By Amy Mahan, Editor
Originally published February 2009.
Transition from Grad Student to Postdoc: Interview with Sara Dodson
What lab are you in now, when did you graduate and in whose lab did you get your PhD?
My Emory mentors were Jim Lah and Allan Levey. I defended last March and then I stuck around in the lab for another 4 months as a postdoc. I joined Bob Mahley’s lab (Gladstone Institute at UCSF) about 4 months ago. Dr. Mahley is a pioneer in the study of the ApoE protein, a strong risk factor for the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
How did you decide which lab to do a post-doc in and how did you go about getting the position?
The very task of finding the “right” lab to post-doc in can make your head spin. I had a few ideas of labs that were doing nice work, and I actually went to a small conference with the express purpose of stalking my top choices at the time. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), my first handfu of inquiries were shot down pretty quickly. Be prepared for rejection when you’re applying for post-doc positions. The good news is that the vast majority of labs are desperate for really bright, welltrained postdocs…. the bad news is that they quite likely don’t have the money available to take on another salary. So after I licked my wounds and regrouped, I got a little more organized. I spent a couple weeks expanding my list of possibilities, and I asked anyone who was willing to listen– especially my advisors- to give me names of people that they thought would make great mentors. Then, I emailed a fair number of investigators (maybe 15-20) with a brief email to inquire if they had any positions open. I also attached a full CV, published manuscripts, and a cover letter detailing how awesome his/her lab was and how much awesomer it could be if she/he were to hire me. My main goal was to have a number of really nice options to choose from, and as the process slowly unfolded, I was offered interviews. In the end, I was able to pick the lab I wanted out of a handful of options, which were all really great places.
How big of a help was your graduate school mentor in this decision?
I sat down with Jim and Allan on a few occasions to ask for their advice. They offered both general advice on how to think about starting my career in science, and they made specific suggestions of people that they knew were fantastic researchers. It’s extremely helpful to consider how potential mentors are viewed in their field, and your advisor hopefully has wonderful insight to share. But, I also think it’s a great idea to listen to a few different voices. Take advantage of the fact that the faculty at Emory are so open and available and ask around.
Choosing A Career in Industry: Interview with Lisa Stanek
How have your experiences in academic post-doc and as Staff Scientist at Genzyme differed?
There are so many differences and yet so many similarities. The most obvious differences that I noticed right away are: schedule and compensation. In industry most people get to work early (7 or 8am, and everyone typically leaves by 5pm. Working nights and weekends is extremely rare). Entry level Scientists earn double if not triple the salary of the average postdoctoral fellow, and most companies offers extensive health benefits, stock options, and 401K matching retirement plans. The similarities are that I am still doing research and publishing in peer review journals. I still do western blots, cell culture, perform mouse surgeries, write manuscripts, etc. but in general I spend more time outside of the lab. To summarize, being a staff scientist at Genzyme is more akin to being a young PI in academia (minus the grant writing). Generally, you become the champion or team leader of your particular research program. Your job is to evaluate opportunities in your disease area, design experiments, interpret data, and present this data to the business units at the company. You coordinate the research efforts but don’t spend much time in the lab doing the actual experiments. A given experiment might involve a dozen different scientists and research associates, and a lot of the tedious tasks are outsourced.
How is applying for a job in Industry different than applying for a postdoc or an academic position?
Applying for a postdoc in academia usually requires a lot of word of mouth recommendations and networking with the people in your respective field to find out who is looking for postdocs. The process is usually somewhat informal. After sending your CV to the PI you are interested in working with, the process usually involves traveling to the lab, giving a talk, meeting the lab members, etc. If you get offered the position there may or may not be an official contract and most offers are usually made verbally. Applying for an industry job is much more formal. You submit your CV, letters of recommendation, cover letters, and a formal application (typically all done online). Then, if the company is interested, a series of interviews will follow. Typically there will be a screening phone interview with a recruiter or Human Resources representative, followed by a phone interview with the respective hiring manager (usually a scientist and your future boss), followed by one or more rounds of face to face interviews and talks. If you get hired, you will receive an official job offer, contract, benefits package, etc. that you can negotiate. Once you’ve settled on the terms of employment you will sign the paperwork and you’ve officially got yourself a job.
What kind of personal qualities do you think would make a person more prone to success in industry as opposed to academia?
Scientists in industry have to be able to delegate and relinquish some control over their experiments. They have to trust their staff to do a rigorous job conducting the experiments and collecting data. We spend a lot more time in meetings than we do in the lab, and we regularly have to give presentations to business people (who don’t always have science backgrounds), so the ability to relay scientific information to laypeople is critical. Most companies require a high degree of professionalism and the environment is much less relaxed than in academia. The dress code is more professional and within the lab there are a lot more rules and regulations.