Catching Fire: The Quest for a Postdoc

Posted in Graduate School

Mockingjay 1So, you survived “The Hunger Games” and landed an internship. The rest is downhill from here on out, right? If you are likely to be in the market for a postdoc, maybe not. Read on to see how I discovered the postdoc search to be much like an internship sequel that rivals the Hunger Games.

 1) Just when you’re starting your Victory Tour, your name gets called again. Like Katniss and Peeta, you arrive after the internship “games” grateful and relieved, ready to bask in the victory. Almost as soon as your anxiety comes down and you aren’t looking over your shoulder every few minutes for another obstacle, your name gets called again in the lottery. It’s time to select a postdoc. Not more than a couple months into your internship training, you have to reassess your skills, ask for reference letters, and choose sites. I have heard of some interns being asked on day one where they want to go on postdoc. In many cases, you haven’t even obtained the skills or experiences you need for postdoc upon application. This is especially true if you are slotted to complete specialty training in the second half of the internship year and are planning to apply for a specialty postdoc (e.g., trauma, neuropsychology, geropsychology). It’s hard to focus on the skills and training you are taking on during internship, your anxiety increases again, and your focus is on the next games instead of where you are. But, unless you’re positive you won’t need a license, know you’ll move to and stay indefinitely in a state that has passed sequence of training (i.e., you don’t need a postdoc), or are open to securing an informal postdoc, your name will be called again. It’s time to buck up for round two.

2) First to the Cornucopia gets the best tools. Similarly to the Hunger Games, in round two you’re at an advantage if you are among the first to, well, everything. Depending on the size of your internship class and supervisor pool, being the first to ask for recommendation letters is to your advantage as some people (think Training Directors) may be inundated with asks. For sites with rolling applications, the first to apply are the first interviewed, and therefore the first offered positions. Unlike internship, you are almost always competing for one or two slots, and the competition is steep. When you are offered an interview, sometimes you get a single day or a few days to make it there. For one site, I received an interview offer Thursday and was asked if I could come the next day to interview. If not, my next choice was Monday, Tuesday, or nothing. If you have things holding you back from the postdoc Cornucopia (e.g., limited time off from internship, lack of funds, other interviews), it’s even harder to get there first.

3) The quicker you figure out the Arena’s hidden traps the more likely you’ll survive. The Gamemakers of postdoc don’t always play fair, and there are lots of traps along the way. APPIC has a postdoc matching system that is highly underutilized by sites and the result is a kind of free for all. Depending on when one site’s applications are due and interviews are set, it is very possible that you could have an offer for a postdoc at one site before you even get an offer to interview at your first choice. Within the VA system, you typically have 24 to 48 hours to accept or decline an offer, putting applicants in the impossible position of accepting an offer that may be less preferable or chancing it and hoping they get a more preferred spot later. The alternative is accepting an offer and backing out later, something that is not looked on favorably for a young professional, but the system almost forces people into. Because there is no set notification date, sites are in direct competition to grab stellar applicants, and many sites continue to push their applications sooner in the year. In the VA system, there has been a push to follow uniform notification day, but on more than one occasion I was blatantly told that sites were not following the recommendation so they could make offers before others. It also seems more and more common that a site’s current interns are preferred and offered positions. While intuitively a known entity may be preferable to an unknown entity, sites cannot say outright that they prefer their own interns. If you are unaware of this like I was, you will spend hundreds of dollars buying plane tickets, hotels, food, etc. to attend an interview for a position you are unlikely to get. Many contend that in-person interviews are the way to go, but I highly recommend considering alternative options (e.g., telephone, skype) if the site allows for it. Ask training directors who their most recent postdocs are and where they came from before you invest more precious time and money. Lastly, in my experience many VAs are moving to competency-based interviews. For people like me who are pursuing specialty postdocs but aren’t getting their respective specialty rotation on internship until the last 6 months, you are at a disadvantage. I felt less confident in my ability to answer specialty-based questions and couldn’t provide the depth of case examples from internship in trauma that many of my competitors could. While most sites say they understand your situation, it makes sense to pick the more experienced person. Study up on your specialty (e.g., updated literature), prepare detailed case examples, and ask your internship site if there is any flexibility to add in specialty experience to your first rotation.

4) You need allies and gift givers in the Arena. Just like internship, you need good mentors and allies to help you make decisions, improve your application, and write letters of recommendation. Hopefully you have kept in contact with a few supervisors from graduate school, because odds are you will be in need of another letter of recommendation from someone who has known you longer than a couple months. You’ll need mentors to help you decide which postdoc is best for your training needs and long term goals. Your internship cohort can be a great place to find support and proofread cover letters. Similarly to internship, you are likely going to have to spend a money that you don’t really have based on an internship stipend. Ask friends to crash at their apartments, save money as soon as possible, and look for alternative travel options (e.g., bus, rental car, train/amtrak).

5) Right when you feel like you are about to be destroyed by a jolt of lightning, your genius saves the day. The stress and anxiety of postdoc are considerable, particularly if you are juggling more than one offer in the span of a day or two while waiting to hear from other sites. You may have just moved to a new city and are already having to consider where you will move next, possibly for another single year stay. If you have a significant other or family to consider, the stress is even higher. While waiting for interviews, it may feel like you won’t find a good fit or even get an offer. But, if you are prepared and thoughtful, the odds are likely in your favor to land a good training spot. No matter what happens in the first round, don’t panic. Tons of sites come up with postdocs at the middle and end of the year, so you will have other options. Again, however, for many specialty training programs, the best sites have a standard application process that begins early in the year.

I can only speak from my own experience, but I found the postdoc application process to be more stressful (over a shorter time period) than internship applications. I felt relatively confident in my ability to obtain an internship, but I did not feel as prepared for the postdoc system. It was a shock to fall right back into feelings of insecurity and uncertainty so soon after the internship match. It’s also important to consider the sites and type of training you are looking for in a postdoc. I was strictly in the VA system and applying only to trauma-focused training sites. Other opportunities (e.g., informal postdocs, postdocs later in the year) exist for those who may have less specific training goals. Regardless of your training needs, good luck fellow travelers. May the (postdoc) odds be ever in your favor.


Top Division Programs for Students at Convention

Posted in Advice, Graduate School

Although APAGS will be sure to keep you busy with our lineup of fantastic programming and events at our upcoming Convention in DC, we are also providing you a redux of other sessions out there to help you make the most of your time and make tough decisions. For the third year in a row, we have assembled and sorted a list of top student-focused programs sent to us by APA’s many Divisions as well as the Science Student Council (SSC). Sessions are sorted by the following subjects:

  •  Public Interest / Practice / Healthcare
  •  Research / Academic
  •  Diversity Focus
  •  Professional Development
  •  Social / Networking Event

Please download this PDF: Top Division Programs for Students 2014. Limited printed copies will also be available at the APAGS Booth at the Convention Center. See you in DC!

Div Cover


Five Reasons to Go To Convention

Posted in Graduate School

Going to Convention is an important graduate school experience. There are lots of benefits, and not just for the reasons your professors tell you!

1- Exposure to a wide variety of content

Yes, this is one of the reasons faculty say that Convention is important, but it’s true; Convention gives you the chance to hear perspectives of other psychologists who you don’t see every day.  You might even have the chance to hear one of your psychology idols present.  If you see a presentation you like, take the opportunity to introduce yourself to the presenter.  More than likely they will be happy to talk about their line of research and point you in the direction of additional material you will find interesting.

2- Networking

The APA Convention boasts the largest concentration of Psychologists in North America (probably).  What better place to hunt for future employment?  Whether you have your dream job in mind or you need to work out what your dream job is, Convention is the place to do it.  The phrase “network to get work” always sounded cliché to me… until I landed a job because of conference networking!

3- Get Experience Convention-ing

Do you feel like a tiny fish in a huge ocean when you go to conferences?  Are you intimidated by the sheer size of the Convention Program book? It sounds like you have Convention Anxiety Disorder (DSM VII, pending), a common condition for many Convention attendees.  You’ll spend the rest of your career attending one kind of conference or another, so what do you do?  Why not come to Convention, one of the only conferences that has programming for students, by students specifically designed to ease you into Convention?  Check out the APAGS Making the Most of Convention session (for tips and tricks about navigating Convention), or the Flying Solo Social (for students attending Convention alone to connect with each other).  You’ll be a seasoned Convention-er in no time.

4- Excuse for a vacationMP900441060[1]

For busy graduate students, the excuse to travel to another city can be a mini-vacation (without the guilt of being away from your computer; Convention attendance counts as professional development after all).  Convention is always in a big city with lots of interesting local sites to go visit, especially this year.  There will be plenty to see in DC and many of the sites are free.  Take some time before, after, or even during Convention to explore a little.  If you register for Convention you will receive the APAGS Survival Guide which will outline many recommended sites and their pricing.

APAGS 2013 Social at the Hotel Modern in Honolulu, HI

APAGS 2013 Social at the Hotel Modern in Honolulu, HI

5- The APAGS social

And now the real reason to come to Convention!  The APAGS Convention Committee and staff always work incredibly hard to throw an awesome social for graduate students- and, not to brag, but we nail it.  Hanging with old friends, meeting new ones, letting loose and having a good time is always the best part of my Convention. This year is sure to be legendary- located at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on August 7th. Be sure you don’t miss it!

Research – Get Involved!

Posted in Advice, Graduate School

Getting involved in research is an important and often necessary way to get prepared for graduate school in psychology. Research opportunities are usually available as long as you know where to look. Every year numerous students ask me questions about research opportunities – I hope this helps our blog readers better understand how to navigate this process.

Where to look for research opportunities

A great place to begin looking is your academic department’s website. I always encourage my students to read the faculty members’ profiles on our department’s website. This will help you get an idea of the research interests of your faculty. Decide which faculty members’ interests best match your interests. Then email the faculty member asking if you can meet with them to discuss their research and ways you might be able to get involved. Some faculty members will let you know they are not currently accepting any new students to their labs, other faculty members might not have research teams but might be willing to collaborate on a project with you. Some will immediately invite you to the next research team meeting, and some will schedule a meeting for you to come in and discuss your interests and determine your fit to the team.

  • If for some reason you are not able to join a research team with one of your department’s faculty, don’t hesitate to look outside of your department. I have a large research team of 15 students and half of these students are not from my department. If you plan to pursue research opportunities outside of your department you would do so similarly to how I’ve described looking for research opportunities in your department: think about fields of study you are interested in, go to that department’s website to read about faculty research interests, and then email faculty members.

Why finding research experience is important

Research is very important to the field of psychology. Psychologists are consumers of research, as our clinical work is influenced by research findings. Psychologists are also researchers, as research is the force that propels the field forward. Considering that research is important to the field, it is an important aspect of graduate training. If you plan to apply to graduate school in psychology, research experience helps graduate programs assess your preparedness for graduate training. Your involvement on a research team demonstrates your authentic interest in research and it suggests that you have more advanced skills than students who do not have research team experience. When reviewing doctoral applications for admission to the doctoral program I work in, I am always evaluating the applicant’s previous research experience.

So now that you know that getting involved in research is an important thing to do, you might be wondering what you will be getting yourself into. Being an active member on a research team can be very rewarding (I promise!).

  • First, something that should not be discounted, you gain exposure to the research process. I have found that some students have misconceptions about what research is and conclude that they are not interested in research because of this misinformation. In reality, research is very exciting, intellectually stimulating, and a strong vehicle for promoting social justice (get involved to find out how)!
  • Secondly, you can gain training and firsthand experience on how to conduct a research study from start to finish. You learn how to design a study (e.g., create research questions and hypotheses, select measures, review literature, etc.). You can gain experience in data collection, data entry, data analyses, manuscript writing, grant writing, and presenting research in public forums and at professional conferences.

If you are an undergraduate…Fundamentally, participation on a research team provides exposure to the research process. Having a history of participation in research gives you a strong background for entrance to graduate school. Participation on a research team also provides a way to network with professors. These professors will be great candidates to write letters of recommendation for graduate school or future employment.

If you are a master’s student…Research experience will be helpful when you conduct your own independent research (i.e., master’s thesis). Research team experience also helps you compete for entry in doctoral programs that have a scientist-practitioner model of training. Admissions to doctoral level graduate programs typically involve an assessment of your research interests and skills. Applicants are typically asked to talk about their research experience, and what they did specifically on past research teams. Participation in research with professors other than your advisor is a great way to learn alternate views of what research looks like, and is a great way to ensure strong letters of recommendation for future endeavors.

If you are a doctoral student…Research experience prepares you for your doctoral thesis, and helps an advanced student learn how to go about assembling her own research team to gather dissertation data. Research experience also helps in the realm of professional development by giving doctoral students the opportunity to present research at professional conferences and participate in the publication of manuscripts in scholarly journals. Research team experience prepares the soon-to-be-academic for assembly of their own research team once tenure track employment begins (there is life after grad-school)!

My hope is that you are thinking about research and how you can (need) to get involved. Involvement in research is critical in shaping the next generation of researchers – you!

Editor’s note: This post was written by Shannon Chavez-Korell, PhD; Assistant Professor, Counseling Psychology; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It originally appeared on the Multicultural Mentoring blog by the Society of Clinical Psychology’s Section on the Clinical Psychology of Ethnic Minorities. (APA Division 12, Section 6). It is reposted here with generous permission. Over time, you will see all eight original posts on gradPSYCH Blog.


The Academic Hunger Games: Are the Odds in Your Favor?

Posted in Advice, Graduate School, Training Issues

One of my favorite movies of 2013 was Mockingjay 1Catching Fire, the film adaptation of the second book of the Hunger Games trilogy. Reflecting on this movie, I started to think about how graduate school could be seen as an academic version of the Hunger Games. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie or read the book, here’s a quick summary (please note there are spoilers throughout the column):

  • The Hunger Games are set in a dystopian future of the US (named Panem), where a central Capitol District has maintained power over 12 districts (e.g. states) that rebelled against the Capitol 75 years ago.
  • Districts have limited resources and people are kept starving and poor.
  • As a punishment to the districts for rebelling against the Capitol, each year the districts must provide one male and female teenager, known as tributes, to compete in the “Hunger Games”, which is a televised battle in which they fight to the death.
  • The last surviving tribute is the victor, who earns riches, a luxurious new home in their district, and becomes a mentor to future tributes from his/her district.
  • The books are told from the perspective of Katniss Everdeen, a teenage tribute and eventual co-victor (along with Peeta Mellark) from District 12, the poorest district of Panem. Her key to success was her excellence in archery, a skill she developed so she could hunt to feed her family.

At first glance, this sounds very different from graduate school. However, there may be more than meets the eye. There is growing evidence that there are not enough tenure track positions for all the doctorates being produced.  Among all fields of study (including psychology), fewer graduates are landing tenure track positions. Universities are replacing more tenure track positions with adjunct instructors.

While harsh, the academic universe is not quite as bad as the world in the Hunger Games. The prize many victorious doctoral students want for surviving the rigors of graduate school is a tenure track position. While there are not enough faculty positions for every graduate, the ratio is probably better than 1 in 24, the odds in the Hunger Games.

So what can you do to improve your odds in the academic Hunger Games? Here are my thoughts:

  • Ally with your colleagues. Katniss survived Peeta 1both Hunger Games by building alliances with fellow tributes. How can you build alliances in graduate school? One way might be to develop collaborative projects with fellow students. Funding agencies are putting more preference to collaborative, large scale projects, and developing those relationships early in training can help you. In addition, you might be able to generate more publications by collaborating with colleagues.
  • Learn helpful skills. By being a great archer, Katniss was able to fend for herself in the Hunger Games and ultimately win. How can this apply to graduate study? Think about what skills could help you land your dream academic job. Departments are always looking for someone to teach statistics and research methods; getting experience in this while in graduate school could put the odds in your favor of landing a tenure track position. Other skills might include interdisciplinary knowledge or cutting edge research techniques (such as fMRI). Think about what skills you want to learn that could set yourself apart in a job application, and make a plan to learn those skills!
  • Advocate for more resources. One difference from the Hunger Games is that in the academic games we have the capacity to advocate for change. Increased funding for science research at the federal level and increased funding for public universities at the state level could change the playing field for doctoral education. You can make a change by responding to action alerts from APA and other psychology organizations.
  • Create an alternative path to victory. Finally, you don’t have to play the game the way we are expected to. In the first book, Katniss and Peeta refused to play the game as told, and were able to survive after threatening to kill themselves (which would deprive the games of a victor). Professors train us to become future faculty and some put down alternative career paths. However, if you don’t want to play the academic Hunger Games, your doctoral training gives you options that can take you out of the arena. For some, that is going into health service psychology (getting licensed and practicing). For others, it could mean nontraditional careers. The Odd Jobs column in gradPSYCH features psychologists in unique job settings, such as Cirque du Soleil, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, or Wikimedia Foundation. With a doctorate in psychology, you have a skill set that can take you out of the arena and onto a different path. You don’t have to play the game that is presented in front of you!

Katniss 1Although graduate school may be tough and grueling, your future doesn’t have to be as hopeless as those in the Hunger Games. So build your skill set, cultivate alliances, and as they say in the Hunger Games, “May the odds be ever in your favor!”