Life as a postdoctoral researcher

Welcome to the third installment of my interviewing a scientist series!  If you want to read my previous interviews, here are the links:The business side of science and a professor turned entrepreneur

This weeks interview is about a previous graduate student in the lab of Jennifer Swann at Lehigh University, who was also my PhD advisor!  He started in her lab after I had already graduated and kept the research torch lit!

Joe was a dual major undergraduate and obtained degrees in biology and neuroscience with hopes to go to medical school to become an anesthesiologist.  In order to get more experience he worked as an EMT for many years during his undergraduate schooling.  However, a class he took during college changed his career focus completely.   The course was research focused and he examined bird bone morphology in passerline land birds using micro CT technology.  He discovered a medullary bone in a bird that was originally thought to not have one.  As a result of his discovery, he was second author on a manuscript publication and thus began his interest in research as a future career.

Therefore, Joe applied to go to graduate school to get a PhD in neuroscience.  He attended Lehigh University and eventually ended up working with Jennifer Swann to study the molecular interactions between hormones and sex behavior in Syrian hamsters.  He discovered that neurotrophins play a role in the brain to regulate sex behavior in the hamster and his work led to several publications.

Joe is currently a postdoctoral fellow and he is working on a Parkinson’s disease model in mice to find treatments for current patients as well as possible pre-treatment options.

I asked Joe what life was like on a daily basis where he works, which is a typical day for most postdoctoral fellows in the sciences:

“Typically, I am performing brain surgery, running behavioral assays (4 or 5 concurrently), or analyzing data. I have 4 undergraduates and one lab technician that help me with my experimentation. I am usually training them on cutting brains, running immunohistochemisty, and analyzing behavioral videos or dendritic spine analysis. In addition, I am writing constantly for grants or publications. Although, I am fortunate that I do not have to take care of our animals, as the university hires animal technical staff and veterinarians for this.”

While there are pros and cons for any job, Joe had to say this about his current position (although I am a strong advocate for a better work life balance!):

“I love my job because we discover new things everyday! I also get to play with some cool science toys. For example, I will be implanting 2-photon mini microscopes into the brains of mice to study neuron stimulation in real-time while they move around! I like my lab mates as well, we congeal well and support each other when we have difficulties.

“One drawback are the hours I work. On my surgery days I will typically pull 13-14 hour days. It’s not so much fun when it happens 3-4 days a week.”

I discussed the aspects of obtaining a job with Joe.  We both seem to agree that while postdoc positions are plentiful, job aspects after the postdoc (especially faculty positions), are extremely difficult to get because they are few and far between and highly sought-after.

“I also [prior to his postdoc] applied to two assistant professor positions and was interviewed at one and rejected by the other. I realized that in order to find a teaching position I wanted, I NEEDED a postdoc. There is merit to this as postdoc’s have quite a bit more experience and publications to make them a better candidate. Since the academic job market is saturated for these coveted positions it forces you to go for an extra 2-9 years of postdoc experience to compete; it’s not fair. Even with all these qualifications and publications you may not even be able to apply for a position because of timing.”

We discussed the political aspect of finding and applying for jobs

 “There might be some political aspects. For example, you may be the best candidate for the job but if more than half of the department faculty know another candidate professionally through networking, it may give the candidate an edge in the market. Also, the dean makes the final decision on hiring someone and if she/he doesn’t care for the research or the candidate then the dean can decline the departments recommendation. I don’t think these political issues occur often but I’ve never been in the position of hiring new faculty.”

Joe’s advice to students that want to get a PhD is excellent and I certainly agree with what he thinks:

“If you think you’re not smart enough, you’re wrong. I truly believe that anyone can get a PhD. You just need grit, determination, and super thick skin! You will fail constantly, but don’t let failure determine who you are. Take each failure and learn from it. Make it impossible for you not to get a PhD or masters. I always tell my students that I fail all the time, but I learn from each mistake and don’t do it again. If you have the grit and determination to pursue a PhD then you can do it!

Lastly, we talked about what Joe wishes someone had told him before starting his PhD program.  I have heard very similar advice from others, so he is not alone in his thinking:

WRITE EVERYDAY. It may seem trivial but if you want to be a scientist, writing grants well may be the defining factor between you being funded or not. To this end there are multiple grants you can apply for as a graduate student that will give you funding for your research.”

Choose the advisor not the research. Arguably the most important decision in your grad/postdoc career is to choose a great advisor. Yes there are other important details that should be considered when choosing an advisor, such as current funding, tenure status, and their research questions. You and your advisor need to be able to communicate on a daily basis and if that breaks down there will be consequences. Take me as an example. I went into my first rotation thinking it would be my last. It went great for the first few months but then our personalities began to clash. Because of this we couldn’t collaborate well and I realized I needed to move on. This is ok and it happens. I am really glad it did because my new grad school advisor was THE BOMB! We worked together to make each other better daily. She always encouraged me to have a life outside of the lab (I was working 14-16 hours a day at this point).  If you have a good working relationship built on mutual respect you will enjoy your graduate school education and probably finish sooner.”

Thank you Joe for the great advice!!  In the future, Joe hopes to secure a tenure track faculty position at a university and I wish him the best of luck in his endeavors.

Stay tuned for more interviews with scientists!