Next Step: Post Doc
News Article by Letitia Jones, PhD
A postdoctoral position is not always the obvious next step. In this Q&A, Letitia Jones shares her thoughts on academia vs. industry and making the transition after graduate school and provides some tips for achieving success...whatever that might look like to you.
What are your scientific and personal goals when joining the biomedical workforce after you complete your postdoc? If you have more than one, that is a perfectly reasonable way to think. How will you use your postdoc to help flesh out your goals and choices?
Scientifically, my goal is to work in a capacity in which I have clinical exposure, without the need of a medical degree. I am not so much interested in being a clinical scientist but I want to work alongside physicians, in the context of bench-to-bedside where I can actually be at the bedside of patients. Duke University has a scholar in molecular medicine program for postdocs and PhD candidates who want to gain hands on clinical exposure and experience related to their respective fields of research. This is a program that I will be applying for next year. Collectively, I will use my postdoc and the scholar program as a tool to help filter out my true career focus.
In all honesty, I feel that nailing down what I want to be when I ‘grow-up’ is constantly changing. Having worked in industry for several years before beginning graduate school, I experienced and observed what working in industry entails. It was clear that individuals without a professional title (PhD or MD) had very little control as to how their projects were designed. This observation is what fueled my desire to return to graduate school, earn my PhD, and return to industry at a Director’s level.
However, during graduate school, I started rethinking my plan. I had some reservations about returning to industry due to career instability and not being in a position to mentor students. Right now, I’m thinking about running my own lab as a principal investigator. Of course, I still have doubts about being a PI because of how critical and difficult it is to obtain funding. Obviously, funding is not impossible but will require a great deal of persistence to find avenues to investigate and continually branch off from those avenues. Duke will help me explore those possibilities as a postdoc; the university’s mission is to assist and prepare us for our desired career, regardless if it is in academia or not.
From some of the discussions I’ve had with you, I know that your “next steps” after graduation could have gone in two different directions, postdoc or industry. Can you share a little insight regarding your choice in terms of professional decisions and personal decisions?
As mentioned previously, I was fortunate to have work experience that included industry, academia and government. Additionally, throughout my career, I have met incredible individuals whom will always be in my network. It is through this network that I was made aware of a Director position at my previous place of employment in California. As a result of this connection, I was offered the job and was to assume the position post-thesis defense! A professional position such as being a Director without having postdoctoral experience is phenomenal: anyone’s dream job. Naturally, I accepted the position with no hesitation, only to rescind months later.
Unlike many of my peers in the program, I had several other factors to consider. First, I am married to an individual who was injured while serving our country and is now a disabled veteran. Second, my husband and I are parents of three children who are 21, 17 and 15 years old. While we did move frequently due to my husband’s military career, relocating cross the country with children at these ages can be intense, stressful and have a negative impact for us all. Third, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain condition weeks after accepting the offer. I had to re-evaluate whether moving to California under these circumstances would result in career suicide. After careful reflection, I decided these factors were far more important, and I rescinded my acceptance, with no other job opportunities in sight. I took a huge gamble to not take this great job, not knowing if anything would come my way again. Fortunately, several opportunities arose and after reviewing my options, I chose Duke. Taking risks is part of life.
What UR resources were the most beneficial for you and that other PhD students should be aware of?
The Center for Professional Development’s (CPD’s) writing center is by far one of the greatest resources offered to PhD students. In college, we all have written essays and term papers, making us feel our writing does not need any tweaking. However, that is not the case; writing scientifically can be especially challenging. Receiving assistance from CPD’s Dr. Elaine Smolock, the life sciences writing specialist, was transformational. She not only reviewed my documents, she took the extra steps of explaining what she suggested to be changed and why. Although I will not have the luxury of receiving assistance from her in the future, I will be able to apply all that she has taught me to my work going forward.
Can you share some of your personal philosophies for how to be a successful scientist?
My personal philosophies are: work smarter not harder, never stop being a ‘student’ (stay abreast in your field, not just in your personal work), do not put up invisible walls (avoiding collaborations), no one knows everything so never be afraid to ask for help or advice, learn to say no sometimes (saying yes for every request will result in a burn-out), treat others the way that you would want to be treated, never burn bridges and most importantly…network, network and network. You never know how having connections can propel your career if you do not network.
One thing you are absolutely excited about at your new stomping grounds Duke University? I am ecstatic to work at a prestigious medical center and also be part of a world-renowned institute – Duke Human Vaccine Institute – that is dedicated to developing a vaccine against HIV. To work with individuals whose research has made and will continue to make a large impact in the field of HIV, is an honor!
What is the best piece of knowledge you are taking with you to Duke that you obtained at UR or Rochester, NY? Work smarter not harder. As a doctoral student at UR, collaborations and assistance from other labs were critical to my project. By reaching out for assistance or advice, I saved myself a great deal of time. Working smarter not harder means not trying to take on a task that would take you four months to accomplish alone but only one month when you utilize other resources.
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