Urbana-Champaign to Cambridge
This is my final Mechanics of Motion post and I’m so grateful to have had the chance to blog my way through my PhD at MechSE Illinois. Over the years, I’ve tried to document various forms of professional and personal advancement, as well as outreach activities, that I’ve had the opportunity to participate in at UIUC. For this last post, I’d like to give you a little insight into the final challenge posed by the PhD process: figuring out what to do after you graduate.
When I started the MechSE PhD program in Fall 2012, I intended to pursue a career in industry after graduation, preferably in an R&D role at a medical device company. During my time at Illinois, I have learned a lot about the world of academia, and realized that my strengths and interests are better suited to a faculty position at a large research university. I have grown very attached to the idea of having my own lab, and having the freedom to explore research areas of interest that evolve throughout my career. Furthermore, I really enjoy writing and think I will find great personal value in crafting convincing grant proposals. I’ve also had the opportunity to help design and co-lecture a class based on my research at Illinois, and this has inspired me to keep contributing to the education of the next generation of engineers. For these and many other reasons, I have decided to pursue a career in academia. I started thinking about applying to postdoctoral positions in Summer 2016, graduated in Fall 2016, and will be starting my postdoc at MIT in Spring 2017. I’ll use this blog post to give you a little insight about my journey, with the caveat that every career is an individual path, and it’s important to choose the path that's right for you!
A postdoc is not a requirement for a faculty position (though this is highly dependent on the field in question). I decided to pursue a postdoc because I was interested in learning some skills that I knew I would need before establishing my own lab. I won’t delve into the details of my PhD research here, but if you’re interested in learning more, check out my winning rapid fire talk at the Grad College’s Research Live competition! Essentially, I wanted to find a postdoc that would help me build on my existing skills in bio-hybrid machine design by teaching me about conducting animal studies and designing biomimetic synthetic materials.
In Summer 2016, I wrote down a list of faculty that did the kinds of research in which I was interested. This didn’t take too much work on my part, as I had read papers from the labs of all of these professors during my PhD. I then went through their lab websites and publications carefully to look at their recent research progress, to check that it was aligned with my initial impression of their labs. I then reached out to my top five with my CV, two recent papers, and the reasons underlying my interest in their lab.
I received generally positive feedback from all the professors I contacted, but with each lab came different challenges and compromises. Some labs had just hired several postdocs and their subsequent hiring timelines weren’t aligned with my graduation timeline. Other labs had postdoc funding for very specific projects that weren’t exactly aligned with my interests and skills. By the end of the process, I participated in one phone interview and two in-person interviews. One of my in-person interviews was more conventional – I gave a talk in the morning and spent the rest of the day meeting with other members of the lab. The other interview was more informal – I met with the professor, collaborators, postdocs, graduate students, chatted about potential projects, and toured the lab spaces. Finally, I chose to accept a postdoctoral position in Prof. Robert Langer’s lab at MIT, where I will be working at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. I am really excited about shaping my postdoctoral research projects, and am honored to be working under the mentorship of a researcher I have admired since the beginning of my undergraduate studies at Cornell.
I met a lot of people during this interview process and really broadened my conception of the work I wanted to do in the future. At the same time, I won’t deny that it was an emotionally tumultuous time. Defending and writing a dissertation is hard (to say the least), and interspersing that with interviews, plans for the future, and finding tactful ways to answer the question “what are you going to do after you graduate?” can be incredibly stressful. Here are a few tips for those of you who will be going through a similar process in the future:
- Communicate with your PhD advisor (and collaborators and other mentors) about your aspirations and involve them in your postdoc search process. Academia is built on personal relationships, and my advisor was absolutely crucial in helping me secure the ideal postdoc.
- Ask yourself what you’ve learned so far and what you need to learn to get where you want to go. Then find an advisor and a lab that will help you “fill in the gaps.”
- It is very easy to forget this, but try to keep reminding yourself that you are trying to find a postdoc that is a good fit for you. If you don’t find a fit in a lab that you like, that is not a rejection. That is not an assessment of you as a researcher. That is just a process you had to go through to find a position and a project you are really passionate about.
- Talk to everyone in your life about your interests and your plans. Listen to their perspectives. Learn from their experiences. Reach out to friends, recent graduates, mentors past and present – ask questions and value their opinions. But at the end of the day, make the decisions that feel right for you. People will tell you conflicting things, and that’s not because they’re trying to mislead you. It’s because every path is individual. So while it’s incredibly important to reach out and ask for help when you need it, trust your gut when it comes down to your final decision.
I am so excited for my postdoc, and am really grateful to have the opportunity to work on research projects about which I’m truly passionate. I’m also deeply saddened to leave my home and community at Illinois. The invaluable support of everyone here has helped me grow into the engineer I am today, and I will always have only the best memories of my time as a graduate student. To all of you lucky enough to call yourselves Illini, remember to enjoy every minute of your time here and good luck with your future endeavors!