Five steps to surviving the Post-PhD Career Precipice

Picture this horror scene: You’ve spent >20 years in education becoming a beacon of knowledge. Everywhere you go people duly drop their jaws at your cranial awesomeness. But just as you are to be crowned with a PhD, you emerge into the world to find no job, no salary, no means and no pedestal for your dreams.

Sadly, that is the reality for a lot of students, which means that most of us spend our last months as students scouring the Internet for work instead of finalising our research. That has been my reality for the last 6+ months, and I was recently saved by the powers that be, unscathed.

I am very happy to announce that I have been awarded the very prestigious Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust (read more about this here). I absolutely could not have achieved this without a long list of helpers at Imperial College and the Clinical Sciences Centre, for which I owe a lot.

And so, as a small way to pay my large debt, here are some tips on How to Survive the Post-PhD Career Precipice for those of you who want to stay in academia.

1) Don’t limit yourself – apply for lots of things.

There are many sources of funding which you can apply to survive ‘The End’: personal fellowships, project grants, and postdoctoral positions.

Personal fellowships are the hardest to get, and the best for your CV as they really encourage your personal and independent development. You will typically need to have at least one first author publication from your PhD to be considered. I applied for three (Wellcome Trust, Alzheimer’s Trust and The Fulbright Commission) but there are other field-specific ones. You will have to write a project proposal, find sponsors for your project, and complete an epic form that will make your thesis seem like a romantic novel. It is often recommended that you find two institutions to sponsor you, as this will broaden your training considerably (I stalked a Professor at Harvard a full year before my end date to get his support). Deadlines for Fellowships start early, so do your research at least 9 months before ‘The End’ and plan accordingly.

Project grants – these involve getting a big-wig (e.g. your supervisor) to submit a grant proposal with you as a named researcher. Or rather, this will probably involve you writing a grant proposal and naming your supervisor as the principal investigator! But either way, if it allows you to survive ‘The End’, it’ll be worth it. I thankfully avoided this option but it would’ve been my last resort.

Post-doc positions – these are often competitive but, given that you will have a PhD from Imperial, so are you! Check for postings. In this setup, you will be working on someone else’s project, so it is important that you are interested in the project. In most cases, the principal applicant will want you to learn new techniques, come up with new questions and develop as a researcher, so you won’t (hopefully) just be someone’s lackie. It is best to wait until closer to your end date (1-3 months) before applying for these, as most positions will want you to start relatively soon. I applied to three different postdoctoral positions and even when I was rejected found the interview practice very useful. Be aware that sometimes there is already someone (usually internal) in mind for the job, so don’t feel disheartened if you shone at the interview but were still rejected.

2) Get help!

You will be amazed at how much your university wants you to succeed! Overall, I had about seven mock interviews with different academics at Imperial. Each one taught me something new and made me more confident in my proposal. Imperial College, for example, is very good at supporting and coaching its students, so do seek the help. Contact your administrator who will be glad to arrange a mock interview for you. It is also useful to interview with academics from different fields, as they will have new insights into why your proposal is flawed.

3) Do the Hussle -

Don’t waste the opportunity by scoring an own goal. Do the preparation! Whether it’s for a fellowship or postdoc position, you have to put the time into it and research the position and project. This will show your interviewers that you really want the job. In preparation for my Wellcome interview, I spent two weeks revising full-time (in between mock interviews) as if it was an undergraduate exam. I told myself that I had to go in there knowing everything, or at least having an answer to anything that they might ask me. This is crucial, and is within your control, so just do it!

4) The Pitch

You’ve probably watched The Apprentice. This over-confident alpha-leader breed of human is what you must become to win over the interviewers (don’t worry, you can go back to normal shortly afterwards). They want to see that you command your field, that you have a clear direction in your career, and that you are coherent. This last point is the most important. Make sure you can explain your research in a simple, engaging, but exciting way, and the battle is half won. To do this, you need to practice your pitch again and again and again.

5) Good luck!

Sometimes it is just luck, so don’t be disheartened and keep trying.


My first first author paper on auditory attention networks

Separable auditory and visual attention networks

Earlier this year I published my first first author paper in the scientific journal Neuroimage.

(n.b. Being first author of a scientific paper is a big deal as it shows you did most of the work!)

Although our ears are bombarded with different sounds, our brains are very good at picking apart this soundscape and selecting relevant auditory objects for us to perceive.  This selection and filtering process is what we mean by attention, and it is crucial for us to be able to navigate our rich sensory environments without overloading our feeble minds.

In this paper we showed that the regions of the brain that let us select sounds from this soundscape are different  to those involved in selecting objects from our visual field. We had 20 people listen to busy background sounds (e.g. the sounds of a busy pub) that were full of distractors, and made them listen out for a specific target sound; a series of tones which made a simple melody.  In another 20 participants, we made them view busy natural scenes (e.g. commuters walking down Oxford Street) and had them look out for a target shape; a red rectangle that could appear in two possible locations on the screen.

We scanned our participants using MRI during these tasks and studied the neural activity that happened while subjects were paying attention to the sounds and videos.  We found that the connection between neurons in the middle frontal gyrus (MFG; which is important for the inhibition of a number of behaviours) and the posterior middle temporal gyrus (MTG; which is part of the extended auditory association areas) seems to be important for the selection of auditory objects.  In contrast, for visual selection we saw activity in the superior parietal lobe (SPL; which is important for spatial navigation and awareness) and the frontal eye fields (FEF; which are crucial for controlling eye movements).

In addition, we showed that there is a common area of overlap between the two sensory modalities.  The MFG was activated for both visual and auditory selection.  This suggests that the MFG is important for coordinating which sensory modalities are being attended to, as it is able to connect to both visual and auditory attention areas simultaneously.

I was recently interviewed for this work by Faculti Media, and you can see the video below. Enjoy!


CSC Scientific Image Competition 2012

Neural Hot Spots

This is my entry for the 2012 Clinical Sciences Centre scientific image competition:

'The human brain contains several 'hubs'; cortical hotspots where complex neural signals are found (top) .  These complex signals are the result of communication with the brain's functional networks (bottom images).  Multiple functional signals overlap at the cortical hotspots, meaning they could be a potential site for the dynamic integration of the information exchanged within each neural network.'

In the end I called it 'Neural Hot Spots', but 'Jesus-Brain' would've no doubt been more appropriate! The data is currently being written up for publication (with a somewhat more sedate version of this image).

Eliza & the Great Spaghetti Monster

This is my article which was shortlisted for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012 – an annual competition to encourage MRC-funded scientists to communicate their research to a wider audience. You can also read the winning article, published in The Metro, here.

Rodrigo Braga at the Max Perutz Award Ceremony

The human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. With it we have built entire civilisations and harnessed the power of nature. Yet despite their amazing complexity, all brains begin life as a tiny bundle of cells that divide, migrate and miraculously wire themselves up into the thinking machines that make us who we are. The fact that it happens at all is almost as astounding as the finished product itself, but it doesn't always work out as Mother Nature intended.

Tucked up in her crib at the Neonatal Imaging Centre of Hammersmith Hospital, newborn baby Eliza is sleeping through another magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. Around her head, the scanner machinery wails and screams with high-pitched ululations, but she sleeps peacefully, ears protected by tiny muffs. Eliza was born prematurely and her doctors are making sure that her little brain is growing normally. In her short 10 week life, she has been inside the scanner more times than most of us ever will. But today is different. Today we are using a new technique called Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) to help unravel the mysteries of brain development. And that is a huge task.

The human brain contains 1,000 trillion connections between 86 billion neurons (neurons are what we really mean when we say 'brain cells'). Each neuron has a long thin arm called an 'axon' that it uses to send messages to other neurons that could be on opposite ends of the brain. Connecting them all means criss-crossing the brain with axons.

To give you a sense of the resulting confusion, imagine a planet (let's call it 'Braintopia') that is packed with ten times more people than planet Earth. Imagine that every Braintopian has to make regular long distance calls to an overbearing mother on the other side of the planet. On Earth this would be easy, but Braintopians haven't discovered mobile phones or landlines yet. Instead, all they have are those cup and string phones that children play with here on Earth. Each Braintopian carries their own paper cup, and trails along a string that stretches around the globe to mum. Simple!

It might seem absurd, but this is actually how neurons communicate, through a direct physical connection. In order that you can wriggle your toes, a daring axon made the journey from the top of your brain to the bottom of your spinal cord to pass the message on to your legs. Now if a single Braintopian trailing a string like an umbilical cord sounds ridiculous, picture the mess that a whole city-full of them would make, strings tangling through the streets like a Great Spaghetti Monster. Or worse, imagine the chaos of an entire planet-full of intercontinental strings. The resulting ball of yarn would be monolithic!

The brain has a similar connection problem, but it maintains order by packing the axons heading in the same direction together into thick fibres called 'white matter tracts'. Recent research suggests that the normal development of white matter is an important indicator that a baby's brain is healthy. If a white matter tract doesn't develop properly, the brain regions connected by that tract cannot communicate with each other. This can lead to serious physical and learning disabilities. If doctors could assess a baby's white matter early on, they could check the connections are healthy and in place, and give special attention to the infants that need it. But doing this when the brain is sealed inside a baby's head is extremely challenging. Luckily, this is where DTI comes in.

Back in Hammersmith, Eliza's scan is almost done. The DTI procedure uses the MRI scanner's powerful magnets to spin the atoms in Eliza's brain on the spot, like pirouetting ballerinas. Atoms spin frantically anyway, but when placed inside a magnet they align their spin with the direction of the magnetic field. And so the ballet begins. In this synchronised dance, each atomic twirl sends out a tiny radio signal that the scanner uses to work out where the atom is. From this, we can find atoms that are attached to water molecules and trace them as they float around Eliza's brain. The brain is 70% water, and white matter tracts act like miniature hosepipes, channeling water along them. By following the movement of water we can therefore visualise exactly where the white matter tracts lie. Using this principle we have created a white matter atlas for babies, to help doctors recognise abnormal brain development.

Eliza continues to sleep while the scanner diligently chugs away. This short 20 minute scan will produce a beautiful map of her own Braintopia without hurting her in any way. By comparing Eliza's map to our atlas, doctors can tell if her fibres are healthy, and give her the best possible start in life.

A little night music - Roche Continents 2012

Roche Continents 2012 For every year of the last six, Roche Pharmaceuticals (one of the world's biggest drug companies) has invited 100 students from across Europe to Salzburg, Austria, to take part in a festival commemorating 'Youth! Arts! Science!'.  The theme of the gathering is simple and noble; to explore the common ground between the arts and the sciences, namely the need to be creative and innovative.

This year I was fortunate to be one of those students.  At a princely 29 years of age it's arguable whether I qualify for 'Youth!', but I guess 2 out of 3 is not bad.  And so, I packed my bag and my finest evening garbs, and hopped on a plane to the birthplace of Herr Mozart.  I had applied for the festival thinking it would be a nice opportunity to visit a new country, and knowing that the bursary would look good on my CV.  Yet as I arrived at my home for the next 6 days, the modern and comfortable Tourismusschule Klessheim on the outskirts of Vienna, I remained completely clueless as to what was in store for my fellow 'Youths!' and I.  I was also apprehensive that the whole week would turn into a Clockwork Orange-style indoctrination exercise into the wonders of Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd.  But thankfully I couldn't be more wrong.

In truth, the very first talk we heard was on how 'Big Pharma' companies are not so big and evil, with the main point being that the earnings of Roche are a fraction of that of companies like Wal-Mart.  This of course says nothing about the 'evil' part, but the speaker exuded an enthusiasm that left me in no doubt that she felt the benefit of Roche's drug discoveries went far beyond the profits that came with them.  And nonetheless the talk was welcome as we all wanted to know a little more about our generous hosts.

And how generous they were! For the next 6 days each of the 100 students was spoiled to unparalleled levels of pampering.  There were gourmet meals every day with limitless wine and champagne even in the early hours of the morning, boxes of Austrian Mozartkügeln chocolates greeting us in our rooms, and front row seats to the most popular shows at the renowned Salzburg Festival of Music and Drama (which Roche is a prominent sponsor of).  At these shows, we were waited on with canapés and (more) champagne, were given private audiences with the conductors and performers who were fresh from the stage, and rubbed shoulders with the organisers of the festival.  All the while a professional photographer fluttered around taking snapshots of us all dressed in our Sunday best.  The illusion of celebrity was impeccable.

But the remarkable thing about the festival, the thing that still makes me look back on that week with fondness a month on, was not the luxury, nor the repeated morning seminars where we discussed the importance of being creative (in my view a fruitless exercise akin to making endless to-do lists without actually doing anything).  The glaring charm of the event, by far, were the people that I met while there.  It was immediately clear from day one that each of the students had been hand-picked for their achievements and self-evident passion for learning music or science.  The abundance of talent that had been gathered was obvious; one night, at a moment's notice an oboe and violin were produced, and a Mozart quartet was reproduced impromptu, just for fun.  A quick chat to a spectacled neighbour would lead to enlightening discussions of the latest scientific discoveries and advances. The organisers were genuinely excited to be looking after this small sea of bright faces, and this enthusiasm was truly infectious (even for those of a more skeptical British nature).  The result was that throughout the week every face you turned to was smiling and engaging.  One that was interesting and interested in exchanging ideas.  It was a surreal experience that honestly made me wish that all the people I met day to day were as open-minded and friendly as this little group.  Given that everyone there had been selected based on similar interests, perhaps it's not surprising that everyone got along. But I have no doubt that some life-long friendships were made that week.

And being invited to be a part of it all, to be a peer of such illustrious company, was infinitely more rewarding, and endowing of gratitude and humility, than the glamour of a celebrity treatment ever could be.

If you are interested in attending Roche Continents, visit: