Several former NICHD fellows joined the Ninth Annual Fellows Retreat to share their career experiences with retreat attendees. For those who were unable to attend the retreat this year (or for those in attendance who would like a nice recap), the former fellows have graciously submitted the three most-common questions they received along with their answers.
Aarthi Ashok, PhD, Teaching in Academia
Dr. Ashok teaches undergraduates at the University of Toronto and organizes undergraduate research projects.
Q: What was the most important document that you prepared for submission for your current job?
A: The teaching philosophy and a letter succinctly describing teaching interests and accomplishments.
Q: What type of teaching experiences did you avail of when at the NIH?
A: I co-taught a course for postbacs that was coordinated through the Office of Education at NICHD (Brenda Hanning). I would also recommend looking for adjunct teaching roles at local universities like University of Maryland and Georgetown.
Q: Where did look for ads when on the job market?
A: I looked everywhere I could think of! Especially the websites of HigherEdJobs, the ASCB jobs site, and all of the online postings of prominent scientific journals like Science, Nature, and Cell. I also requested friends and colleagues to alert me to any teaching-centered jobs that they came across. Spreading the word can be really helpful.
Mark Bayfield, PhD, Research in Academia
Dr. Bayfield holds a principal investigator position at York University in Toronto, Canada. He teaches, leads his own research group, and has experience on the hiring panel.
Q: What are the three most important things an academic research-stream search committee looks at when deciding whom to interview?
A: (from my recent experience on a search committee):
- CV (with an emphasis on publications)
- Cover letter (should be well written with summary of training, major research findings, and a brief statement about future independent research directions)
- Letters of reference.
The committee will look at teaching experience and research statements but only after the application receives a "pass" on those previous items.
Q: What is the required level of publication to be considered?
A: Different universities probably have different criteria (higher research profile = higher requirement) but this is from my experience: Generally an application with two first-author publications from the postdoc in strong journals, along with hopefully some middle author papers in there and some evidence of productivity in the Ph.D. will be considered sufficient to be a strong candidate that will receive consideration. The two papers do not have to be Cell/Science/Nature, but these obviously don't hurt. They should at least be in generally well-known and respected journals, and the higher the better. Two first-author papers in upper tier journals were viewed as better than one paper in Cell/Science/Nature. Strong papers from PhD studies are also a plus but if the two first-author papers from the postdoc aren't there yet, the CV generally won't be in the range that gets an interview.
Q: When/how do you look for jobs?
A: Job ads generally appear in August/Sept with start dates the following summer or fall. You need to look (a) at the back of journals, all the big ones as well as the smaller ones in your field, and (b) online, on the journal websites (i.e., naturejobs; sciencecareers) as well as certain websites dedicated to academic job postings (i.e., Chronicles of Higher Ed, higheredjobs.com for smaller schools, and in Canada all the academic jobs are posted on UniversityAffairs.ca. You need to do your homework and see where the jobs are posted for where you want to go).
John Bohannon, PhD, Science Journalist
Dr. Bohannon is a science journalist who has written for Science Magazine, Discover Magazine, and Wired Magazine. He is also the creator of the famous “Dance Your PhD” contest.
Q: How did you switch from lab science to science writing?
A: It was a fluke. I decided to take a short break after my PhD to try something different before diving into a molecular biology postdoc. I did a news internship at Science's offices in Cambridge, UK. I never looked back.
Q: Isn't it risky taking a break from the traditional scientific career path?
A: People generally assume that taking a year off to do anything will fatally compromise your scientific career. I don't think that's true. The opposite is true. Getting jobs in science and academia is largely social network-driven. As long as you keep those social connections with colleagues and collaborators, you're fine. And life will be more interesting.
Q: Do you miss lab science?
Cheryl Bolinger-Miles, PhD, Industry
Dr. Bolinger-Miles has spent over a year at a synthetic bio lab as a gene designer. A fun fact about her: “I love Ohio State Football! Go Bucks!”
Q: How did you find your job?
A: I found the posting for my current position on www.careerbuilder.com. While it is best to search for jobs directly on each company's website, I found that many smaller companies advertise positions through general job search sites or through recruiters such as Aerotek or Kelly Scientific.
Q: What skills do you think helped you get hired?
A: My technical RNA and molecular biology skill set fit specifically into the position for which I was hired, which was of course important. Since most molecular biologists have a generally similar set of technical skills, I think it was very helpful that I had gained experiences at NIH outside the lab. While at NIH I served on multiple NIH fellows committees, did a detail in the NICHD science policy office, and became involved in specific interest groups. Each of these experiences allowed me to gain valuable "soft" skills, which I cited in my resume along with my technical background. The ability to communicate and work well with a team of people from different backgrounds and a having a willingness to go outside one's comfort zone are critical skills in industry, so I think it was useful to be able to demonstrate these things using my NIH experience.
Q: Do you have any resume tips?
A: After several weeks into my job search, I found that the standard cover letter and resume format I was using were dated and did not sound very sincere. I reviewed many current articles from job search sites and Science Careers to completely overhaul both of these documents. The most important thing I changed was to throw out the traditional "Goal Statement" and replace it with a "Summary of Qualifications". This summary is a very brief statement with the most important things that you want to get across to the prospective employer, knowing that you only have a few seconds to grab their attention. After I did this, I started to get interviews.
Margaret Ochocinska, PhD, Government (NIH)
Dr. Ochocinska works in the extramural division of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. She is also a member of the NIH Philharmonia Orchestra.
Q: How did your postdoctoral experience prepare you for your current position?
A: I learned key management skills as a postdoctoral fellow, including managing people, multiple projects, animal core facilities, and forming collaborations within and outside of NIH. I also took advantage of the OITE office and the many courses and opportunities offered to intramural postdoctoral fellows.
Q: How did you make the transition?
A: Informational interviews were key for making the transition. Through the OITE I was able to better define my passion and career aspirations. This was critical for participating in targeted informational interviews that were in line with my goal of becoming a catalyst for the translational research pipeline.
Q: What is your typical day like?
A: My role is similar to that of a scientific consultant where I do not have a typical day but rather I have multiple projects and deadlines with multiple stakeholders. My projects are focused around the mission and vision of the Office of Translational Research and how we can help integrate and reshape the larger translational research community. I participate in numerous meetings, workshop planning committees, attend seminars and conferences, and report back to the directors in helping to shape and improve programs according to working group recommendations.
Joaquin Villar, PhD, Industry
Dr. Villar is a senior scientist-review analyst at GeneDx, a small company in genetic testing.
Q: Define a typical day?
A: As soon as I get to work I sign-in on my computer, prepare a coffee, and start reviewing cases. My job is to make sure there are no errors during the test performed. Therefore, if I encounter any kind of problem with a case my job is to fix it.
Q: Are you happy and/or if I have a better quality of life?
A: My quality of life has improved since I don't have to work on the weekends. It is true that we don't have the breaks you can have when you work at a lab and that some days are hectic because of the volume of work, but, in general, I am very happy.
Q: How did you get your current job?
A: My company favors employee referrals so before the job is posted online the company sends an email to their employees. Therefore, it really helps if you know somebody there. I had a friend working at the company who told me about the job. I applied and was called for an interview. A week later they made an offer.