“So, what are you going to do after you graduate?”

by Mary Beth Anzovino

The dreaded question for so many graduate students (perhaps second only to “so when are you going to graduate?”). Even if you have a sense of where you ultimately want to end up, career-wise, there is still a lot of uncertainty until you actually secure that position. 

In early 2013, my answer to that question was something along the lines of “I’m not sure what’s next, but ultimately I’d like to have a position as a faculty member, teaching organic chemistry and mentoring students in chemistry education research.”  I knew that postdoctoral research experience would be extremely helpful in obtaining such a job, but I wasn’t entirely sold on the idea of spending even more time in a transient position before searching for (and hopefully getting) a more long-term, and potentially permanent, position.  I took the long way through graduate school, drastically changing my research focus (from synthetic organic methodology to chemistry education) and effectively starting over after two years.  In early 2013, I had been working toward my Ph.D. for six and a half years, with the better part of a year left to go.  Graduate school is inherently temporary (even though it sometimes doesn’t feel that way!) and I felt like I was ready to do something with at least the potential for permanency.

So I did what I often do when it comes to big decisions: I solicited advice from people I trust.  In this case, those people were colleagues in the chemistry education research community. I talked to people who did postdoctoral research, asking them about what they took away from their experiences.  And I talked to people who went directly from graduate school to their first faculty position.  Obviously every person’s experience is going to be different, but everyone I talked to in both categories seemed really satisfied with their choice and spoke excitedly about their work either as a postdoc or as a faculty member.  Basically, either path still seemed like it could be the right one, so I had to engage in some more serious self-reflection.

I considered my own experiences as a graduate student.  For my dissertation research, I developed new general chemistry laboratory experiments and a survey instrument to assess the impacts of these new experiments on students’ awareness of and attitudes toward scientific research.  This work was mostly quantitative in nature.  But I had a lot of other ideas, unrelated to my dissertation project (and therefore filed away in the “to revisit in the future” list), that seemed more suited to qualitative research methods, with which I had very little experience.  Framed as “a year or two in which I could pursue some of my ideas and engage in a new kind of research under the guidance of a dedicated mentor,” it seemed silly that I would even consider not seeking out a postdoctoral position.

Getting a postdoc is similar to getting any other job in that there has to be a suitable position available at the right time. Although a lot of postdoc positions are advertised on a similar time frame to faculty job openings (in the fall, about a year prior to the desired start date), there are also positions announced throughout the year. As I was coming around to the idea of looking for a postdoc, there happened to be one available that sounded ideal for the kind of experience I hoped to gain: Stacey Lowery Bretz, at Miami University, was seeking a researcher and the position was not limited to a particular project, so I would have the opportunity to design my own research plan. After applying for the position and talking with Stacey about potential research ideas, we both decided I would be a good fit for her research group.

I have been at Miami since January 2014; thus far I have begun collecting data for a qualitative research project with organic chemistry students, providing a nice complement to my quantitative dissertation research with general chemistry students. I have also written manuscripts based on my dissertation work and begun to prepare for my eventual search for a faculty position. My time in the Bretz group has been an opportunity not only to do new and exciting research that I’ve had a significant role in designing, but also to wrap up remaining publications from my graduate work and more seriously contemplate what’s next – both in terms of the types of faculty positions I want to apply for and what kinds of research questions I want to attack in the future.

My biggest piece of advice to anyone considering a postdoc or looking for a postdoc position is the same advice I’d give to anyone looking for any kind of job: network, network, network!  Go to conferences, if you can, and participate in the Q&A after the talks.  If there is a topic that particularly interests you, try to connect with the speaker after the session ends and continue the conversation.  Make a point to meet and talk to new people at each conference.  Talk about your work, talk about their work, talk about your ideas, talk about their ideas…you may just stumble upon a common interest or a new approach to a particular problem or research question.  Ask them about their own experiences and what they gained from those experiences.  The members of the chemistry education research community come from a wide variety of backgrounds and I have yet to encounter someone who isn’t willing to take at least a few minutes to chat.

Mary Beth Anzovino is a postdoctoral researcher at Miami University in Oxford, OH. She earned a B.A. in chemistry from Williams College and a Ph.D. in chemistry, specializing in chemistry education research, from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.