Thursday, September 20, 2012

3 years 11 months and 11 days

"Like a Tree With the Passage of Time" 
That's the motto of my undergrad alma mater. That's where it all began. 
I now find myself back in that same city ready for a new start. 

I can now reveal to you that my stated purpose when I began this blog has now been achieved. As of December 1st, 2012, I will be an Assistant Professor, tenure track, at York University. Thus my time in postdoc purgatory will come in just shy of four years. Somehow it feels like it was much longer. Certainly, the period was a not a great one for my mental state. However, if you deal well with uncertainty you probably would manage better than I did.

In particular, I had the issue of not really knowing where I fit in an academic department. What is a planetary scientist? Is that an astronomer who stays close to home? A geologist who travels far? Or maybe an engineer who gets their inspiration by looking beyond their machines? Really it's all of these things and yet none of them exclusively. That's a problem for many traditional departments. But now the market has spoken and its answer in my case is loud and clear - I'm a Renaissance Space Engineer. I couldn't be more excited to join the talented group that will help create the Lassonde School - how often, as an academic, do you get to contribute to build something novel at the organizational level?

I'll have more to say about Lassonde later, but given that some of you may actually be reading this record to figure out how you yourself can proceed from PhD to something permanent, I'll distill (as best I can) my advice on what worked for me below, under the cut. As always your mileage may vary and in a very real sense, given the balkanization of science and engineering, my case may not be applicable to yours.

STEP ONE: Set a goal and make a plan for yourself.

This is the most important part. Without identifying where you want to end up it will be very difficult to know how to get there or to act on that plan. In retrospect, one of my biggest issues when I was a graduate student was that I enjoyed the work I was doing so much that I gave little thought to the future beyond my PhD. Granted I had a lot of goal setting up to that transition, but my grasp of what a postdoc was, how to get one and how to act during that period were much more sketchy then they should have been. That's reflected in how I started out my post-PhD career.

Note that the key here is to make a decision and to plan, not whether you achieve that goal. You may not end up where you expect. I certainly didn't. As they say, funny things do happen on the way to the forum. An unexpected opportunity may arise, or you might discover that you don't really enjoy one part of what you're doing or really enjoy another part and need to bend your trajectory.

Also, don't forget to factor in everything that exists outside of your postdoctoral life. Make sure that you understand what constraints are offered by family. Get a map and decide where you are and are not willing to work and know that before you even apply to jobs. No matter whether you're looking for something in a government lab or at a University, there are very few of these jobs available worldwide and relocation is a likely end result. Plan for it, or understand how your career will be limited should you decide to remove certain places from contention.

In general, most people transition to a postdoctoral existence in their late 20s or early 30s. This may be a good time to pause and take stock of your life in general and what you want to get out of it and where your career plans fit into that solution matrix.

STEP TWO: Try to do the job you want today.

Once you've selected an end state, find out what it is that people in that job do. The best applicant for any job is someone who already has experience doing several aspects of it. That will make you an easy sell. If it's a government research lab or a space agency, try to join the big projects that they coordinate (for my industry, we're talking space missions) or assist with policy. If you find you don't enjoy doing those things you might not be suited for those roles.

For my part, I was looking for an academic position and that meant finding a way to gain experience in the three pillars: Research, Teaching and Service. You probably already do research, so that's fairly straight-forward. However, if grant acquisition is an important part of your field you should try and find a way to do this. While this is easier in the US then elsewhere, there are still ways to do this if you're clever about it.

Teaching is also straightforward. Some grad schools require a great deal of teaching of their students. Others do not. Either way, don't expect your past experience to carry you. Go out and get as many guest lectures as you can. They're good for making connections and they keep you fresh. They also show a search committee that you're doing more than just showing up.

Service is the pickle of postdoctoral fellows. You might be able to get some experience here by working with your university's postdoctoral association (if possible). You can also get experience by offering to be a reviewer for journals or serving on grant panels. For instance, in the US, NASA selection panels can include suitably trained foreigners. Serving on such panels not only provides evidence of service, but it gives you insight into how the granting process works so that your proposals can be correspondingly stronger.

I feel that volunteering to do Education and Public Outreach can also help your case here. There are many groups who are always looking for good speakers. Why not share some of what makes you passionate about your work with them? It feels great and it will help you to break down the theory and experience that you have as an expert into arguments that can be understood by all.

STEP THREE: Develop your "soft" skills.

This goes hand-in-hand with step 2. In a job interview you need to be able to do a couple of things:

(1) Sell yourself - you need to be able to provide plausible arguments for why you are a good choice for the position.
(2) Prove your ability to teach
(3) Demonstrate your competence at research

It's also helpful to network so that you remain aware of positions. The position I ultimately succeeded in acquiring did not come across in my usual searching - I was notified by someone who had seen it and chose to pass it along. While it's true that your soft skills will not, in general, help you to get short-listed, they can make sure that when you do you will shine. In my case, Lassonde was my 36th application. But that fraction of success improves greatly if you consider only interviews - this was my first.

STEP FOUR: Take risks.

Let's face it, the statistics are not on your side, especially if it's an academic position that you are looking for. Something like 10%, at best, of Science and Engineering PhDs will eventually become professors in this day and age. Really, that shouldn't be surprising. Under relatively stable work-force conditions, each professor needs to only train, on average, only a single replacement over their entire career. It's an obvious calculus I was blissfully unaware of for a long time.

But once I did figure it out, I realized that there was no sense in taking the safe road. If I owe my success to anything it's that. I suppose one of the most obvious examples of this is my EPO work where I tried to get as much exposure as possible to the point of developing a bit of a public personality. But at the same time I also made sure that I spoke with my own voice when it came to my research and to my teaching. I pursued publishing every word of my thesis and I selected research projects that interested me and to which I felt I could contribute, even if I needed to take them on by myself. I applied for grants within a system that had not previously been experienced in dealing with them. Perhaps I would have ruffled fewer feathers had I just put my head down and proceeded with caution working only on what I was instructed to do. But I doubt I would have been able to accomplish the things I have done in the last 3 years 11 months and 11 days.

What Doesn't Work:

Applying to jobs that are not a good fit for you or are not at your level. We've probably all heard that you should apply for anything remotely close to your expertise in order to "get your name out there." That may have been true in an era when there were few PhDs available to fill vacancies, but today the competition is much more fierce. Certainly, apply if you want practice at writing an application, but if it's not a good match, you're only wasting your time and for 90+% of jobs you will not get any feedback to improve for the next time.

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