Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Notes From The Department Reunion - Part 1

My department held their 25th anniversary and reunion last week, complete with cocktail parties, self-congratulatory presentations, catered buffet lunches, and obligatory poster sessions.

As a grad student it's often hard to imagine life after the dissertation, so it was interesting to meet former students and hear their grad school memories, about their current job and any advice they were willing to dispense.

The reunion committee organized a panel discussion about post-PhD careers which I found particularly useful and interesting since I'm currently deciding which path to take post postdoc.  Here are my notes from part one of the panel discussions, from four graduates who all work in academia. Forthcoming parts two and three will focus on entrepreneurs and industry.

Post - PhD Career Panel, Part 1: Academia

Four panelists, each who took a unique path to their current teaching position
Traditional path: Post-doc followed by assistant professor position
Accelerated path: Straight from PhD to assistant professor at their undergraduate alma mater
Industry path: Worked in industry for three years with solid publication record prior to landing assistant professor position
Eccentric path: Joined Peace Corps for two years, taught in Zimbabwe, currently the sole engineering professor at a small teaching community college

Things they learned in grad school:
Understanding fundamentals
Thinking like an engineer and breaking down a problem into fundamentals
Interdisciplinary collaboration
Presenting research through talks and posters

Things they wish they'd learned more of:
Get experience teaching classes
Writing grant proposals
Learn stress management and how to take care of mental health as early as possible
Participate in outreach and practice communicating your science to non-scientists

Tips for finding a good work environment:
Your job has to speak to your personal values and interests
Find the right institution and department that fits
You have to love teaching or your lab
You may end up dealing with primadonna faculty members... learn to communicate and work together

Network within your grad university: other faculty, grad students
Keep in touch with your undergraduate faculty
Keep contacts up to date with your research and interests
Maintain visibility through publications and patents

Grant writing:
First year is horrific but it gets easier
You will learn a lot very quickly
You can usually get help and feedback from older colleagues

Building a research group:
Some amount of trial and error
Spent time training the first students really well, get experts, let them train the rest
Let your group members have a say in how things are run
Their experiences and backgrounds contribute

(c) Jorge Cham of PHD comics

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