On November 10, 2017, Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK), in partnership with United Negro College Fund (UNCF), hosted a symposium about opportunities for African American Ph.D.’s and postdocs in life sciences. A total of 15 students (4 postdocs and 11 pre-doctoral candidates (me included)) from all across the country attended the application-based event. The goal of the symposium was to enlighten students and postdocs about (1) the diverse and exciting research going on at MSK, (2) the life of a postdoc at MSK, (3) the new postgraduate fellowship available for African Americans graduate students and Postdocs, and to (4) enrich the underrepresented minority population at MSK.
We were first introduced to the research activities at MSK and I can say that many of us were blown away. CAR-T to CRISPR to genomic sequencing are among many of the cutting-edge research areas that are done at MSK. In addition, they have a lot of programs: Chemistry, Structural Biology, Infectious Diseases, Molecular Biology, and a newly developed Biomedical Engineering Program. As you can see, the research is not exclusively about cancer, even though it is the main focus. Another exciting aspect is that MSK is within walking distance of Rockefeller University and Weill Cornell Medical School. Imagine the kinds of collaboration that are taking place, not only in regards to the science, but also to the instrumental access MSK students have! They have, essentially, everything they need to conduct their research within walking distance. A researcher’s dream come true!
Many of us are constantly asking, should I or should I not do a postdoc? Well, if you are thinking of a postdoc, MSK should definitely be on your radar. Not only because of the things that I listed above, but also because of your career development. While MSK does not have iJOBS, as we do here, they have a great career development program for their students. They provide classes and professional development workshops including grant writing, statistics, negotiation, written/oral communication and more. Faculty mentors also meet with their students to discuss their future plans and offer ways to map out the route; this career meeting is a mandatory yearly meeting. If you are interested in teaching, they can partner you with a local college to teach as an adjunct professor. We also learned about the communal atmosphere of MSK where they have social gatherings on Fridays (happy hour) that include students, postdocs and mentors. Members of the MSK community also team up for fundraising (NYC Marathon and Cycle for Survival). If that does not get you excited, MSK also ensures that their students leave with a job, with 51% of them obtaining academic positions.
Part of the perks of attending the event was to learn about the new fellowship available to African American postdocs— the Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS)-UNCF postgraduate fellowship program. The driving force behind this program is Dr. Chad Womack, the national director for STEM Initiatives at UNCF. The program, developed in partnership with BMS, seeks postdocs in life sciences with at least one year experience in their postgraduate work. With the program, fellows can pursue academic research more independently on a stipend of $93,750/year, a research grant of $60,000/year and a travel grant of $5000/year. This is an amazing opportunity with funds guaranteed for 3 years. The application will be open in mid-January for African-Americans, however, Dr. Womack hopes to include Hispanic and Latino students and postdocs in the near future. If you are not sure of whether you want to stay in academia after your postdoc experience, do not fret, the program does not require you to continue in academia; you can choose any career path of your liking. I personally cannot wait to see how this will impact the career development for the first cohort of fellows!
One of my favorite parts of the event was our Q/A session with the postdocs at MSK: Drs. Cornelius Taabauing, Luisa Escobar Hoyos and Maomao Zhang. They gave us amazing tips about applying for postdocs and planning ahead for your career. Here is some of the advice they gave us:
(1) Start the application process months before you defend your thesis (7-9 months ahead) and take your time in choosing a lab for your training.
(2) The interview process can be variable, from formal or informal to all day vs. half day and may involve you giving a presentation and meeting with the members of the lab.
(3) Trainees choose a lab for different reasons, but it usually depends on the gut feeling and advisor’s character.
(4) Having your own funding gives you more leverage; you are in the driver’s seat!
One piece of advice that struck me greatly was from Luisa. While discussing the importance of planning ahead she said, “When you are a graduate student, think like a postdoc, and when you are a postdoc, think like a faculty member (that is if you want to stay in academia).” This allowed her to plan a step ahead, ask key questions and decide her next (next) move; always one step ahead. For example, as a postdoc planning on staying in academia, you have to negotiate which aspects of your project that you can take and build upon as an independent researcher. This can be a tricky conversation to have with a PI as you will now become their competitor in the field. However, this is an important discussion to have early on during the interview process or in your training. There are many opportunities available to be in the driver’s seat during your training, e.g. the IRACDA fellowship, UNCF-MERCK fellowship, the BMS-UNCF fellowship referenced above and a host of others, so apply away!
As you are applying, you may be wondering, what do faculty search committees look for in candidates? Dedication. This is not surprising, but it starts from the moment you decide to apply for a postdoc position. Mentors value those candidates that send them a reminder e-mail just to make them take a second look at their application. That little act can go a long way in creating a good impression. Additionally, they want you to have a relevant skill set for the type of research you want to embark on. Also, show that you are professional, by crafting a clean CV and a formal e-mail (with a descriptive subject line). Publications are important, (this is not new news either) but may be overlooked by some PIs. Having a personal connection, for example between your current PI and future PI, can also help you gain an interview. Another way to connect with them is at conferences; approach a potential PI, talk to them about their research and follow up with an e-mail. These are small acts that can potentially guarantee your position in the lab that will train you for your next step.
All of the above sounds great, but how can you tell if you need a postdoc? We learned about making this decision from Dr. Tom Magaldi, the manager for the office of career & professional development at MSK. Although 65-70% of Ph.D.’s end up pursuing a postdoc, it does not mean that a postdoc is right for you. He advised us to not make postdoc training our default next step; only do it to set yourself up for what comes next. When making your decision, ask yourself these questions: What are my long-term career goals? What will make me happy? In addition, talk to the people in your career trajectory and ask them if they did a postdoc. Is having a postdoc relevant in the field? If you do decide on embarking on a postdoc, then focus on 4 key things:
- The PI (do you want a more established PI or a junior PI? do you want to teach or just do research?)
- Science (Basic or translational research; model of your research (human, animals or bacteria); low-risk vs. high-risk research)
- Skills (what skills will be valued for your next step?)
- Institution (large or small size; connection to the industry or not, access to resources, academia vs. industry)
In the end, your goal is to be a well-rounded scientist; you need to learn how to be a professional, a good scientist, an effective communicator, how to adhere to ethics, and more.
While MSK does not have a high population of African-American students, they do have a high percentage of international students from Hispanic origin. Part of the goal of the event is to help increase the number of African American students participating in the graduate program. The fact that we hardly saw African American students did not go unnoticed, but I am glad they are willing to spend some time and effort on increasing minority populations. Cornelius is currently 1 of 3 African American postdocs at MSK, but he emphasized (along with Luisa and Maomao) that he feels safe and protected at MSK because there is a support system for minority students. The issue of diversity in graduate institutions is a huge topic, but many can attest to the fact that the poor retention of minority students in STEM starts early on. This matter is of great importance to Dr. Womack as well as the event organizers at MSK (Dr. Ushma Neill, Dr. Tom Magaldi and Dr. Yaihara Fortis Santiago). The symposium is hopefully the first of many more to come in not only shining some light on diversity in academia, but also helping Ph.D.’s plan their next step. To be honest, I came out of the event with a wealth of knowledge about deciding and planning for my next step. My goal is to transmit that to you as well!