Avoiding Oncoming Trains Throughout Your PhD Career
ThePostdocWay Advice Series: Taking Charge of Your Career
Many postdocs in the biological sciences spend endless hours at the bench working hard to further their research. They are motivated by the thought that by working hard, writing grants, and publishing manuscripts, a tenure track academic faculty position is waiting for them. Asking these very motivated postdocs to leave the bench for a few hours to attend professional networking mixers, career development and exploration events, entrepreneurial soirees, communication workshops, or postdoc education seminars is akin to asking for one of their arms.
Why is this?
Now, if someone told me there was a significant chance that, with headphones on blaring music, walking through a train tunnel to get home would likely result in me getting hit by a train, I would change the path I was walking on, become more aware of my surroundings, and map out a new way to get home that did not depend on me walking through a train tunnel. These are important steps to taking charge of your path and questioning the assumed 'path of least resistance' that gets you 'home'.
Postdocs need to take charge of their careers and communicate this with their mentors. One cannot assume that because you earned your Ph.D. and are four years into your postdoc that you are entitled to a job.
After all of these years of training, how many postdocs can succintly tell you what their research is and the global importance in less than one minute? How many of your postdoctoral colleagues have started writing their transition to faculty awards before their second year, let alone an NRSA? How many of your colleagues know what else they can do with a Ph.D. outside of academia? More importantly, how many of your colleagues, or their mentors, know anyone outside of academia?
Taking charge of your career is not a passive action and it requires you to constantly be in motion, developing and mapping out your plan just as you would any critical experiment that will be added to your next Cell manuscript.
In this blog series titled, Taking Charge of Your Career, I asked some of my colleagues to describe the steps they have taken to prepare for the next step in their career. I hope you enjoy.
Avoiding Oncoming Trains Throughout Your PhD Career
WHAT “TAKING CHARGE OF YOUR CAREER” IS NOT
1) Let’s dispense with the obvious first. Uploading your resume (worse yet, your CV) to Monster—NOT. Wouldn’t it be great if employers scoured Monster, found YOUR resume, and came knocking on your door? The reality is that for every CV sitting passively on Monster waiting to be discovered, there are 5 equally qualified candidates actively pounding the pavement, networking with contacts, and applying to the jobs you’re hoping will somehow land in your lap.
2) I am a big fan of asking postdocs (AND graduate students) what they want to do with their career. Over the years, I have come to realize that the objects of my query consider this obnoxious, since my question is almost always met with varying degrees of irritation and defensiveness.
The answer I find most disturbing goes something like this: “I would LOVE to have a faculty position, but I’ll probably just end up in industry.” This always brings to mind some sort of magical process, totally out of the postdoc’s control, by which—PLOP!—one lands in an industry position after being shot out the “REJECT” pipe of academia.
Let’s face it: it’s bloody hard to obtain a position in industry.
It’s much safer to ride out a postdoc as long as you can. Heck, maybe when you learn everything there is to know about your lab, your P.I. will realize how indispensable you are and hire you as Lab Manager or Assistant Scientist or something! Here’s something that should scare ANY thinking person away from that: when you stick around in your postdoc lab, you render yourself (with very few exceptions) unable to secure your own funding. You are totally dependent on your P.I.’s grants, not moving to a different university or retiring, continuing perpetual beneficence, etc.
If you are aspiring to a tenure-track faculty position, consider this: unless you are in the outer onion-skin thin layer of top-notch postdocs (and sincere congratulations to those of you who are!), you are not competitive for the grants you will need to make a go of it as a P.I.
There. Dreams dashed.
If you haven’t considered an alternative career to academia—and how to get there—by the time these realizations set in, you’re way behind.
WHAT “TAKING CHARGE OF YOUR CAREER” IS
In a perfect world, you’ve chosen a postdoc lab based on your career goals (see our Q&A on Choosing a Postdoc Lab). Having an honest discussion with your P.I.—facilitated by the Individual Development Plan—at the beginning of your postdoc will inform your P.I. how best to mentor you. But, here are some things you should have in mind, based on what route you want to follow.
Remember: you should be evaluating your progress throughout your postdoc—WITH YOUR ADVISOR—to assess whether your goals are still achievable, how you can re-adjust, and whether you should set your sights elsewhere.
The main point I am trying to get across is that you are ALWAYS the one behind the wheel. If things are not going the way you anticipated, be proactive. DEAL WITH IT. Don’t wait around to see if the light at the end of the tunnel is actually the end of the tunnel—or an oncoming train.
1. If you are truly committed to the P.I. route:
You are a master of deadlines. With the help of your P.I., you have a roadmap establishing what grants you need to apply for throughout your postdoc, what you need to accomplish between now and the grant deadlines in order to be competitive, and exactly what each grant application entails. You’ve also attended (or are planning to attend) grant-writing workshops, offered through the graduate school or your school’s postdoctoral office. You’ve sought out peers who have applied for the same grants in the past and asked for their advice. You have contingency plans if your first applications are rejected.
You present frequently at national meetings, putting your face in front of the crowd of professionals in your field that almost certainly contains members of the search committee for a future faculty position. You have a plan for seeking out, applying, and interviewing for these positions. If you are overwhelmed by this, you can almost always find a “transitioning from postdoc into faculty”-type seminar at your university or at national meetings. Remember that there are resources and mentors (those tenured professors had to do this once too!) out there to help you.
Realize that even if you do everything right, things still may not go the way you planned. Have a contingency plan for that, too.
2. If you are pursuing a career outside of academia:
Realize that your postdoc is probably not helping you get to where you want to go. That is not to say that you should not try to be productive and get one or two papers out of it, but at the same time you should be networking like a fiend—meet people in the field you are trying to get into. Schedule informational interviews over coffee or lunch with professionals in the field, and with colleagues who have made a similar transition. Go to networking events and actually talk to people.
Attend career development seminars at your university. These are put on all the time—often poorly advertised, but totally findable if you exert a little effort, get on a few mailing lists, and keep tabs on what’s going on in your postdoc office or even the graduate school. Featured speakers at these seminars are frequently drawn from local industry, and the subject can range from “a day in the life” to tips on landing a job at their company or industry in general.
Learn the difference between a CV and a resume. One (nyaaa-nyaaa, I’m not going to tell you which!) is completely inappropriate for anything outside of academia. It’s a simple Google search, people. You will likely have several versions that are tailored to different types of positions, ready to fire off at the drop of a hat—for example, immediately after you have a conversation about a possible opportunity (like at a networking event or seminar—see how this works?).
Let’s talk about LinkedIn. It’s a great site for networking and getting your name out there. You need to put your most professional face forward, so do NOT treat it like Facebook. Don’t post a “selfie” as your profile picture. Keep your resume current, and get your profile rating up to “All-Star.” Follow companies of interest, join groups and follow their updates. For example, the Madison, WI Biotech community has a BioForward group where you can find future events and even jobs. Now a bit of LinkedIn etiquette: don’t invite people you don’t know to connect. And don’t send connect invitations to people without personalizing the message. It’s beyond gauche.
Once you have strong contacts in your area of interest and you see a position you are interested in applying for, reach out to your contact(s) at that company for any advice you can get on tailoring your resume for the position. The best case scenario is that your contact knows the hiring manager, can put your resume directly in front of that person, and go to bat for you. Keep in mind that your contact is putting their reputation on the line for you—do your homework, prepare diligently for all interviews, and don’t let them down.
Speaking of interviews, make sure you know everything there is to know about the company. Learn their mission statement. Know exactly how you would fit into the organization, and why you would be an asset. Look up resources with interviewing tips. Know what a STAR interview is? You’d better. Some companies use them, some don’t. If you flub an interview, analyze what you did wrong, how you could have answered that stumper question—each interview is a learning process, and you’ll be better prepared next time. Don’t let it defeat you. Don’t give up if the first few attempts don’t pan out, even if you’ve been trying for months.
Don’t think of your career in the passive voice. What I mean is this: your career is not about what happens to you, what others can do for you, or where you end up. It’s what you do for yourself—make your career happen.
I’ll leave you with a movie quote that has stuck in my head since high school because it embodies the spirit of being in charge of your own destiny: the quote comes from All The President’s Men, and occurs in the context of two reporters’ conversation with their editor.
REPORTER: “We haven't had any luck yet.”
EDITOR: “Get some.”
About our contributor:
Michelle earned her Ph.D. in Physiology in 2010. She studied the effects of scorpion toxins on an intracellular calcium release channel in cardiac cells, investigating their potential as novel therapeutic drugs for the treatment of arrhythmogenic diseases. Her postdoctoral research focused on mechanisms underlying hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. She is currently a Scientific Recruiter at Kelly Scientific Resources.