Careers Spotlight: Caitlin McQueen, PDRA

We caught up with Caitlin McQueen, one of our DTP alumni who graduated in 2018 from the University of York, current postdoc in the Towers lab at The University of Sheffield, to find out a little bit more about her career path!

A screenshot of Maria and Caitlin's Zoom chat

Maria and Caitlin connected over Zoom to chat about post-PhD career choices and the student-run Newsletter, which preceded the Comms Team!

What was your PhD project about?

I looked at the regulation of tRNAs and a subunit of RNA Polymerase III during muscle development to investigate transcriptional/translational coordination during cell differentiation under the supervision of Dr Betsy Pownall and Prof Bob White.

Author’s note: You can read the papers from Caitlin’s PhD below:

 McQueen C, Hughes GL, Pownall ME. 2019. Skeletal muscle differentiation drives a dramatic downregulation of RNA polymerase III activity and differential expression of Polr3g isoforms. Developmental Biology. 454(1), pp. 74-84

 McQueen C, Pownall ME. 2017. An analysis of MyoD-dependent transcription using CRISPR/Cas9 gene targeting in Xenopus tropicalis embryos. Mechanisms of Development. 146, pp. 1-9

What is your postdoc project about?

I initially worked on the role of the Sonic Hedgehog signalling pathway in flight feather specifications. When that project came to an end, I started a new one looking at the timing of limb development in chicks. The main experiments I do are taking a piece of tissue from the chick limb at specific timepoints and investigating what signalling it needs to enter the next stage of development.

Author’s note: You can read Caitlin’s papers on these projects below:

McQueen C, Towers M. 2020. Establishing the pattern of the vertebrate limb. Development. 147(17):dev177956.

Busby L, Aceituno C, McQueen C, Rich CA, Ros MA, Towers M. .2020. Sonic hedgehog specifies flight feather positional information in avian wings. Development. 147(9):dev188821.

Why did you want to do a postdoc, i.e. stay in academia?

I loved the research side of my PhD. Another part of academia I loved that I wouldn’t get anywhere else was the interaction with students in practicals or tutorials. It is really rewarding to have the opportunity to spark passion within the next generation of scientists and I remember being inspired by my teachers as an undergraduate.

However, doing a postdoc now doesn’t mean I might not move to industry later! Of course, I would love to stay and run my own lab, but I don’t know whether that will work out – so I am keeping an open mind.

I also explored a career in publishing during my PIPS. I did my placement with The Company of Biologists (they publish journals such as Development, Journal of Cell Science, Open Biology, etc.) and I found it really interesting. I discovered the variety of roles within a publishing company. There are different kinds of editors, e.g. journal editors, copy editors (they review the papers that come in), commissioning editors who go to conferences so that they can find people to invite to write a review for the journal. A lot of the people working at The Company of Biologists had done a postdoc. They advised me that doing a postdoc can only benefit your career. Even if you don’t end up enjoying it, you’ve potentially opened more doors (such as industry or publishing) through gaining more scientific expertise in your area. This confirmed to me that doing a postdoc next was a good idea!

Are you still enjoying the aspects of academia you mentioned above in your postdoc?

I am really enjoying the research! I haven’t been able to do much teaching as my supervisor is largely research-focused, but I have signed up to be a mentor to PhD students. I like the idea of contributing to the postgraduate community as university student resources are so often centred on undergraduates.

How did you go about finding a postdoc? Did you have a very specific idea about what you wanted to work on?

I knew I wanted to continue working within the area of developmental biology. Location-wise, I wasn’t in a position to look at anything too far from York as that’s where I started a family. Everybody says you need to move away, but the instability concerned me, so I restricted myself to looking in the North of England (e.g. Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle). I went through the website of each university and looked at the developmental biology labs. It is time-consuming as you have to read a couple of papers from each lab you’re interested in at the very least. I approached my current supervisor because I enjoyed his style of writing and publishing. Fortunately, the timing worked out great for me as he had some funding available.

What is different about doing a postdoc from your PhD?

Having responsibility for other people. During my PhD I was quite independent and focused on my own project as a researcher. There is a lot more collaboration on my postdoc project so I train and supervise others (research assistants, PhD students, undergraduates), making sure they know what experiments they should be doing and order the items they need in advance. Members of the lab often ask me for help day-to-day so I help with that, too.

One of the main benefits of having more responsibility are taking more control of the projects I’m working on and making suggestions about the direction in which they should go.

I’m also a big advocate of work-life balance. I try to keep my work to 9-5 as much as possible (rather than staying in the lab late just for the sake of it) and only work on weekends when I have an important deadline coming up. I find that that’s how I work most efficiently. Having the responsibility of delegating tasks as a postdoc means I am also able to manage other people’s workloads, making sure they’re not overworking themselves and are happy in their work.

Any final advice for PhD students who are thinking about doing a postdoc next?

Think about whether the postdoc is going to help you get to where you want to be. Even if I don’t end up going into research, this postdoc would help me go into HE-level teaching or get a publishing job. It is hard work and if you don’t manage the project well and it will be difficult, so make sure that you need to do it to further your career.

Start looking way before you hand in! I handed in my thesis in August and started my postdoc straight away but I’d approached Matt months beforehand. If I’d waited until June, for example, I would’ve missed the opportunity.

When you’re looking for labs to work in, don’t be afraid to email the PI after you’ve read a few papers – say you enjoyed a paper (people always like hearing you enjoyed their work!), ask if they’d be looking for anyone in the next year or so. Ask if they have any funding coming up or if you can apply for something together.

When choosing a lab, make sure that the culture and the supervisor’s style of working will align with your values and way of work. Everybody has bad days when dealing with grant deadlines or paper submission rejections but having a nice set of colleagues and a supportive supervisor around you helps make those moments easier to deal with. This was easier for me to gauge when applying for a PhD because I already knew Betsy, whereas I’d never met my postdoc supervisor before applying. I spoke to the current lab members to get a feel for the culture and found that I’d have a good support network there.

Another aspect you might want to consider is the expectation of work hours. My supervisor works hard, he writes papers and gets grants, but does not expect lab members to be in the lab all the time. As I mentioned, work-life balance is something I feel very strongly about, so that aligned with my style of work. If this is also important to you, you should find a lab that allows you to maintain it.

And, finally, a bit of advice on thesis writing – start writing as early as possible. You could sit down to write a bit of your Methods chapter or make a few figures, you don’t have to only write full chapters. Just make sure you’re getting something down, even if it’s not perfect!