Hit the Ground Running...
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.
Hit the Ground Running: Transitioning from Academia to Industry
Editor's note: This contribution was provided by a colleague that transitioned to industry after finishing her PhD dissertation and did not follow down the road to a postdoctoral position. There are still many important takeaways for postdoctoral scholars considering a transition into the private sector.
How about we get to know one another?
I will start with undergrad. I attended a small, primarily undergraduate institution (PUI), Gannon University located in Erie, PA. I have always enjoyed science, particularly chemistry. I did not realize how much I loved chemistry until taking organic chemistry; that is when the fun of chemistry really started for me. I had a phenomenal organic chemistry professor who pushed and challenged me. I decided after half a semester of organic chemistry I wanted to major in chemistry and I wanted to be an organic chemistry professor at a small PUI!
With my end goal in mind I began researching how to go about becoming a chemistry professor. I realized I needed to attend graduate school and earn a Ph.D. A pre-requisite for graduate program admission is undergraduate research experience. Attending a PUI, the options for undergraduate research were limited so I applied to multiple research experience for undergraduates (REU) programs for the summers. I was very, very fortunate to participate in 2 REU programs (following my sophomore and junior years) – one focused in bioanalytical chemistry and one focused in organic synthesis. I really enjoyed the bioanalytical chemistry experience but the organic synthesis experience was a nightmare.
The nightmarish experience left me questioning whether or not I wanted to pursue graduate school, or even a degree in chemistry!
To attend graduate school or not?
I talked at length with my undergraduate research advisor about whether or not I wanted to pursue graduate school following my REU experience. My research advisor suggested I apply to graduate programs and prepare for graduate school because I could always decide to not attend, but I could not go back in time and apply to graduate programs. At this point, I was too confused and deflated to think much about what I really wanted.
I had loved science for so long and I had a plan to become a chemistry professor.
To keep my options open, I trusted the advice of my research advisor and applied to graduate programs. By early December of my senior year I had been granted early-admission in a graduate program. I suppose at the time I felt a sense of relief – I had an option, an offer for after undergrad as my friends were struggling to determine what to do post-graduation. Fast-forwarding to the spring, I was visiting graduate schools weekend after weekend.
The sense of relief and excitement visiting graduate schools helped to renew my excitement in chemistry.
Of all the graduate schools I visited, there was one that stood out. Within minutes of landing and arriving on campus I knew I was going to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison; I choose UW-Madison on gut-instinct?!
The Ups and Downs: Graduate School
The first year of graduate school was humbling, terrifying and amazing. In my opinion, one of the best aspects of graduate school is the 50+ friends you instantly gain starting a new graduate program that evolve to a very close circle of friends during the years of your program. Throughout graduate school I was exceptionally fortunate to have a close circle of very supportive friends that helped me celebrate the ups and survive the downs of graduate school. Not only were my friends amazing, my research advisor was tremendously supportive. And, I selected my research advisor on gut-instinct!
What happened? I had a network of supportive friends and a supportive research advisor, and still chose not to pursue academia? What about my plan to be a chemistry professor?
During graduate school I had the opportunity to teach. I taught many semesters and I taught many chemistry courses. I really enjoyed teaching. I had a variety of characters in each course that I taught; there was never a dull moment. The interactions with students were hugely rewarding, especially when the students finally understood the fundamentals.
For the purpose of this blog I am choosing to remember the great times of teaching and not the countless students who simply did not care. I realize and acknowledge chemistry is not for everyone, but there were many students who were completely apathetic about their education.
Thinking about my own future career, what I did not want was to stress over funding, nor did I want to learn how to play the politics associated with higher education, and I did not want a classroom full of apathetic young adults. I decided not pursue a career as a professor midway through graduate school.
Ok, if I am not going to teach, then my only other option is to be a researcher.
Honestly, I knew midway through my second year I was unhappy. I loved my research group, my advisor, and my projects were interesting, but I did not enjoy research. I struggled coming to terms with what I wanted to do – take my Master’s degree and leave or continue toward Ph.D. candidacy.
I knew I did not enjoy research, do I have any options?!?! I was uncertain of the answers.
I had already eliminated the option of teaching. Yikes, what is left?! What I did know is that I had developed interests outside of chemistry. I became really interested in public health and public policy. I thought about leaving chemistry to enter the realm of public health. I knew very, very little about public health. I had no background in public health.
Were my interests in public health due entirely to my unhappiness with research? Maybe my unhappiness with research was just a phase?
I decided to continue onward in graduate school. There predominant driving force was pride. My own hubris of not quitting something I start, not wanting to “Master-out” and not wanting to dwell on the what if’s down the road.
I’m in trouble and need some help!
Less than 3 years in to my graduate program I ruled out the “only” options available to Ph.D. scientists – teaching and research. What have I done? Clearly I needed a new plan.
To determine how dire my situation was I turned to Google. I began searching the internet for “non-traditional PhD jobs” and “careers outside of academia”. As it turned out there are many, many options for individuals with a Ph.D. that do not include teaching or research.
What a relief!
With the realization that I had options, but not really knowing what my options were, I decided to talk with my research advisor. I was especially fortunate to have a supportive research advisor, one that I was comfortable talking to candidly. I waited until my 4th year to spring on my research advisor that I was unhappy as a graduate student, I wanted out and I wanted to pursue a non-traditional career.
My advisor was stunned by my disclosure, but was accepting of my truths.
We discussed what I needed to finish on my different projects to begin writing. I also asked for help and guidance. My research advisor had little experience with nontraditional careers, but was able to suggest I talk with one of her former students who works in industry and put me in contact with Idella Yamben.
2 Words: Informational Interview
I learned about informational interviews from Idella. I had no idea what I wanted to do post-graduate school. The only ideas I had were I did not want to teach and I did not want to do research.
For me, informational interviews were an excellent way to learn about possible career trajectories and receive advice for beginning the job search.
I had some initial trepidation about informational interviews because I felt like I would be imposing myself in to a stranger’s schedule. I did not realize how willing individuals are to talk about their careers – their education, where they started, how they got there, and where they are now. I conducted dozens of informational interviews.
Everyone I talked with was tremendously generous with their time. As a graduate student or postdoc you have an endless list of tasks to complete where time is precious. I am grateful for all the informational interviews I had.
My only regret is not starting the informational interviews sooner than midway through my 4th year of graduate school.
An informational interview is a conversation. I was not asking for a job; I was asking the individuals to share their professional narratives. I asked for an informational interview and suggested whoever I was talking with choose a convenient time and place for our meeting. I always had a list of a few questions to keep the conversation flowing.
I spent a lot of time listening, doing little talking during the informational interviews. One question I always made sure to ask was – do you have a contact in your network you can put me in contact with to learn more about careers outside of academia? From my experiences, individuals are really generous with their time and extremely willing to connect you with more contacts for your informational interviews. All you need to do is ask.
Where am I now?
A theme that I picked up during my informational interviews was to try new things, explore all options because I could always change my plan.
I applied for a wide variety of positions from scientific writer to grant reviewer to technical service to product manager to applications scientist. I submitted a lot of job applications, keeping my options open; I applied to any posted position that sounded interesting to me!
During graduate school I worked with a few Thermo Scientific instruments and a lot of protein chemistry technologies from Pierce (part of Thermo Fisher Scientific). I really liked the instrumentation and products produced by Thermo Fisher Scientific, so I targeted Thermo as a potential employer.
My job offer from Thermo Fisher Scientific came about in a serendipitous fashion. I applied to an “applications scientist” position online and was fortunate enough to be contacted by a recruiter. The initial conversation with the recruiter led to an interview with the hiring manager, the core NMR team and ultimately a job offer.
Unfortunately, I do not have a tested and proven job-searching then job-securing method to share with you.
Life of an Applications Scientist
I am an NMR applications scientist. Ok, so what does that mean?
Within Thermo Fisher Scientific, the applications scientists are considered the experts on specific instruments and are responsible for discerning whether applications are, or are not feasible. In my specific role, I work very closely with the sales team and the marketing teams. My territory is defined as North America.
A large portion of my time is spent traveling with the sales engineers responsible for selling the NMR instruments. When I travel with the sales engineers, I generally give a brief presentation about NMR spectroscopy, discuss the technology of our NMR instruments and I demo the instruments. I also present a NMR workshop during the sales team’s seminar series. I travel to trade shows where I am on booth-duty, sometimes I speak with press, and I am always encouraged to enter a poster or enter an abstract for a scientific presentation.
When I am not traveling, I run customer samples that are sent to me for application feasibility tests, I offer web assistance for training or troubleshooting, and I work to develop new applications for the marketing team.
There is always something to keep me busy whether traveling to new customer sites, attending trade shows, running customer samples or working on application development.
Continually Ignoring the Signs
I certainly do not have all the answers, nor have I entirely figured out what I want to do when I grow up. Leading up to where I am now, I had many signs urging me to invest time and effort to figure out what I want, what I am passionate about, and what I want for my career.
As I sit here writing this blog, I still question whether or not completing my Ph.D. was my best decision.
Did I feel like I was trapped in graduate school? Yes. Unfortunately, I ignored the signs and did not invest enough time or attention to explore my options.
I really wish I would have either taken or audited courses offered outside the Department of Chemistry BOTH during undergrad and graduate school.
It is a difficulty reality to acknowledge I closed many options off to myself without bothering to look and explore. Would I like a mulligan? Absolutely! I specifically would like to diversify how I managed my coursework and decision making during undergrad and graduate school.
If I would have invested the time to explore, would I have pursued a Ph.D. in chemistry? I do not know.
Could I be an applications scientist for Thermo Fisher Scientific without a Ph.D.? No.
Do I like my job? Definitely; I work with teams of exceptionally bright individuals.
Every day is a learning experience for me.
Looking Back with 20/20 Vision
From my experiences, the best piece of advice I can offer you is to keep your options open.
Most importantly, you are in control, but you have to take control.
You need to rearrange your priorities and ensure that you, your future, your happiness is a priority. I admit this is exceptionally challenging; I struggle to invest time in owning my own career possibilities. If you are still completing coursework, branch out of your comfort zone. No matter where you are in your career, take the time for informational interviews. You will see you have options, you will grow your network and you will realize most people do not have a clean, simple career story.
If you are in the process of applying for jobs, do not despair.
I was applying for jobs for months so I know it is frustrating and bruising to the ego. Keep your options open both in terms of geography (if possible) and apply to positions that interest you; the ultimate goal is to be happy with your position. If you are interviewing, make sure to learn about the company specifically the company’s values and culture, and learn about the individuals who will interview you. There is no shame in LinkedIn-creeping or Google-creeping, you are searching the web for information. Finally, I wish you all the best in your future endeavors!
About our contributor:
Katherine received her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2013. Upon completion of graduate school she never thought once about a postdoc but rather naively entered the job market. Serendipity ran its course. Currently, she is an applications scientist at Thermo Fisher Scientific in Madison, WI.