September 4, 2014

Avoiding a Career as a Perpetual Postdoc

By Clara Castillejobecerra

As trainees, we are faced with a frustrating reality-- the job market cannot meet the increasing supply of PhDs. We know this and most of us decide to pursue further postdoctoral training in order to become more qualified for the limited positions. Unfortunately, the few years we anticipate for postdoctoral training can extend longer than desired, thereby causing many of us to become stuck in perpetual postdoctoral work. Disillusioned by the process, a portion of us will abandon our initial career goals to settle for less than desired or just leave science altogether. But are some of us simply destined to this path? If not, then what can we do to avoid the fate of a perpetual postdoc?

Well first, it is important to realize that even the brightest PhDs will fail to reach their career goals without proper planning. Regardless of your performance in the lab, it should be a priority to think about your career path and how you will reach your objective. Even if you are unsure of what path to pursue, you should consider all your options and select the one or two that fits you best. Web based tools such as myIDP (Individual Development Plan) are designed to help graduate students and postdocs identify their career path as well as providing step by step plans for reaching their goals. It is also important to keep your mentors informed of your career ambitions as they might provide additional guidance and motivation to help you reach them. Once you have completed your initial IDP, you will be better prepared to put your plans into actions and closer to reaching your career goals.

Although individualized career planning is an important first step, it is not sufficient to ensure your future success. Networking is another key aspect to your professional development and should be cultivated throughout your training. It is not only beneficial in terms of exchanging ideas and creating collaborations, but it also opens the door to future job opportunities. Considering the many advantages of networking, you should plan to attend lectures and meet visiting scientists. You should also try to expand upon your network by exploring other areas unrelated to your field of research. Remember to make time to strengthen these new relationships since those you meet might be your future collaborators and mentors.

Lastly, you should match your skill set to the particular job you seek. As researchers, we develop transferable skills such as analytical thinking, problem solving, written/oral communication, and collaboration. These skills are desirable for many jobs even those unrelated to research. The key is to highlight your skills and sell yourself to a particular position. For example, a trainee applying to a science writing position will need to emphasize written manuscripts, grants, reviews, presentations, blogs, or any other form of communication especially those explaining complex ideas into simple language. The trainee will also need to de-emphasize laboratory skills and research in general since it does not apply to the desired position. It might also be necessary to supplement your skills with additional classes and experiences. For example, if the goal of the trainee is to work for a start up biotech company, then the trainee should already have some leadership and management skills. However, it would be beneficial to take some business, marketing, and accounting classes to supplement the training received during doctoral/postdoctoral work. Bear in mind that the broad spectrum of PhDs will gain similar skills during their training but you will stand apart from the crowd by spending time investigating the skills needed for a particular position.

So plan early, network, and sell yourself to avoid a career as a perpetual postdoc. Your primary job as a trainee should be to reach the next milestone in your career. And although times are difficult in terms of career advancement, proper planning should prepare for a fulfilling career. We are in a competitive market and it is in our best interest is to consider many options and be flexible with your skills.

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