Applying to Postdocs 101: An Interview with Alumnus Dr. Chris Rowley
AUTHOR: Lisa Dyce
Chris Rowley is a Neuroscience Graduate Program alumnus who conducted neuroimaging research under the supervision of Dr. Nick Bock. After defending his thesis in June 2018, Chris joined Dr. Christine Tardif’s lab at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) and its associated McConnell Brain Imaging Centre (BIC) at McGill University. I had the pleasure of hearing about Chris’s experiences and recommendations for applying to postdoc positions.
Please tell us a bit about your path to research and what drew you to complete a postdoctoral fellowship.
During my undergraduate training at McMaster, I became fascinated with the brain and MRI techniques while taking a neuroimaging course taught by Dr. Nick Bock. Luckily for me, he was willing to take me on as a summer NSERC USRA student for two years, which gave me a chance to see if the research path was right for me. Over those two years, it became an obvious choice to stay on with Dr. Bock to complete my PhD in the McMaster Neuroscience Graduate Program. During my graduate work, I started to build a good mental model of how the brain works, and how I could develop research questions to study brain changes with MRI. Being self-critical, I realized that my physics and overall understanding of MRI were not at the level that they could be, so I sought to join a lab for my postdoc where I would be able to develop these skills.
How did you choose the location for your postdoc?
I think when considering postdoc positions, you need to be thinking of what will come next in your career. Generally, if you are going to complete a postdoc position, you have a future career as a Principal Investigator in mind. For me, I had to think about what I needed to make myself a competitive candidate for these positions. Dr. Bock was helpful in guiding me through this process. I realized that it would help to find a postdoc supervisor with a good track record of getting their trainees into academic positions, so that they could mentor me on how to achieve my career goals. Additionally, I looked at where the MRI field seems to be headed, which is to the higher 7T magnetic field strength for research and potentially clinical work. In order to be competitive in the future, I believed that having some experience with cutting edge technology would help me. With those things in mind, I just had to start searching for professors with similar research interests who had access to this technology. It helped that one of my previous collaborators was building her lab up at McGill, and they were in the process of installing one of these new MRI scanners.
What does your typical day as a postdoc look like? How do your research activities and responsibilities compare to those of graduate school?
For me, my position is 100% research. In that regard, it is very much like grad school without the extra classes and TA work that would steal a bunch of research time. However, I still make time to attend talks to keep a broad knowledge base on the field of neuroscience, and, you know, for the coffee and cookies...
Please tell us a bit about your application experience. For example, how did you search for postdoc positions and what was your timeline for applying?
I started discussing my next steps with my PhD supervisor about one year out from my anticipated defence date. Starting this early is important as the postdoctoral fellowship applications are due very early (summer for the prestigious Banting Fellowship, and early fall for the Tri-Council Fellowships). Postdocs are also more expensive for labs than grad students are, so it is worth searching early, and maybe also finding your own funding to help secure a position. I started my search by looking at job boards at conferences to see who was hiring, then looking into the lab research interests. I find that my work quality is directly tied to my happiness outside of work. For me, a big factor in finding a place was whether there would be good cycling in the area [for those of you who are not familiar with Chris, he is a competitive cyclist!]. What I quickly learned was that some of the biggest universities are smack dab in the centre of monster cities, and that just is not ideal for biking. After interviewing with a lab in Calgary about a year before my anticipated defense date, I reached out to my previous collaborator who had recently moved to Montreal from the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Things seemed to line up for this position as Montreal is a great place to bike, my potential supervisor had shared research interests, and she had expertise in the MRI physics that I was looking to build my knowledge on.
After talking with my collaborator (and now supervisor) in Montreal through the winter, we arranged to meet at a major MRI conference in June of the following year. I then visited the lab in early July and – after celebrating my successful defense with a cycling trip in Europe – joined her research group in Montreal in October. While I definitely recommend finding a way to celebrate your hard work, keep in mind that fellowship applications might overlap with your thesis writing and/or defense.
What tips or recommendations do you have for current students based on your experiences?
My first tip is to first get an idea of what research interests you would like to pursue in the future, then figure out if there are additional skills that you need to acquire to best be able to address those research interests. Your time as a postdoc is 100% dedicated to research and training yourself on new things, so this is the best time to prepare yourself for what you think lies ahead. The next one would be to start by checking job boards at the major conferences to get an idea of what positions are available, and then ask yourself if you could see yourself living there for a few years. If you aren't attending conferences, most of them have websites with job boards as well. Additionally, many labs never do job postings, so don't be afraid to email a PI directly to say that you are interested in their work and that you want to know if they have any spots open.
What was the interview process like? How did you prepare?
I had three different interview experiences. One was just a Skype call due to geographical differences. For another interview, they had flown me in to give a talk on my work and to meet and chat with the lab. There, I discussed the projects that I might be provided to work on, which would help me decide between the positions. The final one was a phone conversation where we discussed where I thought the field was at, where I think it needs to go, and what I was hoping to achieve with a postdoc position. After I passed that "test", I further discussed with them in person at the next major conference. The final piece of the puzzle before I took the position was that they had me come to Montreal to give a talk to the lab. This experience was useful to see the lab dynamics and to check out the city.
For preparation, you likely don't need to do too much reading if you are staying in the same field. Having just finished writing your thesis, your brain is already full of everything you need to know (hopefully). However, I went over some of the past papers of the potential supervisors before the interviews. You can tell which concepts they think are important based on the language in their papers, which means that you can start to guess what kind of questions they might ask you based on those concepts.
What happened following your interview?
One interview I never heard back from, but I think it was because we had some differing opinions on the usefulness of some techniques. I was offered positions following the other two interviews. I just had to decide which position I thought would best prepare me for the future.
Is there anything else you would recommend or share with a student who is considering a postdoc?
You aren't doing a postdoc for the money. You are doing it because you are passionate about learning and furthering our collective understanding of advanced topics. If you are absolutely sick of grad school (some people are), then a postdoc is not for you, as it is more of the same. Also, have confidence in your knowledge base and your accomplishments when approaching potential supervisors. You need to be able to sell yourself as the best possible candidate that they could have for the position. The final tip is to be open to relocating. The Tri-Council scholarships (CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC) do not like to fund applicants who are doing their postdoc in the same university where they completed their PhD. Their thought process is that you should have learned everything you could from your PhD mentors over the past 4+ years, and now it is time to relocate to continue your development and keep learning new things. If the financial cost of moving is the only thing holding you back, talk with your potential supervisor about this. I have heard of people being provided with some funds to help with the expenses of relocation.