Career Development help The Petri Dish

The Petri Dish featuring Dr. Michelle DeLair

This week The Petri Dish brought on Dr. Michelle DeLair, Assistant Director of Graduate and Postdoctoral Career Development at the WashU Career Center. Dr. DeLair (mdelair @ specializes in working with graduate students and postdocs at any stage of their career. She helps explore career options, fine tune interview skills, and specializes in written documents for job applications that accurately show the skills and knowledge gained during graduate school and postdoc experiences.

Q: Full disclosure: I’ve never been to the career center. What do you guys offer?

A: Well, we’d love to have you join us! We provide 1-on-1 advising, programming, workshops, and events focusing on career skills, job applications, and planning. Are you an early stage graduate student? Well, we have a vast alumnus network with whom we can connect you so you can meet and talk with someone in a field of interest. I especially love taking students on road shows so you can get a full feel of what a day in a position would look like.

Q: What do you do when you’re not sure what you want to do? How do you keep doors open?

A: You cannot start thinking about what you want to do early enough. If you’re considering a postdoc, ask yourself why – do you need to learn a new skill, are you switching fields, or are you not sure what else to do? There are different kinds of postdocs, including industry, academic, and national lab*(see below for more info on the differences). If you’re still not sure, build skills that match multiple careers. These may be things like leadership (join SAC or BALSA), writing (do the Science Communication Credential or InPrint), or outreach (volunteer with YSP or SEPA). You can always come and chat with me about it, and I can help you navigate all the options.

Q: How do you go about networking at a conference? There are so many people it seems impossible to not get lumped in with the rest of the conference-goers.

A: I love this question. I think you should set a couple of small, achievable goals for yourself, like meet 2 scientists that you admire. How would you go about doing that?

  1. You can email them before the conference and asking if they would have time to grab a coffee. What’s the worst thing they can say (the answer to that is “no”). It’s not as if you’ll be blacklisted as the overzealous graduate student/postdoc. You could also tell them that you’ll have a poster and you’d love to share your work with them.
  2. Ask someone to introduce you to them at the conference. It could be your PI, your PI’s friend, your friend, or your cousin twice-removed on your mother’s side – doesn’t matter, but a personal introduction lends credibility and will give you inside access to them.

Q: Is it weird to go grad school -> postdoc -> industry?

A: That is totally normal! A postdoc might be beneficial for you if you want to learn something specific to the industry your interested in joining. You can use a postdoc as an opportunity to explore industry options. Note that the upward trajectories in industry are essentially the same for PhDs who did postdocs and those that didn’t – it’s the person to person skillset that makes the difference.

Q: Is now a bad time to network or apply for positions?

A: I don’t think so. Some folks may have more time, some may have less (those with kids, parents to take care of). Just be sensitive to the fact that they may have different experiences than you during this time. It never hurts to reach out.

Q: How do you go about networking online?

A: The purpose of networking is to connect with people. LinkedIn was specifically designed for this. You want to flesh out your profile and engage with the community. Unfortunately, joining a bunch of groups is not enough, you’d do best by asking and answering questions, really getting your name out there. Find scientists and people who you admire and look at how they present themselves and how they interact with others. Follow companies, groups, organizations, and be an active member of the community.

Q: Where should I be looking for job opportunities?

A: Surprisingly, 70-85% of job seekers found their work through networking (, so looking on LinkedIn is a good start.

Q: How do we put ourselves in the best position to get a job?

A: Tailor yourself for the posting. A cover letter speaks so much in a short period of time that it needs to hit home why you’re the person for the job. Most people spend less than one minute deciding if you should be brought in for an interview. Think of yourself as the Hiring Manager who wrote the job description and what person they envision filling it. How can you tailor your materials to highlight your strengths for that particular position and show you are a good fit?

Q: How do you handle a Zoom interview?

A: Good interviews are almost always about connection, and video interviews make that process just a little more challenging. Zoom interviews need to be treated a little differently than an in-person. I was teaching a class on Zoom the other day and when I stopped sharing my screen to check on my students, I saw that two of them were asleep! Sitting and staring at a screen makes it a lot harder to keep their attention, so I would add a bit more time on set up to make sure everyone has a clear picture of the basics. Then, as you progress, you can ask rhetorical questions and get the audience engaged again – bring it back to human-land from Zoom-land. For example, if you are about to introduce your research, you could begin your description with, “Have you ever thought/wondered about (XXX interesting challenge in your research area)? Well, my research addresses this by ….” Consider ways that you can make your interview more conversational because the interviewers are looking to see not only if you are qualified, but also if you will be a nice person to work alongside, share tasks, or work as a team.

Q: How do you figure out if a place is the right place for you?

A: This is a tough and important question. Unfortunately, there are a lot of graduate students and postdocs who are unhappy with their lab. Ways you can try to reduce the chance are to ask yourself what your end goal is and make sure the lab supports those goals/careers. When interviewing current lab members, you could ask questions like “What do you think would be the most challenging thing for someone in this position?”. This is a good, open-ended question that frames the ask as hard but not bad. Often times people will pick their worst experience to share. Lastly, find an ex-lab member and ask them about their experience. Labs usually have past members on their website and their current position.

SAC wants to thank Dr. DeLair for joining us on The Petri Dish. You can reach her at mdelair @ for career advising. She’d love to hear from you!

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