We’ve read the writing on the wall. Academia isn’t for everyone. There aren’t enough positions to be filled, yet, more and more talented PhDs continue to enter the job market. Additionally, the skills required as an independent investigator diverge significantly from those we develop as doctoral or postdoctoral trainees. Instead of doing research, one must effectively transition to running a small business that is a research lab. Not everyone’s cup of tea. The good news is that several employers outside of academia seek candidates with the critical thinking and analytical skills we acquire through doctoral training.
There has been a considerable effort to introduce PhD students to a host of career development paths and offer resources to allow students to make the switch out of academia. The NIH Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) grant is an example of one such effort to expose students to alternate careers, providing training and networking opportunities to help them identify the next step in their career most suited to their talents and needs. However, at institutions without monetary support to fund these programs, students largely have to do their own research into career options and depend on their mentors for guidance—in addition to the workload of their scientific research. For many, the next inevitable step is to do a postdoc.
For those not seeking a career in academia, I hope to show you that doing a postdoc is not the end of the road. In fact, instead of making a desperate switch at the end of your PhD to an alternate career that doesn’t appeal to you, that you don’t see a future in, it is better to do a postdoc and use that time to find the opportunities that will actually be fulfilling. Many employers these days look for applicants with work experience – a postdoc is work experience. The key is to view the postdoc as an intermediate period where you prepare yourself for the next step in your career. This post will focus on how to leverage your postdoc for your next career once you’ve identified it (through my IDP and other tools). Here are a few steps I would recommend to begin the process:
- Find the right environment
If you are quite certain that academia is not for you, then you should incorporate this decision in every step of searching for a postdoc. You are, of course, expected to follow your scientific interests and research goals in this process, but don’t forget to factor in your career goals.
If you are not geographically restricted, find institutions that have an established office of postdoctoral affairs, grants such as the BEST grant, and are preferably located in places with a decent job market. A comprehensive list of current BEST recipients and their individual programs can be found on this website. These institutions are more likely to have dedicated programs for preparing students and postdocs for non-academic careers, and likely to have connections with local pharmaceutical companies, start-ups, consulting firms, and the like so you can network with professionals from several industries that hire PhDs for a variety of roles. If you are geographically restricted, try to find an institution that has some, if not all of these resources. For example, even if there aren’t very many employers in the area, having a dedicated postdoctoral office will mean that you can connect with someone outside the lab who can direct you to the right places. In addition, various schools within many institutions host their own career fairs and seminars for graduate students. Find out if you will have the option to attend these, even if they aren’t in the specific school that you will work in. For example, workshops on entrepreneurship, licensing, and commercialization, etc., might be offered through the business school at your institution that you can access.
Once you have chosen your institutions, narrow down on your future lab. It is important to choose a lab not only based on your scientific interests, but where your future PI has an open attitude toward their trainees wanting to pursue careers outside academia. This is something you can determine during your interview by asking the PIs about their expectations and by talking to the current members of the lab. Having a supportive PI will ensure that you will actually be allowed the time to invest in your career development, in addition to fulfilling your research responsibilities. Start this process early, say when you have been given the “permission to write” your thesis, as it is referred to at some institutions (also referred to as “all but dissertation” sometimes). It will take time to do the necessary research and you will likely have to send out several applications before you receive some positive responses.
- Be social and cultivate a network early
Once you start your position and begin settling into the new topic and techniques, start cultivating friendships and a network of mentors outside the lab. These can be colleagues from a different lab or department (never underestimate happy hours!), the cores that you work with for your experiments, even the administrators in the department or the dean’s office. It can be awkward at first, but as you get to know the place, these interactions will become more frequent and more natural. If there are scientific societies near you, or even local meet-up groups of graduate students and postdocs, take advantage of these. Regardless of the peer group you choose, remember to be social. You never know who might be able to put you in touch with someone you can do an informational interview with or who can give you a referral. The important part is to figure out your routine early, so you can appropriately allot your time and ensure that you step outside the four walls of your lab. This will require daily goal setting and time management, to make sure you don’t fall into doing 12-hour days every day and are thus exhausted when it is time to go out to an event.
- Incorporate your career goals into your work
It can be tempting to view preparation for your career as separate from your work, but they can actually intersect quite often and you can make sure they do. For example, if your goal is to work in industry, find some skills and techniques that industry employers look for and incorporate them into your own project. Chances are that, as a postdoc, you will likely be writing proposals and grant applications. If you know that the pharmaceutical companies you are eyeing look for candidates with experience in next generation sequencing or bioinformatics or specialized statistical analysis, incorporate them into your own research project. This will ensure that when you are ready to enter the job market two or three years from now, you will already have gained experience in the required areas.
In the same vein, if you are looking at a position that requires management experience, volunteer to take on undergraduate students. If it requires leadership experience, join your institution’s postdoc association and run for a position (if there isn’t one, find people to start it with your colleagues). These are just examples of the innumerable ways in which you can develop “transferable skills” during your postdoc. Even if you don’t exactly know what you want to do next, developing these skills will help you be competitive for most jobs, within or outside academia.
- Continuing education
This is perhaps the one aspect that is ignored the most when it comes to alternate career planning. For almost every career outside academia, you will need to do some amount of preparation. For some you can prepare within your job responsibilities, but for others, you will need to learn relatively new concepts. This is especially true for those interested in consulting or bioinformatics as the next career choice. For jobs requiring in-depth expertise, take advantage of the tuition remission programs that your institution offers. At many institutions, postdocs are entitled to certain amount of tuition remission for training-related coursework. Ensure that the institution you are going to gives you this benefit in some form. These are not just limited to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. You can use these credits to take classes in a programming language, data analysis visualization and analysis tools, and project management, etc. These classes will likely not be offered through the school you’re working at but rather through the school of professional studies or continuing education (names may vary). Obviously, this will require your PI’s support, as in most cases, they will be required to attest that this is indeed related to your training. Hence my first point. Having these additional skills will not only help your CV stand out, but will also make the transition into your next position much smoother by tilting the learning curve in your favor.
Of course, this isn’t the entirety of the preparation and work needed to make the switch out of academia but I hope it provides you with some ideas on how to begin and focus your plan for the move. Recruit your support team and get, set!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB..
About the Author:
Aditi Dubey is a postdoctoral fellow at New York University College of Dentistry in New York, NY. She studies mechanisms of craniofacial development in the vertebrate model system Xenopus laevis. She received her PhD in Cell and Developmental Biology from Rutgers Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in New Brunswick, NJ. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org