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

Who’s that knocking at my door?

or: How I learned to stop worrying
and love LinkedIn endorsements

For scientists looking to break out of academia, nothing is more mysterious than the concept of networking. Wanting to share some insights with my readers, I called up a friend who recently started an MBA program, now immersed in the culture of business. We agreed networking is a critical career skill for scientists, and he mentioned that LinkedIn is especially important in the business community. That’s great, I said – that’s one of the topics I want to write about. Then I gave him my detailed explanation of how people are using LinkedIn endorsements all wrong. Then he started laughing. At me.
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DIY SOP

 

In the first part of this series I made the case that standardized operating procedures (SOPs), while completely routine in industry, are often missing from academic education. In this essay, I propose a way for you as a university student to not only write a standard procedure, but to make that experience part of your scientific education. The title is a little lighthearted – I don’t intend for anyone to do it all alone. And this isn’t a quick tip or a “lab hack” – it is hard work and it takes time. But considering how much time you’ve spent learning how to do science, it’s also worthwhile to learn how to apply that education where it matters – like in a job. Continue reading

Who cares about standard operating procedures?

Scientists from academia are often puzzled by the emphasis on standard operating procedures (SOPs) in industry. In one of my early R&D jobs, it felt like an obsession – as soon as I got a new result, my managers wanted to know about the process, and whether I had standardized it. I thought it must be due to their background in manufacturing, where everything has to be replicated from one factory to another. But with more experience, I’ve seen this interest in standardized procedures everywhere – manufacturing, R&D, medical devices, pharmaceuticals… everywhere, that is, except the university research lab. For scientists trained to answer questions by designing new experiments, question of process might not make sense, and even seem a waste of time: If standard procedures are so important, how do we explain the many successful research groups that never bother with them?
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