*Virtual Offices Hours - Postdoc


ASA Committee on Career Development – Virtual Office Hours – Postdocs
Elizabeth Mannshardt and Claire McKay Bowen

ASA Committee on Career Development (CCD) held its first rounds of Virtual Office Hours  (VOH) for 2020, focused on Postdoc Positions.  It featured statisticians that have held postdocs as well as professors that may have advice for future postdocs and/or offer positions at their institution. Questions included insights on the interview process, finding a postdoc mentor, pros and cons of choosing the postdoc path, and how and where to find postdoc positions.  The CCD postdoc VOH featured Murali Haran (Penn State), Ofer Harel (University of Connecticut), and Yawen Guan (University of Nebraska) and was moderated by Elizabeth Mannshardt (US EPA); the second CCD VOH showcased Brian Reich (North Carolina State University), Veronica Berrocal (UC Irvine), and Howard Chang (Emory University) and was moderated by Claire McKay Bowen (Urban Institute).  The CCD postdoc VOH had over 30 participants, who were able to submit questions in advance as well as live during the session.  Recordings for both sessions can be found here (Session 1 and Session 2) and panelist bios – all former postdocs themselves - are below, along with information on future CCD offerings.


Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with participants expressing their appreciation for the experts’ perspectives and advice.  “Sound advice”, “Insightful comments”, and, “Valuable insight”.  Overall one student found it “Very helpful”, and one of our VOH experts stated: “I wish I had opportunity to participate in an information session like this when I was still a doctoral student!” The comments also point to the value of these informal VOH sessions with the opportunity for “Great discussion” and appreciation of “Thoughtful comments”, with another echoing - Excellent discussion”.  


The sessions started out with panelist introductions and initial thoughts.  The general theme was to have a plan for your research path and corresponding papers, but also to use your postdoc as an opportunity to branch out with your areas of interest and professional connections.  Murali Haran offered this key advice: “Have a plan, one that hopefully includes easy papers to get out.”  Brian Reich agreed “Time is short and papers are crucial, so start off with a few concrete projects and set interval deadlines”.  Murali also suggested, “Expand beyond your current mentors and find othersA postdoc is a place to branch out.”  Ofer Harel echoed this: “Connections are so important”.  He also emphasized that postdocs should “aim to have fun!”  Yawen Guan agreed saying it is a change to explore and expand.  She elaborated further:   "Come up with a detailed research plan and timeline with postdoc mentor early, be organized and follow through the plan. Attend seminars and conferences and talk to as many people as possible, postdoc is a good time to broaden research areas, start new projects and establish your own brand.” Howard Chang emphasized searching for a good research fit, stating this as the reason why he chose his own postdoc position at The Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute.  Reasons for selecting particular postdoc positions were varied, which speaks to the somewhat custom fit that statistics postdoc positions can offer.  Brian Reich chose his postdoc position at NCSU for the chance to work with a great mentor, as well as the opportunity to teach. The ability to work with an exciting data set was a key reason for Ofer to choose his postdoc at the University of Washington.  Both Yawen and Murali saw their postdocs, at SAMSI and the National Institute of Statistical Science respectively, as a chance to gain experience prior to a faculty position.  Veronica Berrocal echoed that, as well as stating that she saw her postdoc at SAMSI as a great opportunity to branch out and to meet new people in her area of interest.  She also pointed out that a key reason for choosing her postdoc in the Raleigh-Durham NC area were the other high-level institutions in the area that would offer additional opportunities for learning and collaborations.


Identifying a Good Fit and Mentor

A postdoc interview and its preceding conversations are a place for you to determine what is a good fit for you and your career.  Murali Haran encourages students to learn about potential postdoc advisers by asking what they are working on, and what their plans are for you.  Ofer says it is a chance for you to “gauge the postdoc position’s ability to make an impact and give input”. Fit the theme of branching out while furthering current research, Yawen suggested trying to determine what percentage of your time would be allocated to postdoc work vs establishing your own research and finishing your existing projects, encouraging “new but not completely new projects”.  Brian agreed and added “Don't be afraid to deviate from your thesis topic.  Sometimes great ideas come from taking ideas that are well-developed in one area and applying them to solve an open problem in another.” Howard says to investigate what the project entail including deliverables, and to consider how this may fit with your ultimate career goals. 


Mentoring is a crucial component of a postdoc position. All of the experts recommended talking to other students and postdocs as well as asking questions during the interview process.  Brian Reich says it’s important to ask about lab structure and meeting times – how much facetime will a new postdoc get with their potential adviser?  The experts had different experiences in their own postdocs but agreed that this is important to consider as to what may work for you.  Veronica’s interactions with her postdoc mentor had a loose structure, and she “popped head in whenever” and often chatted in the evenings.  Howard sees his postdocs weekly as does Brian every week 1 on 1.  Brian also makes an effort to involve postdocs with graduate students to develop their own mentoring skills, and also holds “lab” mtg once a week, so generally sees his postdocs 2-3 time per week.  He encourages “Ask a lot of questions about the work environment the advisor envisions.  This varies a lot and it's important to find a good fit for you.”


Our experts were also open to offering some frank insights into potential drawbacks of a postdoc position.  Murali pointed out that academics “might treat you as if you had more experience than you do – a postdoc is ‘2’ years, but given the academic calendar it may really be 16 months”. On the flip side, if a mentor doesn’t stick, you may find yourself with time but not many results.  Howard commented that teaching experience is useful, but it can be intimidating to teach 100 students.  Veronica stressed the importance of trying to gain grant-writing experience, which you may need to seek out.  All of the former postdocs commented on the importance of networking and creating a social network while in a postdoc position.  One commented on “how isolating a postdoc can feel versus a regular job where there seems to be more natural ways to connect with people on a more friendly level”.


“Where, When, and How”

There were several questions about the logistics of finding a postdoc.  Brian Reich pointed people to the online resources such as the University of Florida website for jobs in statistics, and encouraged students to talk with their dissertation advisers and ask around their field.  Howard Chang also encouraged students to “email research groups that you might be interested in;  you never know who has “half” a postdoc position – might be able to piece together other funding for full position”.  As for when, Reich said that it is never too early.  Funding can be very variable each year so while filling out applications occurs closer to the various deadlines, start networking and looking early.  Veronica encouraged being a member of ASA along with ASA Sections and Chapters, and pointed out that the National Science Foundation often has postdoc funding that can be taken to the institution of the recipients choice.  Salary considerations were also discussed as they are often competitive but may be lower than industry options.  All of the experts stressed the importance of a postdoc as a launching point for your own career, and time to invest in your own career and plan your path.  Howard pointed out that some positions may offer relocation expenses.


Student participants were very interested in how they can be competitive in their own postdoc search.  The question of the ‘magic’ number of papers needed came up with respect to applying for both postdoc and faculty positions.  The magic answer is that there is no magic number.  But Murali Haran offered guidelines to consider with, “maybe 2 submitted or at least somewhere in the pipeline to show that you can produce work”.  Howard Chang also encouraged having some form of completed research to show such as a couple of papers and professional presentations.  Brian Reich agreed that it is a competitive market, and when asked what stands out in an applicant, he said similar research topics, as shifting to something completely different is hard, and he also looks for students who are smart and ambitious.  Howard echoed this, including “ability to work independently” as a key trait.

Should You Do A Postdoc?

Participants wanted to know about the benefits of a postdoc versus going straight into a faculty position.  Murali stressed that both paths work and encourages students to apply to both.  There are “lots of personal considerations and lots of randomness year to year in job market”.  Yawen echoed that there is large variability in both types of positions.  A postdoc is a chance to accumulate research ideas and collaborations. Ofer pointed out that when you start faculty position, tenure clock starts to tick, think about where you want to be in 10 years.  In the second VOH, the experts pointed to components of their postdoc that helped them prepare for their faculty positions, such as how to identify important projects, multi-tasking; working with PhD students, writing, how to be professional researcher, and how to see the big picture.  Postdoc positions can also be very valuable for future careers in industry and government.  It can help answer the question “Is academics the right place for me?” while you build marketable skills such as coding.  Moderators Elizabeth Mannshardt and Claire McKay Bowen have both completed postdocs and are currently in government and nonprofit, respectively.   Claire found completing her postdoc as an opportunity to explore other research area beyond her dissertation expertise, which prepared her well for her current position at Urban.  Elizabeth pointed out that one easily segue postdoc to industry or government but it may be hard to go back the other direction, and you have a short window in which to do postdoc.  “I personally made the decision as it kept options open, and was a great opportunity to learn more about both statistics and my personal path.”


Past CCD Virtual Office Hours have included mid-career and advanced-career "experts" on hand to answer your career questions such as: How does the interview process works for an academic faculty position?; How do you position yourself for a promotion in a pharmaceutical company?; How do you handle interpersonal work conflict?; How do you find a mentor/coach/sponsor?; To what GS level you should apply in a government job?  CCD expert statisticians were Jessica Kim, Lead Mathematical Statistician, CDER/FDA; Seonjin Kim, Assistant Professor, Miami University; Bob Small, Consulting Statistician, RDS Consulting and former Global Head of Biostatistics- Sanofi-Pasteur.


What is ASA CCD?

The ASA Committee on Career Development provides support and information about career decisions to ASA members. The committee is also charged with providing information to non-members who are considering a career in statistics. The CCD sponsors and co-sponsors workshops and sessions at the annual JSM each year to serve the needs of ASA members.  The committee continually reviews other possibilities to support the membership and fulfill their mission.

Look for upcoming VOH sessions on topics such as “Promotions” and “How to Navigate a Virtual JSM”.

Postdoc Office Hours Bios
Murali Haran, Professor of Statistics and Dept Head, Penn State University
Murali is a Professor and Department Head with the Penn State University Department of Statistics. Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State, he served as a postdoc with NISS from 2003 to 2004, where he worked on statistical techniques called random forests for applications in software engineering research. In addition to NISS, Haran also spent time as a research fellow with SAMSI in 2009 for the program “Space-Time Analysis for Environmental Mapping, Epidemiology and Climate Change,” and has continued to collaborate with SAMSI fellows.  Haran’s Penn State research has involved statistical methods for studying climate change, modeling the dynamics of infectious diseases, and studying the spread of invasive plant species. 
Ofer Harel, Professor of Statistics and Director of Graduate Admissions at the University of Connecticut

Dr. Harel received his doctorate in statistics in 2003 from the Pennsylvania State University; where he developed his methodological expertise in the areas of missing data techniques, diagnostic tests, longitudinal studies, Bayesian methods, sampling techniques, mixture models, latent class analysis, and statistical consulting. Dr. Harel received his post-doctoral training at the University of Washington, Dept of Biostatistics.  r. Harel has served as a biostatistical consultant nationally and internationally since 1997. Through his collaborative consulting, Dr. Harel has been involved with a variety of research fields including, but not limited to Alzheimer’s, diabetes, nutrition, HIV/AIDS, and alcohol and drug abuse prevention.
Yawen Guan, Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln

Yawen Guan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Statistics at University of Nebraska - Lincoln. Prior to joining UNL, She spent two years at SAMSI/NC State University as a postdoctoral fellow developing spatiotemporal methods for air quality, and emulation-calibration methods for the Artic sea ice. 

BReich Brian Reich, Distinguished Professor of Statistics, North Carolina State University

Brian completed his PhD in Biostatistics in 2005 at the University of Minnesota. After graduation, he joined NCSU first as a post-doc and then as a member of the statistics faculty in 2008. His research interests include spatial statistics, extreme value analysis, variable selection and dimension reduction. In addition to these methodological interests, Brian applies these methods to environmental areas such as ecology, air pollution, and climate change, as well as data from the physical and materials sciences. 
VBerrocal Veronica Berrocal, Associate Professor in the Department of Statistics at UC, Irvine
Veronica is an Associate Professor in the Department of Statistics at the University of California, Irvine. She joined UC Irvine in Fall 2019, after having spent 9 years on the faculty at the University of Michigan in the Department of Biostatistics.
Veronica obtained her Ph.D. in Statistics from the University of Washington in 2007 and spent 3 years in the Research Triangle Park area in North Carolina, as a National Research Council postdoc at EPA, first, (2007-2008) and a postdoc at Duke University/SAMSI until 2010.
Veronica's research interests are in spatial and spatio-temporal statistics, with a focus on applications in atmospheric/geophysical sciences, environmental health, social determinants of health, health disparities, and imaging.
HHChang Howard Chang, Associate Professor of Biostatistics, Emory University
Howard is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics at Emory University. Howard joined Emory in 2011 after completing a 2-year SAMSI Postdoctoral Fellowship.  Howard works on developing statistical methods for the analysis of complex spatial-temporal environmental exposure and health data.