How This Postdoc Found a Position Right for Her
Elizabeth Glover, a postdoctoral fellow at the Medical University of South Carolina and member of SfN’s Trainee Advisory Committee, is in her last year of being a postdoc and looking to make the transition to independent faculty. Here, she reflects on how she approached searching for a postdoc position that would help her achieve what she was looking for in terms of her research growth, mentorship, and support network.
Where are you in your postdoc right now?
I’m in my fifth year. I'm finishing up the first year of my NIH K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award, a career transition grant for postdocs. The K99 portion supports two years of postdoc training, and the R00 portion will support me as new faculty in my new lab. The whole purpose of the grant is to help guide the transition from a postdoc position to a faculty position, and it makes you a more attractive candidate for a faculty position because you already have money to support your research. Once you get hired as faculty, you can transition the grant to the R00 portion, which provides three years of R01-level funding.
How did you approach searching for a postdoc?
I looked for a mentor who would be really hands-on — not so much in the lab, but in my career development and very supportive of my two main career goals.
One goal was to gain some technical proficiency in different methodological approaches I want to use in my own lab. Because I wanted to explore different techniques and animal models, I sought out PIs who had experience in those techniques, and who were working on those animal models.
My other goal was (and is) to become an independent academic scientist. I looked for somebody who would support me with grant writing and had a strong record of obtaining grants. I specifically looked for people who would help me work towards getting an NIH F32 Ruth L. Kirschstein Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award and the NIH K99/R00 NIH award.
In addition, it was important to me that my future mentor had experience mentoring postdocs to help them advance to academic faculty positions. Obviously, most PIs in academia have some experience with this being that they themselves are in academia, but some are better than others. In addition, some PIs are better suited for advancing their trainees into positions in industry and other fields.
When I first began exploring postdoc options, I considered branching out from my current field, alcohol addiction, into a related field, but I noticed that funding rates for training and career development grants were much more friendly at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the time than they were at some of the institutes that fund related areas of research. So, strategically it made sense to keep my research focused under the umbrella of alcohol addiction.
That narrowed my choices down to a much smaller group of mentors. Based on that list, I started talking to people about the reputations of these individuals, looking at their previous trainees, and inquiring about whether they were hiring.
How did lab culture factor into your decision about where you wanted to end up?
I was really interested in a very positive, nurturing environment where people seemed happy, healthy, and professional, so lab culture was really important.
I firmly believe that one bad apple will ruin the bunch. Like a lot of people, I have experienced negativity or negative people bringing down the whole group. In certain labs, there can also be a lot of peer-to-peer competition, and sometimes the PIs actually facilitate that behavior, which leads to animosity between coworkers.
Fortunately, the opposite is also true. Having people in a lab who are really enthused, happy, and excited about the science can help bolster your motivation when you're in a downward slope about where you're at with your research. It’s also possible to find environments where everybody is supportive of everyone else’s career advancement.
What type of support network do you have in your lab?
In my lab, my peer group is almost all women, and the people senior to me are almost all men. That's an interesting dynamic! The senior mentors I’m surrounded by have been really instrumental in my success and I am really lucky to be able to bend their ears about research ideas, funding strategies, and general professional development. But, as I've tried to advance my career, it has been important to me to get advice from women who've succeeded as well.
Because I have a deficit in that respect at my home institution, I've sought out advice elsewhere when needed. On the other hand, I have so many female peers to lean on and with whom I can build a support group.
It's been one of the best experiences to work with these women who all back each other up. We talk to each other daily about everything from our most recent data, to interpersonal interactions, to career advancement strategies, and give each other a boost when we need it. For example, there are three of us right now who are very close to becoming faculty. We're about six months apart from each other career-wise, so it's really nice to discuss our approaches and see what’s worked and hasn’t worked for each of us and also discuss issues that arise along the way that are unique to women in science.
How have you sought out female mentorship outside of your home institution?
At this stage in my career, I am particularly interested in career development mentorship on topics such as how to negotiate for salary, hiring and firing, and getting a job, not necessarily for science skills or bench work. This is an area where we see some of the greatest gender differences, so it was important to me to seek out advice from both men and women. Many of the conferences I attend offer mentorship or career development seminars on these topics. I try to attend every single one of them and then actively seek out women who participated in those events to get advice from them.