Alumni Interviews: Sara Dodson and Lisa Stanek

By Amy Mahan, Editor

Originally published February 2009.

Transition from Grad Student to Postdoc: Interview with Sara Dodson 

Sara Dodson Former Advisor: Allan Levey and Jim Lah Graduated 2008
Sara Dodson
Former Advisor: Allan
Levey and Jim Lah
Graduated 2008

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

Lisa Stanek Former Advisor: Kerry Ressler Graduated 2005
Lisa Stanek
Former Advisor:
Kerry Ressler
Graduated 2005

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.    

feb72009

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