I have my PhD, now what? – The trials and tribulations of an early career professor

brown and black wooden chairs inside room

A personal perspectives piece from Founder of Beyond the PhD (formally known as AIOG) Dr. Robert Pijewski.

I started my college career as an industrial technology major, as that was what I studied at my vocational high school. After my first semester, I decided that it wasn’t for me and I changed my major to psychology. I remember watching Discovery Health and literally any documentary about mental health conditions with my mom growing up. I found something that I was passionate about. As most “A” students end up doing, I became a student tutor at my university. To support my college career, I worked full time – one was tutoring, which I Ioved, the other was waiting tables at an assisted living home. I started with one-on-one tutoring and quickly progressed to running walk-in centers for mathematics (a subject that I have always enjoyed learning). From a young age, I was always told that I thought differently from my peers. I soon realized that the way I think and how I thought differently, which was usually viewed as a negative, became a real strength in helping students understand complicated material. How can I harness this and do THIS for the rest of my life? To make a very long story much shorter, I graduated with a second Bachelor’s degree in Biology.

I pursued graduate education and wanted get my PhD in neuroscience. I applied mostly to programs that offered teaching assistantships as I knew I wanted to go into education. I also applied to programs with strictly graduate research assistantships. I ended up attending a university that only had a research assistantship. However, this was not the end of the world, because I was able to find educational opportunities during my studies. For students interested in education but find themselves in strictly research oriented graduate studies, I would advise you to do what I did. Find opportunities to be involved in educational outreach. I was able to give science lessons to the Health Careers Opportunities Program (HCOP) at UConn Health. This program works with middle school students interested in pursuing careers in health and medicine. I also reached out to the program Skype a Scientist, which is a program that let’s you skype into classrooms around the world to talk with students what it’s like to be a scientist, as well as teach them some new concepts. Another thing I took advantage of was becoming a content leader for graduate school courses. I had the opportunity to lead discussions on developmental patterning of Drosophila, and cell signaling in disease. I found myself in a unique and strange position towards the end of my graduate career. Due to the pandemic, we were going to be wrapping up my studies early. One of the best things I did while I was a graduate student was networked. One of my professors connected me with a professor at the University of Hartford, which is where I currently adjunct. I began volunteering my time to help with her own research projects, but we were also able to build a professional relationship and she recommended me to teach her course for the Spring 2021—Developmental Biology. This really opened the door for my ability to gain teaching experience. 

Since that spring, I have taught at three different universities, and have taught 8 different classes. My best advice is to reach out directly to department chairs. Establish a connection with a program. Many advertisements are for faculty pools. On paper, newer educators are all pretty similar to some degree. What really makes a difference is your ability to communicate and work well with others. Faculty at these universities need to see that you would be a good fit for their students. 

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Published by Robert Pijewski

Robert is the co-founder and co-director of Beyond the PhD. Beyond the PhD (previously AIOG) was founded at UConn Health while Robert was completing his PhD in biomedical science. After graduating, Robert has taught as an adjunct at a few colleges, and is now an assistant professor at Anna Maria College teaching in both the biology and mathematics department. Outside of science, Robert likes trying new recipes, traveling, and playing piano.

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