By Yasin Dagdas
Part of the Self-Reflection; series by and for early-career researchers
You have been studying for ~15 years and finally you are at a crossroad where you will make an important decision to start cashing out your “delayed gratifications”. Although I strongly believe there are few no-return points in life, this decision will certainly have a big impact on your and your family’s future. Having secured only a single job, I doubt I am an expert on “job search” but below I will humbly share my thoughts on academic job hunts.
1. Make a list of your options and do your due diligence for each of them. Talk with people about pros and cons of every option that you are considering. Unfortunately, academics complain a lot about the issues in their jobs but industry positions or publishing jobs are also not without any thorns. Try to see which option fits best with your personality. And please don’t forget, you are not your PhD supervisor who thinks academia sucks or your flat mate who would be totally satisfied by driving an expensive car even though his day to day life is extremely monotonous. I do hope at the end of this thought process you decide to continue in academia.
2. Get your papers out. Academic career only becomes a viable option if you have your papers out. I know it is easier said than done but bringing a task to the finish line is an extremely valuable trait. There is a lot of gain in this pain, so it is worth it. I hope you realized that I said get your papers out not published. Make use of Biorxiv to let people see and evaluate your science as soon as you finish it. This could save months if not years and remove one of the unknowns in your complicated job hunt equation. I am not saying which journals you publish won’t matter – I am not that naïve – but people don’t buy “Submitted to Nature” anymore.
3. Develop a solid research plan with a balanced risk portfolio. I hope you were as lucky as me and have been in a lab where the PI allows you to work on your future plans. If you haven’t and still considering an academic position, please start asking around which labs allow the trainees to take some of their work with them, and leave your current lab as soon as you submit your paper. As Fiona Watt recently said in a Q&A article, some big labs publish well but very few people get jobs afterwards. On the other hand there are quite some PIs who believe their careers are intertwined with the success of their mentees. Please find one of them. Once you are in one of those labs, try to have a discussion with your mentor and come up with a research plan which is supported with some preliminary data. There should be some projects which are well developed already and some blue sky project that will have a major influence on your field. You do need to have some preliminary data, because your competitors will have them as well. No matter how great your idea is, scientists are a suspicious bunch and they crave for data.
4. Give yourself ample time to secure a job. It does take a long time, you may not take the first one that you were offered or you may not get an offer for your first application. So, start as soon as you have shaped your ideas.
5. You need allies, so let your colleagues know that you are looking for a job. Take every opportunity that you have, to “impress” your colleagues. You are at a point where you should spend more time on your talks or discussions with invited speakers, instead of doing another PCR. We are a small community; your future colleagues or department heads are most certainly in the audience if you are giving a talk at a conference. Since the early days of molecular biology, scientists love to gossip. Make them talk about you and your ideas.
6. Cast a wide net. Apply for fellowships, lectureships, junior group leader positions etc. Interviews are amazing opportunities, you have a room full of people who listen your ideas and seriously think if they are good or not. More than anything, when you are at the stage and presenting your plans, you are forced to think deep about your ideas. So, use these interviews as bouncing boards to challenge yourself. If you take on board the suggestions, you will have a much better research program than the one that you initially developed. Also, during your interviews you will meet with new people and initiate collaborations. Even if you don’t end up having a position in that department, new collaborations and ideas will be a useful for you anyways.
7. Information is power; every institute/department has its own thought process and dogmas. You should not ignore them. I know you have a great plan and you really thought it through. But if you go to a department where basic plant science is considered to be “useless” or “impossible to get funded” and if you have a hard core mechanistic work plan, then you will have hard time convincing them. On the contrary, if you have a translational research heavy plan and go to an institute where people think studying crops is more or less equal to gardening, then you will most likely have unpleasant conversations. Yes, in many cases, these dogmas are disconnected from reality, but swimming against the current is hard. Once you are there, you will have better chances of talking some sense into them! So, use your network to learn the intradepartmental atmosphere and adapt your program according to the needs of that institute or department. I am not saying have a specific research plan for each department, just modify it to not cross any red lines.
8. And, finally enjoy the process. See this as a celebration of all the hard work that you put in so far. Enjoy the discussions with the faculty and students, enjoy the dinners and have fun at the chalk talks or presentations.
Yasin Dagdas is a Group Leader at The Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology. He did his PhD as a Halpin Scholar at Nick Talbot’s laboratory at University of Exeter. Here he focused on fungal reorganization of cytoskeleton during plant infection by the rice blast fungus. He then worked as a postdoc at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Sophien Kamoun’s lab. There he worked on modulation of autophagy by the Irish potato famine pathogen. At January-2017, he established his lab at the GMI. His group works on selective autophagy processes that helps plants to maintain a healthy proteome and organelle set during stress. You can reach him via twitter or email.