Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Last few months as a student

Again I am in the transition period of my life, and this is a big one: the end of my student life. Technically speaking I am both student and research assistant and more importantly, I am paying taxes. So this semi-phase transition sounds less dramatic but it's actually not.

Very often a research project is led by a postdoc or a senior scientist and usually PhD student is focusing on executing the technical tasks. When the direction is well defined, you do the job quicker as you can feel day by day that you will reach there soon. Of course depending on which type of experiment, there are also many cases where PhD students are taking the lead.

My Postdoc Interview Experience

Finally my postdoc hunting season is over and it's time to share some of my experience. Usually to have a chance of promotion in the academic path, you will need to prove yourself in a field with different specialization than your current PhD. For example, in the field of experimental particle physics, hardware development-emphasized postdoc work if you have been working mainly in the software environment during your PhD work. But of course some of the work will still involved the current expertise that you have, so that you get to learn new skills and to polish and apply the previous skills that you have acquired. For these reasons, I have applied to the research groups working on physics different from what I am working on at the moment and also as diverse as possible in terms of the skills required.

There are about 4 topics coming up in my mind, which involved neutrino, neutron, anti-proton and muon particles. Quite wide isn't it? Each of them has different physics motivations and the similarity among them is that all of them are trying to answer the big questions about our universe - where is another source of CP violation, why neutrino is so light-weight, how symmetry are the matter and the anti-matter, and so on ...... Expertise that are required by the positions span from Monte Carlo simulation and offline data analysis to constructing an ion-trap and calorimeters. As diverse as the topics and the skills, the workplaces are also quite far away from each other, Switzerland, UK, Japan and the U.S. Even though staying at the same place will save you a lot of time moving around and settling down to a new environment, there are many unforeseen incident happening and in the end I will be going to the place furthest away from my current city.  While not mentioning which university and which group I have applied to, I would like to share some of the important things that I have learnt from my 4 postdoc interviews (2 face-to-face and 2 skype).

1) Keep your talk within the allocated time
I did a mistake during my 1st interview where I was a little bit slow in presenting my works.
Even though I managed to finish 1 of the projects and in the middle of the 2nd project I am involved in, this doesn't leave a good impression to the interviewers. Thanks to this experience, I did better or to say finished everything within the time limit and everybody was happy.

2) Never put any words that you don't fully understood on your slides
Usually there are not many people who is trying to test your knowledge about your field, but according to Murphy's law, anything can happen! I got a sharp question during my 3rd interview, well more than one question, and I wasn't expecting the questions to come in those directions. Luckily I managed to compensate it with my answers to many other questions but still it is destroying my mood. Thanks again to this experience, instead of taking them away, I have invested even more time trying to understand the concepts that I have been understanding only on the surface.

3) It's obvious but ask more about your future work or experiment
This point I believe will give a very good impression to your future boss/group that you are really interested to work in that project with them and you have done your homework. Usually the detail of an experiment is not fully covered in the publications and thus you should be able to figure out what are the questions to be asked. Asking about the schedule of the experiment is also very important as it shows that you are considering seriously the possibility of working in the group and incorporating the time schedule into part of your life.

4) Discuss with the people around you who you are close to (be it before the interview or after)
This is also extremely important to know what is the option of your colleagues regarding the future projects you are interested in. Since postdoc has the time limit and pressure to accomplish highly within 2-4 years, it is wiser to choose projects which can be done within the mentioned time span. As a fresh PhD graduates, very often it is difficult to judge where a given project can be completed within the allocated time. Consulting more senior members in the group will be the better idea and you need to be prepared that the opinions are usually 50:50 and you will have to make your own judgement. You are becoming an independent research now after all!

As a conclusion, don't be afraid of approaching people whom you are interested to work with. I have talked to more than 20 people since Feb this year and I get to know more about what's going on in my current field and also the other fields. Even if it doesn't work out for the 1st postdoc, you might be working together with them in the near future as a collaborator! So, make more friends and enjoy doing research!