Dr. Justine Garcia, PBEE (2015), advised by: Dr. Nicole Gerardo
Current Postdoc at Washington University in St. Louis
PSW: When did you begin making moves towards a post-doc position (i.e. talking with potential mentors, researching grant funding, etc.)?
JG: I started looking for and applying to post-docs about a year before I graduate. I had talked informally to potential mentors at conferences at bit before that, but didn’t actually submit any applications until a few months later.
I applied to a couple of jobs posted on Ecolog-L and I was selected to be interviewed for both of them [https://listserv.umd.edu/archives/ecolog-l.html]. I received and accepted one but was not offered the second.
For grant funding, I kept a list of what older graduate students applied for and asked them about the process as they applied and graduated. I would say it is important to look for funding early because it can take a year to 18 months to apply, be reviewed, and receive money if you are accepted.
PSW: Did you receive funding from a mentor, grant organization, or the university? If one of the second 2, who were you funded by?
JG: I am funded by my mentors’ grants (via NSF and the Templeton Foundation [https://www.templeton.org/]). I am applying for funding from the NIH NRSA Postdoctoral Fellowship, the L’Oreal Foundation (for women only), and the Arnold O. Beckman Postdoctoral Fellowship [http://www.beckman-foundation.org/arnold-o-beckman-postdoctoral-fellows]. The Helen Hay Whitney Foundation is another great fellowship to apply for, but unfortunately I missed the deadline for that one and it’s only for first year postdocs. [http://www.hhwf.org/HTMLSrc/ResearchFellowships.html].
PSW: When determining a mentor, was it someone you already knew personally through a colleague or a conference, or did you cold call/e-mail someone?
JG: I had a whole list of people I was interested in cold e-mailing, but I applied to the Ecolog-L job postings first. I was a bit familiar with my mentors because one of them writes a blog I read regularly. More importantly though, Nicole worked with them when she was an undergraduate, so she could give me firsthand advice on what it would be like to work in their lab. Fairly or not, I think that personal connection was important to getting the job. However, I know that cold e-mailing can get results. At least two post-docs in my current lab just contacted my mentors out of the blue and they were both hired. It can be helpful to say that you are applying to “XX funding” or interested in applying for a specific grant with them.
PSW: Did you have in mind multiple places when you considered a post-doc or did you know from the beginning one school or mentor that you wanted to work with?
JG: I was pretty open to moving to a new place and working with someone new. I think it is hard to restrict yourself to one person or place unless it is someone with whom you have collaborated with during graduate school. If you do want to move to a specific place or into a specific area of research, it would be helpful to start contacting people even earlier.
PSW: How far in advance did you apply for funding? What was the timeline as far as defending, applying for funding, and moving/beginning a postdoc?
JG: Argh, this is a hard one as it seems like it just comes together differently for everyone. I started applying to jobs before I had a firm defense date. This makes it hard to tell potential advisors an exact start date, but it seems most people understand that and will work with you. Applying for jobs really made me firm up a timeline for finishing, and I had a job lined up about 8 months before I defended (but it also took me longer to defend than I had initially planned). It works the opposite for some people and they get a defense date and then furiously apply for postdocs. I defended and then moved to my new postdoc about 10 days after that!
PSW: What made you choose the school that you did? What skills or experiences are you looking to gain from your post-doc?
JG: I was really interested in working with my mentors and their cool system. I really wanted to expand my perspective on host-microbe interactions while building my expertise in one field. My mentors had started working on a new symbiosis system, but they had more of a background in kin selection, relatedness, and kin discrimination. I have learned a lot from them and the other members of the lab, and have been introduced to a lot of people and work I didn’t previously know about.
PSW: How long (ideally) do you plan on being a post-doc? What are your ultimate career goals?
JG: Argh, another hard one. My ultimate career goal is to get a tenure track faculty job, but I am realistic and open to other possibilities like government and tech jobs. Ideally, I would like to stay in this postdoc position for three years and then get a tenure-track job. However, it seems these days it is pretty normal to do two postdocs for a total of five or six years. If my prospects for a faculty job aren’t looking good by the end of this post-doc, I will definitely look for another postdoc position. If my prospects aren’t looking good after a second postdoc, I will look for non-academic science jobs and move on with my life.
PSW: Any other thoughts on being a post-doc or advice to current graduate students on the way to postdoc-ing?
JG: A postdoc is usually a pretty short stint compared to graduate school, and it is best (but difficult) to hit the road running. In grad school, you have a bit of time during classes to think about potential projects and try out a few possibilities. During a post-doc, a lot of the distractions from grad school (teaching, classes, committee meetings, etc.) are gone at it is expected that you will really focus on the research and be able to produce quickly. However, I also have a lot more freedom to do whatever I want and try new things, which has been fun!