Ten PhD Transition Tips for the Biological Sciences

Jan 23, 2020

For Graduating PhD Students: 10 Tips for Transitioning

It’s interview season! And as such, we look forward to welcoming a whole new group of incoming PhD students. Likewise, we say farewell to a number of graduating PhD students, as they transition to the next stages of their careers. When I was nearing the end of my PhD in 2018, I considered both academic and industry options (amenable to my background in bioinformatics). I interviewed with a range of post-doctoral research labs as well as biotech companies and startups. I also recently interviewed a post-doc for lab (yes, we have many openings!) and also mentored a few graduating PhD student through their transitions. In reflecting, here are 10 tips for transitioning into either a post-doc (staying in academia) or industry for graduating PhD students.

5 Tips for Transitioning to a Post-doc (staying in academia)

  1. Everyone is hiring if the right candidate comes along. Don’t limit yourself to just labs with recruiting ads. See my sample email below for contacting potential post-doctoral labs.

  2. Read the PI’s most recent last author papers, not the ones posted on their websites. Websites are rarely kept up to date.

  3. Reach out to current lab members or ideally alumni. You can typically find these people on the lab’s website. Schedule a phone call / Skype chat / or even brief in-person meet up if possible to discuss the lab environment. Even a back a forth via email is useful. Don’t be afraid to follow up if your emails get missed.

  4. Contrary to popular belief, you can negotiate! PIs want our students to be productive. If you need something to be productive, ask for it.

  5. Start early. Let’s just say the academic hiring process is not as streamlined as in industry. It will be worthwhile to start 3 to 6 months in advance!

Sample email for contacting a potential post-doctoral lab

This is the email I used to reach out to post-doctoral labs that I was interested in. I can’t say it was always successful, which highlights the importance of following up in case your emails get missed! But hopefully it’s a start for you to modify it and make it your own.

Dear Prof. [NAME],

I am writing to express my interest in a post-doctoral position in your lab. I am currently completing my PhD in Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics at Harvard under the mentorship of Peter Kharchenko and Catherine Wu on statistical methods for characterizing tumor heterogeneity at the single cell level in chronic lymphocytic leukemia. I am expecting to finish and defend in Spring of 2018.

I am interested in [DOING SOMETHING OF RELEVANCE TO THE LAB]. My graduate work has been centered around analyzing single cell RNA-seq data and applying these methods to understanding chronic lymphocytic leukemia. My work has resulted in a first author Nature Methods paper, a co-first Cancer Cell, among others. However, [MY WORK HAS LIMITATIONS THAT CAN BE ADDRESS THROUGH WORK IN YOUR LAB]. As a result, I believe [DOING SOMETHING RELATED TO WORK IN YOUR LAB] will be a particularly promising research direction.

I would love to have the opportunity to interview and see if our research interests align. Please find enclosed my CV.

Thanks in advance for your time and consideration!

All the best,

If you don’t hear back within a few weeks, definitely follow up in case your email was missed! You can also ask your advisor to email on your behalf; this is particularly helpful for very high profile labs that get many applicants.

5 Tips for Transitioning to Industry

  1. Reach out to colleagues who have previously transitioned to industry to ask for openings in their company, even if they are not in the same field. There may be unadvertised openings in other departments within the company.

  2. Create or update your LinkedIn profile. Make sure to add relevant skills and get endorsements for those skills if possible. Recruiters will often use LinkedIn to identify candidates.

  3. Work with a recruiter. Tell the recruiter what you want, and it’s up to them to find a position that fits your requirements.

  4. Attend conferences, meet-ups, or other professional development events to meet people from companies of interest. Share contact information, and follow up on potential openings. Always follow up!

  5. If you see an opening being advertised and know someone in the company, even if just tangentially, reach out to them and have them point others to your application.

Additional options to consider

Note that even in what I broadly refer here to as industry, there is quite a range of options: biotech consulting, marketing/sales, etc. There are lots of other options to consider as well! So do look around!

  1. Independent fellow or group leader

  2. Industry post-doc

  3. Staff scientist at a non-profit research institution

  4. Scientific editor / Communication and outreach

  5. Teacher

Final words of advice

The hardest part for me was getting started. I didn’t feel like I was ready and frankly in hindsight probably would’ve never felt fully ready. The first few labs I emailed, I never heard back. Likewise, the first few jobs I applied to online seemed to have just disappeared into the ether. But that’s just a part of the process. Once you get the ball rolling, the next application becomes easier and easier. So best to get started! Good luck!