October 26, 2018 Panel: Exploring PostDoc options outside your field

October 26, 2018
Panel: Exploring PostDoc options outside your field
Host: Ellen Aguilera

A recent article in Sciencemagazine highlighted the topic regarding transitioning fields between a PhD and postdoc. The article included the experience of several postdocs that have switched fields (article was handed out at end of event).With this topic as inspiration, CALC|UM was interested in having a postdoc panel at U of M to give their experience of transitioning fields. The panel took place on October 26th with three postdocs from U of M Chemistry Department. The postdocs were the following: Dr. Patrick Lutz from the McNeil group, Dr. Solaire Finkenstaedt-Quinn from the Shultz group, and Dr. Varun Gadkari from the Ruotolo group. The overall attendance of the event was fantastic with about 40 RSVP’s.

The panel style of this event gave everyone in the audience an opportunity to ask their questions, and time for each of the panelists to give their perspective. The panel was diverse in terms of their Ph.D. and post-doc fields because we wanted to ensure we had panelists that could align with many of the audience’s field, so they could relate to the panelists. With this, each panelist had a difference perspective on their experience of transitioning fields.

The panel started off with the question on everyone’s mind: Why a new field if you spent so much time in another field? In this case, the panelists agreed they entered a new field to broaden their opportunities, to learn more chemistry or chemistry techniques, and to be able to teach more subjects. Their perspectives differed when asked how difficult the switch was, and the audience appreciated how honest the panelists were. For one postdoc, the switch was very difficult because the chemistry and lab techniques associated with that field were completely new. He stated that unlike a graduate student, they felt as a postdoc they had pressure to pick up material and techniques more quickly and less time to learn them. One said that they learned quickly, but in the long run felt they are still catching up on some of the field’s fundamentals since as a postdoc you have less time in the lab than a graduate student. However, another panelist stated his switch was not as dramatic because the applications of the chemistry were different compared to his Ph.D., but many of the techniques remained the same.

The audience was also given advice on how to prepare for switching fields by sitting in on classes regarding the new field, reading some of the literature in the field, and lastly just being patient with yourself because it takes a while to learn. The panelists emphasized a general tip for preparing as a postdoc was to ask for the opportunity to help write a grant in your Ph.D. because you will need to have this skill as a postdoc or future jobs. In one of the last, but important questions asked were how do convince your future PI that you are worth taking on in the lab when you don’t have experience in that field? All panelists agreed and succeeded by following this advice that in your interview or application, you need to highlight that you have something to contribute to their lab because of your different Ph.D. field whether that be new lab techniques, but more importantly, a different mindset to help answer their lab’s challenging research questions. It was emphasized to tell your interviewer you are willing to learn many new things in their lab. Overall, the event provided a lot of useful advice on transitioning fields and allowed the audience to form their own opinions on whether this is something of interest based on the experiences of the panelists.