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At the middle way – thoughts about the end

Recently, as I passed the middle ground of my PhD studies, crept those thoughts about the end. All of a sudden you realize that this 4-years marathon (if not more) is coming to its end soon and you should prepare. Prepare? prepare for what? Suddenly, you realize that you haven’t given too much thoughts about what’s going to happen after you graduate (what I call the post-PhD post-trauma).

I am saying post-trauma because it is kind of a trauma to finish a major period of your life as an independent individual in your line of work/career and while you might find yourself relieved and full of joy that you managed to grab that PhD trophy you also find yourself running mid-air with nothing beneath your feet (like the popular scenes from Looney Tunes coyote and roadrunner).
A couple of days ago I had a similar conversation with both a colleague PhD student and a Masters degree student, both looking above the pipettor, tips, experiments and checking the cross road coming close with every day. And both wonder what steps they should take.
Those thoughts are common with most PhD students, at a certain point of their PhD journey, and the answer to the above question and to the many others lies within the graduate’s vision and decision making.

Set the one and the five goals
The master student I talked to was in his second year and was wondering whether to go ahead for a PhD studies or to postpone them after experiencing some years in an industry-related job. He wasn’t sure which path will be more right, correct. This is the point where I highlighted him that he should first set a goal to which he aspires. I told him that he should imagine where he sees himself a year from now and five years from now. While the one year focuses him on what he needs to do TODAY, the five year will focus him on his vision and what he needs to remember EVERYDAY for him to achieve his long term goal. While I sent him to think and to vision his life ahead, I will discuss the most common two paths that most graduates confront (masters and PhD graduates).

I want to pursue a biotech industry position
Assuming one wants to pursue a biotechnology industry position, what would be the best choice? To leave the academy after a MSc or to keep in the academy until after the graduation?
First we need to address what recruiters from the industry are looking for in their potential or even the ideal candidate? While it depends on the position sought for, in most cases the potential candidate should have the capabilities to work as part of a team while exhibiting independent critical thinking and initiative. Past experience in the industry is a sure bonus though in many cases the recruiting organization is looking for someone that has a special expertise in certain field even without any industry-related experience. How the above requirements transcend to the student’s set of consideration?
The second thing that should be addressed is the position level – is it a PhD-level position or a masters-level? Usually there are fewer PhD-level positions in comparison to masters-level positions thus the competition can be tougher the higher you climb the organization ladder.
Masters students should evaluate their current research progress, status in their lab and if they are happy with their PI. In case they have a flowing project with promising results, they should consider extending their work to graduate studies, as it will contribute to their publication profiles and demonstrate they can successfully complete a long term project. On the other hand, if the project doesn’t lift and you find the lab atmosphere and/or the PI a major pain, you may want to either switch lab for a graduate studies or turn to the industry. The plus of searching for a job at this stage is:
• Usually there are more open positions for MSc
• Previous industry experience in many cases not a must-have for MSc level positions
• Achieving industry experience before commencing a graduate studies will make it easier to find a job later.

I want to pursue an academic position
As you’re already in the academia, this step should be straightforward: publish higher as possible and as much as possible. Is quality better than quantity? Most often it does because many PIs looking at a publications list will be impressed by a single high impact factor publication rather than several mid to low articles. Of course, it really depends on the journal. For example, Journal of Biological Chemistry is highly regarded in the biochemistry niche even though it’s impact factor is not stellar! So, as long as you publish in a highly regarded niche journal (the least) you will be in safe grounds for finding a good post doc (you should note that getting into a top-class lab is not just about publications).
But don’t focus just on publications; start as soon as possible to learn the art of grant writing. If you see yourself as a PI, then you must master this skill as it is an integral part of any independent researcher. Ask your PI to write a grant (if required) and use his/her experience to learn the know-how. Experience is a valuable asset!
Go to conferences. Don’t wait for your boss to ask you to enlist to a conference he is giving a talk. Go to every major conference in your niche which are in your allocated budget and compete for bursary when ever possible as this will demonstrate your competitive abilities.

As you can see, your decision to go that way or this way will tremendously affect the steps you should take to improve your success in securing your aimed position.

If you have ideas of your own – you’re most welcome to share!
On a different aspect, I want to shutout loud that LabGuru, the next generation web-based laboratory tool, is released online and accepting registration for a free personal account! Go here for the press release, here for the latest tweets and here to registration! If you’re at the ASCB 2011 conference then you can check it out live at booth #1101.


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