I was absolutely thrilled when Stephanie Spohn and Estelle Spear asked me to be the faculty advisor for the Neuroscience Graduate Program (NGP) blog. I am a new faculty member in the Department of Neurological Sciences at the University of Vermont (UVM), but I am also an alumna of the NGP program at UVM. Blogging was something I never did as a graduate student, even though I attended several conferences and workshops where blogging was strongly encouraged (I would encourage any student to give it a try, whether in a group setting such as this or as an individual)! While I was happy to be asked to oversee the blog, I was even more excited when asked if I would actually want to write a piece! As I pondered what I would write about, we discussed the possibility of a “transitions” blog, where I would discuss my journey from graduate student to post-doctoral fellow (or postdoc as we like to call them) to faculty member. I loved the idea and decided I would make it into a three-part series. In this first post, I want to talk about the later graduate school years and ultimately, how I made the decision to become a postdoc.
I actually began to seriously consider what I wanted to do after graduate school pretty early on, sometime during my 3rd year. It helped that one of my best friends in the NGP, who was a year ahead of me, was actively involved in the minority science community and attended several conferences geared toward minorities in science. She would come back with incredible amounts of information about postdoc opportunities, jobs in teaching, industry, etc. She was so excited it was contagious! I became especially interested in what are called IRACDA programs. IRACDA stands for Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards, and are provided by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) to several institutions throughout the country. The IRACDA programs are just like a traditional mentored postdoctoral experience, but with the added bonus of a teaching component. The institution that receives the award teams up with a partnering institution or institutions where postdocs can gain teaching experience. Among many goals of IRACDA programs, one is to facilitate the progress of postdocs toward research and teaching careers in academia. My goal upon entering graduate school was always to become a faculty member at a small liberal arts school like Wheaton College (the one in Massachusetts) where I received my undergraduate degree. I knew I wanted to teach and thought I wanted to have a smaller research lab where the goal would be to train and mentor undergraduates. These IRACDA programs seemed like the perfect fit for me, and I would encourage any graduate student interested in research and teaching to have a look.
I started to research these programs extensively and found that each one was unique. Most of them required the applicants to contact a principal investigator (PI) first, and secure a spot in their lab before applying to the program. Other programs just wanted you to apply with a few PIs in mind. At the same time that I was researching these different IRACDA programs, I was also working with a teaching mentor at UVM. I would highly encourage any graduate student that is interested in teaching to find a teaching mentor aside from your research mentor. As a faculty member whose main focus was education, she was able to help me in ways that my research mentor could not, and this is ok! You should actually utilize several mentors during your graduate school career aside from your PI; each one can help you in unique ways. For example, my teaching mentor encouraged me to apply to teaching jobs in addition to postdocs before I had even defended. This was something I never would have thought that I was qualified for, but she assured me that I was. As a graduate student at UVM, we serve as teaching assistants in two different courses. My teaching mentor helped me transform the teaching and research I had completed in graduate school into a job application. She helped me with my CV, my cover letter, and most importantly, my teaching statement. These documents can be daunting if you work on them alone and/or for the first time. As my dissertation was wrapping up (I was encouraged by numerous mentors to start applying to jobs/postdocs at least a year before my anticipated defense date), I was keeping my options open. I applied to traditional postdocs, IRACDA postdocs, teaching jobs, outreach jobs, anything that I thought would be a good fit for me. While I didn’t receive any of the teaching or non-postdoc jobs I applied to while still in graduate school, it was an invaluable experience. The best part was that I went through almost every type of interview experience there is in today’s job search: a phone interview, a Skype interview, and an on-site interview. Those initial experiences helped me immensely as I continued down the path to where I am today. In addition, I had teaching statements and cover letters that I could update as needed, and I didn’t have to start from scratch when it counted. I would encourage everyone to get in the practice of doing this early. Even if you don’t think you are qualified for a position, what do you have to lose? Ok, maybe precious time when you are desperately trying to finish your dissertation, but I promise that in the long run it will be worth it!
The interviews are the scary part. First, you typically have to get through either a phone or a Skype interview. These two are different, but equally as hard. With a phone interview, it is a little less stressful because you don’t have to worry about how you look or dressing nice (however, many will advise you to dress nicely anyway to help build confidence), but you also don’t get the social cues and connections that you may experience with a Skype interview. On the other hand, if one person on a Skype interview isn’t what you expected (e.g., isn’t smiling, body language is off) it can throw you for a loop. My best advice would be to come as prepared as you can be to each experience. Have questions to ask! They will ask you if you have questions at the end (typically of a 20-30 minute questioning session) and it may not look good if you have nothing to ask. Use this to your advantage! Ask questions that show that you’ve done some homework (and definitely do some homework). Check out their website, get to know the school/organization on a deeper level, check out what classes they offer, etc. I promise it will pay off, and you’ll be able to throw these pieces of knowledge into conversation more effortlessly. One of the biggest compliments I received on an interview was that they felt that I really took the time to research the institution ahead of time and that they truly valued that about me.
As far as on-site interviews go, I would recommend that everyone have fun and be yourselves. If you’ve made it this far, they really like you, so be confident! One of the best pieces of advice I received when interviewing was that you are interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you (especially if you make it to an on-site interview). At this point, they know you have what they want on paper. Now they want to see if you’d be a good fit in their department. They may or may not think that you are a good fit after an on-site interview, but take the time to decide if you think you’re a good fit, because that is just as important! Another piece of advice for on-site interviews is just to be mentally prepared. It is going to be grueling. You’ll be standing a lot and speaking a lot. Bring water. They might forget that you need things like snacks and using the restroom (it’s always the little things), so don’t be afraid to ask (and bring along some small snacks that you can eat in/near the bathroom).
After all that interviewing, and thinking I did everything right by starting the process early, I started to get worried when nothing but rejections were coming my way. Come graduation, I had two pending IRACDA postdocs, but neither had officially accepted me. In truth, I was relieved that none of the traditional postdocs had worked out, as I knew that I wanted to predominantly focus on teaching, and because of my teaching mentor I knew that I did not have to do a traditional postdoc to become a successful educator (a common misconception, I believe). On the other hand, I was incredibly hopeful about the IRACDA postdocs because I also wasn’t sure if I was ready to completely give up research. The day before graduation, I received my acceptance letter from the IRACDA program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. I enthusiastically accepted, not because it was the only offer I had (of course, that was part of it) but because I was thrilled to take the next step toward a career in education and research. How did this transition go for me? What did I learn? Check out the next post, coming soon!