The postdoc career panel

Apr 10 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Hello again! I made it back from a super-awesome conference, only to be slammed by a fairly crappy week. But more on that later. Today, I would like to talk about the postdoc career panel discussion. Spoiler alert: I think they are a craptastic (not in a good way).

In the short time since my appointment as an assistant professor, I have sat on several "career panels" for postdocs. In general, I have agreed to participate because they are organized by a student/postdoc association. I want to be supportive of these groups. At my old institute, the Postdoc Association group was a great voice for the postdoc population, championed diversity and was a useful resource for folks that were trying to find a non-academic career path. But, TBH each time I sit on one of these panels I becoming more convinced they are a giant waste of time. Take the last one. This panel included a couple of tt-asst. prof from MRU, faculty from area PUI, faculty from a local community college, and biotech/pharma scientists. If you are a postdoc in academia, these are the most obvious career options. Why would you need a panel to learn about them?

Now, I admit,  I did not attend many (any?) of these sorts of things when I was a postdoc. So it may be that I just don't get it. When I was a postdoc, I was trying to land a tenure-track job. So, when I had questions or needed some guidance I would go talk to one of the many TT faculty that I respected. Not to mention some great advice online, much of which has been aggregated by Dr. Becca. From what I have observed vicariously the process is similar for other career paths, though it may be more difficult to find the people doing the job that you are interested in. I assumed that the career panels were supposed to connect postdocs with folks doing the jobs they want. But instead we just all sit around talking about what seems obvious. Then, if I'm lucky there are snacks or a wine reception. But really, it is 1-2 h of my life that I will never get back.

So, dear reader(s), help me out here. If you are/were a postdoc, do you go to these events? If so, why? Is there something that I could be doing that would make these more useful? Because I'm gonna need to be sold before I agree to be on another one of these.

14 responses so far

  • Bashir says:

    I agree, these things are often less useful than you would think. The best events I've attended have been focused and casual (if that makes sense). The type of advice given out was very specific, nothing on industry, SLAC, or CC jobs, only R1 people. Better to learn a lot about one option than nothing about four.

    The main issue with any sort career panel is how general or specific to make it. The more general the panel the less detailed advice can be given because things vary so much across academic areas and career options. Yours sounds too general.

  • Dr Becca says:

    My guess is that we go to these things at least in part out of desperation. We KNOW the job market is horrid, and so if any kind of "help" presents itself, it seems logically sound to go hear what people have to say, even if we're pretty sure there won't be anything new there.

    At my last institution there was a career panel that was specifically about non TT-paths. It was moderately interesting. I wrote about it back on the old blogspot website, if anyone is interested. What was good about this particular panel was that there was a little shmooze fest after the formal panel, which I feel is the best way to really figure out if these kinds of careers are best for you. You need to be able to talk to people.

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:

    I'll second Dr. Becca here. I go to these type of panels (as a senior grad student) to hear general advice as to how to find/qualify for these sorts of jobs (ie: industry vs PUI vs R1 - what different things make your CV stand out, how are interviews same/different, etc).

    But I have to say that last one I was at during a national conference (re: R1 center tt-faculty jobs and how to get the right kind of CV together to get the job) was good, but getting the chance to talk to the panel afterwards is what made it worthwhile. When faculty/industrial employees are willing to stick around after such events to share their experiences/advice/contacts with us - now THAT'S a big help.

    So I guess it depends on how the whole thing is set up...

  • gerty-z says:

    Bashir may be correct-maybe the ones that I've been to are just not focused enough to be useful. Though I totally agree that talking to people is the most important part of these events. For that reason, I always make an effort to go to the "social mixer" part of these functions. I also try to make sure that my email is posted in case folks would like to ask more specific questions later (I guess this would be like an "informational interview" for those aspiring to the TT). In fact, I feel like they should just cut out the whole 30-45 min of questions and just skip right to the chatting. But that is just me, and it may be that others need this time to gather up the nerve to go chat up the new assistant prof?

    • Dr Becca says:

      Maybe not so much courage, but having the panel first gives the audience a starting point for the mixer. Much easier to start a conversation if you can say "I was really interested in what you said about ____. Could you expand a little?" etc.

  • As leader of our newly founded postdoc association with a meagre budget these types of events were the easiest to host due to the availability of generous young faculty like yourself. I think they do provide a forum for the shier postdoc who may not feel confident introducing themselves at other functions. Besides, there is often a shortage of events where postdocs can network with faculty. I think these panels work best if the formal Q and A is followed up by an informal social session.

    I made it my business to ask questions of faculty, but I still found unique stories that were interesting and sometimes personally relevant. However, due to personality traits or cultural influences (many are new to the US) not all postdocs are so pushy! It is a shame that many postdocs do not feel a part of or tap into the wider university community, but such events can help form relationships and potential collaborations.

    I do not believe there is one formula for success or one rule fits all, but I think these panels can help postdocs who might feel isolated in the lab meet more key people in the university.

    Especially for those new to the US I think it is important to breakdown that barrier that may prevent a postdoc (or grad student) from feeling it appropriate to approach and strike up a conversation with a more senior faculty member. Kudos for volunteering your time, but try to think of it as an opportunity to meet young researchers who might soon, or in a few years time, be your peers, colleagues, or even collaborators.

  • Dr. O says:

    The ones we have here are quite a bit more focused. Either we bring in several people from industry (small biotech startup, large pharma, academic with their own company) or government, or academia, or other fields. And there's always a chance to mingle with the participants afterwards.

    Also, the panel that organizes these events usually gets an individual who is most interested in the specific career path to head it up. For instance, a senior grad student or postdoc about to finish up, with a job offer in industry, might put together a panel with several connections s/he's made during his/her job search. S/he's networked, learned the ropes and knows what students/postdocs need to hear. I think this is what makes these events most worthwhile.

  • gerty-z says:

    OK, so I get that there are ways that these events can be useful. It sounds like the idea might be that those which are most focused are best, based on the comments from Bashir and Dr. O. And I think that Dr. Becca and Dr. GF are right in that the main advantage to be taken from these events is the networking.

    BUT, I am not the one organizing these events, I just show up. So, does anyone have any advice about what I, as a panelist, should be doing? My current strategy has been to answer what questions I can has straightforwardly as possible, and then hang out for a bit afterwards. But I feel like this ends up with me saying obvious things (yes, you need to publish papers to get a tt job) and then hanging out by myself for a bit at a "social". Almost every time that I have actually spoken with a postdoc at one of these events it is because I approached a group of them.

    I'm happy to help with these things, but I'm a little bit busy. It seems to me that there are better ways to spend my time.

    • Dr. O says:

      I'm surprised not more postdocs approach you; whenever I have a chance to chat with young TT profs, I take full advantage. This makes me think that the majority of the people attending are more interested in alternative/non-academic career paths.

      As far as how to prepare, it depends on the format. Is it all question-answer? Or do you prepare a shpill then take questions? If you have time to talk first, I would suggest focusing on 1) how/why you decided to pursue this path and 2) your experience on the job search and during your first year on TT - mistakes you made and things you did right.

      If it's led by questions from the postdocs and nobody seems interested in asking better questions or networking, then I agree that you have better things to do! 🙂

    • Gerty – who is running these events? People in paid positions should have clear objectives that they can communicate to their participants and volunteers. However, as a newly formed postdoc association (established and run solely by postdocs) we were very green as organizers. I think you can be a bit more sympathetic to the later, and offer constructive advice - but be more blunt if it is part of someones job description. Panels should be answering questions that are not blatantly obvious.

      I learnt that it is better to have a mix of senior and junior faculty. Junior faculty can give their perspective on the job hunt, but sometimes the factors that got them hired turn out to be not the ones they thought were that important. More seasoned faculty can provide the perspective of what a search committee is looking for. Senior faculty can give invaluable insight into the tenure process, and that is something both current and aspiring assistant professors can benefit from. After all, landing the job is only the first step to tenure and it is worth trying to hit the ground running. Really these panels should be more holistic in their dealings with professordom because now ones career goals intentionally end assistant professorship.

      • gerty-z says:

        Most of the ones that I have gone to are postdoc-organized. But this is a well-established postdoc association, so I figured that they should know what they are doing by now. Maybe in the future I will ask what the purpose and goals of the panel is before I agree to be on it? Perhaps this would make it easier to know in advance if it will be more useful?

        • Hi Gerty, some of the more established postdoc associations often have administrative help and even someone in a paid position. Even so, due to the transient and uncertain nature of the postdoc, officer turnover can be unexpected and not everyone is good at maintaining records. Naturally, when a postdoc is applying for job or getting ready to set up a lab, finishing postdoc association business is low on their priorities – as a result the wheel often gets invented several times over! Although their intentions may be good, the implementation of the workshop might not be so that well thought out. The very act of asking might make them realise they need objectives if none are laid out. We found that soliciting some of the questions beforehand encouraged attendees really think about what it was they wanted to know. I have a lot of respect for postdoc associations, and it is important to remember that its an organisation of scientists in fulltime research positions. However, simply putting the right people in the room rarely works, and even if no feedback was requested you should probably offer it before volunteering more of your time.

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