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Transitioning to a faculty position in Australia: Face to Face with Ranjay Chakraborty

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The Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs has brought you stories of career transitions from United States, Europe and India. This time around we go ‘down-under’ and have tete-a-tete with Dr Ranjay Chakraborty (RC). Ranjay is transitioning from a postdoctoral position at Emory University (Atlanta, USA) to academic faculty position at Flinders University (Adelaide, Australia). In his Face-t0-Face interview with Abhinav Dey (AD) he talks about his aspirations, his efforts and his future plans in Australian academia.

AD: How did you know it was time to move on from your postdoctoral fellowship to your first professional position?

RC: After completing my PhD at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane (Australia) in 2013, I was excited to join my first postdoctoral position at Emory. In addition to geographical and cultural changes, I was looking forward to my transition from human visual optics research to visual neuroscience research in animal models. I feel, 3.5 years of postdoctoral experience at Emory provided me optimal exposure to the world of academia, and helped me better understand the bigger picture of being an academic. Of course, with time, I matured as a scientist, and started feeling more confident about looking for academic positions. By third year, I made some good publications from the current lab, and was working on an Early Research Career Development award. At that point, I started looking for academic positions (mostly outside the USA due to visa restrictions), and was lucky to get one.

AD: What was your motivation towards an academic career?

RC: I enjoyed doing vision science research during my PhD and postdoctoral fellowship. I have invested so many years in research that I was absolutely sure of continuing it, wherever I go. Although I didn’t get to do a lot, I loved teaching visual optics in India, and during my graduate studies in Australia. I was looking for a platform, where I could bring both research and teaching together. This was my strongest motivation for an academic career. In Australia, my position would also allow me to see patients in the clinic as an optometrist; something that I totally enjoyed in the past.

AD: How do you foresee the academic research environment in Australia?

RC: Similar to the US, establishing a research career in Australia is challenging. From my previous experience, I know that NIH equivalent, National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Australian Research Council fundings are extremely competitive. I am looking to develop collaborations within and outside the Vision Science dept. for making competitive grant applications. I will also be looking for industrial funding.

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Image courtesy: Ranjay Chakraborty

AD: How did your postdoc training make you competitive for an academic position?

RC: My postdoc training at Emory has been truly instrumental in preparing me for this academic position. It helped me to develop a range of analytical and research skills that were crucial for this position. In addition to basic science research, I learned about academic writing, mentorship, journal and data review, data presentation, collaborative research and many other things that helped me to develop as more mature and confident professional. It has been a magnificent journey from my grad school to the end of this postdoctoral position. I am really thankful to my postdoctoral mentors Drs. Machelle T. Pardue and P. Michael Iuvone for this precious postdoctoral training opportunity at Emory.

AD: What advice do you have for postdocs to make best use of their time?

RC: This is my first position, and I am too young to advice anything in particular. Postdocs are generally very disciplined and assiduous, and they exactly know that it’s time for either “publish or perish”. One small advice – try not to restrain yourself to just “lab and experiments”. Every once in a while traveling and time with family and friends help becoming more productive and focused at work.

AD: Can you briefly describe your plans about the size and mentorship style of your laboratory?

RC: Australian academic positions have a lot more teaching load compared to the positions in the US. In the 1st year, my primary focus would be preparing the lectures, and set up the lab. I am going to take it easy, and keep my lab small at the beginning. I plan to hire a research technician to get started with my projects. I would extend my research group in the future depending on projects and funding situation. I intend to hire people who are deferential, good team players, and inherently motivated to do good research. I would design robust policies in the lab for running experiments, ordering materials, lab meetings with individual lab members/groups, data management and storage, authorships, attending meetings and developing collaborations. I would want my group to be transparent, and feel free about discussing their issues with me and each other.

AD: Do you have teaching responsibilities?

RC: As I mentioned previously, Australian faculty positions have a lot more teaching load compared to the positions in the US. I do not have a lot of teaching experience, and I look forward to this new role in Australia.

AD: Were there any specific resources such as the Office of Postdoctoral Education that you utilized to help you transition into an independent position?

RC: Yes, a number of courses/workshops from Emory Office of Postdoctoral Education have been really helpful in introducing me to several critical aspects of academic positions in the US. I was particularly benefited from K award grant writing course, laboratory management course, and responsible conduct of research ethics course offered by the Emory Office of Postdoctoral Education. I also attended workshops for “how to prepare teaching and research statements”, “how to look and apply for academic positions”, and “preparing CV and NIH statement”. These courses helped me to evaluate whether or not I really wanted to pursue academia.

AD: Do you have any advice for postdocs about grant writing and successfully obtaining funding?

RC: I do not have any major funding to myself, so I am not the best person to advice on that. But, from my postdoctoral experience at Emory, I have learned that early grant applications based on solid pilot data are imperative to applying for successful academic positions. Early applications within the first two years of postdoc (such as departmental grants) do not have to be too extensive, but they set you up for the habit of grant writing. Of course, publications are equally important. As we all know, first 4 years of postdoc are critical for several early career grants in the US.

AD: Do you have any advice for postdocs making the transition to an independent career?

RC: As I mentioned earlier, the key is to decide whether or not you really want to pursue an independent career. If you do, it doesn’t harm to start applying sooner. With a clear and well-structured research aim, decent publications, adequate skill sets, and strong references you could have a decent chance to get a tenure-track position, perhaps stronger than you might think!

Ranjay Chakraborty was interviewed by Abhinav Dey. Abhinav 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 PhD Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs and ClubSciWri

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

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Featured image source: Pixabay

 

From cloning genes to directing X-rays: Face to Face with Nishant Kumar Varshney

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Dr Nishant Kumar Varshney is working as a Beamline Scientist on an Indo-Italian Macromolecular Crystallography beamline XRD2 at Elettra Sincrotrone, Trieste, Italy, which will be open to Users in start of the 2017. The Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs caught up with him about his career and experience while working in an unconventional postdoctoral career of a Beamline Scientist after a PhD in Structural Biology.

He did his bachelors in Chemistry from DU and Masters in Marine Biotechnology from Goa University in 2005. Completed his PhD in 2013 from Biochemical Sciences Division, CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, India on structure-function relationship of three enzymes that has industrial and therapeutic applications. During his PhD, he received Commonwealth Split-Site Scholarship to work for an year in York Structural Biology Laboratory, University of York, UK, where he developed his interest in the field of Structure Based Drug Discovery field.

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In Nishant’s (NKV) words, “First, I would like to thank Abhinav Dey (AD) for adding me to CSG group and now giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts about new Indo-Italian joint venture at Elettra Synchrotron, Trieste, Italy which we Inaugurated last month.”

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(XRD2 Beamline; Picture source: NKV)

AD: During your graduate school, when did you realize you wanted to try a different research-based career than conventional postdoc?

NKV: Actually the thought and the opportunity came after the PhD, when I was working as Research Associate (RA) in National Center for Cell Science (NCCS), Pune. During my PhD, I was working both at the bench (cloning, expressing, purifying and setting up protein for crystallization) as well as collecting data at our home source for my proteins and sometimes helping other collaborators. Like most of the graduate students, I dreamt of getting a conventional post doc position abroad and coming back after few years for some decent permanent position in India. It was during RA-ship, that I saw the ad for a Beamline Scientist position at the new Indian beamline at Elettra. I thought of it as a good opportunity to not only learn about the working of beamlines but also having plenty of time to play and learn with data collection strategies to get best out of your protein crystals. Moreover, the idea of helping different users with different projects and, if possible, making some worthy contribution to their projects excited me too.

AD: What is your typical work day like?

NKV: Most often our day starts with a black filter coffee at 9 🙂 and ends around 6pm. Currently, we are at the final stages of commissioning the beamline and implementing an automated instrument on the experimental table. Since working at the beamline is a first time for me, my work schedule usually revolves around my local supervisor and Head of our group, Maurizio. We help our supervisors with the work and learn out of it. Everyday there is something new to learn. We set small targets with deadlines and sometimes we work till late to meet those deadlines. Also being an industry, there are many other usual administrative/non administrative appointments also to be taken care of.

AD: Do you think having a PhD was an advantage for you in the current job?

NKV: Yes. Experience and a degree in structural biology were the essential educational qualifications for this job. I was brought into the field of X-ray diffraction, protein crystallization, three-dimensional structures etc. in practice during my PhD only. Having hands-on experience with these techniques and a visit to a Beamline in Diamond, UK during my Commonwealth Scholarship tenure gave me experience and confidence to apply for this job. Some technical terms and what’s behind the walls of Experimental Hutch was totally new to me in the beginning but I think I am getting better day-by-day.

AD: How was the transition from a bench to a synchrotron?

NKV: I would say transition was not that easy. Coming from enjoying a mostly wet lab, handling buffers/proteins and transitioning to the technical aspects of a synchrotron where I was expected to understand as well as install beamline components, alignments, installing vacuum etc. was initially too much technical for me. Mathematics has not been my strongest subject so I am still trying to get better with the numbers.

AD: What would you recommend as first steps for students/postdocs interested in pursuing a fellowship in handling this kind of job?

NKV: If one is coming to synchrotron as a user, I would say, apart from having familiarity with data processing programs and knowing your proteins, you need not to worried about what’s behind the walls of Experimental Hutch. Beamline staff should teach you how things work at the Experimental table and how to collect data. But if someone wants to be a Beamline Scientist or a Beamline Postdoc, first step is to develop your love for the technical aspects of a beamlines. Brushing up your Physics or say Biophysics will also help you to understand your work. It is also important to keep in mind that it is not a 9-5 job and you should be ready to devote long days sometimes.

AD: Having gone through interviews as an applicant yourself, what are a couple of things that could help a PhD standout from the crowd?

NKV: Especially for a job at the Beamlines, working knowledge of the beamline, however little it may be, through regular visits to the synchrotron for data collection and processing the data on your own will make you stand out. Familiarity with different programs for data collection to structure deposition will help you for the job. Apart from that, one should enjoy working with the users and be ready to help them to sort out the technical as well as practical problems outside the normal office hours.

AD: Was there anything (positive or negative) that you were surprised about this job/profession that you didn’t expect until you were in it?

NKV: As a matter of personal opinion, anyone who starts the unconventional career, will wish to have a sense of stability in his/her tenure. As I am working in an Italian Industry, as a visiting Scientist on an India-funded project, there is always an insecurity regarding the length and timing of the next extension. Moreover, the absence of funds available for in-house research and for attending/presenting work in the conferences was not what I expected.

AD: Please tell us about the new Indo-Italian venture and what do you foresee of this collaboration for the development of science in India?

NKV: Till the date, India is either renting beamtimes for macromolecular crystallography e.g. BM14 beamline in ESRF or funding visits to other beamlines of the world. This is the first time when India is a partner right from the design, construction, commissioning and maintenance of two beamlines at synchrotron. The XRD2 and Xpress beamlines are a part of a scientific partnership between India and Italy under a project administered through the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) at Bangalore with financial support from Department of Science and Technology (DST), Govt. of India and Elettra Sincrotrone,Trieste. The Xpress experimental station has been constructed to study the structure of materials under high- pressure using the technique of X-ray diffraction of samples subjected to the action of two diamonds that can exert higher pressures to 50 GPa. In this way the researchers will be able to access the possibility of synthesizing new superconducting materials, harder and more resistant. This beamline will also be applied in other areas, such as mineralogy and geophysics. XRD2 is a dedicated beamline to determine three-dimensional structures of proteins and biological macromolecules with application in biology, medicine, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. XRD2 is an highly automated and tunable beamline with state of the art instruments which will allow to collect faster X-ray diffraction data from protein crystals in highly automated way better than collected using home source. With 50% share in the project, now Indian crystallographers and High Pressure diffraction groups will have plenty of beamtime accessible to them. Once the proposal has been accepted, DST will provide the travel and daily cost funds.

AD: What are the career possibilities after being trained at the cutting edge of your field?

NKV: The field of macromolecular crystallography is still in a developing stage. There is lot to explore and develop in the field right from the data collection step to relate the structure to its function. With the experience at the synchrotron, prospects of developing your own research in the field are always open. Working in Pharmaceuticals Industries mainly involved in Structure based Drug Discovery is another option. With all the knowledge of the structural biology, a career in academics is also a possibility. Moreover, with the advent of Free-Electron lasers and new developments in alternative techniques, three-dimensional structure determination of macromolecules using serial crystallography and Cryo-Electron Microscopy and Cryo-Imaging techniques are the new open fields where experience in structural biology is a desirable qualification.
I hope, these facilities will be very beneficial to our Indian researchers.

 

 

Nishant Kumar Varshney was interviewed by Abhinav Dey. Abhinav 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 PhD Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM 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.

Featured image source: Pixabay

Mid-Career Transitions Across the Oceans

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Recently I had a discussion with a friend regarding mid-career transitions across the continents. I thought these discussions may be useful for this forum, hence this posting.

Freedom is intoxicating and dangerous. It is like spicy food. Once you get the taste, you do not like blunt foods. Same is true with freedom. Once you get the taste of freedom, you do not want to go back. Same is also true with working at places that see your value and provide an opportunity for you to grow. At times, those who spent a few years at a top-rated institution in the USA,  go back to their country either because of idealism, or family reasons, or got an opportunity that they misjudge as equivalent to what they have been used to in the USA. Some of them adjust, some resign and say “well, I can’t do much”, and very few turn the odds around to an opportunity. The first person that comes to my mind of the third category is “Satish Dhavan” and the second person is “Roddam Narasimha”. Interestingly both have worked in Aerospace and Space Sciences. There may be many more examples like Dhavan and Roddam – I’m sure.

If you do not have the tenacity that these brilliant people have and if you think you should have stayed back to have a better career future and if you have already spent close to a decade after your PhD in your career, here are some hard facts and challenges that you need to keep in mind, when you try to make a mid-career transition across the oceans.

Keep in mind that these words here are not hypothetical and each word has heavy experience of going through toughest times since I left India to USA for postdoc and USA to Germany for mid-career life – where I did Habilitation (tenure track) and started my family life with my German girlfriend (now life partner), but then left Germany at the age of 40 back to the USA to take a deep dive into the US career culture, but now with three daughters and little savings.

Number one: Healthy financial situation is critical and of utmost importance. If finances are good, many problems can be solved. If the finances are bad, many healthy relationships are screwed-up and destroyed.

Number two: Whether academia or industry that you are trying to make a transition. You need to have someone who is your advocate, who really thinks you have the “spark” that is outstanding, and who buys into your abilities to succeed and contribute. If you do not have such a colleague (not a friend, who is not in your area of expertise), you need to start from the bottom again where you left a decade ago.

Number three: If you are ambitious to establish in academia – DO NOT take up a “research faculty” position, this kills your opportunity to get into tenure-track faculty career. Research faculty is in most places a “glorified postdoc” on soft-money, though there are exceptions.

Number four: If you have a partner and children, it is a must that your partner works as well and that one of you should NOT be career oriented, as the children would have very difficult time adjusting to new culture and one of the parents must have time to cushion their fears and comfort them with confidence. But two pay-checks is critical, because if one of you loses your job, you have a temporary financial crisis that can be mitigated through the second pay-check. Keep in mind that you cannot expect friends and relatives to support you in such situations, because many work hard with “thin margins of savings”. Lending a few dollars may be easy, but taking the burden of a family is out of question. You need to start saving the day you start your first job for the college of your children, which based on where they go may cost anywhere between $100 K to $200 K (per child to complete undergraduate studies).

Number five: Irrespective of whether you start at mid-career or back to the beginning (postdoc), you are expected to deliver the worth of $10, if you are paid $1. So, only way to succeed in the US is to deliver – period.

Bottom line is – if you have the courage, health, spirit of not giving up, you are likely to succeed. But, you should be ready to take a failure as gracefully as you would enjoy the success and always have “Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, and Plan E” in the priority list – if Plan A goes South!

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About the Author: Murthy S. Gudipati (aka G. S. Murthy at IISc) is a Principal Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. His research focuses on the evolution of organic matter and ice in the Universe, particularly the outer solar system, comets, and the potential origin(s) of life on Earth. He worked at the University of Texas at Austin, at the University of Cologne, Germany, University of Maryland, College Park, and at NASA Ames before joining JPL/Caltech in 2007. Murthy obtained M.Sc. at the Central University of Hyderabad (1981), Ph.D. from the Department of Chemistry, Indian Institute of Science (1987), and Habilitation (similar to tenure) at the University of Cologne (1998). He stayed in almost all the Men’s Hostel Blocks, dined at all the three A-C Messes, ran a half-marathon, and developed life-long friendships during his 1981-1986 stay at one of the most beautiful campuses in the world – the IISc. His PhD research was recognized with “Guha Medal – Best Thesis Award”. Murthy is one of the founding members of the IIScAANA.

Born and raised in in Southern India, Murthy lived in interior villages to mega cities in three continents. He at times walked over four miles each way to attend upper primary schools from his village. This experience bonded him with nature and animals immensely. Murthy likes Nature and National Parks and he has organized several hiking and camping trips for IIScAANA. Murthy’s passion is to bring knowledge, information, and education to the next generation humans to enable the future civilizations to treat themselves and the Nature with respect. Murthy’s pursuit of Science is balanced by his interest in World Music, Nature, Vegetarian Cooking, and Philosophy.

Stick or twist: finding teaching experience and the postdoctoral dilemma

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

Seeking and finding my dream postdoc position

in That Makes Sense by

ShreyasGokhale_clubsciwri_image

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.

 

ShreyasGokhale_clubsciwri_headshot

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

 

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