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Transitioning to a faculty position in India – skills that defines one during screening

in That Makes Sense by

As in case with any other academic position, applying for a faculty position in India can be likened to skillful maneuvering of a ship through the storm. After working relentlessly through his/her training phase, a faculty job aspirant finds himself/herself into a more challenging situation where one has to skillfully present the honed skills to be in reckoning in the highly competitive bottlenecked academic job market. I had a quite a long discussion with many of my colleagues planning to transition into the academia in India. Indeed, a great CV with a good publication record is something that definitely pushes the application forward, but our general perception was – there are certain skills that speak volumes of our ability to become future group leaders.

During PhD and post-doctoral tenure, one develops a vast array of skills. However, when it comes to the final destination that is, obtaining a faculty position in a good institution, everything zeros down to the trait that defines the person for the position. In general, a person’s capability to run an independent lab is usually judged during the personal interview stage. However, many faculty position ads (in biological sciences, India) asked for enlistment of skills that one has acquired till the time of application. We found it very peculiar and unusual for an academic position because these kind queries are generally associated with industrial settings. We soon realized that other than scientific output, the initial screening of candidates also involved his/her understanding of the nuances for running an independent group and how he/she has developed skills other than technical, to be proficient in it. A positive attitude on this aspect during the personal interview stage may also result in scoring important points.

The Career Support Group (CSG) discussion on this aspect brought in opinions from Siddharth Tallur, Dileep Vasudevan Thenezhi, Smita Salian Mehta, Hirak S Basu and Kaneenika Sinha whose general suggestion was to focus on the set of skills the selection committee might be looking in their future colleague and hence, highlight them in the application. These are the areas of expertise a faculty aspirant must develop during the training period in order to present oneself more positively in front of the committee.

A broad perspective was obtained, which is summarized below:

1.     Independently mentoring students especially graduate students that also involves ability to describe the problem to them lucidly

2.     What kind of service did you provide to the scientific community? Services such as reviewing papers, organization of conferences/workshops tutorials

3.     Setting up fruitful collaborations which may comprise inter-research groups or with one’s own PI

4.     Writing independent grants – this in fact, shows how a person is able to think independently in spite of working in a research group. Here both successful trials and important misses can be highlighted.

5.     In real sense, applying for a position with an approved grant scores highly in the academic corridors.

6.     Development of a new area of research in PI’s lab and describing what kind of skills, achievements a person has gained towards the completion of the project. This area of research might become one’s core research focus in future and any kind of past publications in the area (as first/co-corresponding author) will go a long way in defining that person’s independence in the field.

7.     Any kind of experimental techniques that one has developed or may have in-depth expertise which he/she can develop in the scientific community and mentor.

8.     A definitive research plan for five years that includes how one intends to supervise the PhD students

9.     The teaching responsibilities donned/shared by the candidate during the training period and the subjects/areas he/she will be comfortable teaching/initiating in the host institution.

In summary, a person aspiring to transition into academia needs to develop/highlight the expertise gained during the training period that depicts how as a prospective faculty, the person has evolved from a co-worker to an independent mentor in the research group. May be these nine points are not that exhaustive, but surely can be further developed by incorporating more challenging experiences shared by the community.

Devanjan Sinha

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Presently, I am Assistant Professor at Institute of Science, Banaras Hindu University, India. I completed my doctoral dissertation from Department of Biochemistry, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. I briefly worked as a Research Associate at IISc, before transitioning to this position.  Further details on my academic journey is available on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-devanjan-sinha-195a8880

Image source: Pixabay

Edited by: Abhinav Dey

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This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Stick or twist: finding teaching experience and the postdoctoral dilemma

in That Makes Sense by

Halloween is on its way… and we are familiar with “trick or treat” during that time.

But, are you familiar with “Stick or twist” (a postdoctoral dilemma)?

This is the name of the same game where finding teaching experience during postdoctoral research draws a parallel to trick-o-treating during Halloween. Although first one is fun for kids, the latter is a dilemma. The dilemma being,

  • “Should I stick to pouring all my energy towards high-quality publications in Cell, Science, Nature and prepare for grants proposals with a hope to extend my academic career in research and eventually find tenure;” OR,
  • “Should I twist my working life instead of chasing this dream of being a successful and acclaimed scientist.”

Of course, we all try our best to chase that dream. Like, at the beginning, everybody thinks that a postdoc appointment is meant to serve as the stepping-stone to victory in academic science or a probable position in industry. But let’s be honest, every postdoctoral fellow will not able to secure a job in a top-notch University/Institute due to the current scarcity of academic positions. However, the harsh reality among postdoctoral fellows is that many of us are either realizing this too late, or waiting too long to make a plan with tangible contingency options.

Never expect your mentor to be looking after you, instead you have to look out for yourself, and you have to remember that your boss’s priority is their own career. After all everybody is trying/struggling to survive. Keeping these things in mind, we need to redirect our career goal.

Nowadays, there are a wide variety of academic options available, ranging from research scientists, scientists in industry, science teachers, science writers, science legal consultants, and science policy professionals, etc. If you observe keenly, you might notice that a vast majority of academic careers require a person to be able to teach, either in classroom or in some other format. Thus, learning some teaching skills during postdoctoral research will help you become more suitable for a job in academia.

Now, someone may argue that we don’t need any teaching experience when belonging to a top-notch research institute. But lets keep in mind that every one is not from an exceptional category. May be I’m an oddball. When I began my postdoctoral study, I knew I wanted to be a faculty member who focused on research as well as teaching. After a year, I (perhaps naively) informed my PI that I’m here because I want to be in academia and I don’t want to devote all my time to research. Instead I wanted to spend some time in class room teaching and hence, looking for an exposure. After a couple of meetings and discussions, he understood my goals and he supported me.

Nonetheless, I did face some “fear factors” commonly experienced by many other graduates/postdocs who aspire towards a career in teaching during postdoctoral research. One of them being, “Would I be marked forever as a second-rated scientist by redirecting/refocusing on teaching?”

A career in higher education can be wonderfully rewarding. However, in these uncertain economic times the better prepared you are on entering this career, the more successful you will be. After some deep breathing, I realized that teaching skills are those skills that everyone can use at workplace regardless of career choice.

A few questions/points bubbled in my mind.

#1) What type of teaching skills do we need?

• Look for effective classroom teaching meant for a variety of students in terms of pedagogy
• Ability to convey the competence in subject matter and confidence in one’s ability to teach
• Ability to help students understand the general principles and concepts underlying a particular lesson, (i.e. explain both basic and difficult concepts clearly as well as to present a specific lesson in a larger context, like clinical relevance)
• Ability to ask good questions (testing and studying case histories) and provide feedback to students
• Ability to evaluate teaching performance and adjust lesson plans based on information garnered from students’ questions
• Ability to foster an effective learning environment which includes showing respect for the student, encouraging their intellectual growth and providing them a role model for scholarship with intellectual vigor.

#2) How can we find or get the teaching exposure/experiences?

Mentors as Resources: As starters, you can ask your PI about the possible opportunities in universities or colleges in your neighborhood.

Institutional Resources: You can explore your institutional resources by checking with your office of postdoctoral education for upcoming opportunities.

Funding Resources: There are some new teaching postdoctoral fellowships available nowadays. As for example, I recently discovered a job advertisement for a “teaching postdoctoral fellow” in one of the universities. After I submitted my application, I did get an interview call. During the telephone conversation with the Chair of the search committee, I learnt that they were looking for someone just like me–someone who would use the teaching postdoctoral fellowship as a stepping-stone from postdoctoral fellow to a faculty position by devoting equal effort to teaching and research. There is a possibility to be promoted as a tenured track faculty position within the department after successful completion of another round of interview. I think this type of postdoc can provide an advanced education beyond what is typically provided in graduate school. Just like a traditional research postdoctoral appointment, the training of the teaching postdoc generally focuses on science education instead of science research. There are several programs that are available like FIRST , PERT, SPIRE, PENN-PORT, NU-START , MERIT, IRADCA.

Other Resources: There are other ways to develop and refine teaching skills during postdoctoral training, such as to utilize excellent teaching resources available both as hardcopies and online resources and attending training conferences.

#3) Tips for getting teaching experience

• Discuss your topic/s of interest in getting some kind of teaching experience with your PI/mentor. This should be done early (possibly during your interview for the postdoctoral position) so that training opportunities can be accommodated during the postdoctoral period (if available).
• If your research mentors cannot commit their time to the teaching development, find an independent teaching mentor or alternate persons who can be involved/helped in the training process.
• Try to attend classes, workshops, or seminars on teaching that are offered at your institution, particularly courses that offer in-depth preparation for teaching and professional development as a future faculty (PFF Program). I have attended some classes of graduate course work just to learn how the professors deliver their lecture in the classroom here in USA.
• Explore teaching publications and online resources to learn about teaching techniques and best practices.
• Arrange to observe a faculty-taught class session in your department and discuss with the instructor about his/her approaches to teaching. If possible, ask for a supervised teaching and feedback session with a faculty mentor.
• Teach! Give your shot to a variety of teaching experiences (leading the lab or discussion sessions, review sessions, lectures, individual tutoring or team teaching).

#4) Teaching and research is not diametrically opposite

You may hear that teaching will take an inordinate amount of time during the first few years to settle down everything. Popular opinion is that teaching “takes time away from my research”. We should remember one thing as professors/mentors we are expected to be educating students. At least in my opinion, being a “good teacher,” can have many advantages, not the least of which involves assisting in your research program. Let’s try to think in this way, if you subscribe to the philosophy that your research can benefit your teaching and your teaching can benefit your research, then I believe that teaching can have a remarkable pay-off for your research program. In other words, as a new assistant professor you may not have the luxury of having a good graduate research assistant to help you with your research. One probable solution to this is to recruit undergraduates to become involved in your research. It will be a good help for the early career independent scientist. But even this would be herculean if you are not viewed as a passionate teacher who cares about his/her subject and encouraging their mentees’ intellectual growth.

#5) Challenges associated with teaching.

Every job has their own challenges, without facing those challenges, you cannot move forward and you have to face them everywhere. In the teaching job the following are included:

1) Time management: You have to find and manage time to prepare everything (i.e. setting aside time for class preparation, reading, and grading). The course coordinator may provide the course material and in that case you have less pressure. Another important point is to be always being chained to the lectern. In other words, movement is important in teaching because it gets you closer to the students and it indicates that you are interested in teaching them. Of course, always try to be “present” in the classroom (always be enthusiastic; modulate the pitch and cadence of your voice to give the impression that this is the greatest thing imaginable that you are talking about).

Being a good teacher demands putting in time and effort. More importantly, it demands that if you want to be successful at teaching then you should not be simply seen treating it as a necessary evil. I know it’s hard but you can do it.

2) Building Blocks (promoting respect for cultural diversity in a multiethnic classroom): A teacher needs creativity, extra effort, diligence, and courage to discover the diversity. Teachers in multiethnic classrooms must be open to their students. They should put forth the effort needed to get to know their students both inside and outside of class. The students will become estranged from one another and the teacher if a teacher is hesitant about being open. In order to be open, teachers must be interested in their students and willing to adapt to avoid taking things personally, or from getting judgmental.

3) Overcoming Stereotypes: To cope up in a multiethnic context and to engage students effectively in the learning process, a teacher should know their students and their academic abilities individually. Avoid relying on racial or ethnic stereotypes as well as on any prior experience with other students of similar backgrounds. Based on their student analyses, the teacher needs to plan the course accordingly so as to make the material accessible for all students: be it the syllabi, or the course assignments. Overcoming stereotypes will also help you in understanding the potential classroom dynamics and in learning how to deal with sensitive moments/topics.

So basically the cardinal rule is: 1) Learn as much as you can about racial, ethnic, and cultural groups other than your own and be aware of their sensitivities. 2) NEVER make any assumptions about an individual based on the racial, ethnic, or cultural groups he or she belongs to. Treat each student first and foremost as an individual.

Final thought??

Finally, be willing to pursue an unusual career path if your intuition tells you that it may be suitable to your passions and interests. The “teaching postdoc” was not a position I envisioned for myself 2-3 years ago. Yet, in this position I have found an opportunity to do what I love and impact the way that a university teaches undergraduates and prepares graduate students for faculty careers that emphasize teaching and learning. In my opinion, the joint research and teaching postdoc is ideal for the greatest depth of academic jobs. This is because they are getting supervisory and multitasking experience.

So find a place that has top-notch research facilities but also cares enough about teaching and go for it. Yes, such universities along with special programs do exist.

Tuhin Das

About the author:

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Tuhin Das is currently working as a Visiting Investigator in Cell Biology program of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York City, New York. He is interested in exploring the role of tumor microenvironment in regulation and enrichment of breast cancer stem cells (CSCs) in 3D nanofibrous scaffold platform by application of evolutionary dynamics in cancer drug resistance. He is studying the mitotic delay in response to centrosome loss using CRISPR-CAS9 system.

In addition, Tuhin is serving as a consulting editor of the journal “Breast Cancer: Targets and Therapy”. He has served as an academic editor for Journal of Cancer Therapy and a reviewer of several high impact scientific peer-reviewed journals.

He is an active member of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and American Society of Cell Biology (ASCB). He is also an associate member of American Association of Cancer Research (AACR).

Edited by: Abhinav Dey

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Mentors’ Perspective

in That Makes Sense by

mentor

The discussions in the Career Support Group for Science PhDs have always been a live wire. As the group nears its one year anniversary and embarks on the Mentor-Mentee initiative, ClubSciWri is pleased to bring out the first brain-storming session that led to this initiative. One such interesting discussion took place a few months back. Dr Moloy Goswami asked, “Among this group are many who are Principal Investigators (PIs). A lot is been discussed from side of graduate students and post-docs. It would be lovely to have perspective from looking glass.” So the questions he posed to the group were:

  1. What it means to be a researcher and a mentor?
  2. How to be a good lab manager?
  3. Is it compatible with right science and competitive nature of grants?
  4. What have the PIs done to boost science career of next generation?

Moloy believes talking it aloud will help investigators reflect in addition to adding value to those who believe science is what they were born for.

Here is a summary of the opinions expressed by some of the faculty members in the forum.

  1. You cannot control every aspect of the experiment.
  2. Some phd students/postdocs are more independent than others, do you know where your mentee stands?
  3. Taking a graded approach with PhD students helps: start with a greater involvement and release the brakes slowly after changing gears.
  4. Encourage healthy disagreement to develop better proteges. Your success depends on their success.
  5. Be inspiring, especially in the disillusionments through paper and grant rejections.
  6. A good read: By Santiago Ramon Y Cajal (the father of modern neurobiology), called ‘Advice to a Young Investigator’.
  7. Try to be a mentor and a friend, and let your mentee’s speak their mind.
  8. Lead by example, not by tyranny.
  9. Be super selective of the first person you hire
  10. Compartmentalise, because there’s never going to be a block of time for anything that takes too long: there’ll always be a meeting, students asking help, emails that need replying, other admin work that cannot wait and so on.
  11. In the beginning you are your best postdoc and you set the culture in the lab, the rigour, the fun and the discipline, all of it.
  12. I’ve also noticed it is best to offer career advice when asked by people who have some idea of what they want for themselves. No career is better or worse. We have an open door policy and students/postdocs can approach any PI for advice.
  13. It is best to offer career advice when asked by people who have some idea of what they want for themselves. No career is better or worse.
  14. Each person is different. Your interactions with personnel in your group are never alike. One-size-fits-all approach is bound to fail.
  15. Conflict Resolution: Universities offer courses like ‘Dealing with difficult personalities’ which might be useful to some extent. I think having mentor (other than your PI) at workplace is very important.
  16. Judging talent: In terms of expectations – I feel motivation and interest in the project at hand are most important. A super smart student who is not interested in the laboratory projects is unlikely to make much progress. And to a large extent, at that level, the whole class is intellectually similar. So attracting the students/people most interested in your work is better for both parties.
  17. How to help the mentees transition? Well, this is what they had to say:-

Bhismadev Chakrabarti said, ” for good phd students coming to the end of their term, i’d unashamedly push his/her case to colleagues in labs that i know are doing good work. this approach has resulted in good postdoc positions for several of my students. applying ‘cold’ is ok too,though what is really important is for the students to ‘prepare the ground’ in conferences (through initiating contact with the relevant PI) at least a year before the application process starts. it is important to realise that the ratio of applicants to positions for postdocs is often 30:1 (and the top five or so candidates all look very similar on paper). for postdocs coming to the end of their contract, i strongly encourage applying for fellowship applications (e.g. marie curie in the EU) which provide the ideal bridge between senior postdoc and PI. the other alternative is to get a lectureship position. the slight risk of getting a teaching fellowship/ teaching-intensive lectureship is that it risks having less time for research; so one of these career development awards (or equivalents ) and situating oneself in a good lab is the best way forward in my view. usually the home institutions will absorb the researcher at the end of the fellowship into their tenure track stream (at least within UK).”

Dev Sikder said, “Postdocs are weaved into many projects. As a consequence a productive postdoc publishes about 3-4 first author papers and few additional ones as coauthor. As a PI you realize the bigger picture, by assisting a postdoc’s transition into academia or industry, you also build your own legacy. Long story short, a PI’s interest isn’t limited to keeping students/Postdocs in laboratory Indefinitely just because of good match. Once the papers are published he will be happy to help the transition. But Postdocs need to be proactive in the process. Talk to PI about the help you need, help the PI clearly see your vision. Just asking them to write a strong recommendation will NOT land you a position. Build that trust to the extent that he will place a call to the hiring department/institute/ industry. PI’s contacts with industry and academia will help you segue. Having said that you must the prepared to grab the right opportunity. For example when your PI presents your work to Scientific Boards, you should find a way to network with board members. Be proactive in seeking out opportunities in conferences, and approach your PI for making that call.”

Moloy Goswami thanked everyone for their inputs. He said, “It is to bring out and layout such points that I raised the questions. I also believe, getting funding and starting lab do not immediately qualify someone to be good mentor. It is a learning curve for those willing to learn.”

 

The perspectives and questions will be undergoing a continuous evolution as the biomedical workforce in the US and across the world undergoes re-organization in the days to come. The years of investment, training and perseverance that goes into creating a scientist deems a re-thinking in the way we are educating our mentees. This becomes more important when we start to prepare them for the a variety of science careers that are non-traditional.

 

Our Participants

 Moloy Goswami is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor).

Avinash Shenoy is a Lecturer in Molecular Microbiology at Imperial College (London).

Bhismadev Chakrabarti is an Associate Professor at the University of Reading (UK).

Devanjan (Dev) Sikdar is an Associate Professor at the University of Florida (Gainesville).

Anindita Bhadra is an Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (Kolkata, India).

 

 

 

Self2015

About the author: Abhinav Dey is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and a Young Investigator Awardee from Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer. He is also the co-founder of Career Support Group (CSG) for Science PhDs and ClubSciWri

(https://www.linkedin.com/in/abhinavdey)

 

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This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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