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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Should I Postdoc... (AGAIN)?

As I am drinking a beer on this Saturday night, another piece of experience pops into my head:  Plan B! 

About two thirds of you are postdocs according to the results of our survey.  In this day and age, a postdoc is pretty much required to land a faculty job (unless you are the next Albert Einstein or someone else).  But at the same time, holding too many postdoctoral assistantships is actually undesirable!  (The rule of thumb is that the postdoc's desirability rises linearly to the fourth year and then drops like a step function even the granting agencies put a four to five year limit since graduation on various "transitional grants", so that is a clear signal that you shouldn't spend too long in the pipeline).

PROFESSOR'S VIEW OF THE POSTDOC:  First, what is a postdoc?  From the point of view of a professor, a postdoc is basically underpaid, overqualified, labor who looks for another position the minute they get hired. As such, professors are both in love with and weary of, postdocs.  

GRANTING AGENCIES’ VIEW OF THE POSTDOC:  NSF doesn't like to fund postdocs because their mission is to educate students, while NIH is more open (it basically doesn't care about how the job gets done, as long as it does.... for example, in the biomedical field, it is common to get gray hair before you finish a postdoctoral assistantship LOL).  So, unless you are doing bio-research and have a big name, it is actually hard to get money to fund a postdoc.

SELF VIEW OF THE POSTDOC (Obviously this depends on individual experience, but mine was good):   I loved my postdoctoral assistantship!  It felt like graduate school, except with less responsibility and more money!  I was lucky enough to be in a top school and live in down town Philadelphia (great city!).  My group was doing cool research that I loved and my boss was too busy to micro-manage me (whew!).  Moreover, once I wrote my own grant and got it funded (btw, you should definitely write grants as a postdoc!), I was afforded complete freedom about work direction, etc (and believe me, it is important to be able to develop an independent direction, and not be your boss' appendage for the rest of your life).

But there IS a dark side:  your contract is yearly, your undergraduate class-mates often make triple (perhaps quadruple) what you make; opposite sex might not view well such an unstable financial situation, and what sucks the most is that you do not even know if it will pay off in the end...if you will even get a real job after all the nonsense!

Now, getting an academic position is insanely hard, so this is a very real concern and naturally you should look at alternative career paths, as I did (just in case)!

What else is out there?

INDUSTRY VIEW OF THE POSTDOC:  Now this makes the whole postdoc experience kind of...well... a black hole... Here is what I mean.  I went to a seminar given by some representatives of big pharma companies.  And given the bad economy, the audience was about two thirds postdocs (they probably expected PhD students).  Naturally, the question arose as to whether they were interested in postdocs, and this was the reply:  “NO”.

"Why?", someone  asked.  The logic kind of makes sense, I guess...  pretty much, why invest *more money* (for some reason they view postdocs as more qualified, so they have to pay more) into labor that is over-qualified AND is not truly interested in being there, when they can just hire a PhD student and train them all the same?  It appears they felt that a postdoc looking for an industry job either a) wants to enter academia, but didn't make it (so you will not be happy in industry and quit their company at the first opportunity), or b) wants to enter industry after the PhD, but also didn't make it, so the postdoc was the back-up plan (so pretty much you aren't that great to begin with).  For case (b), the advice was "do not go for the postdoc position if you really want to be in industry... get a job at McDonalds if you have to, tough it out, but do get that industrial job directly out of the PhD program!"

Also, get this:  they ARE interested in you AFTER the postdoc period! :D  If you become a professor and suddenly you want to go into industry, some companies who do research actually do need group leaders, etc.  So this is what I mean when I say that the postdoc is a "black hole" to industry.  You are desirable to the outside world before and after, but not during.

PROOF THAT DOING A POSTDOC HURTS YOUR CAREER: https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6484447361136410624

So that was pretty disappointing to hear, though true, as I really did not have a desire to work in industry.  So here are some alternative avenues that I explored while looking for the academic job:

a)  Faculty jobs abroad: Bad idea if you ever want to re-enter US academia (perhaps I will write another blog about this), but they are there...   China, Middle East, etc

b)  Teaching Institutions:  These are actually the first ones who will interview you.  They are basically small colleges (e.g. liberal arts colleges) with no PhD program, expect you to mostly teach, but maybe also do some small-scale research.    The pay is probably just as good, but to me it wasn't as interesting.  Yet, I still talked to these guys just not to burn any bridges or anything.

c)  Financial Sector:  Yes, you read that right.  Business wants to make money, and they look for anyone with more than half a brain (you qualify).  In fact, I do computer modeling, so I even tried with high frequency trading companies on Wall Street... :)  But the one I liked the most consults (McKinsey, BCG, Bain & Company).  That reminded me of science, kind of, because you could work on different projects, in various industries, so it’s still kind of interesting  (unless you have to consult the dollar store about how to sell more toilet paper - true story from a BCG info session).  You can also travel internationally, and even work with biotech.  Anyway, money is always a magnet, isn’t it?

d)  National lab: Well, these pay even more than academia, but projects tend to be kind of dry (whatever is in the interest of the nation is what you do), locations are pretty limited (I wanted big city life), and again, there is little stability as far as the job contract.  The way I understand it, you can get the boot any time funding depletes on the research strand on which you are working.

e)  Research professor (non-tenure):  Weird animal.  Basically, you do mostly research (you can bet they will still ask you to teach a little).  Your salary mostly comes from grants (i.e. you have to be amazing at pulling in money);  AND the very most are not on the tenure track line!  So who would even do a thing like that?  Well, I know a guy who is just very good at bringing in money... but most of them, in my experience, are postdocs who have been at one place for a very long time. They are given this title so they could be principal investigators on grants. (By the way, faculty search committees realize this fact very well, so, research professors don't make the most desirable candidate; beware).

f) Start-ups!  Well, if you thought academic life is stressful, try selling your house and investing it into a business.  It’s exhilarating yet insane. Maybe one in a hundred succeed.   If you don't want to make on your own, you can probably get hired by someone else.  The pay will be lower, but, you will have less structure at work and more room for creativity.  I guess if it works out, you could shoot up the career ladder quicker and maybe get rich on those stock options they offer instead of real money... but chances are it will probably turn into worthless paper by the time you are done.  Actually, you might not realize it, but the start-up is analogous to academia (idea for another blog!).

So these are your choices.  In my case, I made myself a promise that I wouldn't be a postdoc a second time despite how much I enjoyed the first.  Although some are okay with the bohemian life-style of a perpetual postdoc, I wanted to draw the line and make some changes in my life.  The rest is up to you.

UPDATE:  I've received several PhD applications from people who already have a PhD, but can't find a postdoc or job.  This sounds like the wrong reasons to apply for PhD.  You should be going into PhD because you are interested in it, and not because you can't find a job. Imagine that you get a job offer some time down the road, what will happen then?  You will leave the PhD.  I don't want any chance of that happening.
Also, I think your idea could be accomplished with a MS, given that its sufficient for most industrial jobs.  So you are selecting the PhD because its free.  Which is again the wrong reason. 

Then you have to consider that you already have a degree, but your presence in the PhD would be preventing someone who does not have it from obtaining it.  That's somewhat unethical, considering that you aren't even doing it to change specialization or some other legitimate reason.  

Finally, even if I wanted to take you, I don't know if the university would allow it.  So, please don't go down this route...

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Job Application Process Timeline


Your faculty application process SHOULD start at least a month before the AICHE annual conference... and by this, I mean: you should be sending out applications already!

Why? Because, the conference is basically an opportunity for the employers to hold a free face-to-face interview (I have had several of these at the conference, so don't think that I am exaggerating, but also the poster session and the receptions can be considered to be mini-interviews).  Also, the people who sit on the Faculty Search Committee are VERY busy human beings (I know this from personal experience, because I served on one during my first year on the job).  Combine this with the fact that 90% of the 200 applicants will probably send their application 2-3 days before the conference takes place.  So do you think you have a good chance of getting noticed, if you are one of those 0.9*200?  Probably not.  But if you were 1 of 5 who sent their application a month before, sure, we'll read it (thoroughly, mind you) and probably come up to talk to you at the poster session.

If I haven't convinced you yet, consider this:  before the conference there are usually ~10 applications or so for the committee to review.  This is easy enough to do, and the interesting ones will surely get some face-to-face time from the faculty search committee at the conference.  Come the turn of the year (when its time to skype-interview and make decisions about who to invite on-site), the number of applications will be well over 100!  Now, that is a lot of stuff to read, so your application will be skimmed over or not reviewed at all at worst (human tendency is to avoid extra work, and when you feel like you've already identified some good candidates why bother... ).  What I am driving at, is that if the department invites say 7-8 people for an on-site visit (a realistic number), at least 2-3 of those will come from that pool of the initial ~10 applicants who got pre-screened at the conference... so hopefully you understand how critical it is to get started EARLY!

So here is ADVICE #1:  I understand that it takes time to fill out the apps, and customize them to the department (yes, you should be doing that), so pick your top 2-3 schools and send the early application at least to those.  I promise you that this is your best chance of getting noticed (on your own...).

ADVICE #2:  It is better to send few quality applications (customized to the needs of the department, as well as mentioning things like "my research skills fit well with Prof Bob's in your department, and I would also love to collaborate with Professor John, etc") than 20 generic ones.


I have begun a dedicated blog for this topic, and you can find it here:  http://facultycandidate.blogspot.com/2015/09/the-application-packet.html

But briefly:

-RESUME (~4pgs)

http://www.pdfmerge.com/ is useful for putting it all together (cover letter is usually separate from the rest of the packet, though this is university-specific).

ps: make sure to upload your stuff to http://rheneas.eng.buffalo.edu/cache/  This site is separate from AICHE, but we are still encouraging everyone to use it, because it is good!


Of course on Sunday there is the Poster Session:  http://facultycandidate.blogspot.com/2014/10/this-blog-describes-my-many-years-of.html

There are also usually the events below that I recommend you try and attend (disclaimer: I can't update links every year, so keep in mind that these links point to the 2015 conference, and you should look them on your own for the current year)

Workshop: Career Planning for Prospective Faculty (BEFORE the poster session!!)

 Workshop: Effective Teaching for New or Prospective Faculty

NSF Workshop I & II (here you will get a chance to interact with NSF program officers; when I was in your shoes, one of them actually sent a recommendation email for me for a postdoc position at NIST, so take advantage!  Also, one of them features a proposal writing section, which will be useful for you, believe me)


How your job search should continue after the poster session:  http://facultycandidate.blogspot.com/2014/11/at-conference-after-poster-session.html

Education Division Future Faculty Mentoring Meeting
(I think the idea of this one is to pair a candidate with a mentor)


If you spoke with any recruiters or people from departments you are interested in, it would't hurt to drop them a thank you note over email, and remind them that you applied for their position (if you have not done so, apply asap!!).


Finally, take a look at this document which I found to be useful:  http://www2.massgeneral.org/facultydevelopment/orcd/pdf/Panel_Discussion%20M%20Dawson.pdf

AT THE CONFERENCE: The Meet the Faculty Candidate POSTER SESSION

This blog describes my many years of experience with the AICHE Meet the Faculty Candidate Poster Session and the advice applies to both the poster and your abstract.  Also this information is my personal opinion, so please do not think treat it as official advice.  

Basically, the biggest difference about this session is that you must think of the poster/abstract as an advertisement of yourself (that means they should abide by all the marketing rules of regular advertising!).  

In other words, you want something that visually grabs attention of the employers passing by and quickly  (remember they might spend just a few seconds passing by your poster)... 

Key components of a good poster are: 

1) a catchy descriptive title that is easy to understand, that includes your current affiliation as well as your boss' big name (hopefully)


the mistake I see that people make is they treat this as a science poster (lot of data, dense text, equations)... whereas the employers simply want to get the big picture of who you are and what you are doing.  The key things they are looking for are:

- theme of your research (what to expect from you in the next 5 years)
- your publications (how many, what journals)
- your grant writing experience (how many proposals, what agency, type postdoc grant/or did you help your boss write an actual grant).  By the way, this is probably the most important thing you could have.  It shows that you are trying to become an independent scientist and that you have experience with writing and, probably failing at, grants (i.e., you are not going to quit after year of realizing that this is not something for you).
- awards, accomplishments, if you have any :)

Here is an example of my abstract:  

ps: I got the job, before AICHE 2013 happened, so I never got to present this one (btw, it had more to do with networking than with the poster session, but the poster session did generate some leads for me)

For the abstract, I am not really including much scientific text, and I am breaking things down into categories that the employers can sift through easily.

And here is an example of my poster:

As you can see, I am really milking the pretty image strategy (and it did get some people to stop by who were just browsing randomly), and not really including any graphs or scientific text.  Yet, I can still give a pretty good overview of my past/current AND future (looking forward is what sets "faculty material" apart from the rest) research directions!

Also the key points are there:  papers, grants, skills, adviser's famous name and ivy league university :o)

Finally, keep in mind that the format of the poster is completely free, so you can do with it what you want.  Update: Last year I saw some people hanging iPads on their posters, thereby making them dynamic!  I thought this was a really good idea.  Keep in mind that you can attach whatever you want to it, and be creative!  If you have some interesting samples you want to show, that is fine too.  Take advantage of the third dimension :)   Also, people attach their papers and resumes just in case someone is super-interested in their work.  Finally, don't forget your business cards (clever idea: put your talks time & location on the back)!  I've had situations where I wanted to talk to a candidate, but they were not by their poster.  The time is short, and employers will not stay around waiting for you... sometimes grabbing a biz card and moving on is the best you can do...

Update 07/27/19:  Recently there is a new poster trend (not sure if I like it, but the idea is similar to my large pictures - i.e., there are only a few key details that should be blown up):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RwJbhkCA58
you canf find the proposed poster template here https://osf.io/ef53g/

SOME LOGISTICS:  "Last year the size of the poster boards was 4 feet high by 6 feet wide.  Unless you receive an update from AIChE or from us that states differently, you can assume the same size this year. Please limit the size of your poster to 3ft tall by 4ft wide.  For poster size, see link to the official guidelines below.  There are usually pushpins available, but I recommend bringing your own, especially if you are posting individual sheets of paper.  Please plan on arriving at least 15-20 minutes before the start time of the session to put up your poster."

Official guidelines are here:  http://www.aiche.org/resources/conferences/programming-resources/poster-session-faqs

TIME MANAGEMENT:  some times people come up to you and start asking questions about your work... however, they may not be people that can give you jobs (i.e., some random student or postdoc who just wants to learn about your research).  Given that an employer may see that you are busy, and as a result skip your poster, I highly suggest that you understand who you are talking to before you invest the time.

ps:  I remember my first experiences were that no-one comes up (I started as a grad student, but you really need a postdoc to be taken seriously).  Do not get discouraged!  There are a lot of you, and you are all at the top of your game.  Also, I think landing a job in academia is harder than industry.  So, try to learn from your experience and make your package more attractive for the next year.  You will get some interest eventually, I promise.