Penn Undergraduate Research Mentorship

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the 2018 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending their summer. You can read the entire series here.

This entry is by Dominique Martinez, COL ’20

I spent my summer working as a Penn Undergraduate Research Mentorship (PURM) research assistant (RA) in the Brannon Lab. The Brannon Lab is one of the six labs that make up the Penn Child Development Labs, a group that is interested in how children grow and develop within various cognitive domains. Collectively, the group studies creativity, language, brain plasticity, and numerical cognition. More specifically, the Brannon Lab is concerned with the development of numerical cognition from birth to late-childhood. My main role as an RA consisted of collecting both behavioral and neuroimaging data. The hands-on nature of the position allowed me to explore my academic interests and love for research like never before.

One of the projects that I worked on this summer sought out to answer the question: Can children successfully divide before they are taught division in school? The study helps to determine if division is an innate ability or if it is a socially-learned skill. Collecting data for this study involved administering a computer task to children aged six to nine. Although I had previously collected this type of behavioral data, this experience strengthened my ability to collect data accurately and without bias. I especially enjoyed data collection for this study because of the children; the stories that they shared with me and the other RAs were always very entertaining.

Another project I was involved in used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study at what point children are able to map verbal numerical quantities to physical objects. Data collection in this study provided me with the chance to work alongside MRI technicians to image childrens’ brains. Although I had been a participant in an MRI study before, being on the other side of the scanner was both exciting and academically enriching. Since I am majoring in Biological Basis of Behavior (BBB), I have learned about neuroimaging in an academic setting; however, through this summer opportunity I was able to learn about this technique in person and with actual participants. More specifically, the post-doctoral and graduate students in the lab taught me MRI safety and the science behind how an MRI machine actually functions.

Overall, this research position introduced me to new experimental techniques, exposed me to a new participant age group, and helped me discover my passion for research. I was lucky enough to participate in this opportunity because of sponsorship from the Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships (CURF) and an additional funding award from Career Services at the University of Pennsylvania. The additional funding from Career Services allowed me to focus on research and not on how I was going to afford various expenses, such as rent and groceries. Without this funding, I am not sure that I would have been able to accept my position in the Brannon Lab and pursue my academic goals this summer.

Career exploration solutions – using your research skills

Dr. Joseph Barber, Associate Director

One of the common challenges faced by PhD students and postdocs is being able to make certain and confident career decisions that are different from those supported or promoted by their thesis advisors. Given the many career paths taken by PhDs, and the many career fields that value some of the skills, experiences, and knowledge provided by a PhD, it can be challenging to gain a clear enough perspective on which path (or paths) might be the best to pursue. The good news for PhD students and postdocs, is that your academic training gives you the ability to solve some of these issues by yourself without having to rely on your advisor. Indeed, your advisor has given you the some of the skills you need to come up with a solution – your ability to do research! All you have to do is apply these research skills to a field beyond your thesis topic. Here are some common career-related questions that a little bit of in-person and online research can help you answer:

What do people with a PhD in my field do if they are not a postdoc or faculty member?

Ask your administrative department coordinator if they maintain a list of alumni from your research group or department and review their current positions. Ask more senior PhD students or postdocs where they have seen people going after graduation or when their postdoc finishes.

Use QuakerNet to search for alums by degree, field, location, and so on.

Get a LinkedIn account (don’t worry, it is just a tool, not a lifestyle change), and under the “my network” header on every page select the “find alumni” tool. You can use this interactive table to search by “what they studied” (click on the arrow on the right hand side of the first 3 columns to get to this one), and then you can use the overall search box at the top of the table (next to the number of results) to do a broad keyword search using “PhD” or “Ph.D.”. You can use the “find alumni” tool for any university, even if you didn’t attend it. If you were going to be relocating to the West Coast from the Philadelphia area, for example, you can look at where PhDs in your field from West Coast institutions find employment, as you may come across location-specific organizations you didn’t know.

What skills are needed to be an X (where X is any position you can imagine)?

1. Use the same alumni networks described above to find people in the position that you think you might want and have an informational interview with them (i.e., ask them about their job, how they got there, what skills they find most helpful, what challenges they tend to face on a day-to-day basis, what advice they might give people considering their career field, and if they can suggest anyone they know that you might chat with).

2. Use the title of the job and any associated keywords to search online job boards (e.g.,;;;; LinkedIn). Keep track of which companies have the position (an Excel spreadsheet works well), and pay attention to the list of skills and requirements associated with the position. Assess which of these skills you have, and which you can develop using some of the campus resources still available to you. Since it can sometimes feel hard to self-assess your own skills, work with a career advisor to get a more objective (and you’ll find, more optimistic) perspective.

3. Look at people’s profiles on LinkedIn who are doing this job and scroll down to see the list of their endorsed skills.

What can I do with skill X (where skill X is something that you might have developed through your thesis research – e.g., ethnography, data visualization, surveys, archival research)?

1. Use the skill as a keyword as you search job boards, and see what types of jobs pop up. This won’t be helpful if you are searching for a broad skills (e.g., teaching, research), but can also be helpful if you have a particular subject/knowledge expertise.

2. Go back to the “find alumni” tool on LinkedIn and look at the “What they’re skilled at” column. Type in your skill and then look at the companies and roles in which people who say they have this skill are employed. People who say they are skilled at ethnography can be found at Google and Mattel, just as an example.

What is the job market like for job X?

In addition to asking contacts you make in any career field this question, you can also get a decent visualization of trends by using the trend function on For example, throw in the word “assistant professor” into the search bar (include the “”), and you will see the cyclical nature of hiring for this position. Look for “data science”, and you will see how this position has been trending upwards in its prevalence. You can even search for specific skills that might be mentioned within the job descriptions (e.g., python, GIS) to see if these are skills you might need to gain.


How can I find a good contact at employer X?

No matter what career field you are interested in, chances are high that you know someone who knows someone in this career field who might be a useful contact. However, this person who happens to know a good contact is unlikely to dramatically wake up from a deep sleep in the middle of the night and exclaim out loud to their now no longer sleeping partner, “My gosh…, I should let them know that I know a senior scientist at Merck who might be a great contact in their search for industry positions!”. One of the reasons that they don’t tend to wake up like this is probably because you haven’t actually told then you are seeking a contact in the biotech industry. Even if you have mentioned it in passing once, they are probably incredibly busy working on their own life that they might have forgotten.

Let’s call this person who doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night, and doesn’t start gibbering about biotech and pharma researchers at Merck, and doesn’t then reach out to you with a great contact, Maggie. It is very possible for Maggie to know someone at Merck without knowing that she knows someone at Merck. After all, the person she knows might not have been at Merck when she first met them. Perhaps they were at GSK, but have recently taken a new job at Merck where they are leading a new research group and looking to bring new people on board (people, as it turns out, like you!). Maggie doesn’t know any of this. However, if you are linked with Maggie on LinkedIn, then you stand a much greater chance of finding this out. If you were to search for Merck using company search bar on LinkedIn, then on the employer page you will see in the top right hand corner of the page the number of 1st  and 2nd degree contacts. Click on any of these 2nd degree connections (people you don’t know, but who know people you do know) and scroll done their profile to see who you know who knows them. When you find out that Maggie knows someone at Merck (which is news to Maggie), there are many ways she can actually help you:

1. You can ask Maggie if the person she knows might be a good person to talk to with the specific questions you have.

2. You can ask Maggie is she has an actual email or phone number she can share with you (something that LinkedIn doesn’t like to do).

3. You can ask if Maggie can introduce you to the contact.

4. You can ask Maggie if you can use her name when reaching out to the contact.

All of these approaches will increase the likelihood that Maggie’s contact will actually speak with you. Getting the conversation started is the first step towards making the most of a new connection who can help you achieve some of your career exploration goals.

In terms of career exploration, the goal is for you to use your already well-developed research skills to understand people, their career pathways, their skills, and their connections. You should develop specific career-focused questions you need answers for, and then don’t stop researching until you have found answers that are meaningful to you. This will mean taking advantage of online tools like LinkedIn to help you find and make real-life connections, because it is these people who will help you answer your questions.

Research employers and improve your job application ROI!

Researching potential employers is a critical element of every job or internship search.  It is extremely important when you need to identify your options, and necessary during the application and interview stage for you to successfully communicate the match between a prospective employer’s needs and your relevant skills and experience.  In fact, it may be the best investment of your time and effort that will simultaneously 1) boost your ability to stand out in a sea of other applicants and 2) give you the confidence to know that you are aiming for opportunities that will be a good fit.

Many of you may be familiar with academic institutions, but there are many other types of organizational settings and structures.  Before you are called to interview, do your best to find out the following about any prospective employer:

  • Mission; product/service: what is the purpose of this company/organization?
  • “Clients” and competitors: who receives the services of this company, and who else is targeting this group with their services?
  • Structure and management, organizational culture
  • Sector: nonprofit, for-profit (private sector), public (government agency)
  • Financial health 
  • The hiring process

Career Services offers several online resources through our library subscriptions pages to help you research potential employers.  You must log in with your PennKey and password to access the subscriptions, which are listed alphabetically.

  • For those interested in exploring industries such as consulting, healthcare, and investment banking, and are particularly useful.  These reference resources allow you to read overviews of various major industries, discover the “major players” (i.e., biggest, influential companies), and learn more about typical position types within each industry.
  • We also subscribe to ReferenceUSA, which provides contact information as well as specific company data for United States businesses in particular (as well as some Canadian and other international businesses).  If you use the advanced search option, you can get information on credit ratings, company histories, executives’ names, and even the company’s local “competitors.”
  • Finally, for international students, GoinGlobal and H1VisaJobs offer databases which can help you identify the companies who have applied to the federal government recently for H1Visas (this gives you a head start if you know a company is willing to hire international candidates, or is familiar with H1 Visa hiring procedures.)  GoinGlobal also lists salary information for specific job titles – a very helpful tool whether or not you are an international student.

Use networking as a means to find out employer or industry information you can’t get through your online research.  If you are a current Penn student or alumnus/a, be sure to use QuakerNet (Penn Alumni Online Community) to identify alumni who can give you the “inside scoop” on a particular organization or field.  LinkedIn is also a great resource – read these Program Notes to find out how to optimize your LinkedIn experience in your career exploration and job search.

Once you use these resources to research an employer, you will be better able to: connect your accomplishments to the performance criteria that the organization is seeking; identify the most important skills, qualifications and experiences that are in demand in a given industry; assess an organization’s potential workplace needs and how you can contribute given your work style; show how your goals match those of the company (given its mission, size, structure, and market specialization).   And in communicating all the above, you will greatly increase your chances of getting job offers!

If you have any questions or would like some guidance in how to use these resources in your career exploration and job search, please connect with a career advisor.  You can find information on how to do that here:

Finding a Summer Research Positon

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the Career Services Summer Funding grant.  We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending the summer.  You can read the entire series here.

This blog is by Joseph Cesare, CAS ’17

This past summer, I was offered the opportunity to stay in Philadelphia and continue research at the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, a part of the Department of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine. I had been previously assigned to a project evaluating the development of glutamatergic neural circuitry and NMDA function particularly at the post-synaptic density of dysbindin knockout mice, which has implications to the pathogenesis of Schizophrenia in humans. I continued this project working closely with post-graduates and the primary investigators in my lab, which served as an invaluable learning experience.

During the summer, I honed my skills at several research methods such as the dissection of brain samples, kinase assays, immunoprecipitation, and western blotting. The opportunities our lab offered during lab meetings and summer lectures were another great way to completely immerse myself into the medical field. Our lab conducted weekly meetings to discuss our work and other works of research that have made a recent impact on the field of psychiatric medicine. During these meetings, I regularly presented the findings of our project to our whole lab and discussed ways to improve our methods and reevaluate the direction of our research. Other times, I was given the opportunity to present the findings of other scientists’ work. I found this intellectually challenging, but it was very rewarding to contribute to the field of medicine and well worth the effort put into the project. I now feel more prepared to move forward with a future career in medicine and research, and I am continuing with this project this semester with the hope to publish the work I have done soon.

Reflecting on my experience, I remember not knowing where to start when it came to finding a research position. I was a freshman coming from rural Kentucky without any research experience, and I felt overwhelmed by the multitude of opportunities Penn offered. I read about CURF, Uscholars, and many of the amazing programs that Penn has to offer and asked other students already involved in research for advice. However, I didn’t feel like I was getting a clear picture of where to begin, and I realized that I wasn’t the only one who felt the same way. For that reason, I hope to save you some time and trouble by giving the best holistic piece of advice from someone who recently went through the process.

There are so many different ways to getting a research position at Penn, but here are some concrete examples of where you might begin and how you might go about getting the position you want.

  • Get to know your professors in your classes, read their research, and if you find it interesting, send them an email or talk to them after class or during office hours. Let them know you are authentically interested in their research, tell them why, and ask if you could volunteer in their lab.
  • The Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships office and website is here to help undergraduates get involved with research. Their website has everything from research grants to help fund your project to links to the actual applications for programs. One program, Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM), is designed for students who do not have any previous research experience.
  • Search different department’s websites such as CURF, the medical school, Wharton, the nursing school, the chemistry department, etc., and read about the research of Penn faculty posted on these websites. Narrow down projects that are interesting, read some of the papers that they have published, and send the primary investigator an email. Since this often means sending an email to a complete stranger, include a cover letter introducing yourself, explain why you are interested in research (include any personal details), ask if they have any positions open, give them your availability during the week, and include your resume.
  • If you qualify for work-study, the job listings website is an invaluable resource. Go to the listings and narrow your job search to only “research” or “laboratory assistant.” This search will show a list of job openings in a variety of departments at Penn where the primary investigators are actively searching for undergraduates. Each job description has a list of requirements you will need to meet in order to fill the position so pay attention to this.
  • If you haven’t already, subscribe to the email distribution lists from Career Services where many opportunities are posted.

Once you get your foot into the door, there may be several other things you must do in order to get a research position. This might include sending your resume, going through a series of interviews, finding grants, and so on. In trying to find my research position, I was required to do all of the above, and honestly, seeking help from Career Services helped me immensely. Please, do not be afraid to ask for help because the feedback you can receive on these details will make a difference.

I hope this helps!

Advice from Your Peers: Penn Doctoral Students on the Job Search

Have you wondered how Penn PhDs are using Career Services in their job search efforts?  Each year, Career Services works with hundreds of Penn doctoral students and postdocs in their career exploration, planning and job search efforts.   We also conduct “Career Plans Surveys” of recent PhD graduates, to find out their post-graduation plans and to ask them to share their advice with current students.  Below are just a sample of the responses we have received very recently – each with some direct and doable suggestions for making the most of your time and the resources here at Penn.  These graduates, representing a wide variety of disciplines, utilized Career Services for doctoral students/postdocs as one component of their job search efforts. We encourage you take advantage of their insights:

Linguistics PhD (2012), currently a lecturer at a university in the United Kingdom:  
“I made heavy use of the Academic Job Search Handbook, the sample materials available on the Career Services website (and similar materials on the website of Berkeley’s Career Center), and one-on-one meetings with Career Services staff. I strongly think knowing how to craft a well-formulated research statement and cover letter helped me get a leg up, because I was short-listed for two jobs in departments where I didn’t have any close contacts, and I really think that was due to how I sold myself in my application materials. That said, for the one offer I did end up getting, I had three close faculty contacts in the department: so there is a large element of networking and luck in the process. But I do really feel that Career Services helped to demystify the process and show me how to write about my work in a promising and intelligent way.”

Sociology PhD (2012), currently a postdoc at a R1 institution:
“One of my committee members hired me for a project he is working on.  In terms of advice I’d give other students, I’d say develop ties with academic people outside of your committee, talk to people in your field, meet as many people as possible.  Also I would highly recommend using Career Services.  Although that’s not how I got this job, I had interviews thanks to the help I got from the career advisors at Penn.”  (Check out Career Services resources on the academic job search.)

Bioengineering PhD (2012) currently a consultant with an international management consulting firm:
“I went to Career Services first to get my first few concrete steps, which were to write a resume along with reaching out to alumni on PACnet (now called QuakerNet). The initial networking and research helped me determine which field I wanted to pursue first, so I could focus the limited time and energy I had on optimizing my resume and cover letter for that niche. I then went to Career Services about eight more times to hone my resume and cover letter, so I had a solid platform to apply to many jobs quickly.  After that, I reached out to anyone who would talk to me in that field to either get advice or do case studies.  Pithy advice: prioritize; get an outside coach who knows the process to let you know where you should focus your energies because you can’t do everything.” (Click here for information on consulting for PhDs.)

Communications PhD (2013), currently a postdoc at a R1 institution:
“1. Create a list of what you want out of a career, what you enjoy doing, what you are good at doing, and where you would like to live.
2. Networking throughout the entire time as a student is important to get to know organizations, institutions, or individuals who do similar types of work or research. This could be at informal meetings, lunch seminars, conferences. And it helps to inform your choices of courses, projects, and research topics during the program. Don’t wait until the last year to do this.*
3. Start about a year before the expected date of graduation to scan through position announcements that seem to match those in the list and get a sense of skills and responsibilities that are required.
4. Attend many of the excellent Career Services workshops; make appointments with the CS advisors along every stage of the job search process.
5. Keep in touch with your referees during the search process about your plans, outcomes from interviews, etc.
6. Before interviewing, talk to as many people as possible who are familiar about the organization e.g., alumni, advisors, or faculty.
7. Staying positive and keeping the search in perspective and balancing the search with other daily demands is really important too.
8. Thank everyone who helped you and gave advice along the way.”

View our suggested PhD career planning steps/timeline here.

Speaking of “thanks”…..  Career Services is grateful for all the doctoral students who fill out our surveys and take the time to share their advice with us on behalf of their peers.