The post-postdoc

The pressures of stagnant research funding, limited academic jobs, and increasing numbers of graduates are creating a bulge in the postdoctoral population cleverly termed “the postdocalypse.” The academic community is addressing this issue – slowly, laboriously, and often reluctantly (see “The case of the disappearing postdocs” below). For the postdoc working on the 5th revision of a manuscript while the grant money runs out, the problem is much more acute.

Understandably, it’s hard for academic scientists to look beyond the current experiment and the next paper. I frequently hear from scientists at the stage of “I’m graduating in a month – now what?” Or, “My postdoc funding is running out – now what?” In the language of entrepreneurship, PhD students and postdocs should be planning an exit strategy.

A knowledge gap big enough to drive a small business into.

Procrastination is a poor strategy for planning a career, but it works as long as there is a next stage. Masters, PhD, postdoc (2nd postdoc)… Those transitions may be difficult, but they occur within the same academic ecosystem. The post-academic transition is something else. The skills, strategies, and tactics are simply different, and this is the knowledge gap that waits at the end of the academic phase. There are many voices bringing visibility to this problem, but let me offer the following as one viewpoint. The market has recognized the difficulty of PhD scientists transitioning to jobs outside academia, and has responded with a small but growing industry: Post-postdoctoral career training. This is the business of training science PhDs and postdocs so that they can begin careers in industry, science policy, or other non-research fields.

There is a harsh way of painting this picture that’s hard to ignore: A decade of scientific education and training does not make you employable. This is a statement that can make postdocs angry, professors defensive, MBAs smug, and university PR firms nervous. But what gets lost is that the career training that most scientists need is not “instead of” their education.

The career development programs I’ve seen have three main offerings: One is to help scientists understand the culture and expectations of industry: for example, putting a priority on teamwork and deadlines. Another is to help grow a professional social network so that more opportunities become available. Finally, there is the process of realizing how many skills are acquired during doctoral education, and which of those a person wants to develop as a profession. The world needs scientists – it just doesn’t need scientists to do the same things they did as grad students and postdocs.

We’ve got procrastination down to a science.

Early-career scientists put off career questions until after the very end of their academic runway. This is largely a matter of urgency. Graduate students are master procrastinators. We finish plotting the data Tuesday morning because the deadline to print a poster is Tuesday at noon. How urgent does preparing for a career feel, when we don’t even know exactly what it is or what that means?

Scientific research is hard. But for grad students and postdocs, at least there is a framework: Advisors, peers, technicians, and instruments are all there to support the research. So it is no small challenge to ask scientists to simultaneously carry out their research and prepare for a career. But the research has milestones and deliverables (experiments and papers). Career preparedness has no milestones and no deliverables; at least none that will be identified by your committee. This is the vacuum that post-postdoctoral career training fills. It gives  a framework for bright scientists, who will solve many types of problems along their academic path, to address a problem they have not thought about.

Expecting universities to deliver combat-ready scientists is a tall order. Those with strong industry collaborations tend to offer more career-development opportunities, but this is not the norm. Some institutions are responding to the needs of graduates with skills training and career workshops, but it’s no surprise that academic institutions tend to focus on academic career training. Professors can be great scientific advisors and still not recognize how important transferable skills, like networking and communication, will be for a non-academic career. This does not show a lack of caring, just a different perspective.

For science PhDs, getting useful data on career outcomes is not easy. Only recently, graduate departments have begun tracking career outcomes of their PhDs, and the data is sparse. Even with data in hand, knowing about career outcomes doesn’t lead directly to career preparedness. Of all the stakeholders in this game, it is grad students and postdocs that have the greatest incentive to look ahead to their career path.

As scientists, we deal in data. Now is the time to treat your career like a research project, even if it’s a small one. How will you go about getting data to prepare for your post-graduate career? Many people are willing to help you: Some are your advisors. Some are strangers. Some do it as a business. Some want to help because they’ve been there. You have the time and resources to prepare for careers you never even knew existed. The only real risk is in not asking the question.

Links

Finding the post-academic career path. A companion article in Lab Without Benches lists post-postdoc training services.

The Case of the Disappearing Postdocs. More scientists are going directly from PhD programs to industry jobs – is the value of postdoctoral training in decline? By Beryl Lieff Benderly, Science, 2015

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