What to do during your PhD to be competitive

Last year, Alya and I organized an Academic Skills Workshop in our department. This idea blossomed while we were writing up a lengthy postdoctoral grant proposal. We realized that certain sections of our CVs had been neglected. While talking to several PhD candidates and postdocs from different labs, we realized that a lot of them felt they lacked this kind of mentoring from their PI, their lab, or their department. Organizing a workshop on this topic enabled us to share our experience (and gain experience!), and most importantly get useful advice from many young and senior PIs in the department. It’s never too late (or too early) to think about the content of your CV. You can get some sense of the rules of the game from reading blog posts (e.g. general advice) or from looking at the CVs of renowned early career researchers in your field (which are usually available on their website). Just below, I summarize the content of the discussion we had during our workshop (see the slides for more details).

Be active in your department and in the community.

Assistant professor Salvador Mascaren pointed out that your future employer will expect you to be a useful citizen of your department. You can show your management skills in many ways, e.g. reviewing abstracts, editing conference proceedings, organizing colloquia, workshops, conferences, serving on search committees, representing student or scholarly bodies, etc. These competences will not only be useful if you stay in academia, but also if you find a job in a company. Learning how to be a good team player is a polyvalent asset.

Publish.

Ever wonder what other people think about when looking at your publication section? When reviewing CVs from PhD candidates and postdocs, CRNS senior researcher Anne Christophe usually asks herself the following questions: Can this person write? Can they get published? Do they take important roles (first-authorship)? Have they published in quality journals? Can they think independently (are the publications only with their PhD advisor)? Is there a continuity in their research themes (based on the titles of publication)? These questions may sound familiar to you. They often have to be addressed in postdoctoral grants, and some of them can even be asked during academic job interviews. These tough questions deserve well-thought answers. Take some time to think about the reasons why you chose to publish in particular journals (e.g. your results were interesting for a specific research community), and to have a grasp on the impact of those publications on your field of study. This exercise will prepare you for the research statements you might need to write in the near future.

Network.

Be visible: Everyone agrees that you should be known in your field by the time you apply for jobs. An easy way to accomplish this goal is to go out of your lab: go to conferences, conference dinners, department lunches, post-talk dinners, and socialize with guest speakers.

One step at a time: You should start attending conferences and workshops as early as possible. There are easy steps you can take to build your own network over the years (and avoid being stuck in your PI’s shadow). As a gentle introduction to the academic world, when you attend your first conferences, you can chat with students or researchers who are at the same stage as you. During a local conference/workshop, people are quickly familiar to one another, so you can get to know people much more easily than at big international conferences that can be a bit impersonal for newcomers. Nevertheless, you do need to attend and to present your work at international conferences. Giving a talk is great to get some recognition and to be known in your field, since a lot of people can attend. Presenting a poster also has its advantages: you get to talk one-on-one, have direct feedback, and brainstorm for future ideas. Have a sign-up sheet at your poster to collect emails; this will give you the opportunity to write to key people that are interested in your work afterwards (e.g. you can send them your poster, then your paper a few months later). Once you know some people in your field, you can contact them ahead of a conference to arrange for coffee or lunch, and don’t hesitate to set up lab visits whenever you travel.

Remember that building a network is not the same as making friends. According to CNRS junior researcher Alex Cristia, it’s more about advancing knowledge and getting some recognition for your work. You can boost your publications’ value by presenting your work at conferences, by sharing it (by email) with researchers in your field, or even by announcing when your new paper is out (via blogs, twitter, etc.). You can set up lab visits whenever you travel, or even invite an interesting researcher to present in your lab or department if you know they are in town (you can put your PI in CC if you’re a grad student). 

During our workshop, researcher Christina Bergmann talked about how having an online presence is important, and how it can be used to create and maintain a research network.  For more info, read her blog post, and if you want more good tips on networking styles, read this other post. After meeting someone at a conference, I often end up looking for their website to get more information. You need a webpage, and a well-structured one. For example, you should sort your publications by categories (in some fields: conference proceedings, peer-reviewed journals, papers for the general public,etc.). Check out Alya’s post on this topic.

Collaborate.

There are many good reasons to start a collaboration, such as getting access to rare populations of subjects/patients or to other kind(s) of data, learning new skills, etc. CNRS junior researcher Valentin Wyart prefers to collaborate if he can learn new skills along the way. According to him, it’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses (we all have both!) and find complementary collaborators (to overcome your weaknesses). When you approach someone, think ahead of time and send a proposal (not a blank invitation to collaborate), and favor horizontal collaborations (because senior collaborators often get credited for the output).  In general, you should spell out the expected contributions from each collaborator early on to avoid authorship issues, as well as the time you can allocate to the project. As a PhD candidate, you should talk to your PI before committing to be aboard a project that is not part of your dissertation. Postdocs have more freedom to join in on different projects, but you have to be careful to not have too much on your plate.

Be a mentor (and a teacher).

You definitely need to fill the teaching and mentoring section of your CV. Depending on your school, you might end up having lots of teaching opportunities or none. Be careful about your load of teaching duties –class preparation is time consuming. If you cannot manage to be a teaching assistant, you can be creative and create your own short course or workshop in your department. For instance, at our department, PhD candidates and postdocs often organize short workshops (e.g. on Mixed-effect models, Psychtoolbox, Inkscape). Ask your PI is you can co-supervise a junior member of the lab on a small project linked to your dissertation, or to your postdoc project.

Look out for prizes and awards.

Be proactive for the prizes and awards – they will not fall from the sky. Look up the CVs of people in your field: what do they have in this section? Besides PhD and postdoc scholarships, there are many possibilities: student presentation prizes at conferences, travel grants, and lots of prizes targeting PhDs (e.g. 3MT, Danceyour PhD). Even if you don’t succeed, you will learn a lot from trying.

Keep other options in mind.

If you want to leave academia, there are many options for you in the industry. As Vasilisa Skvortsova and Christian Lorenzi told us, there are many research-oriented companies looking to hire employees that can program or create a new software, analyze and interpret experimental results, write (experiment protocols and scientific reports), communicate effectively, etc. Your academic skills are a good asset!

Mireille Babineau

Mireille is a postdoctoral researcher at the LSCP, at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. She is interested in how young children acquire language and learn to map new words to their meaning.