What are My Career Options as a Postdoc?

The disposable Academic. Why a PhD is often a waste of time’ (the Economist, 18th June 2012)
US pushes for scientists, but the jobs aren’t there’ (Washington Post, 7th July 2012) ‘Doctoral Graduates left chasing dreams’ (the Australian, 16 January 2013)
As the headlines show, the plight of the postdoc has recently gained quite a bit of attention around the world.
Lack of jobs and job security, a substantial oversupply of PhD-level researchers and a higher education sector squeezed by tight budgets are all major issues. There are many suggestions for solutions such as more secure employment conditions, more or different funding sources and a dramatic reduction in training graduate students to reduce the bottleneck into the academic career path.
However, these are ‘big picture’ solutions, which isn’t the topic of this blog post: and that’s because if you are a postdoc right now, any reforms of the sector, if they happen at all, are very unlikely to feed through quickly enough to make much difference to your immediate future and career options.
So faced with tough competition and an uncertain employment outlook – what do you do?
Developing Career Options Step 1. Acknowledge the problem
If you are reading this, you’ve most likely already passed the most important hurdle: acknowledging that this is a problem and that you need to do something about it. Inaction and just hoping ‘it’ll all work out’ are not real options when there is a substantial oversupply of postdocs competing for a small number of teaching and research positions, and you are not aware of, or prepared for, careers options beyond academia.
Developing Career Options Step 2. Pick your ideal career – the one you really want
When working in the ‘pressure-cooker’ environment of a research lab, it’s quite common to lose sight of the central question: what do you really want to do with your career?
What does your perfect working day look like? Do you get excited about teaching undergraduates; running a research team; working in a biotech team to get the next lifesaving drug approved; or maybe assessing the latest cutting-edge innovations as a patent examiner in a safe, permanent position?
Many people find this step of picking their favourite careers overwhelming because they don’t know what career options are available. The majority of postdocs we speak to at PostdocTraining – and I had the same problem when I was a postdoc – have little exposure to careers available to researchers outside their own research environment. So how do you overcome that?
   You can do some very effective ‘pruning’ of career options by working out first what your own preferences and strengths are. For example:
   Are you a ‘big picture’ person, or do you love becoming the expert in a narrow field and getting it just right? “Big picture’ thinking is better aligned with a managerial career path while technical positions tent to suit those who value high-level mastery of their field. These are generalisations, of course, but can be a useful start to putting some structure into the maze of career options.
   Do you embrace risk and uncertainty or is job security essential for your peace of mind? A good test is the ‘sleep at night’ factor: if employment on temporary contracts keeps you awake at night, you can comfortably exclude many grant-based research positions or small biotech start-ups with wild fluctuations in funding. It may take some courage to admit this to yourself, and others, especially if you work in an environment where everyone has accepted lack of security as a given. But this is your career and your life, and you have every right to spend it happy and worry-free! 
   Start to develop an overview of what careers are out there for you given your preferences and strengths. Armed with your ‘wishlist’, your career preferences, values and strengths, you can start researching different career options.
            Where do you find out more about career options?
       Online resources with case studies (Science Careers is a good start).
       Ask around friends, acquaintances, colleagues and family.
       Institutions and Associations in your research field will also often have live events on career options or resources on their website.
       Media job ads: not so much for specific positions, more to get a feel for the breadth and diversity of options and sectors looking for talent.
Start to narrow down the career options that obviously align with items on your wishlist and start to investigate these further.
This step of exploring and filtering takes some time but is essential to find and pursue the career option that is right for you. For example we take our PostdocTraining clients through a series of steps to help identify favourite skills, career values and preferences. We have also put together a resource that gathers information and case studies of over 40 career options within and beyond academia into one convenient place.
Developing Career Options Step 3. Build up your skills and optimize your chances to succeed
Once you’ve identified your ideal career option, or a group of related options, you can start to identify and optimize the kind of skills, track record and networks required to succeed in that particular career path.
   Skills – for any career
Interestingly, most skills that do the most to get you ahead are very similar in many different career paths, making them truly transferrable. So while your technical skills themselves may not transfer to many careers, most of the skills that actually make you a successful researcher will also get you ahead in many other careers. Some of the key skills are:
   good time management
   ability to manage projects well
   analysis and interpretation of information
   interpersonal skills to work with and manage people, including both teamwork and leadership skills
Most people, whether in academia or other industries, are not ‘naturals’ at these skills but improve and perfect them through their working lives. Much of professional development training focusses on these skills and your university or institute may provide training in these key areas, so do take advantage of such courses if they are offered.
Because these skills are so important for success within and beyond academia, but are rarely taught to postdocs, we have made them a key component of our PostdocTraining Program. 
   Track Record – differentiate yourself
In the rush to have the best track record in the form of publications, many postdocs underestimate the impact of other evidence of achievements that employers or grant giving committees are looking for.
   What achievements can you list (or need to gather) that show your impact in your research field? This might include invited talks, involvement in conferences, contributions to committees of your industry association, etc.
   What was your role in each publication you list, especially if you were not the first author?
Having a well established and rounded track record becomes particularly important when you decide to move beyond academia, where publications have much less meaning to future employers:
   Where have you shown qualities such as initiative, leadership, ability to work well in teams, or negotiation skills?
It is essential to think about these achievements regularly and identify where you need to gather more evidence for the career path you have embarked on. With a little planning, you can make sure you score highly in these areas, showing you really understand what employers and grant agencies are after. 
   Networks – your gateway to career options
Are you looking for a job, a mentor, opportunities to advance your career, collaborators to take your science or other work to a new level – or all of these? This is where your networks play the key role.
The equation is simple: the larger your network, the more opportunities will come your way. But how do you build a good-sized network that works for you?
You may not have many opportunities or time to network so when you do get out of the lab or office, make the best of your networking time. For example:
   Every time you go to a seminar, go with a goal of meeting one new person. You can do this by arriving 5 minutes early, sitting next to someone you don’t know and introducing yourself. Easy! You may have just met a potential colleague or future mentor in your school, or a potential collaborator from outside, interested in the same topic as you. You never know where these short encounters lead to, but if you don’t make them in the first place, they will certainly lead nowhere!
   Make a list of people you would like to meet at the next conference you attend by looking at the program in advance and doing a little background research on your ‘persons of interest’ via university websites or resources like LinkedIn. Introduce yourself at poster sessions or after talks, or find out whether you have contacts in common for introductions (LinkedIn is a great resource to identify who knows who). Make sure you have an up-to-date business card with you for easy exchange of contact details.
Developing Career Options Step 4. Keep your options open
Career paths rarely go in a straight line, and luck – good and bad – does play a significant role in the way your career develops.
A poignant example is a story that Nobel Prize winner Prof Brian Schmidt tells of his earlier career. In 1997 he applied for the only suitable position for him in his field of astronomy. He ended up 4th in line for the job and started to go through the recruitment section of the newspaper to look for other careers. Luckily, the three people ahead of him turned down the job, he took it, and a year later, he and colleagues published the work that won him the Nobel Prize for physics in 2011!
Given the ‘luck factor’ and the aspects of your career that aren’t within your control, such as funding, it is wise to keep an open mind about an alternative career you would be interested in.
This has nothing to do with not being serious about your current postdoc and your research career. Keeping your options open just means that you work on your skills and suitable items for your track record, and establish the right network connections so you have a ‘Plan B’ career path you can embark on in case ‘Plan A’ does not work out. Imagine the peace of mind this would give you every time you wait for a grant announcement.
Above all, don’t panic about your prospects or despair at dire predictions of the kind that started this piece. Yes, it’s only a relatively small proportion of postdocs who will succeed in their first-choice careers; but then, it’s only a relatively small proportion who take control of their choices and follow a clear plan to achieve them. This group should include you!
Helping you succeed in the career you want is our aim at PostdocTraining. If you would like more hands-on support to help you negotiate your career path, take control and develop a competitive edge, have a look here at what we offer to see how it will benefit your career.

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2 Responses to What are My Career Options as a Postdoc?

  1. Mike April 9, 2013 at 9:03 am #

    I like step 1! Much better than the alternative. To paraphrase H.J. Simpson:

    Nerd: What are you going to do, Mr. Simpson?
    Homer: Actually, I’ve been working on a plan. During the exam, I’ll hide under some coats, and hope that somehow everything will work out.

    • Kerstin April 9, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

      Hi Mike, thanks for that. Yes, some plans are better than others… Cheers, Kerstin

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