that PIs are willing to go out of their way to help a candidate whom they perceive to be promising.
By early November 2014, I had submitted my applications to the Dicke Fellowship at Princeton and the Pappalardo Fellowship at MIT and was all set to visit Princeton and MIT in the first half of December. Soon after, the PI at MIT told me that I had not qualified for the Pappalardo Fellowship interview, but there was a chance that I might be interviewed for a Physics of Living Systems (PLS) Fellowship. There was no word from Princeton about their fellowship till the day I left India. Soon after landing in New Jersey on December 1 however, I got an email informing me that I had in fact been selected to be interviewed for the Dicke Fellowship and that I would have to give a one hour talk about my doctoral research on December 4! Moreover, I would also have personal interviews with faculty members the day after my talk! I was quite comfortable with my Ph.D. work and I had spoken about it before, so I was able to give an impressive talk. In fact, the PI whom I was interested in working with praised my composure and reckoned that I had a good chance of getting the Dicke Fellowship. The personal interviews were an educational experience, and perhaps the most difficult interviews that I have faced so far. The difficulty stemmed largely from the fact that these were not conventional interviews in question answer format, but rather conversations with extremely friendly and amiable scientists. It was a dangerous situation in which I had to guard against complacency, because it was easy to forget that I was being judged. There was nothing that I could have done to prepare for something like this. So I simply decided to be perfectly natural and honest and spoke my mind without hesitation. I figured that the best strategy was to show them exactly what I was made of and hope that it was good enough instead of projecting myself to be something I was not. It is difficult to gauge whether I would have eventually succeeded in getting the fellowship or not, had I chosen to join Princeton, but one of my interviewers told me that I was a good candidate and that they had me on their shortlist. My personal interactions with the PI and his group went exceedingly well and on the day I left Princeton, he offered me a position regardless of the outcome of the Dicke Fellowship and told me that I could inform him about my decision after my trip to Boston. Buoyed by the fact that I had given a good account of myself at Princeton, and with the security of an offer in hand, I travelled to MIT in a much more confident frame of mind. Here, the PI had drawn up a schedule for me to spend thirty minutes with each member in his group, give a one hour talk and have lunch with two professors at MIT. These meetings went extremely smoothly and owing to the basic knowledge of ecology and evolution that I had picked up over the last two years, I was able to engage in intellectual discussions with all the group members. Lunch with the two professors might have been an intimidating affair without my Princeton experience from the previous week, but I employed the same strategy and hoped that it worked here too. The talk itself was attended by five faculty members, and I was told much later that they were interviewing me for the PLS fellowship. The long and rather busy day ended with dinner with the PI and three of his postdocs. All of them made me feel extremely welcome and comfortable and overall, it was a wonderfully pleasant experience. The next day, the PI told me that everyone in the lab enjoyed my company as well as the science that I presented and he got positive feedback from the two professors I had lunch with as well. He then proceeded to offer me a postdoctoral position in his lab. I had simulated this scenario several times in my mind over the previous two months, where I would have to choose between the PIs at Princeton and MIT. It was always going to be a difficult choice, since both of them are young, energetic, ambitious and brilliant. But having given ample thought to this question over the course of my application procedure, my answer was definitive. And so it was that I secured my current position at MIT, approximately six months before I submitted my Ph.D. thesis.
My search for a postdoc position certainly reached a satisfying conclusion. But this story must end with a rather important epilogue. Soon after I returned to India, I was told that the PLS Fellowship would be offered only to theoreticians, and I would therefore be paid by the PI himself. He encouraged me to apply for my own funding through various fellowships, which meant that I had to write yet another project proposal and gather letters of recommendation from four different people. This raises two important questions: how does one come up with an idea for a project proposal and who does one approach for letters of recommendation? For the proposals I wrote for the Dicke Fellowship and the Pappalardo Fellowship, I relied on analogies between physical phenomena and those observed in the biological world. This allowed me to suggest new experiments on biological systems, whose results could be interpreted within a certain physical framework. On the bright side, these proposals contained novel and interesting ideas but the downside was that some of the proposed experiments were unfeasible, and the validity of the analogies themselves was debatable. So this time I wanted my project proposal to be more concrete and realistic. Towards this end, I had extensive discussions with the PI as well as one of his Ph.D. students. We converged on the specific experimental system that I would work with upon joining MIT. After a long Skype call with the Ph.D. student, I developed the outline of the proposal by combining the information I had obtained about the experimental model system with a concept that I had been exposed to during a talk three years earlier. What’s more, after incorporating the detailed critical feedback from the PI and his grad student, the proposal was strong enough to earn me a Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) Postdoctoral Fellowship in March 2016. So now, in addition to the ideal postdoc position, I have my own independent funding. This is but one of several instances where I have benefited directly from someone’s talk. For me, science is not just about reading papers and doing experiments. It is as much about interacting with people. Whenever I attend a talk, I am always on the lookout for ideas that I can capture and store for later use, if and when I find the right context for them. It is a habit that I developed in the early days of my Ph.D. I also made it a point to ask questions during conferences, if there was something in the talk that I did not understand, or if I thought of a potential research direction. Further, I frequently approached speakers during conferences and spoke to them about their research as well as my own. My enthusiasm and inquisitiveness was noticed and appreciated by many scientists of repute. These scientists have taken a keen interest in my development over the years and as a result, I was able to turn to them for letters of recommendation whenever I needed them for postdoctoral fellowships. Further, since they had known me personally for a number of years, they were in a position to make relatively precise statements about my competence and were not limited to generic remarks based on my CV. I was certainly not thinking about letters of recommendation five years in the future when I stood up to ask a question in a talk, but as is evident from my narrative, it all came together towards the end.
I do not know what the future holds in store for me. I enjoy working in an academic environment and would love to get a faculty position in a world class research institute. I want to spend my days in the service of science to the best of my ability. I am not afraid to dream and I am not afraid to fail either. The only thing I know for certain is that I have a long way to go and the road is hard. But it is worth walking.
About the author: In his own words “I finished my PhD in experimental soft matter physics from IISc in 2015. I then switched fields to quantitative systems biology and am currently a postdoc in the Physics of Living Systems group at MIT. I have a strong inclination for staying in academia and I am basically ignorant about the industry scenario. So CSG is a good place for me to learn about it. From my side, I will be happy to offer advice to PhD students on making the transition to postdoctoral research, especially the things to watch out for if you are changing fields. Also, I received a Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) Fellowship earlier this year, so I might have one or two useful things to say about securing your own postdoc funding. Here is a link to my recently created website, for those who want to know more about me http://gokhales.scripts.mit.edu/gokhale/wordpress/ “
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