Starting Your Postdoc Hunt: When and How to Prepare

Posted By: Rohit Thakur, Marie Sklodowska-Curie research fellow, University of Leeds, United Kingdom

“What are your plans after PhD”? – one of the most daunting and stressful questions often asked to graduate students. For many pursuing a career in academia, the obvious next step is a postdoctoral position.

The ideal time to start applying for postdocs is one year away from your graduation. At the beginning of the final year of my PhD, I made a list of institutes to explore. Based on this list, I directly contacted the principal investigators (PIs) whose work I found really exciting. After hearing back from them, I arranged a meeting with them to learn about their research. This provided a wonderful opportunity to network and establish professional relationships with them.

I also found the Conference to Career chat sessions with field experts extremely useful. At one of the sessions, Prof. Fred Winston shared very useful tips on setting criteria for choosing a postdoc lab, such as quality of mentorship, success rate of previous postdocs in academia, and publication rate of the lab. If you start early you are more likely to end up with multiple offers by the time you finish your PhD.

20180716_Rohit-poster
Mr. Thakur discusses his poster presentation with Martin Lauss, PhD, Lund University, at the 2017 Joint GenoMEL/BioGenoMEL/MELGEN Scientific Meeting (courtesy Mr. Thakur)

Don’t Underestimate Geography

Starting a postdoc hunt can be overwhelming, given the numerous places a graduate student can potentially apply to. It can become easier if you can think about where (geographically) you would like to do a postdoc. After identifying a region, you just have to locate the productive labs that do the science that you find exciting.

Network, Network, Network!

If you are going to a conference, write to PIs beforehand whose work you find interesting. Network with them by inviting them to your poster and follow up with them afterward.

Start Your Application Early

Visit lab websites of PIs who you are interested in working with and pay close attention to the lab’s current interests required skills for postdocs. Use this time to develop a skill that will increase your visibility as a potential candidate. Write PIs an informal query about potential postdoc positions to PIs, including your CV and cover letter, and get your material proofread by your mentor and colleagues.

Get Your PhD Research Paper Ready to Submit

Showcasing your PhD research is a great way to convince future PIs about your skills and your ability to lead a project independently. If you have a paper ready to be submitted to a journal, get its preprint out on bioRxiv and mention it on your CV.

Seek Advice and Feedback

If you are contacting a field expert, openly ask for feedback and advice about your current research project. This is a great way to interact and establish professional relationships with PIs.

Finally, get out of your comfort zone. Aim higher but be realistic. Keep applying until you land an offer from your dream lab. I would also recommend attending the ASHG/JAX Conference to Career Program for honing your networking skills.

Acknowledgments: I am highly thankful to my supervisors Jenny Barrett, PhD; Julia Newton-Bishop, MD, MBChB, FMedSci; Jeremie Nsengimana, PhD; and Göran Jönsson, PhD, for their exceptional mentorship; and European Commission Horizon 2020 program for funding my PhD.

Rohit Thakur, B. Tech, is a PhD Candidate at the University of Leeds. He has been an ASHG member since 2017.

 

Welcome HHMI-ASHG Fellow, Sarah Abdallah

Posted By: Ann Klinck, ASHG Communications and Marketing Assistant

ASHG is excited to be partnering with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) for the HHMI-ASHG Medical Research Fellowship. We’re happy to welcome third-year Yale medical student, Sarah Abdallah, to the position.

Sarah Abdallah headshot
Sarah Abdallah, HHMI-ASHG Medical Research Fellow (Courtesy Ms. Abdallah)

This program allows medical, dental, and veterinary students to take a year off from training and perform mentored laboratory research with support of a grant. “Our hope is that the experience will ignite students’ passion for research and encourage them to pursue careers as physician-scientists,” says David Asai, HHMI’s senior director for science education in a press release.

Sarah was interested in the fellowship because “it seemed to provide access to a community of scientists and to enriching experiences on top of my research, like attending conferences and meetings.”

Sarah’s research is focused around obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Specifically, it involves looking for post-zygotic variants in whole-exome sequencing data from individuals with OCD and their parents. These variants arise spontaneously and are not inherited from parents. By identifying the post-zygotic variants, it may be possible to understand the contribution of such variation to OCD development, identify risk genes, and eventually find new treatments.

“I am hoping this project will contribute to the collective understanding of the genetic basis of OCD. Many people with OCD do well, but I have seen firsthand how it can present as a very disabling, persistent disorder, and current pharmacologic treatments are not completely effective for all patients,” Sarah said.

ASHG member and Sarah’s primary mentor, Thomas Fernandez, MD, is an assistant professor in the Child Study Center and of Psychiatry at Yale. Another ASHG member and her co-mentor, James Noonan, PhD, is an associate professor of genetics at Yale.

During her fellowship, Sarah is hoping to gain more experience in computational genomics and is seeking guidance on how to combine her clinical and research interests into a career. She trusts that people like Dr. Fernandez will be able help her find the right path. She is considering a career in child psychiatry and pediatrics, but “either way, I hope to keep contributing to research on the genomics of neurodevelopmental disorders along with my clinical practice,” she said.

Launched 29 years ago, the HHMI Medical Research Fellows Program supports each Fellow through a year-long research project with a mentor of the Fellow’s choosing, and facilitates peer networking among Fellows and alumni as well as seminars with senior investigators. For more information, see the Program website.

 

Networking Session was Great! What’s Next?

Posted By: Rohit Thakur, Marie Sklodowska-Curie research fellow, University of Leeds, United Kingdom

During ASHG 2017, I participated in the Conference to Career program, organized by ASHG in collaboration with The Jackson Laboratory. The program taught various skills such as networking, elevator pitches, informational interviewing, and how to follow up effectively, some of which I highlighted on the MELGEN blog last month. Today, I wanted to focus on the aftermath of networking: The art of following up! Before I start recommending strategies, I wanted to share my experience of how effective follow-up can lead to wonderful opportunities.

20180308_C2C
Rohit Thakur (left) and colleague Joey Mark Diaz (right), participants in the ASHG/JAX Conference to Career Program (courtesy Mr. Thakur)

During the ASHG meeting, I was intrigued by a talk by Manolis Kellis, PhD, after which I prepared my elevator speech and talked to him about his group’s ongoing research. I was very interested in their machine learning approaches. Dr. Kellis was very kind and put me in touch with his graduate student. After returning from the conference, I followed up with Dr. Kellis, and that led to potential talks of collaboration between our groups. Dr. Kellis also offered to host me for a month-long internship in his group at MIT, which I accepted.

From my limited experience, I can say that effective follow-up is a necessary step towards building a strong network. Here are some recommended strategies.

Write an Email – 24 Hours’ Countdown

Follow up with people after networking by sending a personalized email within the next 24 hours, while the meeting is fresh in their minds. This email should include a thank you note and all the relevant information – articles, programming scripts, and anything else you had agreed to share after the networking session – and express interest in scheduling another meeting.

Connect with Them on Social Media

Social media has made it easy to connect with people from around the world, through platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, and ResearchGate. You can keep in touch by congratulating them for their recent achievements and recognitions, and wish them on other occasions such as birthdays, and the New Year.

Invite Them to Give a Seminar

If you are fascinated by someone’s work, you can always invite them for a department seminar. As a trainee, you can recommend speaker names to the head of your department suggesting why they should be invited and how it will benefit your department’s research. Not only will this strengthen your relationship with the speaker, but will also help in fostering collaborations between other trainees/researchers and the speaker.

Always Give First and Expect Nothing in Return

Networking is a team sport. You can follow up with people by offering them your help and suggestions in a constructive manner. If following up leads to a successful collaboration, then you should always give equal opportunity in decision making, leadership, responsibilities, and benefits.

20180308_MIT
L-R: Manolis Kellis, PhD; Mr. Thakur; and Alvin Shi, PhD Candidate at MIT (courtesy Mr. Thakur)

Acknowledgements: My project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 641458. I am highly thankful to my supervisors Jenny Barrett, PhD, Julia Newton-Bishop, MD, MBChB, FMedSci, Jeremie Nsengimana, PhD, and Göran Jönsson, PhD, for their exceptional mentorship and encouragement to expand my horizons. I am thankful to the organizers of the Conference to Career Program for developing networking skills of ASHG trainees and to Dr. Kellis for providing me with a wonderful learning opportunity in his group at MIT.

Rohit Thakur, B. Tech, is a PhD Candidate at the University of Leeds. He has been an ASHG member since 2017.

Expanding Role for Genetic Counselors: Good for Our Profession, Great for Our Patients

Guest Post By: Erica Ramos, MS, CGC, President-Elect, National Society of Genetic Counselors

As we observe the first annual Genetic Counselor Awareness Day on Nov. 9, I can’t help but be astonished by the changes in our profession and how they are shaping, and being shaped by, the exciting advances in how we diagnose and treat genetically-influenced conditions. As President-Elect of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC), I have never been more proud or excited to declare “I am a genetic counselor!” and share how we bring the voice of patients and clinicians to all areas and applications of genomics.

20171109_EricaRamos
Erica Ramos, MS, CGC (courtesy NSGC)

When I completed my genetic counseling training in 2001, I couldn’t have predicted that I would find myself working on the leading edge of clinical genomics. When I began working at a genomics biotechnology company in 2012, I was only the second genetic counselor on staff. According to the 2012 NSGC Professional Status Survey (PSS), a mere 0.5% of our profession was employed by R&D or biotechnology companies.

Four years later, the 2016 PSS showed this had doubled. Today, there are 17 genetic counselors at my company, working collaboratively with scientists, bioinformaticians, developers and executives, contributing our skills and expertise to areas such as medical affairs, market development, product marketing and strategic planning, and sharing the real-world impact that their work ultimately has on patients and their families.

Mine is just one example of genetic counselors’ expanding roles. We are leading patient-centered original research and are integral to Geisinger’s MyCode study, The Ohio State University’s Statewide Colon Cancer Initiative and All of Us, to name just a few. We are driving growth and change in clinic by branching into specialty areas including neurogenetics and psychiatric genetics. NSGC surveys tell the story: In the 10 years leading up to 2016, the number of specialty areas where genetic counselors work went from 14 to 33, a 135% increase.

Vast and exciting career opportunities are fantastic for the genetic counseling profession and ensure a bright future for those entering our field. But as good as this trend is for our profession and the 4,000 certified genetic counselors in the U.S., the benefits are even greater for other genomics professionals and, critically, to patients.

Genetic counselors have deep scientific and medical knowledge. Paired with our communications and counseling skills, we are a valuable resource in translating research advances in genetics and genomics to healthcare providers and patients. As media coverage of these advances expands, providers and patients often have questions about how these new discoveries impact their care. We unravel the complexities of research so that clinicians and patients receive clear, accurate and digestible information, regardless of their culture or background.

So, here’s to Genetic Counselor Awareness Day! Working together to improve appreciation and understanding of how we and our partners in genomics empower patients and their healthcare team and provide them with ever improving personalized attention and care.

Erica Ramos, MS, CGC, is President-Elect of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC). She has been a member of ASHG since 2014. 

How I Work: Brian Shirts

Posted By: Elisabeth Rosenthal, PhD, Member of the ASHG Communications Committee

We sat down with ASHG member Brian Shirts, MD, PhD, to learn more about his work at the cutting edge of clinical genetic diagnostics, including how his work intersects with his faith.

Processed with VSCOcam with b1 preset
Brian Shirts, MD, PhD. (courtesy Dr. Shirts)

ASHG: Tell us about your position and how it fits into your institution and its goals.

Brian: I am Assistant Professor of Laboratory Medicine at the University of Washington. Being in a clinical department means part of my job is doing clinical genetic testing in patients. Since I am at a university, the other part of my job is teaching and doing research. In order to have this position, I did medical school and doctoral training in human genetics. Then I did specialty training to be board certified in Clinical Pathology and Molecular Genetic Pathology. When I started graduate training, I did not know that the position I currently have existed. When I first met a physician who specialized in genetic diagnosis, I quickly realized, “That is what I wanted to do all along!”

Working at a university, I need to be on the cutting edge of clinical genetic diagnostics. I specialize in hereditary cancer testing and understanding the health effects of extremely rare genetic variants. When I say “extremely rare”, I mean genetic variants that I may see for the first time when I look at the results of a patient receiving clinical genetic testing, or a variant that may have only been seen in one or two other people in the world. In cancer risk genes, these variants are usually inherited and clustered in families, so I like to call them family-specific variants.

I am lucky because my research interests and my clinical work go well together. I spend over half of my time doing research and developing translational applications that will allow myself and others to apply my research discoveries to clinical diagnostics.

ASHG: How do you keep up with the latest in genetics science and use this in your work?

Brian: I try to attend the ASHG Annual Meeting and the Association for Molecular Pathology meeting as often as I can, as I think these are the best forums for the latest in genetics science and genetic diagnostics, respectively. I also read several journals and go to journal club presentations as often as I can.

ASHG: What are your favorite genetics websites?

Brian: I have to give a plug for my website on family studies for rare variant classification: findmyvariant.org. Some of my other favorite genetics websites for non-geneticists are: Genetics Home ReferenceLearn.Geneticsmy46, and Genetic Alliance.

ASHG: What are you currently reading/thinking about?

Brian: I am always thinking about how to apply population genetics principles to clinical diagnostics. For something completely different, I like to read the best books that my kids are reading. I am currently reading “Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire!” by Polly Horvath.

ASHG: What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your superpower?

Brian: When I go to church, others tell me that I have an extraordinary talent for asking appropriate yet thought provoking questions during Sunday School. Being an outspoken scientist in a faith community can be difficult to navigate, but communicating with people from different backgrounds is a really important skill to develop.

Brian Shirts, MD, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Laboratory Medicine at the University of Washington. He has been a member of ASHG since 2004.

How I Work: Kathryn Garber

Posted by: Staff

We sat down with ASHG member Kathryn (Kate) Garber, PhD, to learn more about her unusual, three-part job and how she keeps up with it all (hint: superpowers are involved).

ASHG: Tell us about your position and how it fits into your institution and its goals.

20170511_HowIWork-KateGarber
Kathryn (Kate) Garber, PhD. (courtesy Dr. Garber)

Kate: I have three main pieces to my job: teaching, working in a clinical genetic testing lab, and writing for The American Journal of Human Genetics (AJHG). The typical tenure-track academic job wasn’t right for me, but I love academia, and I’ve managed to evolve my job into something that suits me and that fills a niche in our department. Emory has a medical school and training programs for physician assistants and genetic counselors, and all of these students are required to learn human genetics during their training. I have been involved in the design and implementation of each of these programs, and I teach in all three every semester. As I’ve gained more experience, I’ve also been involved in oversight of the medical school program, which has been a great learning opportunity for me.

In the clinical genetic testing lab, I am a variant analyst, which means that I classify DNA sequence variation as being pathogenic (disease-causing) or not before it is reported back to the ordering physician and patient. I also respond to clients who have questions about a variant classification and regularly discuss our classifications with other testing laboratories to help ensure consistency between labs. This job involves a lot of computer work and reading, and I’m constantly learning about new genes and new conditions. To me, it feels like solving puzzles, and I find it very interesting.

Finally, I write a monthly column called “This Month in Genetics” for AJHG. I scan the literature each month to find articles that I think will be of interest to the human genetics community, and then I write a short summary for each. Although sometimes it feels like the deadlines come faster and faster, I can’t think of a better opportunity to stay widely-read and to work on my writing skills. Some of my favorite days are spent scanning tables of contents looking for papers that catch my eye. Although translating that excitement into a few short sentences can be tricky, it is great practice for me in delivering complex information succinctly.

ASHG: How do you keep up with the latest in genetics science and use this in your work?

Kate: My work with AJHG really helps with that! But I also use GenomeWeb to monitor what’s going on. Attending seminars on a wide variety of topics is also something I find valuable, particularly for keeping up with techniques.

ASHG: What are your favorite genetics websites?

Kate: OMIM (Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man) and GeneReviews. Both are go-to websites for me on a daily basis. OMIM does such a great job summarizing the literature on disease genes and is a quick reference for inheritance patterns and to find the phenotype associated with a gene. GeneReviews is a great place to find overviews written by experts that summarize clinically relevant information for a variety of genetic conditions. Both are extremely valuable sources of information for the work that I do.

ASHG: What are you currently reading/thinking about?

Kate: Chromatin domains and other higher order ways to control genes. And because of some of my classes, I’ve been thinking a lot about the latest and greatest treatment strategies for genetic disease, such as RNA-based therapies and gene therapy.

20170511_HowIWork-KateGarber-pedigree_cropped.jpg
An example of Kate’s PowerPoint pedigrees. (courtesy Dr. Garber)

ASHG: What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your superpower?

Kate: It’s not a broadly applicable skill, but useful for a geneticist: drawing pedigrees in PowerPoint.

Kathryn (Kate) Garber, PhD, is an Associate Professor at Emory University and Chair of the ASHG Communications Committee. She has been a member of ASHG since 2007.