Fleeing the Ivory Tower: Prepare your parachute
ThePostdocWay Advice Series: Life After Your Postdoc
Many postdocs realize that they are working a contract position that will eventually expire. The thought of ‘what comes next’ can be extremely daunting; especially considering the reality that most will not end up in academia. It can be intimidating and overwhelming to explore the endless possibilities of what you can do next. More often than not, the biggest hurdles that you must overcome are learning about the opportunities available and making sure you have the skills required.
Once you have this knowledge, what do you do with it? Are you really gathering the skills required to be a competitive candidate in the job market you are about to enter? Will you be ready to accept the fact that, even with a PhD, you may be unemployed?
Maybe the exercise of stepping out of that comfort zone and research bubble and investigating what you are passionate about is worth a closer look!
Preparing for your next career move, whether it is a faculty or nonfaculty position, is not a trivial task and will require a significant portion of your time, equivalent to working a second full-time job. Networking, preparing resumes and CVs, increasing your online presence and brand, submitting grant proposals and reading up on your field, studying up on employers and potential colleagues, evaluating the cost of living, economics, and dynamics in multiple cities, putting together slide decks or research talks, learning how to negotiate and estimate your value, and psyching yourself up for a rollercoaster ride of travel and emotions will increase your anxiety level no matter how calm you may be.
In our previous advice series titled ‘Taking Charge of Your Career’ we learned from several postdocs how they are preparing for the next phase of their career. Communicating these goals with your mentor as early as possible and really understanding the road ahead is incredibly important. In many cases you need to be planning 6-9 months in advance. As such, you cannot assume that because you earned your PhD and are four years into your postdoc that you are entitled to a job or that your faculty advisor will help you.
In this blog series titled, Life After Your Postdoc, I asked some of my colleagues to describe their next career step after the postdoc. I hope you enjoy.
Fleeing the Ivory Tower: Prepare your parachute
How exactly are you supposed to feel if your spouse makes 2.5 times more than you do?
Relieved? Proud? Jealous? Embarrassed? Depressed? How about all of those!
As a postdoc that’s how I felt. And just to set the tone here, my purpose is not to discuss money, it’s to help you put your best foot forward on the job hunt. Like many of you, I started my postdoctoral fellowships because I have a passion for learning and discovery and a love of collegiality. However, passion and collaboration don’t pay bills.
By watching my spouse do a tremendous job leveraging her training and talent into ever-higher levels of responsibility and salary in the healthcare setting, I gained a more clear view of how everyone outside the Ivory Tower advances their career. The hard truth is this: we postdocs are very ill-prepared for that world.
It’s not our fault, exactly. We leave grad school in our mid- to late-twenties with no formal training in writing résumés, performing at interviews, negotiating salaries, and setting professional goals.
Meanwhile, similarly aged b-school grads have been working out these kinks for years. And if you’ve attended any social functions with normal humans (i.e. not the happy hour crowd at the grad bar), you know it’s pretty easy to lose a crowd when you start talking about the molecule you’ve just spent your eighth year studying.
So momentum begins to take over, and some of us fall into patterns of depression (the Real World has no use for my talents) or even worse, delusion (the Real World can’t even understand my talents).
So let me touch on how I made some choices that took me outside of academia, and how rewarding it was. Since we like to think in objective terms, I want to provide concrete examples of ways you can better your chances on the job hunt. But, before transforming yourself into Stefan Urquelle, let’s understand what you might gain or lose by leaving the academic career path.
You might worry that there are way too many other PhD students and postdocs (true), and way too few academic faculty positions (also true). Indeed, the poor prospects for scientists prompted senior scientific experts to write to PNAS that “a growing number of PhDs are in jobs that do not take advantage of the taxpayers’ investment in their lengthy education.” While this is a reference to scientists that want to stay within science but can’t find jobs there, the authors wisely add that the investment argument is equally valid when scientists grow disillusioned with the profession and voluntarily leave.
Nevertheless, completing two postdoc fellowships was extremely rewarding to me, padding my résumé with patents, publications, conference lectures, and even a panelist role at a private think tank session.
That might almost look glamorous if you squint hard enough, but the realities were much drabber. The stagnancy of the NIH’s postdoc salary guideline and its influence on the national postdoc salary range means that your questions about pay scale have three probable answers from the hiring institution: 1) their “hands are tied” and they can’t exceed the posted salary, 2) they’ll try to scrounge up some additional money which may or may not address the cost of living in their respective city, or 3) they’re prestigious enough to lowball you, knowing that someone else will gladly take the spot if you decline.
For my research appointment with a government agency, I was hired through a third party institute which designated me as a ‘full time contractor’ instead of a government employee, even though my responsibilities were identical to full employees. That designation as a contractor rendered me ineligible for the Thrift Savings Plan, the government employee’s version of a 401K. As such, up to age 31, I had still never had an employer-matched retirement plan. Meanwhile, my high school friends who had gotten “only” college degrees were posting photos of their new cars, houses, puppies, and luxury vacations, and I started to wonder if they were just rubbing it in my face.
And while leaders from politics, education, and even economics are happy to jump on the “We Need More STEM!” bandwagon, no broad, meaningful changes have taken effect to make STEM training more financially attractive (or even just economically viable).
But I’ll get off my soapbox because this is a whole other issue.
Compounding the money issue is the lifestyle. Being a postdoc, especially in a small lab, means that you must conduct experiments all the time. Additionally, you’re also supposed to be reading and writing manuscripts all the time, as well as training students all the time. Oh, and you also may need to help manage the lab’s budget, shop for supplies, and manage animal husbandry needs. And my personal favorite, put out the trash and recycling. And if these extra responsibilities impinge on your ability to publish - don’t expect any sympathy.
In fact, if you have unfinished manuscripts at the end of your postdoc, your advisor will expect you to complete experiments and/or manuscript preparation on your own time, even after you’ve left their lab. For me this has been the rule, not the exception.
Despite these drawbacks, your lab advisor will probably guilt you into believing that anything outside of this career trajectory is “selling out”, which should immediately set off your Bogus Meter because your advisor probably hasn’t ever held a career outside academia – so how would she know? All of this is not a projection of my bitterness, but rather a compare & contrast exercise to the non-academic approach to compensation I’ll discuss below.
But enough with the negatives.
Depending on your personality, you might simply be better suited to a different line of work. While you may have interests in teamwork, artistic creativity, or educational outreach to young students, your boss is probably thinking more along the lines of Publish or Perish. Postdocs learn a lot about what they like and don’t like during those grueling years, and pursuing outside interests can provide a level of fulfillment and joy that is not to be taken lightly.
A brief sampling of careers into which my postdoc friends transitioned includes NIH policy analyst, Medical writer, FDA reviewer, government analyst, Medical liaison, Patent agent, and Consultant. These are in addition to that classic alternative to academia, the pharma industry. My own story involves working as a co-founder of two tech startups, Pulsa8 and Steelo. So as I’ve written about before, it can be done.
The question is, how exactly? So, let's address it head-on.
Notice I said résumé, not CV. One page ideally, two pages if you must. I can’t say this strongly enough: no one outside of academia will read your 6-page CV.
Recruiters are looking for any reason to discard your résumé, and an unwillingness to write succinctly means a trip to the trash.
Professional recruiters like to brag about having reviewed over 10,000 résumés; now think about how many of those résumés got tossed within seconds. While it’s challenging to compress your career into a page or two, it’s also fun to think creatively about how to express your high-level achievements in a way that dazzles both a college student and a company executive. It also gives you a reason to strip away super-boring phrases like “proficient in PCR and molecular biology protocols”, which few people outside a lab will care about. More importantly, lab skills are de rigueur for any postdoc and will not set you apart from other scientists anyway.
If your old CV is a greasy Big Mac, your résumé is the one-ounce cut of certified Wagyu: there’s much less of it, but it’s much higher quality.
When I mentioned “high-level achievements”, I’m sure some of you panicked about not having any. Have no fear; this is a game of semantics.
A scientist’s natural tendency toward humility leads to phrases like helped, assisted, and worked on. The problem is that these phrases make you sound like a passive participant whose input was useful but not vital. Time to switch those out in favor of supervised, led, enabled, directed, or completed; these depict you as the driving force in accomplishing a goal.
Another easy but overlooked way to improve your résumé (and cover letter) is to mirror the language on the job posting. Be obvious about what a great match you are; don’t leave any room for HR to require guesswork. If they want “translational experience”, don’t write circuitously about how you studied innovative therapies with potential for clinical implementation. Just say you have “translational experience” - simple as that. It follows logically that you should be tailoring the keywords of your résumé for every single job posting’s unique language.
Acing the Interview
You’re at the interview, with your nervous system and sweat glands competing for the Hardest Worker title. That’s normal. The great thing about meeting strangers is that they can’t tell if your confidence is real or not, so go ahead and fake it if you have to. And while it may not feel like it when you’re in the lab, your degree and your training in critical thinking are heavily sought-after in the real world. So keep your chin up!
Every interviewer expects you to answer a few basic questions: Do you have the right skills for their organization? Can you work independently? Can you work in a team? What are your weaknesses? And no, it’s NOT okay to answer that last question with “People say I’m too organized.”
Instead, use some mental judo and flip one of your strengths into a weakness. I answered this by admitting that I loved staying abreast of various new scientific technologies, which made it difficult to focus on the one narrow niche that traditional research requires. But I was discussing this while interviewing for a biomedical consultancy role where a broad knowledge of emerging technologies was vital, so my “weakness” was designed to fit right in with the organization’s needs.
Addressing these big questions is your highest priority, but looking the part deserves attention and practice too. If years at the bench have caused your shoulders to slump, you’ve got some work to do.
Since many of us were attracted to academia because of its meritocratic and non-superficial nature, it can seem shallow to wear anything nicer than freshly washed cargo shorts. However, if you don’t make a serious effort at looking and acting like a professional during an interview, you’ll have wasted everyone’s time. You don’t even have to know how to tie your tie to look good!
Negotiating the Salary
This was probably my toughest experience, because I had literally never had a high-stakes conversation like this before. The chips are really stacked against you, because 1) the hiring organization knows what you currently make, and 2) you don’t know exactly what they’re willing to offer you.
Let me run down how the salary negotiation went for me. I had my wife, a negotiation expert, on standby holding a paper pad and pen to write me notes (highly recommended). I placed the call, and the HR director asked what salary number I had in mind. I had a general sense of the salary thanks to the friend that suggested me for this position, so I put my number out there. She responded, somewhat incredulously, that this would be well over twice what I was currently making as a postdoc. I stuck to my guns, pointing out that if my new salary were tied to my old salary, then I’d be punished financially for the rest of my life just for accepting a postdoc salary early on.
She then said that the previous employee had an extensive skill set that justified his salary, so I asked what that skill set was. For each bullet she listed I provided a brief, honest example of how I exhibited that same skill and by the end she seemed pretty convinced that I was similarly qualified as the previous employee. In a surreal denouement, she took my salary request and actually upped it by a few thousand dollars, to get a nice round number! Several days later, she called back to confirm the organization’s job offer and I happily accepted.
What Can You Expect?
Let’s say it all worked out for you, and you’re nervously climbing the stairs on your first day at the “real job”. Here’s what you’ll hopefully have in store.
Hours are much more regular. Outside of academia, companies have well-paid people on staff just to monitor labor and contract compliance. That means that when you’ve hit your daily hours, you are perfectly free to head home and not think about work until the following morning. If you’ve made a proper request for vacation time, no one at the company will bother you while you’re sipping that Mai Tai on the beach.
During the first year of my biomedical consultancy, I was anxious because I couldn’t really gauge whether I was meeting our client’s expectations. Then, I received an employee cash award based on positive client feedback, the lesson being that your postdoc work ethic is likely to be similar or greater than your new company’s existing employees. That’s the sort of thing that companies like to reward, in addition to traditional annual bonuses and promotions.
On top of this more encouraging compensation structure, I found my company managers much more understanding of a realistic workload. They often delegated last-minute priority tasks which I happily accepted, because they acknowledged that this reprioritization of work meant a necessary postponement of other projects. There was also a much clearer set of formal job expectations. I couldn’t imagine a manager approaching me with a large new set of responsibilities the way a lab advisor might. If they did, it would also involve discussing a promotion with a new title and salary.
If you’ve ever thought a position exists that respects your time, knowledge, and sanity, I’m here to tell you you’re right.
However, you’ve got to take that position away from nonscientist young guns that have been crushing interviews, wearing heels, or tying Windsor knots for years.
Since it’s a difficult process that gets easier with time and practice, it makes sense to start as soon as possible. Waiting only makes you older and angrier.
I have to admit I am very conflicted about this topic because while I believe strongly that young scientists are the backbone of innovation, I feel that their ambition to help increase knowledge and improve health is exploited under the current system. This suggests that guiding postdocs away from academia is a cop-out that doesn’t address any systemic issues around our nation’s biomedical training regimen.
With that said, I don’t think any of us are responsible for taking on the noble burden of research if we can’t expect to be compensated fairly for it.
Academic leadership will always pay lip service to the brilliance and unique value of scientific trainees, yet that very training propagates insecurity and an unhealthy reliance on a dwindling pool of tenure track positions. The best way forward is to promote transparency about science as a profession.
The growing disconnect in career expectations between established scientists and those currently in their formative years must be discussed. I’d like to think that writing this was a small contribution to that transparency. So whether you like this article or not, I hope you’ll get the people around you to discuss what needs to be changed so that your personal and professional needs won’t be sacrificed at the altar of knowledge and innovation.
About our contributor:
Viraj Mane earned his Ph.D. in Human Genetics at Baylor College of Medicine. He patented a molecular assay at the FDA and tested oral delivery of targeted nanoparticles at the University of Maryland before becoming a medical countermeasures consultant to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. He is currently operating as co-founder and chief design officer of two tech startups, Pulsa8 (an online biography and social platform) and Steelo (a fashion-related mobile app). He is also pursuing commercialization opportunities for diagnostic medical equipment he designed and patented.