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The Secret Life of Postdocs, Vol. 1

July 26, 2018

Postdocs Q&A 2

This is the first installment in a series about why doctoral students at Drexel should consider postdocs and how to find the right opportunities. A forthcoming installment will feature a Q&A with the University’s new Director of Postdoctoral Affairs.

A chance encounter recently helped illuminate an important issue for Interim Vice Provost of Graduate Education Elisabeth Van Bockstaele, PhD, who leads the Graduate College and is also the founding dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Professional Studies in the College of Medicine.

At Drexel University’s annual Doctoral Student Celebration, Van Bockstaele got to talking with Michele Nicolo ’18, who was poised to graduate with a PhD in nutrition sciences after working full-time as a nutritionist throughout her graduate studies, and her adviser, Stella Volpe, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition Sciences.

The topic of conversation? Postdocs. Specifically, the postdoctoral research position Nicolo had landed at the University of Southern California.

The three Dragons had a lot of information and opinions about researching, applying and landing the right postdoc opportunity — so much so that they continued their conversation a few weeks later and invited DrexelNow to listen in and ask some questions in the following Q&A.

DN: What’s exemplary about Nicolo’s journey to finding her postdoc, or about landing a postdoc in general?

EVB: Sometimes, with doctoral-level students, their career goals aren’t very clear or defined. Sometimes, as they’re finishing their program, they wonder what the next step will be. They need to be more proactive about exploring their options. Michele is an example of the kind of student who really took control of her destiny to figure out a path forward, utilizing her mentorship and experience at Drexel. I think it is so important for doctoral students to take ownership of their career plans and work to figure out next steps early on. If there are ways we can systematize that process for students, we will. When I encounter doctoral students who are finishing their degree and are not really sure what is next, it’s a little bit heart-wrenching for me because I know how important their transition to independence is, and for many, securing a postdoc fellowship is an important next step.

MN: I started looking to see what was out there and I realized there’s not many postdocs, especially for nutrition. I thought to myself, ‘OK, you need to step outside of the box. You can't just be focused on nutrition. Where can I apply my expertise? What would be a great fit?’ … I came across the University of Southern California and the position offered through their Department of Intervention and Prevention in the School of Medicine. Even though it wasn’t technically nutrition, it fit exactly with what I was doing in my doctoral research. I thought, ‘Why not?’ I talked to Dr. Volpe about it and said, ‘Is this something I should consider? Is it OK to apply? Should I approach them?’ With her support, I reached out to see if they were still accepting applications. They asked me to send my CV and it went from there.

EVB: What Michele is saying really resonates with me because it epitomizes the successful Drexel graduate student: the one who thinks outside of the box, the one who seeks out information and is well-prepared, the one who utilizes faculty and professional staff advisers and continues to ask questions and learn by doing. I often tell students, ‘When you go to do your graduate work, it’s important to do it at an institution that is very pro-student, where they advocate for students, and where you’re really going to be able to hone your skills. When you go to do a postdoc, you want to go to a top research institution: the Harvard, the Yale, the USC, because you’ll be ready to walk in there fully prepared to propel your professional career.

DN: How did Drexel help prepare you for this next step in your career?

MN: The curriculum provided me with the opportunity to take many different courses and develop different skills which gave me an edge in my department and when applying to postdocs at other institutions. I took a lot of statistics courses which I ended up really enjoying. I took public health courses which I thought were fantastic. And in my nutrition-focused classes, there was a lot of discussion and interpretation which allowed me to go more in-depth.

EVB: I enjoyed hearing about Michele’s experience at Drexel because it is a true testament of the high quality of our faculty advisers and their dedication to student success. Michele is bringing her translatable skills acquired at Drexel to this new position. Her ability to be an independent thinker and exude confidence as she enters this next step is so important. It doesn’t matter how competitive the environment is because she knows she has the skills to be successful.

DN: Dr. Volpe, you’re helping students like Nicolo determine their futures. How do you help them determine which opportunities are right for them?

SV: You do your best! Now, are all of my students going to do a postdoc or choose to? Perhaps not, and that's OK because I also respect what a person’s life situation is and whether or not they can move, etc. I try to share any opportunities that come through. … If I think it's a more specific thing, I will just send it to one of my PhD students — not to be exclusive, but just because I know someone is working on that or because of the timing.

EVB: I think what's important here is a faculty adviser/mentor who recognizes the importance of thinking about next steps. Students often get caught up in the details of their work and forget to see the big picture. … The faculty adviser can promote an environment of thinking purposefully of the student’s future and help students step out of that comfort zone. It takes courage and it takes risk for graduate students and so allowing them and encouraging them to do so I think is what reflects a really strong mentor.

DN: Why is a postdoc an important consideration and what’s the key to landing the right one?

SV: I think it's so important to do a postdoc because it allows you to focus on your research. You're not a student, you're not a faculty member and you’re not dealing with committee members. You’re going to hone new skills in addition to showcasing the skills you’ve mastered, like Michele.

EVB: It's really an opportunity to also define a direction that you might want to go in. Usually, when you're working with somebody in research, people are looking for new ideas and thinking about things differently. I would encourage students going into a postdoc to offer ideas as well, and not be shy about doing that because that's usually what advances research. A lot of us sometimes, we think about things in the same way and we try to be innovative but it's that infusion of getting fresh minds into it that sometimes can get us to think about things a bit differently. So, I would just encourage them to take risks and offer some ideas that maybe are thinking outside of the box — the Drexel way!

MN: That’s so funny that you would say that because one of the questions I had for both professors at USC was, ‘What is your expectation?’ or, ‘What do you think makes a successful postdoc?’ Both of them answered in the same way — someone who, among other suggestions, is not afraid to say, ‘Can we try it this way?’ just to come forward and not sit back and be reserved and passive. It's about really being interactive and bringing what I think.