Honestly, I never thought the day would come – as I write this, I am no longer an academic. That’s right, I’ve managed to exit the perpetual postdoc holding pattern. My new title? Freelance writer and editor. For those of you curious about how I made it to the other side and lived to tell about it, keep reading.
First, a bit of background. As some of you probably already know from my past posts, the last year was a bumpy ride, filled with consternation, second-guessing, rebranding, and self-educating. A little over a year and a half ago, exasperated with the directionless nature of my professional life, I sent an email to Dr. Heidi Kenaga, Program Manager of the BEST at Wayne State. I only knew her name from BEST flyers I’d seen posted on the walls in my building. “I’m starting to regret ever getting a Ph.D.,” I wrote to her. I was already 6 years out from graduating with my Ph.D. and while the postdoc started out as a genuine interest and step in the pursuit of an academic career, in recent years my priorities had changed. I had a young child and I was not able to leave Detroit. What’s more, I suspected that my love of practicing science was waning. I no longer felt the same urgency to go into the lab on the weekends. While my curiosity remained intact, going through the motions of experiments grew stale.
At Heidi’s urging, I applied to the BEST program. The opening line of my application essay, “In the time it has taken me the time to complete one doctorate degree and two postdocs, I have come to the realization that I do not wish to remain in academia,” was one of the hardest sentences I ever wrote. Many agonize over the decision of whether or not to stay in academia. Leaving feels like a betrayal. The stigma attached to pursuing what some call an “alternative” path persists. For women, this can be an especially jarring blow to the ego, since we have to work harder and sacrifice much to be as competitive as men. After much introspection, however, I realized that staying in academia and feigning interest was the true betrayal (to myself). For the first time, I was vocalizing my doubts, writing about them. Doing this made them real. Making them real gave them power.
The Detroit job market is not the best in the country for science communication, if that is your professional interest. There are even fewer opportunities for a mom with a two-year-old who can’t leave Detroit because of childcare restrictions. The solution? To write for the WSU BEST blog, which I could do from anywhere. At the time, I still wasn’t sure of exactly what I wanted to do with communication, but I figured that any published writing other than my scientific essays to add to my portfolio would be a plus.
Over the following months, I wrote. A lot. I rewrote. I agonized over stringing words together. The self-doubt was palpable, painful, and there were days when I woke up wondering if I should just forget about the whole endeavor and resign myself to being a postdoc forever. On these days, I thought back to my early days at the bench. If science taught me anything, it was perseverance. Science has taught you that, too. All of those experiments that failed? All of those studies where you disproved your own hypothesis? All of those times when protocols stopped working for mysterious reasons? All of it created a tougher version of our previous selves. That’s what kept me going. I turned in posts that I was proud of (and posts that I wasn’t so proud of). But every single day, I kept showing up – even when there were days when only a few sentences eked out. Opportunities slowly started to appear – a call for submissions for the Atlanta BEST magazine, a request for editing, an email asking if I could write an article about advances in cell culture – each experience led to new connections and the potential for more work.
If you want to succeed on a new career path, you need to take action. Stop mulling it over and do something to make it real. The worst that might happen is that you discover it’s not for you. Not sure where to start? Begin with the search function on Google. Information abounds!
Build Yourself a (Virtual) Village
As I wrote for the blog, I also worked on my virtual identity. How did I want to represent myself? How could I make social media work for me? The first thing I did was to make sure that my LinkedIn profile was up-to-date, had a professional photograph, and a headline. If you’re having trouble getting started, read this article I wrote all about leveraging LinkedIn for your job search.
As you build your network and make connections, you will start to learn where the people in your aspiring field hang out. Certain groups tend to gravitate towards specific sites. For example, if you’re a writer, you need to be on Twitter; it’s ripe with opportunity. Believe it or not, Facebook can be used for more than sharing pictures of your children or your cats. There are countless Facebook groups for writers that are specific to certain genres (such as science writing). I joined a few of these groups. I reached out to seasoned writers and asked questions. These questions led to further correspondence over email or phone with people who had experience writing for Science, Nature, The New Yorker, or NPR. These conversations led to more resources, more ways to educate myself (including online courses that received glowing endorsements). I also built a website, a feat that is less impressive than it sounds given the current array of user-friendly platforms available. Don’t have the time to build something fancy? Make a free landing page on WordPress that includes your contact information, your skillset, your publications, and whatever else you want potential employers or clients to know. One day I received an email asking if I was interested in writing for a particular publication. One of the people I had met over Facebook had recommended me for the job, and they contacted me through my new website.
Let Everyone Know Your Plan
Once my intentions became real to me, I made them known to others. And by “others,” I mean everyone. I’ve written about this before but it bears repeating: you never know who somebody else knows or what they know. My neighbor turned out to be a successful freelance writer with a degree in writing. She told me about a writing group in the neighborhood, which I joined. Through this, I met other writers and editors with different backgrounds, different perspectives, and valuable areas of expertise. Not only did I talk more about my goals, but just as important, I started listening more. Each person has a story about how they got to where they are now. Most people enjoy talking about themselves. Most are flattered that you want to listen. I started to write in a nearby coffee shop and I started to meet other regulars. Through casual conversation, I learned more about how to set up my freelance business. I registered as a Limited Liability Company online. I got advice about small business bank accounts and about taxes. I became familiar with the BUILD Institute (an invaluable resource for anyone launching a business). When I had questions, I knew who I could email or call. Slowly, but surely, I built up a reliable network of associates who also became friends.
Don’t Forget About the Network You’ve Had all Along
As my final day in the lab drew closer, I sent an email to people who were familiar with my work and asked if they would be so kind as to write testimonials for my new site. I contacted nearly 25 people; only 5 responded. But that was all I needed. People from my lab life wrote about my ability to clearly convey information. People familiar with my writing wrote about my prose style. No matter what field you are planning to go into next, you will need others willing to speak on your behalf about those skills you are trying to showcase. You don’t need a website (although it would certainly help, especially if you’re interested in a career in communication). Ask for testimonials and have people post them on LinkedIn. Be prepared to write your own and send to others for approval. People are busy and may not have the time to write something for you. However you go about doing it, be gracious and don’t forget to thank them.
Further, I sent emails asking people for advice. Again, not many responded – I didn’t take it personally (you shouldn’t either). However, one correspondence led to another job. My postdoc was funded by a grant from the American Cancer Society (ACS). Not only did I do research, but I went to many ACS events where I spoke about our lab’s research, and people seemed to like the way I did that. I was put in touch with a communication manager at ACS for an informational interview. She asked about my experience and mentioned that they are always looking for freelance writers. Once she reviewed the articles on my website, I received my first assignment.
Leaving academia is stressful. There are a lot of emotions and a lot of uncertainty. This past year ranks as one of the most challenging I’ve encountered; yet, it is also one of the most exciting. Part of what drew me to a Ph.D. program in the first place was my insatiable desire for learning and uncovering truths. But years at the bench spent focusing on one incredibly small aspect of one problem squelched these desires. I wanted to reacquaint myself with the grandeur, poetry, and beauty of science. For me, that means pursuing science writing. I may not be making a lot of money and I may be anxious most days about what steps to take next, but I am happier and more fulfilled. Figure out what fulfillment means to you. Exploring other venues may help you to realize that you do, indeed, belong on the academic path. But it may also help you to discover latent parts of yourself that have been ignored or forgotten during the graduate school/postdoc process. Do your research (you surely know how), talk to others, build a community, and be proactive. Know that it will take time, but that it will be worth it (even the Ph.D.).
In 2014, Science reported that only about 15% of biomedical PhD researchers secured a tenure-track position, leaving 85% to figure out how to best apply their skills and training to “alternative” career paths. The NIH’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training [BEST] grants are designed to help universities expose graduate students and postdocs to non-academic research-related positions in domains such as policy, biotech, teaching, or science communications.
This past October, 17 awardees of the BEST grant came together in Bethesda, Maryland for their fourth annual conference to discuss how to successfully inform a burgeoning population of biomedical and life science graduate students and postdocs about careers beyond the traditional scope of tenure-track research.
The NIH created the BEST grant in 2012 to help recipient institutions train scientists for “nontraditional” career paths. In the subsequent year, Wayne State secured the $1.8 million, 5-year grant. “The funding is set up to provide faculty time to build a program, so after the 5 years of NIH support, hopefully the university will be committed to running this,” said Dr. Patricia Labosky, Program Leader at NIH’s Office of Strategic Coordination. These sentiments were echoed by the grant’s PI and Dean of the Graduate School, Dr. Ambika Mathur, in a 2014 press release: “The long-range goal is to institutionalize these practices so that our students become the next generation of innovators and leaders in science. The extended outcome of our program is to place students in diverse careers in addition to academia, and to educate the biomedical community that such diverse careers are viewed as desirable and successful outcomes of doctoral research training.”
Each awardee tailors their BEST program to suit their doctoral population. In the Midwest, in addition to Wayne State University, the University of Chicago and Michigan State University (MSU), also received the grant. At MSU, the program is a multi-year co-curricular experience, which takes into account its location in an area that is not heavily industrialized. Similar to Wayne State’s BEST program, which has a three-phase training plan that culminates in a career exploration or internship, the University of Chicago’s myChoice program is a multi-step curriculum designed to expose participants to a variety of career paths, such as entrepreneurship, teaching, policy, industry, communication, among other areas. Another feature of MyChoice is that programming is open to participants from other institutions in the Chicago area. (A full description of each BEST awardee’s program can be found on the NIH-BEST site.)
While the mission of the BEST grant seems straightforward enough, it poses a serious challenge to scientific training culture in academic institutions which has tended to view nonacademic careers as a lesser choice and failed to provide students and postdocs with information about other viable options. As a result, many doctoral students are often confused about their possible career trajectories once they make decisions to depart from the tenure-track route.
Where did this scientific training culture come from, and how can we help transform it to benefit the academic labor force while serving the scientific research enterprise?
An Academic Pyramid Scheme?
Over 50 years ago, Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, in a speech entitled The Uses of the University (1963), explained how historical forces have shaped the role of the university in society. The university was no longer cloistered, but now “a prime instrument of national purpose,” with its job to produce “new knowledge,” which was “the most important factor in economic and social growth.” He noted the deficiencies of sprawling universities, which included large classes that made researchers too busy to teach. He also warned of the possible negative impact of federal influence.
Paula Stephan, professor of economics at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University and Science Magazine’s 2012 Person of the Year, referred to the current graduate and postdoctoral training system as a “pyramid scheme” that uses young aspiring scientists as sources of cheap labor for grant-funded research, yet fails to reciprocate in the form of career opportunities. In How Economics Shapes Science, Stephan argues that federally funded academic research squashes innovation by probing “safe” questions. According to Science, “She shows why the demand for low-cost graduate students and even lower-cost postdocs is perpetual, insatiable, and out of proportion with subsequent career opportunities.”
Stephan’s work is an assessment of the culmination of those circumstances – historical, economical, and otherwise – that have brought us to this point. Despite her rather grim observations, however, there is an optimism inherent in the growing acknowledgement of the situation. As was clear at the NIH-BEST meeting this October, not only policy change but cultural change will be required to prevent the current system’s implosion, as well as to produce innovative research and to recultivate an atmosphere of reciprocity, as opposed to the lopsided relationship that most labs rely on to produce data cheaply and quickly. As Stephan notes in the Science article, now is the perfect time to discuss “the need to provide students with good information and help them explore alternatives early in their graduate career.”
The discussion is occurring and it can be quite vehement. Strategizing is underway whether or not academia is ready for it. At the NIH-BEST meeting, PhD students and postdoc delegates from BEST awardee institutions discussed their impressions of this culture and the “countercultural” influence of the BEST program in an open and frank conversation. Many praised the program for being a lifeline in an atmosphere where expressing interest in anything beyond the academic career track is still disparaged.
The NIH already acknowledges that federally funded students and postdocs should be actively engaging in career development. A clarification published in 2014 by the NIH’s Office of Management and Budget states that “this dual role is critical in order to provide Post-Docs [and graduate students] with sufficient experience and mentoring for them to successfully pursue independent careers in research and related fields.” This is a stipulation of all those supported by NIH grants. The problem is that in most training settings, little mentorship or direction outside of the traditional career trajectory that assumes a future academic position is provided.
Waiting for the “switch to flip”
At the NIH-BEST conference, a panel comprising graduate students and postdocs from the BEST awardee institutions discussed their impressions of academia, their experience with the BEST program, and what they perceived to be the biggest obstacles in eradicating the taboo associated with considering careers outside of academia. The discussion was enlightening, frank, and oscillated between palpable frustration and burgeoning hope.
One graduate student from a Midwest institution, who had previously worked in industry and who wanted a PhD to advance her career, discussed how swiftly and forcefully her perception changed when she got into graduate school: “I was blindsided … I really couldn’t understand why people weren’t giving me the information I was seeking. In some cases, the [principal investigators (PIs)] couldn’t help me. They’re trained to help people who want to go into academia.” She continued, “Our mentors, throughout our training, are PIs. Even if they want to help, they don’t think they can teach us anything more than academic careers. This is what makes us think that it’s either an academic career or not. Our mentors are paving the path for us down that one way.”
Natalie Cain, a postdoc from UC Davis, spoke of her experience as a graduate student and the hope that she would one day acquire the desire to pursue an academic career. Cain noted that, “The people above you are telling you that this is what you’re supposed to do and you’re just hoping that at some point the switch will flip and you’ll say, ‘Yes, I do want to work in a university.’ You might wait a long time for that switch to go and then when it doesn’t, you’re playing catch up.”
Waiting for the switch to flip often times leads to procrastination. Students, believing that eventually they’ll want to follow in the footsteps of their mentor, delay considering other options and pursuing career development opportunities. Ada Weinstock, a postdoc from NYU, suggested that high achievers who may be unsure of their options in the sciences go on to graduate school and postdoc positions in order to put off making a life decision for fear that it will be the wrong one. She noted that “We are so afraid of failing that we don’t want to make a decision … Give people tools to help them make a decision.” Heather Clancy, a graduate student from University of Colorado, summed up the problem perfectly: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Yet resistance to programs such as BEST is perplexing. Scientists are taught to evaluate all reasonable possibilities when designing and interpreting experiments, but they seem to possess blind spots for applying the same rationale to their own lives. Maybe herein lies the psychological crux of the problem: PhD programs attract dynamic overachievers who are both open-minded and perfectionists, searching for validation from mentors that may never come. Couple this with the natural propensity for scientists to evaluate all information before making a decision. The paucity of said information, as well as the robust disparagement of searching for it, creates a perpetual procrastination loop and a plume of postdocs unsure of where to funnel their energies.
Although a topic for another article, it is worth mentioning that the panel of BEST delegates at the conference was entirely female. Perhaps this was coincidental, but it may reflect the general frustration, unrest, and urgency that many women in STEM fields experience, who not only carry the burden of the under-funded and under-mentored academic system, but also the additional obstacles of unconscious bias and multitasking in the face of other life choices, such as motherhood. In fact, mothers are likely the most in need of choices outside of the traditional trajectory. Much like the persistent discouragement of pursuing careers outside of academia, women who are considering families must also guard this potentially stigmatized desire.
The Postdoc Holding Pattern
Oddly enough, the so-called “alternative path” is actually the dominant route taken by most. This is not due to a failure to “cut it,” but in most cases, a realization that one’s desired life path may be incompatible with what an academic career entails, as well as wanting to avoid the overwhelming uncertainty of securing sufficient funding and tenure in the future.
The numbers overwhelmingly corroborate the emergence of students deliberately veering away from academia. Melanie Sinche, director of education at The Jackson Laboratory and author of Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science, surveyed just over 8,000 PhDs who graduated between 2004 and 2014: 22% were in tenure-track faculty positions and 13% in non-tenure track positions, leaving a whopping 65% in so-called “alternative” careers. Nearly 68% completed one postdoc and 27% two distinct postdocs (4% engaged in three or more). Maybe even more disconcerting, only 28% of the sample employed outside of the tenure-track felt the postdoc was required or preferred for employment in their current position (80% believed the PhD was necessary). These figures, presented at the NIH-BEST conference in October, led Ms. Sinche to conclude that a primary goal of the BEST program must be to discourage PhDs from using a postdoc position as a “holding pattern,” and to encourage them instead to engage in career decision-making earlier in their training.
Programs like BEST offer students and postdocs additional insight into other viable career options and help them to identify and cultivate transferable skills, the significance of which is often overlooked. It also turns the abstract “someday” into something real. It forces busy scientists to take the amorphous “future plans” off of the back burner (in a lab environment where it is often difficult to plan beyond the next experiment, committee meeting, or grant deadline) and thrusts it into the forefront.
Not everyone who enters the BEST program decides against academia. One postdoc from UCSF on the conference panel had her desire to become a tenure-track faculty member confirmed while participating. She may be a member of the most important contingent of BEST, because those who decide to stay in academia will be at the forefront of the cultural change. These future professors and lab directors will not foist their own career template on future generations of young scientists, but hopefully guide them to resources to help them make their own fulfilling life decisions.
In the meantime, current and future PhDs may find solace in Ms. Sinche’s survey, which found that the majority of PhDs are quite happy in their present positions (academic or otherwise). As I listened to the panel of inspiring and determined women at the conference, I knew that each would eventually find her own route even if she has to blaze through stagnant convention to get there.
As the program wound down, one student said, “This has been a long time coming. It is going to take a huge overhaul. The mindset will still be there in years to come, but we need programs like BEST to change the culture.” Indeed, it will have no choice but to change, fueled by programs like BEST, and inspiring people like the ones I met at this enlightening conference.
By: Lauren Tanabe
Dr. Seema Shah was a participant in the BEST program this past year and did an internship at Life Magnetics, Inc., in Detroit, Michigan. She will be working for Life Magnetics as a staff scientist after she is awarded her PhD in cancer biology in December 2016. Dr. Shah lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan.
I sat down with Seema Shah to discuss her experience as a graduate student, BEST participant, and about-to-be PhD from the cancer biology program at Wayne State University.
Seema first became aware of her love of science back in India in grade school, but it was as an undergraduate at Oakland University that it burgeoned into a strong desire to practice medicine. To improve her chances of getting into medical school, she applied for and received a grant for undergraduates to gain exposure to research. Working in the lab of Dr. Virinder Moudgil and studying the effects of hormones on cancer cells, she soon found herself questioning whether she wanted to go to medical school after all. Dr. Moudgil saw a scientist in Seema. Likewise, she was captivated by the research and sold on a new career path: “I liked studying cancer and the origin of disease – how normal cells become aberrant.” She also says, “after that I only wanted to study breast cancer. I loved the research and studying a disease that affects so many women.”
In the PhD program in cancer biology at Wayne State University, she worked with Dr. Raymond Mattingly, now chair of the department of pharmacology, to elucidate pathways underlying the transition from normal breast tissue to cancer.
Seema heard about the BEST program through fliers and emails. Before starting her PhD, she knew that she did not want to remain in academia – “I always knew I wanted work/life balance. My view of academia gradually changed over the years as I saw good scientists struggling to get funding. The unspoken rule of academia is that success requires giving up who you are and pushing yourself to the point of burnout, without rewards. And I saw the difficult funding situation many faced.”
Although she explored all of the alternative career possibilities, in the end she chose the industry track – “I chose this path because it is what most resonated with me. I wanted to do something more clinically applicable, for example, trying to find biomarkers for breast cancer. Also I like discovering things. I like saying, ‘I did this.’ ”
Seema started the BEST program with enthusiasm, but she became disheartened when she couldn’t find an internship. According to Seema, “One fine day, I received an email from Carmen Gamlin [then Career Services Director in the Graduate School] asking if I was still searching for internships. Serendipitously, she had just received information about an internship opportunity with Life Magnetics in Detroit to isolate biomarkers for cancer.” Life Magnetics was so impressed by Seema’s CV that she was awarded the position without having a formal interview. About the process Seema says, “It is a very unique situation.”
Life Magnetics is a small biotech startup with three employees (including Seema). It was founded in Detroit in 2013 by Dr. Kevin Hagedorn; the company strives to develop high-throughput assays that can detect biomarkers of various diseases, including cancer.
Seema conducted experiments in the Mattingly lab with reagents that were provided by Life Magnetics, in a mostly independent manner. As she notes, “This was the best way for me to work and I preferred to do it this way. I was very proactive and motivated to get results.” And all of her effort paid off – as the internship went so well that Life Magnetics made her an offer of employment as a staff scientist upon the completion of her degree.
Seema will begin as a scientist at the company in January 2017, after graduation, continuing the research she started during her internship. When asked about her impending exit from academia, she is mostly excited about being part of research that could yield valuable tools for disease diagnosis.
When she thinks back to a little over a year ago when she was faced with uncertainty and what seemed like little opportunity, Seema says that she is happy that things worked out the way they did. She thinks her qualities are more aligned with the goals of Life Magnetics.
So, after all the years of schooling, does she regret getting the PhD? “I’ll make it work,” she says, laughing. “It’s something I always wanted to do.” To those who may be wondering if the PhD is worth it, she says, “It is not in vain. Don’t ever regret it. Never doubt your life path.”
Seema Shah, PhD
BA: Spanish, Oakland University
BS: Biology, Oakland University
MS: Biology, Oakland University
PhD: Cancer Biology, Wayne State, 2016
by Lauren Tanabe
When I first started thinking about leaving the lab, I wondered what I was besides my knowledge of obscure signaling pathways and cell biology. I had been groomed to believe that my “good hands” and capacity for punishing hours were what made me competitive. In research, talking about technical skills becomes second nature – we constantly discuss our methods when conducting lab meetings or seminars and look for ways to improve upon techniques. However, I don’t recall a time as a grad student or a postdoc when anyone ever inquired about my ability to work with difficult personality types or how I figured out the best way to marry the experimental questions I had with those of my advisor. Behavior was only ever discussed in terms of mice! We have spent so many years fine-tuning our technical skills that changing our mindset to focus on the “other” transferable skills may seem difficult at first. I’ve used the term “transferable skills” a number of times on this blog, but in this post I will broaden the scope of these proficiencies and discuss how you can market them.
What is the range of your “transferable skills”?
You possess skills you’ve been quietly evolving in the background of your life while focusing primarily on your science training while conducting your research – those abilities that have helped you to mentor others, resolve conflict in the lab, set realistic goals so you can graduate, write a paper, grant, and so on. These are the competencies you cultivated on the days when your hypothesis fell apart, when the experiments didn’t work and you needed to figure out a new tack, what enabled you to pick yourself back up and keep going even when you questioned your ability to do so. These are the aptitudes that allow you to be a jack of all trades without even realizing you are, and which will help you to adroitly exit academia and begin a new career.
These abilities are sometimes referred to as “soft skills,” but this is an unfortunate way of describing something so vital to success. In fact, emotional intelligence is so important to potential employers that an interviewing technique was built around assessing this aspect of the candidate. The behavioral interview technique is designed to determine patterns of predictive behaviors from one’s past to help determine if a candidate will fit in well with the culture of the company or when faced with the demands of particular tasks. The behavioral interview is a topic deserving of its own post, but briefly, this process is much more probing than that seen in traditional interviews. Questions, or really requests for stories, often begin with “Tell me about a time when …,” or “Describe a situation …” As you discuss how you reacted to facing a particular obstacle, you may be asked to lead the interviewer through your thought process at the time. For example, you may be asked to discuss a situation in which you were able to successfully persuade someone at work to see things your way (something many of us have experience with – consider your committee meetings or thesis defense). A comprehensive list of behavioral interview questions can be found here.
My description of this common type of interviewing tactic is not meant to instill more fear, but rather to underscore the importance of identifying and understanding what the range of your skill set may look like, how it developed over time, and what might make you unique compared to someone else in a similar position. You should also consider what examples best showcase this know-how.
There are a lot of PhDs out there who have the education, publications, and grants to rival your own. What will set you apart is how effectively you are able to demonstrate your emotional intelligence and “soft skills.” The recruitment company Futurestep performed a survey of 500 industry executives and asked them what they looked for in a candidate when trying to fill open roles in an organization. The most important factor was the candidate’s motivations, with problem-solving and interpersonal skills coming in right behind that.
STEM PhDs are critical thinkers and problem solvers; they are adept at data analysis and have acute powers of observation. However, it is those “soft skills” that scientists often find most elusive in assessing their strengths and weaknesses.
There are lists upon lists of these types of skills. In my view, the general areas that are the most useful, especially when transitioning, include communication and tenacity.
In many ways, this is considered one of the most important. Why? Think about all the ways we use this in our day-to-day, especially in the lab. It is at the core of resolving conflicts; it is how we teach and mentor others; it is central to discussing our findings and their relevance in lab meetings and seminars, with potential collaborators; it is how we propel our data into the scientific stratosphere in the form of manuscripts and grants. It is critical to being successful inside and outside of the laboratory and academia. Under this heading lies myriad other soft skills, including collaboration (teamwork) and presentational acumen.
Collaboration. When I was a graduate student, my advisor wanted me to develop a new model system for manipulating a particular phenotype of neurons that occurred during neurodevelopment for a genetic form of the disease, dystonia. I knew of another lab that differentiated mouse embryonic stem cells into neurons in vitro. Adapting this system to our lab would allow us to observe our phenotype of interest at all stages during neuronal differentiation and maturation. So I started a collaboration with them, working closely with others in that lab to learn the rationale and techniques. When I started doing this on my own in our lab, I visited the collaborating lab regularly to discuss trouble-shooting. Eventually, the head of the other lab became a member of my thesis committee and I regularly discussed experiments with him, both formally and informally. The lab members became not only collaborators, but friends.
Collaboration comes in many shapes. From developing relationships with those outside the lab, to finding a way to align the objectives of your own project with those of the more expansive vision of the lab and field, you’ve figured out ways of finding common ground with others. You’ve teamed up with your advisor and other lab members (and possibly other labs) to publish papers and resolve issues that arise during the review process. There are many examples of the ways you’ve contributed to a team to help secure funding and publish data, ways you’ve helped to support and mentor others in their research, ways you’ve learned to cultivate and develop the most valuable currency of the job search – relationships.
Presenting your research. Every single time you prepare and give a talk, write a paper, abstract, or grant, you are tailoring your writing/presentation to a specific audience with a particular interest, knowledge-level, and objective of their own. Perhaps, without even being aware, you’ve figured out how to anticipate what will be expected of you and what language you should be using. Why is this important? Because there has never been more information available to us. As Maria Popova of Brain Pickings writes, “more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.” This is particularly pertinent to science writing and presentation where information abounds, but is often enshrouded in the lingo of the field making it esoteric and impenetrable to most. Knowing how to effectively communicate information in both technical and layperson’s terms is invaluable.
When I received a grant from the American Cancer Society, I was invited to give several talks about our lab’s research on Inflammatory Breast Cancer to a non-scientific audience comprising staff, volunteers, survivors, and patients. These audiences were some of the most captivating and eager to learn. I spent far more time preparing for these talks because I needed to translate terms I often took for granted – “western blot,” “cell culture,” and so on – when in front of academic audiences. But the effort paid off: Often people would come up to me afterwards, so grateful that the information was presented in a way that was accessible and left them wanting to know more and ready to go out into the world to tell others of what they have learned. This had become the most rewarding aspect of my work – inspiring others to also become storytellers of science, to remove the stigma that science is dry and only for a few select “scientific minds.”
There were days when all my cells died, when the mice did the exact opposite of what my hypothesis predicted, when my project seemed stalled, and when I was exhausted. This coupled with long, lonely hours spent in the lab on weekends and holidays, or endless days of dissertation writing where it seemed I only interacted with the barista at the local coffee shop made for some despairing times. But those were the days that helped me to hone some of the most highly sought traits in a job candidate: tenacity.
You have likely had days like these, too, when your self-direction, self-discipline, self-motivation, and resilience took a beating but kept on persevering. On top of that, you know how to prioritize and multitask. You planned experiments within reasonable time constraints and to meet deadlines for grants and committee meetings. You delegated work. You ran experiments while simultaneously teaching others, writing papers, or working on talks. You clearly handle stress with aplomb which speaks volumes about your emotional intelligence, which is what job recruiters are quite interested in hearing about. Consider all of the specific times when these competencies helped you to accomplish particular tasks or override obstacles. What were the circumstances of the situation? What was your thought process at the time? Coming up with examples, in advance, will help you immensely during a behavioral interview.
You have a multitude of abilities that draw from your intelligence and perseverance, but sometimes, especially when you’re overwhelmed, you may not to be able to clearly see what they are. If you need some help figuring out what strengths you have (and what may need some work), check out Science Career’s Individual Development Plan, myIDP, for taking inventory. This is a great place to start, since upon completion you can compare your skill sets with those considered relevant to various scientific career paths.
By – Lauren Tanabe
As a doctoral student or postdoc, you’ve spent years percolating inside of the lab. Perhaps you talk with your lab mates, lamenting the seeming directionless nature of your days. Some of you may already know what you want to do next, and to you I say, “Bravo!” Some of you may still be unsure, knowing only the general domain into which you would like to shift: industry, communication, government, education, perhaps law. And to you, I say, “Great start!” Every single decision we make about the trajectory of our career, both what we want and do not want, is a step forward. I know it is absolutely terrifying to switch tacks when, perhaps, academia is the only thing you have ever known or quite possibly wanted. The decision to leave when you know that, deep down, that this is the best way forward is a great accomplishment.
So, now what?
Now, my friend, you do what you do best: research. And one of the best ways to gather information is through the informational interview.
First of all, what is the “informational interview”?
This is an opportunity for you to connect with someone in your field of interest, to have a conversation that highlights the other person’s particular experiences, the path she took to get to where she is, her satisfaction or dissatisfaction with her company/career. This is a chance to discuss your background and how you may perceive her field to be (and to see if this perception is correct). This is your chance to discuss your concerns, to ask for advice about how to proceed to gain a footing in this field, should you decide it is a good fit. In other words, the information interview is a dynamic and fruitful exchange of information that will hopefully lead to a friendship or a recommendation on your behalf.
What the informational interview is not
This is not a chance for you to sit back and let the other person do all the work, although you may very well find yourself in the position of just listening, in which case you must be prepared to direct the conversation to answer the questions you do have. This is not the time to ask for a job; you are only gathering information to help you to make a more informed decision about a particular position or company. And you may very well end up with someone willing to help you in this endeavor … just not quite yet.
But, before you can put any of this into practice, you must first secure an informational interview.
Scream it from the rooftops: Network, network, network!
Or whisper it softly to yourself. Either way, let the world know you are looking to make changes in your career.
For me, informational interviews sometimes emerged from unexpected places – chance encounters with others who were involved with writing, editing, and publishing. I met one such person in the alley behind my house as I was getting on my bike one morning – turns out my neighbor was a prolific Pushcart prize-nominated writer. Through her, I joined a weekly writing group chock full of talented freelance writers and editors from the Detroit area. Through that group, I met others who attended a monthly book group, of which I’ve now become a part and guess what – that book group was also full of aspiring writers.
Now, I already have very long days. Between working in the lab, raising a child, writing for the BEST blog and my own blog, my days are saturated; there are nights when I would love to just curl up on the couch and forget that I am transitioning out of my career into a new one, which is one of the scariest and time-consuming feats I’ve ever tried to achieve. But I pick myself up and head off to writing or book group anyway. I do this because I know that in addition to making myself a better writer, I am strengthening my new network and building relationships and that takes effort; it takes showing up. The discussions I have with the attendees may not be “informational interviews” in the traditional sense, but they are a means of expanding my repertoire of knowledge on the things I need to know at this particular moment in my transition, such as branding, gaining exposure and visibility, building relationships with potential clients, and so on. It is also a forum for sharing my writing and learning how to improve it, because despite my connections to an unlimited number clients, if my content is subpar, nobody will be interested.
Use social media to find your next informational interview
Let your social networks know you are looking to change careers and ask for advice. Let your friends know. Let your neighbors know. Let strangers know. Use tact, but let people know. Most will want to help, or will know of others who will want to help. My point is, you never know where your next invaluable source of information will come from, so cast a wide net and be gracious.
A few weeks ago, I wrote on the blog about the value of leveraging LinkedIn in your job search. When using social media, make sure you reach out to the right person. If you are interested in a particular company, look for someone who has a role you would like to aspire to, but isn’t so high up the ladder that they won’t have any time to talk with you.
If you do contact someone over LinkedIn, do make sure your profile is complete (including a professional picture) and your objectives are clear, especially if it is someone you do not know personally. Alumni of schools you’ve attended are a good place to start when cold-contacting. Also see my article for advice about how to ask your connections to introduce you to someone outside of your network and about what you should include (and omit) in your first message to this potential new contact. Elliot Bell, Director of Marketing for The Muse, has some other important bits of advice to consider when composing your email.
Get clear on what you want to know
Whether your interview will be over the phone or over coffee, make sure you know what your objectives are ahead of time. In several of my interviews, I found that the other person had so much information to share that sometimes I was unable to do anything other than nod. In this case, it is especially useful to know what you want to learn from your interaction with this person, so you can gear the conversation back to the topics or concerns in which you are most interested.
Lily Zhang, Career Development Specialist at MIT, suggests that you begin the interview with a warm-up. Since most people enjoy talking about themselves, she suggests you let them, in the beginning, anyway. Start with an easy opener, such as, “How did you get your start in this field?” or “What’s it like working at your company?”
Understand that this meeting isn’t only about learning about the other person but also an opportunity for you to discuss your background and future goals. It is a chance to make a memorable impression and showcase what you know. Zhang suggests framing questions with introductions that display your knowledge, such as: “It looks like recent developments in the field of nuclear fission are going to be pretty disruptive to the energy industry. How do you think this will affect your company?”
Consider what information you cannot find on your own through web searches. If you are still in the career exploration phase and are considering several fields, you may want to know if this particular area is a good fit for you, given your particular set of strengths. You may want to know how you can improve your resume or portfolio in order to become a more competitive applicant. I am always particularly interested in what this person did when she or he was in my position – how did this person gain the foothold that propelled her or him into that first position outside of academia?
If you are more advanced in your career development plan and have a particular company in mind, perhaps you want to learn more about the culture of the company. Does the employer expect everyone to work 70-hour weeks? If so, do they offer perks that might compensate for this level of commitment? Do people seem happy/satisfied/fulfilled there? What skills or personality traits does the company look for in new hires? If you’re contemplating starting a family or already have one, how does the employer handle maternity leave or family medical leave? Consider honestly how you would function in whatever set of circumstances the company represents. This is your chance to gain an insider’s perspective, because the last thing any of us wants to do is substitute one unfulfilling career for another.
Lily Zhang also suggests that you go with the flow of the conversation rather than firing off as many questions as you possibly can. Remember that you are trying to build a relationship and that it is already evident that you are looking for a job, so please do not ask your contact to find you one; that is the quickest way to alienate your new acquaintance. Remember that as with all social interactions, there is a certain etiquette involved. For example, while you should bring along a copy of your resume, only offer it if your companion asks to see it.
As your interview draws to a close, do ask if your new contact knows of anyone else who might be willing to talk with you. Just as with social media networking, the likelihood of someone taking time out of her or his busy schedule to talk with you increases if the request is made through a mutual contact. Also, rather than just asking “Do you know of anyone else I should speak with?” Zhang recommends that your request be specific. For example, since I would like to transition into writing and publishing, I might ask, “Could you recommend someone I could chat with about how to pitch article ideas to magazines?” Keep in mind the information you are interested in learning, identify any areas that are still vague after your meeting, and tailor your request for another potential interviewee who might be able to fill in that gap. Most people find it easier to come up with a name of someone who has the particular expertise you’re interested in finding more about.
Finally, be sure to follow any conversation with a new contact with a thank-you note. Lily Zhang also recommends keeping this person updated on your meetings with those people she or he may have put you in touch with. The Cheeky Scientist suggests playing the “long game”: “If you have not done so already, connect with them through LinkedIn, endorse their skills, and follow their achievements online … Congratulate them for a promotion, pass along an article or conference of interest, or simply write to them to discuss current events in the field.” Remember that in doing this, you are seeking to become a peer, not a fan. If a position for which you would like to apply opens up at their company, you can leverage the connection to ask for the name of the hiring manager or whether you might mention their name as a reference in your cover letter.
For those especially interested in industry positions, I highly recommend the Cheeky Scientist’s blog post about these types of informational interviews.
Don’t forget that you are more than qualified at gathering information. You’ve done it for a very long time and successfully enough to get a PhD. Now you are using your energy and ingenuity to change your life for the better. Good luck!
By Lauren Tanabe
As I spoke on the phone with Holly Falk-Krzesinski, Vice President of Global Academic and Research Relations at Elsevier, I lamented the paucity of jobs that fit in with my current status, an academic looking to transition into science communications part-time or remotely so that I can also focus on freelance work. As primary caregiver of a two-year-old, taking full-time work or a long commute is difficult for me to consider right now. Holly’s response took me by surprise: “Call them and ask!” she ordered. She went on to say that just because companies don’t advertise specific jobs, or specific aspects of positions (or over what they are willing to compromise) doesn’t mean they’re not open to such ideas. “That takes some audacity,” I thought to myself, and in truth, that’s exactly what most of us need in our job search — especially women.
Why should we be bolder? And why should we put ourselves out there more often? Well, the short answer is simply out of necessity. Because in truth, as women we may find greater difficulty snagging that dream job in the first place, given the barriers we face.
In 2012, Yale University researchers created fictitious students named Jennifer and John, whose training and achievements were identical. Either John’s or Jennifer’s resume was sent to 127 professors of biology, chemistry, and physics at six top US universities. The professors were asked to evaluate the applicant and make a salary offer. Although Jennifer was rated as more likeable, John was viewed as more competent, and respondents said that they preferred to mentor him. Additionally, John was offered a salary of nearly $4,000 more than Jennifer. The lead author of the study, Corinne Moss-Racusin, has stressed that the participants were likely unaware of this bias. But according to the PNAS paper, they may well be “affected by enduring cultural stereotypes about women’s lack of science competence that translate into biases in evaluation and mentoring.” The study’s findings are even more striking given that the woman was perceived to be more likeable.
Failure (by both sexes) to perceive women scientists as both likeable and competent, as opposed to either/or, for example, seems to underscore a trend particular to the US. Eileen Pollack, author of The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boys’ Club, addresses this and related topics in the book, which is a hybrid memoir of her experiences as an undergraduate physics major at Yale and a critique of science culture in academia and its treatment of women. She relays her conversation with Meg Urry, professor of physics and astronomy at her alma mater: “Urry told me that at the space telescope institute where she used to work, the women from Italy and France ‘dress very well, what Americans would call revealing. You’ll see a Frenchwoman in a short skirt and fishnets; that’s normal for them. The men in those countries seem able to keep someone’s sexual identity separate from her scientific identity. American men can’t seem to appreciate a woman as a woman and as a scientist; it’s one or the other.’ ”
As Pollack and others argue, it is the repeated exposure of women to such stereotypical views that undermines our perception of ourselves (and other women), and which likely accounts for the lack of women in STEM fields, especially at its highest levels. In her book, Pollack points out that the disparity between the sexes in the sciences is largely a cultural, and not biological, phenomenon. She refers to significant research in support of her claims, which were ignited, in part, by former Harvard president Lawrence Summers’ suggestion, in 2005, that there may be inherent differences in scientific and mathematical aptitude between boys and girls, which might account for the paucity of tenured women in these fields.
The Mathematical Society attempted to answer whether gender might play a role in perceived differences in mathematical aptitude by analyzing the performance of women in other cultures. Their 2008 study concluded that such aptitude “is due, in significant part, to changeable factors that vary with time, country and ethnic group. First and foremost, some countries identify and nurture females with very high ability in mathematics at a much higher frequency than do others.” While it isn’t unexpected that societal encouragement (or discouragement) can affect a student’s ability to perform, this has also been confirmed in a frequently cited study from researchers at the University of Michigan. Students with similar backgrounds and abilities in math were divided into two groups: one group was told that men perform better on math tests than women, and the second group was told that despite what they may have heard, there was no difference. Then both were given a test. The findings? In the first group, men outscored women by 20 points; in the second, they outscored women by only two.
Pollack highlights the views of Londa Schiebinger, professor at Stanford and author of Has Feminism Changed Science?, who believes that women are conspicuously absent in STEM fields because girls are raised to be modest, while boys learn to exaggerate their intelligence and success. Further, girls take the boys’ limited appraisal of their skills at face value, and feel even worse about themselves. Schiebinger cites a study that found that 75% of the women who gave up science, compared with fewer than half the men, mentioned low self-esteem as their reason.
For many female scientists I talk to, encouragement is not commonly a key component of the adviser-graduate student/postdoc relationship. I wonder how many qualified women have fallen by the wayside because of this missing critical piece. Jo Handelsman, the senior author of the Jennifer/John study, believes that women need more reinforcement than men, but only because women spend their lives resisting the stereotype of the male scientist, but also because “men don’t realize they’ve been getting this subliminal encouragement all along, as well as the explicit encouragement.”
It’s not just a matter of feeling more confident in our abilities and decisions, but it is this mistrust in ourselves, this perpetual questioning of our own authenticity and our value, that in many ways, makes us complicit in all the “micro” (and not so “micro”) challenges that we endure. We are often enablers of our own unfortunate fates by failing to see that something is amiss in the first place. Fighting subliminal bias while shouldering our own versions of “imposter syndrome” may seem insurmountable, but I do not believe it is beyond correction. To a large degree, this bias is a generational symptom that should improve as the Old Guard moves on. Are things as bad as they once were? No. Could they be better? Always. We do not need to wait for (r)evolution to render this belief system obsolete. But before we can begin to propel more women into the upper echelons of STEM fields, there must be collective acknowledgement of the ways in which girls and women are marginalized and the extent to which our own lack of self-assurance contributes.
A dangerous consequence of our consistent exposure to bias is that because it is so prevalent, it comes to seem perfectly normal, even “natural,” as we become desensitized to negative portrayals of women and questionable claims.
Probably the best example of this is the Hewlett Packard (HP) internal report cited by Sheryl Sandberg in her bestselling and oft-cited primer for professional women, Lean In. She relays the statistic that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100% of the criteria listed. Men apply if they think they meet 60% of the requirements. That’s a striking claim that appears to underscore the pervasiveness of women’s lack of confidence. Except that there’s nothing to substantiate this claim. As I searched for the original article about this in order to link it to my post, I ran into many second-generation citations: articles quoting other articles that mentioned the finding, but none of them citing the actual study. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) cited a Forbes article; the Forbes article cited nothing. Sandberg cited the article, A business case for women, published in The McKinsey Quarterly, which simply referred to the internal research at HP. But that was it. Nowhere could I find methodology, sample size, questions asked, demographics related to the population analyzed, or motivation behind the study. Nowhere could I find anything more than a generalization that somehow made its way into mainstream.
So, how did anecdotal data become “fact”? Perhaps writers were too busy putting their own spin on the findings: The relatively benign language used in the McKinsey Quarterly story relays a generalization about action —Women only apply for jobs if they think they meet 100% of the criteria listed. The mainstream media reports, on the other hand, circulate suppositions about the underlying motivation — Men are confident about their ability at meeting 60% of the qualifications, but women don’t feel confident until they’ve checked off each item on the list (Forbes). Such an interpretation is quite a leap; the conclusion that women’s confidence is to blame is both convenient and problematic.
Not only must we defend ourselves against the very real obstacles we encounter, now we must be wary of so-called claims that attempt to strip away any progress we have made – Trojan horse claims that on the outside appear to be worthwhile and useful tools for improvement, but upon closer inspection, are unsubstantiated and disparaging.
Entrepreneur and expert on women’s leadership Tara Mohr conducted her own study on the HP statistic, published in Harvard Business Review. She was skeptical of the conclusion that women needed to have more faith in themselves “because the times I had decided not to apply for a job because I didn’t meet all the qualifications, faith [in] myself wasn’t exactly the issue. I suspected I wasn’t alone.” She surveyed 1,000 professional men and women in the US and asked them to identify the reasons why they didn’t apply for job postings in which they were interested. The least common reason was, “I was following the guidelines about who should apply,” which 9% of men and 15% of women cited. Similarly, relatively few — 10% of men and 12% of women — were worried that they would be unable to do the job well. In fact, what most determined whether or not one applied was the belief that if they did not meet all of the qualifications, they would not get hired (46% men vs. 41% women). Mohr concluded that gender may not be linked to any inherent mistrust about abilities; in fact, in most categories on her questionnaire men and women score similarly. For example, for the majority of respondents simply believing that they would not be hired was sufficient reason to not apply because either “I didn’t want to waste my time and energy” or “I didn’t want to put myself out there if I was likely to fail” (68% of men vs. 61% of women). Not surprisingly, neither sex was willing to put in the effort if the return seemed nonexistent. Now, somewhat pronounced differences between the sexes do emerge with respect to worry about failure (13% men vs. 22% women) and following guidelines (9% men vs. 15% women), with nearly double the percentage of women citing these reasons compared to men, but still the overall percentages are relatively low. The original HP report lacked any information about what percentage of women were part of the cohort who needed to check off every qualification off on their list – one can only assume all women were universally implicated in this phenomenon. For Mohr, the important takeaway from her HBR study is not that women mistrust their own abilities, but rather that there is a misunderstanding shared by both women and men about how recruitment works: “[Applicants] didn’t see the hiring process as one where advocacy, relationships, or a creative approach to framing one’s expertise could overcome not having the skills and experiences outlined in the job qualifications.”
I’ve never met Holly Falk-Krzesinski in person, yet I know from her LinkedIn profile (one of the most viewed on the entire site!) that once upon a time, she was a successful microbiologist with her own lab at Northwestern who went on to also acquire significant expertise in science research career development, scholarly communication/open access, and mentoring women in STEM disciplines. She is also founding president of the National Organization of Research Development Professionals, in addition to her current position at Elsevier. So, when a mutual contact suggested that I reach out to her, my first thought was, “She is an extraordinarily busy and successful woman – why would she want to talk to me?” But within hours of sending out my first apprehensive email, I had a phone conference scheduled, during which Holly and I spoke for over an hour as she kindly offered suggestion after suggestion about how to effectively brand myself, as well as potential careers that could fit in with my background. A few days after our initial phone call, I sent her an email after encountering an obstacle and asked for advice. She told me to call her immediately. Holly seems to live and breathe the qualities of a caring mentor who isn’t afraid to point out your own self-sabotage. “This is the first email you ever sent me that sounded apologetic,” she said.
Education and publications will only get us so far. In our pursuit of careers outside the academy, we all must start relying on skills we may not even be aware we possess: coaching, teaching, communication, leadership, collaboration, critical thinking, and other “soft” skills that are equally crucial. Most of us have learned how to work independently, how to take negative results and shift our focus to new research trajectories, and how to effectively market our findings and turn them into publications and funded research grants. As Mohr noted, we should prioritize “taking a creative approach to framing our expertise.” So apply for that job that might seem like a long shot; in fact, apply to all of them. Take steps to expand your network – send emails, make phone calls, and reach out over social networking platforms such at LinkedIn and Twitter. The worst thing that may happen is you don’t get a response. The best thing that may happen is that you completely change your life for the better, and that’s nothing anyone needs to feel apologetic about.
By Lauren Tanabe
On May 18th, a new ruling by the US Department of Labor makes overtime pay mandatory for workers making less than $47,476 per year. The change goes into effect in December 2016. Rather than pay overtime, many universities are expected to raise salaries to meet the cut-off.
With the average annual compensation of a postdoc hovering around $45,000, and many making far less, the 30,000 to 40,000 postdocs across the nation are counting this as a victory.
But does throwing a few extra thousand dollars at highly trained scientists really count as a win, or more as a consolation prize?
In their December 2014 report The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine argued that postdoc salaries should be raised to a minimum of $50,000 a year, and that many postdocs should be reclassified as staff scientists, with a pay increase appropriate to their education and expertise.
Originally intended as an extension of graduate training, the postdoc is supposed to be a temporary position – a time of skill refinement, critical thinking enhancement, and above all else an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships, historically, are poorly paid. But they are so because the benefits of such experiences — extensive mentoring, the bestowing of skills and strategy to novices — are supposed to launch lifelong careers.
Over the years, however, the postdoc has morphed from a brief, guided stint into a directionless, holding pattern. Many “superdocs” work indefinitely, managing the lab and doing far more than the the position warrants, especially for the pay. Some do so because they are unable to find positions (on the academic job market or otherwise), but also because they do not receive the mentoring from lab directors who are either stretched too thin or fail to recognize the importance of discussing career plans with their mentees. Others remain in order to maintain a work-life balance or for family reasons.
Between 2000 and 2012, the postdoc population swelled by 150%, a consequence of newly minted PhDs pouring into such positions by default, as the number of tenured and other full-time faculty positions plateaued and, in some places, waned. As a result, there is a large pool of “superdocs.” (For a snapshot of trends in doctoral education in the sciences, see “What shall we do about all the PhDs?”)
As the laws of supply and demand dictate, postdocs are in high supply and consequently, they are cheap. Many postdocs are trying to raise families on less than what the average college graduate earns.
But if postdocs look outside the academy for employment, they may find that scientist positions in industry are also scarce – the result of stalled drug discovery, expired patents on so-called “blockbuster drugs,” and outsourcing of jobs. Even the better postdoc positions, at the top end of the pay scale at R1 institutions, are becoming increasingly more difficult to snag.
Further complicating the situation, many doctoral graduates accept postdoc positions even when they are unsure they want to continue doing bench work. According to one study published in Science in May 2016, nearly 80% of life-science graduate students reported that they were planning on doing a postdoc. The reason most cited was that doing so would increase the chances of getting a desired job, even among those looking for nonresearch-oriented careers. Of those who hadn’t planned on pursuing postdoctoral research but ended up doing so anyway, difficulty finding a job was the most commonly reported reason. The study’s authors, Henry Sauermann and Michael Roach, conclude that a “significant share of junior scientists proceeded to the postdoc stage without sufficient information to evaluate nonacademic career options.” The report urged students to start thinking about their careers before even applying to doctoral programs and called for graduate schools to require applicants to analyze career alternatives and justify why securing the doctorate was the most appropriate way forward. Sauermann said in an email to Inside Higher Ed, “I think that everybody who considers doing a Ph.D. should think about the subsequent steps as well, i.e., the potential need for a postdoc and the possibility of not getting a particular desired job (even with a postdoc).” He noted that “Rather than thinking short term and going step by step (‘Let me do the Ph.D. first and then I’ll think about the next step’), long-term career planning is likely to result in better outcomes.” For example, Sauermann said, a master’s degree may lead someone to work that is just as satisfying as what that person would find with a doctorate.
The new Dept. of Labor ruling may mean that some postdocs can expect a small increase in pay. However, since many labs continue to struggle to maintain funding, there may also be downsizing. According to Paula Stephan, who studies the economics of scientific research at Georgia State University, “You can’t just say everybody’s going to get more money.” In a recent article in Nature, she predicted that “There will be fewer postdocs.”
But perhaps thinning out the postdoc (and graduate student) herd is exactly what is needed. Nobody wants to be laid off, but postdocs could benefit from figuring out if they are at the bench because it is part of a bigger plan or because it is the path of least resistance. While the new ruling will only mildly alleviate one symptom of the larger ailing system, it is a sobering indicator that awareness of the problem exists; in the very least, it will ignite a conversation.