PISA 2022 Career Development Session Recap: PhD to Postdoc Transition

By Vik Meadows, PhD

Wrapping up your PhD is very stressful. You have a dissertation to write, jobs to apply for, and a career to think of. There are many career options for PhD graduates like Science Communication, Medical Liaison, Academia (Admin, Teaching, and Research), and Industry… to name a few.

At the PISA 2022 Young Investigator Virtual Conference, hosted by ASIP, ASMB, and HCS, we were able to host a “PhD to Postdoc Transition” Q&A session with four postdocs at various stages of their career process. I was lucky enough to moderate this session, planned with the help of Janiece Glover (PhD student, MUSC), and enjoyed interacting with our panelists: Dr. Daenique Jengelley (IUSM), Dr. Lauren Walker (Rutgers), Dr. Kristen Engevik (BCM), and Dr. Nathaniel Lartey (UMich). This recap is intended to bring forward the key take-aways and advice provided by our panelists. If you’re interested in watching the Q&A recording it is available now on YouTube.

Interested in knowing a bit more of our panelists? Check out their LinkedIn and personal websites at the end of the article. In addition, their favorite animals are panda and turtles (Daenique), dodos and red pandas (Kristen), sheep (Lauren), and dolphins (Nathaniel). If it’s of any interest— mine are the giant pacific octopus and deinonychus. Below you will find the advice and tips from our panelists organized by relevance to the two main stages in this transition: Pre-PhD and Post-PhD.

Pre-PhD Questions

When should PhD students apply for postdoctoral positions?

While there is a lot to do in a limited amount of time as your transition from your PhD to a postdoctoral position, it is important to define the best timeline for you. It is generally recommended to begin reaching out to PIs/labs around 6 months to 1 year before defense date.

Nathaniel recommends discussing key topics when reaching out to a new PI, especially when considering a new institution, including pay, type of lab work expected, job start date, and know your PhD end date.

Daenique began looking for positions 10 months before her planned defense date. She also recommends having a candid conversation with your PhD mentor to negotiate a postdoc position in the same lab to give yourself more time to wrap up your current projects and find your next position or next step for your career goals.

Lauren began considering what position or trajectory she wanted to take during her last PhD academic year. She suggests PhD students identify mentoring style, lab techniques, institution, funding availability, and career end goals when planning the next steps and future lab. In her experience, once you find a position with a lab you want the transition can go quickly.

Kristen similarly began networking during her last year of PhD at conferences and met with visiting PIs/their trainees. She mentioned that the best kind of interview is when you can meet with the trainees to get exposed to lab culture and mentoring style in that specific group.

What advice do you have for students that don’t have a specific career track in mind?

Hello fellow confused PhD students, I was (and may still be) you! It’s okay that we don’t have every step of our career planned out. While having a general career goal makes it easier to know where to apply, there are ways to use a postdoctoral position as a steppingstone for you to fine tune your career goals.

Nathaniel recommends that if you’re confused whether to do a postdoc or not, consider the skills you’ll gain. No PI wants you to get in and get out without developing a project, generating a manuscript, etc. so make sure you are transparent in your conversation with future PIs.

Daenique & Kristen both enjoyed participating in Preparing Future Faculty Programs (PFFP) during their PhD training. They both mentioned that this program exposed them to various alternative career options for PhDs, CV/Resume workshops, how to navigate informal and formal interviews, and increases your network of people you can gain advice from. Interested in learning more about PFFP? Check out the IUPUI and Univ. of Cinncinnati PFFP and reach out to your institutional career development office if your institution doesn’t have this type of program for extra resources.

Lauren reminds us that it’s okay to not have it all figure out (phew! Thanks girl!). She recommends staying open to exploration and look for opportunities to see what else is out there. Nobody has their entire career plan mapped out and doing a postdoc does buy you extra time to set yourself up career wise (network, professional development, and attend conferences).

Who or what was your greatest resources during your PhD to Postdoc transition?

Daenique & Kristen both emphasized how much support the PFFP programs provided them. This included CV/Resume and Personal statement workshops. They both also recommend reaching out to your network for advice and an extra set of eyes on your applications. They both relied on family to help them assess the best next steps in their career.

Nathaniel relied heavily on his PhD mentor and professional societies (like ASIP! Ey!). Being active in professional societies helps you build strong relationships and friendships with your peers that will be a great help as your transition.

Lauren mentioned she had a vast number of mentors that helped her transition. She recommends using your resources to weave a tapestry of what your life (or professional and personal life goals) will be. She also suggests reaching out to people in your network, cold calling potential mentors, volunteering to do professional service to increase your network).

Do you have any advice for initiating the difficult conversation with a PI to leave the lab?

It is always difficult to initiate difficult conversations and the approach is not one size fits all. Take the necessary steps you need to take to set appropriate boundaries for both you and your PI.

Daenique suggests asking other people how they have approached this task. It is often recommended to be direct and firm since this is an ongoing relationship between you and your graduate advisor, so you will need to approach this with the idea of continuing the working relationship. They may need your bio sketch for future grants, you may need their letter of recommendation, and if they are a good mentor, they will hear you and support you. They will connect you if they can, so reiterate what you’re going to go/want to be and keep the line of communication open.

Nathaniel emphasizes the importance of having a supporting mentor. Since he joined his lab, his PI asked him what he wanted to do. His PI was supportive and helped him reach his goals. Nathaniel confirms that a good PI will help you bring up this topic because it is difficult to address.

Post-PhD Questions

What are the most important tasks to accomplish in post doc year 1?

Lauren suggests getting to know the key players in your project(s) and your department and figuring out how things are done in both department and lab are very important for a successful first year.

Daenique suggests that if you’re staying in the same lab/institution, to focus on wrapping up your manuscripts and make sure your publications have deadlines that will keep your career on track. She also suggests continuing the advisor conversation open so the transition out of the lab can be smooth.

Nathaniel mentions familiarizing yourself with new techniques and not stressing about data. He also suggests getting to know the institution and rules for your lab. It will help when navigating next steps.

Kristen says getting used to the fact that you are starting over is the hardest and most important task as a post doc. You need to accept that you will take a while to get experiments down, especially when in a new field or with new lab/techniques. It’s okay if you don’t know where things are. Always ask for help and give yourself the time to learn.

What advice do you have for post docs seeking industry or academia?

Kristen suggests pursuing opportunities (grants, professional service) and networking. Recruiters value networking and grants. She also suggests utilizing social media as a resource for networking since it destroys the barriers that prevent collaboration and communication.

Lauren emphasizes networking as one of the most important tasks as a post doc. If you grow your network, you can improve your position in niche research areas, learn about job postings in certain circles, and is critical for careers in both industry and academia. If interested in growing your network, Lauren suggests reaching out to your home department, connecting with peers and professors at conferences, and cold calling (emailing) people for informational interviews.

Are there resources for post doc funding?

Kristen suggests looking at HHMI early career and postdoc grants, society grants (American Physiological Society Postdoctoral Fellowship), and NSF postdoctoral fellowships. These are competitive but great ways to practice and sharpen your writing skills. Twitter and John Hopkins PIVOT are great resources for staying up to date on which funding opportunities are available. She also recommends signing up for award committees to learn the application process and see CVs/personal statements to help guide your own.

Daenique recommends browsing the National Postdoc Association and Minority Postdoc websites for funding opportunities. Professional societies (like AACR) also provide funding opportunities for projects and stipends for early career researchers.

Lauren also suggests looking at programs that provide funding and mentoring like the Janssen Scholars for Diversity Education program (which is not just for postdocs). In this program you get paired with two mentors at Janssen that are based on your interests. The application open and closes in the Fall!

How important is it to have an IDP or post doc mentoring committee during your training?

Kristen says that under T32 funding she formed a mentoring committee and was able to grow her network and get a lot of good feedback that allowed her to develop her project. If you get to create a committee, you can meet PIs in areas you’re interested in and you get to learn about their lab and you get important input.

Should post docs apply for pay back grants/funding opportunities like T32 or the LRP?

Kristen states, as far as T32 and F32, you only must be in academic or non-profit research for a year after obtaining the grant, but it may take multiple tries to get the funding. If you don’t anticipate staying in academia for the next 6 – 8 months this is an ideal route for post doc funding.

Lauren says that the LRP can be restrictive. You are allowed to do renewals from the initial submission date, but you are locked in for two years. If you leave early, you have to pay back portion for student loans as a penalty for leaving early. She suggests assessing how you feel about your postdoc/position/career before applying because your funding won’t arrive until the following year so it’s really a three-year locked-in period.

Daenique suggests applying for university or society grants (like shark tank grants or pilot grants) if you’re not ready to commit to the repayment process.

We hope that this blog is helpful for you during your PhD to Postdoc transition! To learn more about our panelists check out their sites below:

Dr. Nathaniel Lartey – LinkedIn, Twitter

Dr. Lauren Walker – LinkedIn, Twitter

Dr. Daenique Jengelley – LinkedIn, Twitter

Dr. Kristen Engevik – LinkedIn, Twitter