Only a small percentage of today's life sciences postdocs will ever attain the independent academic research career to which most aspire. But a wide range of other interesting and significant science careers beckons postdocs--postdocs, that is, with the knowledge and skills to find them. And those who look can discover many resources for learning how to land those jobs.
This bad news/good news message emerged from two back-to-back meetings on postdoc issues held in April in Washington, DC. On 16 April, the Second Convocation on Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers (COSEPUP) drew 252 people to the National Academy of Sciences. Then, on 17 and 18 April, more than 160 attended the Second Annual Meeting of the National Postdoctoral Association at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, publisher of Next Wave).
More Choice Beyond Academia
"So-called alternative careers are now the rule rather than the exception" for bioscientists leaving their mentors' labs, Shirley Malcolm, head of AAAS's Education and Human Services department, told the NAS convocation in her keynote address. Only 15% of today's trainees will ever get that coveted tenure-track position in a research university, noted Phil Clifford, associate dean for postdoctoral education at the Medical College of Wisconsin in an address to NPA. Postdocs who do get faculty posts are far likelier to land at institutions where they will spend more time teaching and less doing research.
And former postdocs today have a wide range of nonacademic scientific careers. Some transitioned to staff scientist posts in their mentor's or another PI's lab; most, however, work in organizations including pharmaceutical and biotech companies, funding bodies, regulatory agencies, government departments, university administration, and professional societies.
Unfortunately, traditional postdoc training teaches nothing about finding and competing for these openings, as speaker after speaker stated. Lab chiefs who have never worked outside of academe generally lack the information, contacts, and inclination to help their postdocs enter the many fields that, unlike university research, offer good opportunities. Because so few postdocs can depend on their mentors for solid help in starting such careers, Clifford emphasized, every postdoc must take the initiative and responsibility for his or her own future and must work as diligently at career development as at bench research.
But far too many postdocs, Clifford noted, let unrealistic expectations lead them to become apathetic about their own career development. Many, he said, believe that they deserve a fulfilling career in the academy and that therefore "something will happen." Instead of taking realistic steps early in their postdoc period, they hang onto the hope that one more article in a prestigious journal will snag that elusive professorship. But lingering too long as a trainee can damage prospects, Malcolm said, noting that after 5 postdoc years, a postdoc?s "hireability may actually decline."
"Escape" must be the true goal of every postdoc, said Jim Austin, whose own circuitous route led him from a physics postdoc to the North American editorship of Science's Next Wave. The postdoc intent on making good his or her breakout knows that "every day in your life is about your career," said Trevor Penning, the University of Pennsylvania's associate dean for postdoctoral research training. Each and every day, a postdoc should accomplish something to move further along his or her own multiyear career plan, he said. "You have to go out and get the rose; no one will give it to you."
Having a multiyear plan and systematically mapping one's progress toward a specific career goal are crucial to both a successful postdoc experience and a successful post-postdoc transition, said Penning. An effective job search, for example, can take up to 2 years and should therefore be well under way by a postdoc's third year or sooner. But the notion of forward-looking career planning and intentional information gathering is foreign to many postdocs, who, as one audience member put it, will spend weeks designing an experiment and days tracking down a particular article, but no time at all mapping out a strategy for their own futures.
A variety of speakers outlined the array of resources available for that admittedly daunting task. But many postdocs are unaware of these resources--sources of information and guidance--according to preliminary data from the Sigma Xi postdoctoral survey, as project director Geoff Davis pointed out.
Success in the job search requires postdocs to have three kinds of knowledge, many speakers emphasized: a general orientation to the fields suitable to their interests and abilities, specific information about particular job openings, and the "soft skills" (including networking, writing resumes, and interviewing) needed to locate, apply for, and land jobs ... and also to do well at them, once hired. Business cards are a must for all job seekers, as is the habit of handing them out at every opportunity, added Georgetown University postdoc Lille Tidwell. This simple tactic builds the network of people who know that one is in the market and how to be in touch, she said.
Mastering these nonscientific tasks is crucial to finding a job in industry, reported Renee Commerford, who described to the NPA her transition from postdoc to drug-discovery researcher at Novartis. "The interview is crucial for your career" and requires careful preparation, she warned. To succeed in the competition for pharmaceutical jobs, postdocs must "expand their knowledge of science beyond their one protein." They must also convince potential employers that they are resourceful, collaborative, quick learners, good writers, and skilled at making presentations.
More Career Resources Available on Campus and Online
Sources for help with these and other aspects of career planning and job hunting include the postdoc offices and career centers at some universities, campus postdoc associations, and professional societies, as well as publications like Science's Next Wave. University offerings range from scanty to profuse, with some campuses providing postdocs access to the same placement services that serve undergraduate and graduate students. Some postdoc offices also provide guidance and information.
Whichever office provides them, university services can include help doing self-assessments, analyzing and narrowing career possibilities, composing resumes and cover letters, preparing for interviews, locating leads to specific openings, and meeting company representatives who are visiting campus. Many participants urged postdocs to explore the resources their universities offer and to use them to their fullest extent. Postdocs often ignore campus career and human resource offices, assuming they are for "janitors and technicians" rather than Ph.D.s, one participant noted.
Also increasingly active in the career planning field, even on campuses that do not provide extensive services to postdocs, are local postdoc associations. Some postdoc associations sponsor seminars and workshops with representatives of local industries and experts in job hunting and career planning. Organizing such a program is not as difficult as it might seem, said the University of Minnesota's Esam El-Fakahany. One reminder El-Fakahany offered is to always have cookies on hand to entice an audience in the door.
The job-seeking scientist's "support and partner" is his or her disciplinary or professional society, said Jura N. Viesulas of the American Chemical Society's (ACS's) employment-information office. Membership in disciplinary societies is falling, according to AAAS's Malcolm. But societies support members' career development with information specific to the discipline and the industries it serves; data on current salaries for different kinds of posts; resources for job hunting; networking opportunities at meetings; and professional services. ACS, for example, offers one-on-one guidance in resume writing in addition to a jobs clearing-house. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the American Society for Microbiology, the American Physical Society, and other scientific groups also train members in job-seeking skills and point them toward openings to apply for, participants noted.
The scientists assembled at the two meetings heard data that is incontrovertible and a take-home lesson that could hardly be clearer: There are not now, nor will there ever be, enough tenure-track jobs at research universities for all who want them. But a world of interesting opportunities awaits young scientists who look beyond the ivory tower. Smart people who have spent up to a decade becoming skilled investigators simply need to apply their research skills to preparing for them, finding them, and doing them well.