The Career Session, Part II

By Peter Dearden 22/09/2010

The Career Session, Part II. — SM Morgan

Guest speakers: Julia Horsfield and Peter Dearden.

Associate Professor Peter Dearden, Principal Investigator of the Lab for Evolution & Development and Director of Genetics Otago was our second guest speaker for the ‘career path’ discussion at the Genetics Otago postgrad colloquia meeting in August; on a side note — we were intended to have three speakers, our third was called away at the last minute to deal with sick children and perhaps highlights perfectly some of the topics discussed.

Associate Professor Peter Dearden

Peter started his career at Victoria University, Wellington, and completed his honours degree in the same lab as Julia — albeit several years afterward. Andy Dowsett’s lab was responsible for teaching Peter all about molecular biology, but at the end of his graduate studies Peter wanted nothing more than to get out of the country —and did not even consider staying in NZ for his PhD as an option.

Peter wrote about one hundred letters to labs in Canada and the UK, was offered three positions — and then applied for every scholarship under the sun. He was awarded two, and ended up accepting the Wellcome Trust Prize Studentship and took up a PhD position at Imperial College, University of London, under the supervision of David Hartley. Peter met with various difficulties in that lab, and never considered publications until right at the end of his three years. He completed his thesis in 3 years exactly, and flew out of the country the day after submission — lack of funds, expiring scholarships and study visas a constant thorn for international students.

Luckily, in his PhD lab Peter had the help of another brilliant PhD student who passed on a lot of his technological skills. He describes his PhD as not the best, yet not the worst and about 6 months before submission was already considering his future options. Peter describes his hurry to get things done as a result of being brought up during the cold war — everyone was convinced they would die in the next couple of years from some form of bomb, and you should hurry to get as much done as you can in the mean-time.

Peter applied for postdoctoral positions initially via letter to Michael Akam at Cambridge University. He had decided who he wanted to work with and had gone about making it happen directly. He was invited up for a visit and spent the day under inquisition — and gave a seminar over lunch. Having heard nothing back with regards to performance, upon arriving back in New Zealand he found an email telling him he had a month to move to Cambridge and start work. Being at Cambridge and not a student proved to be a very lonely existence — all of the students reside in colleges, but as an early career researcher Peter lived in a dodgy flat — and worked hard.

Peter describes his break coming when Akam had cause to shift labs — from the Wellcome Institute to the Museum of Zoology. No one having any clue on how to go about it – he and one other knuckled down to pack everything up, shift it, and unload. There is a certain advantage to being one of the only two people in a lab to know where everything was.

Peter was at Cambridge for approximately 3 years — and had 5 papers from his time there. It took until the end of his second year before he started publishing and at the end of his time he followed a fellow postdoc over to Canada to start a new postdoc position in his new lab.

This appointment proved challenging for personal and immigration reasons, however, he published two papers and then left after only one year.

Upon his planned return to New Zealand Peter applied for and accepted a position in 2002 with Marion Maw in the Department of Biochemistry, at the University of Otago. Within 6 months he had applied for and achieved an advertised lectureship position and started up his own lab. He is now running an empire of 16 people, is the Director of Genetics Otago and Associate Professor.

Insider information has it that the applicant pool for any new academic appointment is initially narrowed down by selecting the people anyone on the selection committee knows — so being a fairly public figure is an absolute must. Attending local meetings and symposiums, presenting posters etc and being pushy with regards to introducing yourself and speaking out at those meetings is essential.

Julia gave an interesting piece of advice with regards to getting known — to apply for grants, awards and scholarships even if you know (or think you know) that you have no chance at being successful. The people in the selection committees will see your name and hopefully remember it, and your great science, at the moment when it really matters. You need to be able to say ‘yes’ to almost anything. Over the next couple of years the job situation for postdocs is only going to get direr — with a 25% cut in funding in the UK for example, the market is only going to get tighter and more competitive.

Peter and Julia both argue that as New Zealanders we have an edge, but you need to be able to aggressively back yourself, be confident, and if you need to — pretend that you are that person.

— To be continued.

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