Chantell Evans graduated with her PhD in 2015 from Ed Chapman’s lab in the Department of Neuroscience. Evans is now a postdoctoral fellow in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and was selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) as one of 15 early-career scientists in its first cohort of HHMI Hanna Gray Fellows, a program that supports scientists with the potential to become leaders in academic research.
What do you like about being a postdoc?
When I started as a postdoc, I still wasn’t 100% confident that I wanted to stay in academia. I still had a little interest in going into industry. After talking to a lot of Principal Investigators and postdocs, they said once you leave academia it’s pretty hard to get back in, so if you’re unsure, you should stay and do a postdoc. I was still very excited about research when I started, and then when I got my fellowship that kind of really geared me toward thinking, “I can do this, I can make it in academia.” I really like my job. I like the flexibility with hours. I like the independence that I have. I enjoy training and working with graduate students and undergrads. I also really like helping colleagues think about their projects.
What made you feel unsure about being in academia?
We all know that they’re giving way more PhDs than there are academic faculty positions available. To get a faculty position is very hard. It’s very competitive. And especially for a female of color, it’s somewhat intimidating to think, am I going to be able to hold this position where not many people look like [me]. As far as scientifically – yes, I felt like I could do it, but there was still that underlying thought of, “I don’t know.” You’re basically running a small business and we’re not trained how to do that. We’re trained to think critically about our science, so it’s a different task that you have to take on and it’s easy to see how people struggle with that.
What skills from graduate school are the most useful to you as a postdoc?
The scientific skills that I picked up in the lab I worked in, as far as writing and my bench science, are key. Another thing is that at UW, there are a lot of opportunities for grad students to give talks, and that is huge because you have to learn to convey your research to others. Even being able to get a postdoc position, you have to go and give a talk. For my fellowship, as a semifinalist I had to give a talk, and that was one of the things they used to decide if I was going to get the fellowship or not. Communication skills are key.
In our graduate program we had a seminar where, once a year, students had to give a research talk, and while at the time it seemed like “Oh, I have to do this,” in the end it only made you a better public speaker. Sometimes being forced to give those talks helps you in the long run. When you’re a young scientist, standing in front of 50 people and talking about your research, it’s super intimidating. Eventually, you get less and less nervous.
What kinds of things did you do as a student that made you competitive for the postdoc position and your fellowship?
One thing was collaborating with my fellow colleagues in lab on projects. I, as a grad student, became an expert at one specific technique and I was the only person in my lab, at the time, who performed said experiments. This helped me because every time someone needed calorimetry experiments for their paper, I was the person they came to. Being an expert at a technique led to co-authoring multiple papers in lab, which improved my CV, and helped me to get a postdoc.
I also helped out with the SciMed Graduate Research Scholars community at the university. Being a part of that really helped. They held a lot of good seminars that were focused on grant writing, or time management, or sleep, just different aspects that are important to a graduate student. Being able to go to those seminars and get your head right really, really helped. SciMed GRS is also a diversity fellowship so it offered another group of people, who looked like me, that I could talk to and express my triumphs and frustrations to.
You’ve mentioned finding a community that can support you. What advice do you have to help students do that?
You have to find out what aspects of life that you need support with, and then start going and seeking those out. As a grad student it can be hard, but you know, going to on-campus seminars or conferences where you can meet new people and find people who are interested in similar things as you, helps. I also found volunteering with different organizations was a really good way to meet people. I liked that I had a support system of graduate students who could relate to me, but I also felt it was equally important to have a support system of nonscientists. It helped to keep my life balanced.
What advice do you have for current graduate students interested in being a postdoc?
When entering a postdoc, make sure you find science that interests you; it does not have to be the same scientific field that you studied in your graduate career. But, if you find what you’re interested in and what you’re excited about, you are going to stick with that and you will make it through. Also, you don’t have to know 100% what it is you want to do career-wise. I went in to a postdoc thinking, “Ok, I’m excited about mitochondria and how they are regulated,” but I didn’t have it all fleshed out. I wasn’t fully sure if I wanted to stay in academia or not – and that’s ok.