Finished PhD; informally meeting with a prof in a different field?
April 22, 2013 12:29 PM   Subscribe

Just got a PhD, don't have a new position lined up, meeting a prof, no obvious goal for conversation, have questions.

I have just finished an engineering PhD, and I'm going to be with my lab for a few more months to submit some papers from my diss. (I have no publications, yet.)

Since forever, I've been interested in "X" and "Y" though I didn't know that's what they were called. While following my interests wherever they led, I came across a prof at a nearby institution who studies these things, and she has agreed to meet with me to chat.

I'm trying to figure out how to get the most out of this interaction. At minimum, I'm hoping I can tell her a little bit about my interests and get recommendations for interesting stuff to read that I didn't already see from reading her publications. At maximum, I would like a mentor who would hire me as a postdoc and help me become competitive for a tenure track position.

As for the minimum, this is a highly productive full professor, and I am an amateur, armchair enthusiast, and I'm concerned about wasting her time.

As for the maximum, it doesn't seem like this is likely to be in the cards. She doesn't seem to have a major grant based on my searching the NSF and NIH databases, though I think she's funded through various private institutions. And, she's not advertising for a postdoc or anything.

But, between those two extremes, I'm wondering if there might be an opportunity for me. She and her collaborators do a lot of combined research and outreach in the community, and it seems like there might be ways they could use extra manpower for analysis, statistics, and writing. But, I have to be thinking about a career track that's somewhat commensurate with my educational investment, at least in end-game. So I don't know if I should even pursue this if there's something available.

My advisor is nudging me towards research scientist positions and industry, but I want to make sure I explore some non-obvious and serendipitous stuff, too.

So, I guess my question is:

Were you a newly-minted PhD, and you didn't know what you wanted to do next? And you were clearly not ready for a tenure track position, if ever, and were sort of blah about a wide range of obvious jobs and careers? But, you were self starter with lots of eclectic interests--and you managed to create a career out of nothing, based on conversations with kind but ultimately indifferent people in positions of power?

How did you do this? What happened?

I'm reading through her recent publications and trying to figure out where she's heading next. And I'm thinking about how to frame my diss work in a way that would be attractive to her goals. And I'm preparing to ask lots of questions about what she and her collaborators are doing. I'll have my diss defense talk ready to go in the slight chance she wants to hear about it.

Anyway, I'm going to treat this like an informational interview while simultaneously portraying myself positively.

Am I missing anything in how I should think about this and how I should prepare? This is definitely going to be a shot in the dark. I'd like to have fun but be respectful and make the most of it.
posted by zeek321 to Work & Money (8 answers total)
 
You will have no trouble getting an academic to talk about her work. Read her pubs, ask good questions, and she'll instinctively know that in addition to enjoying a good conversation, you're angling for some career advice or job leads. She knew that's what you were up to when you scheduled the chat, so that's OK.
posted by Crotalus at 12:41 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm no kind of Ph.D., but you should go see this Professor.

When you first get there, say, "I'm so pleased you could see me, I'm really excited to speak with you, approximately how much time do we have together?" That way if she has a hard stop you can respect her time and measure yours correctly.

Just talk to her like a person. Tell her how much you've enjoyed her books and articles, enthuse a bit about your shared interests and then ask her if she has any ideas about what your next steps can be.

Don't show up and throw up. Don't talk to her about what you've done except in the most vague ways. Let her talk. The more people talk, the more they invest in you, and the more they want to help you.

If she asks about your dissertation, for sure, distill it for her, again, don't whip it out and start pointing stuff out.

I'd pretty much say exactly what you've said here, "Were you a newly-minted PhD, and you didn't know what you wanted to do next? And you were clearly not ready for a tenure track position, if ever, and were sort of blah about a wide range of obvious jobs and careers? But, you were self starter with lots of eclectic interests--and you managed to create a career out of nothing, based on conversations with kind but ultimately indifferent people in positions of power?"

This is a perfectly natural way to feel after an intense decade of study. I'm sure she'll have some words of wisdom for you, and some ideas of where you can take your degree and have the most fun with it.

At the end of your talk, express your gratitude and say, "I'd love to meet with you again sometime." That leaves the door open.

Follow up with a thank you. Email is fine.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:44 PM on April 22, 2013


Sounds like you actually have plenty of goals for the conversation. Don't get overwhelmed.

Having been in a very similar position, I would advise you to take your maximum goal (a postdoc with her) off the table, mentally, for this meeting. Instead, direct your efforts to getting a position with someone in your desired field, and view this meeting as but a single step in that direction.

It sounds like you're well-prepared to discuss her work -- make sure you can discuss your own work and ideas without leaking too much negativity (e.g., belaboring your lack of publications, underlining your inexperience in this subfield, etc.). Make it clear that you're looking for a research position in the field. If there's a reason that you want to stay local rather than search more broadly for positions, you might let that drop as well.

If she has regular group meeting, ask if you can sit in. This will give you a sense of the funding situation and provide opportunities for you to worm yourself in. I'm not in engineering, but in my STEM field, it's totally standard to have such peripherally associated people attend a group meeting, and it can lead to real opportunities.

Finally, get her recommendation about what conferences and workshops you might attend. You may be able to find something this summer that you could still get in to. Aim for smallish meetings with a high percentage of people in your field, even if you're worried that you'll be outclasses by the people there -- I'm currently in a postdoc which is a direct result of attending such a meeting.

Don't show up and throw up. Don't talk to her about what you've done except in the most vague ways. Let her talk. The more people talk, the more they invest in you, and the more they want to help you.

This is very good advice.

Good luck!
posted by inkfish at 12:46 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


A minimum achievable goal is to plant your name in her mind as a potential colleague who is available for opportunities, whether postdocs or in industry, so by all means be up-front about what you're looking for. She may not have any positions right now, but she might in the future, and she might know people that do. I also think you should have a goal of getting introductions to other colleagues that are working in this space. Try to connect to her professional network, in other words.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:09 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was in a very similar situation a little over a year ago. Engineering PhD, not sure where to go.

I met with an assistant professor in another mostly unrelated discipline about some work they were doing that was getting into my discipline, though nothing related to my dissertation work. After a couple talks it ended up with me being offered a postdoc, I turned it down to take a government job, but I wonder about it sometimes as a path not taken.

Just go in, be friendly, be informed, and see what happens. Good luck!
posted by pseudonick at 1:37 PM on April 22, 2013


When I was a newly minted PhD I didn't know what I wanted to do. Actually I had an idea what I wanted to do, but couldn't think of anyone who would pay me to do it (perils of being passionate about a very fringe bit of a discipline).

I drifted sideways into a few different roles, including policy research at a government research institution which made me a national expert on something I knew nothing about before I did that job, and a post-doc which sounded fascinating but was a complete disaster and waste of three years. Now I'm very happily employed as a researcher by the government for something else that I really knew nothing about before I started.

I don't know much about the specifics of engineering PhDs, but the transferability of skills learned in doing a (social science) PhD has certainly helped me get jobs in not-directly-related fields. If you're interested in something and you think you can contribute in a meaningful way to research in that thing, then I'd say go for it. You never know what you might end up offering the field.

No substantial academic (who isn't a complete dick) is going to not want to talk to you about their field. They may not have jobs, but they likely know all of the people who do. And the jobs might be out there, but maybe you're just looking in the wrong place and they can give you some tips on where to look, or who is doing the interesting work. Or they might just give you a different way to think about how you might fit in.

Basically if they've agreed to talk to you about something they do and you're really interested in, there is no way you can lose. Worst case scenario is you'll just have a fun chat.
posted by damonism at 5:58 AM on April 23, 2013


It might be helpful to tell us the general field this professor is in, or at least just how far it is from your current field. You mention NIH, so presumably she's a biologist of some sort?

I wouldn't write off the potential for getting a postdoc in this field. (Good) scientists are always looking for interesting collaborators, especially interdisciplinary ones, and people who can bring new techniques and directions into their labs, so you could be a pretty attractive postdoc candidate. So, if the conversation is going well, you should ask her if she knows about specific funding opportunities that might apply to someone like you, and possibly do some research on this ahead of time. For instance, depending on the field, things like this R21 FOA might be appropriate, and might be the sort of thing someone in her field might not be prepared to apply for without someone like you in their lab working on it. Likewise, if the conversation goes well and she seems potentially open to the idea, you can follow up with an email that probes whether she'd be willing to take you as a postdoc contingent on getting your own funding (either immediately or after some period of time.)

Finally, if you want to figure out who in this field DOES have NIH funding and might be able to take you as a postdoc, doing a keyword search at NIH Reporter can be very helpful.

Best of luck. I changed fields for my postdoc (though maybe not as distantly as you want to) and it's been an incredibly great exprience intellectually.
posted by juliapangolin at 7:52 AM on April 23, 2013


Thank you, everyone!! Still watching this thread.
posted by zeek321 at 7:53 AM on April 23, 2013


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