Learning to Live Outside of the Academic Bubble
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.
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.
Learning to Live Outside of the Academic Bubble
I’ll take a moment to paint the parameters of my professional environment in broad strokes because I have a few practical concerns that motivated my professional trajectory. I have a PhD in Neuroscience from an accredited University. I don’t have any children, I’m married, and my wife is in medical school with the Army.
Years ago, I chose to go to graduate school almost exclusively because of my belief that graduate school itself would be an exciting, constructive, and rewarding experience. My time as a graduate student affirmed this belief. However, while I was a student I became quite certain that, ultimately, I did not want to stay in academics.
In addition to my internal motivation to leave academics, I was confronted with one of the realities of having a spouse in the armed services, which is recognizing the likelihood that you’ll be moving with some frequency.
After graduating, I had a very brief stint trying to do a postdoc far away from my wife. It did not take long to figure out that I was in the wrong place personally and professionally. Therefore, I left my postdoc position and moved out to live with her without having a job lined up for myself. I set out to find work with my only requirement being that I not be employed by a University.
I spent six months networking, applying to industry jobs, interviewing, and talking with recruiters. I learned quite a lot and made some lasting connections from these efforts, but never got beyond a second interview.
During this time I did have a contract consulting arrangement doing statistical work for a medical supply company on occasion, which I tried to bolster by getting certified as a SAS base programmer. It was infrequent work but it gave me some good talking points with recruiters and the like. I also started volunteering as a caregiver for a hospice care company.
As a result of those two experiences, I also was invited to review grant applications for a funding institute that focuses on patient centered care. None of these opportunities counted as a ‘job’ in my view, but they did ultimately contribute to my professional development. I would highly recommend searching out these types of opportunities when possible.
I also spent a significant amount of time networking with people in the startup community in and around Washington, D.C. I met some extremely bright, adventurous, and helpful people. All that being said, I remained focused on finding a bona fide full-time job. I got discouraged at the opportunities in the biotech sector. In the mid-Atlantic region there is a large pool of applicants with 2-5 years of industry experience, so the competition for entry level jobs is fierce.
The sticking point that I kept running into was a familiar one for recent graduates with PhDs; I spent all this time getting a degree, but that time did not count as experience.
The degree does, however, count as a qualification. The result is what can become a toxic combination of ‘overqualified but under-experienced’.
Another reality I had to confront was the lack of understanding many recruiters had about what goes in to getting a PhD in the sciences. Some asked me if I spent almost 7 years taking classes, for example. These factors contributed to my decision to get a job that anyone could consider real, boots on the ground work experience that would demonstrate tenacity and work ethic to anyone in the working world.
I decided to look outside of biotech and outside my comfort zone.
As part of my motivation to step outside of my comfort zone, I went to a career fair for sales jobs. Instead of 7 employers and 500 applicants like the biotech fairs I’d been going to, there were 10 employers and 50 applicants.
I eventually took a job selling burglar alarms and security cameras to small businesses. In professional terms I was gaining business-to-business outside sales experience. In practical terms I was taking a job that didn’t utilize my education, but did require me learning how to cold call, pound the pavement, and close deals. It required me to meet quotas, meet performance review criteria, and satisfy the daily expectations of my supervisors. It was also an opportunity to make good money and be accountable to myself, my company, and my customers.
I had to get accustomed to being told ‘no’ frequently and being hung up on. I had to learn how to be extremely concise, professional, and direct on the phone and in person. I had to learn how to negotiate, sometimes aggressively, and hold people accountable on all sides of the negotiating table. It wasn’t a fun experience, but I took it seriously and took a measure of pride in doing a job that was often difficult.
Before I started this job, I was apprehensive about the whole concept of networking, as many people with a science background are. By the time I left I was doing it in my sleep.
Sales isn’t for everyone, but it’s a great way to sharpen some of the most fundamental and important skills in business. As a result, I would highly recommend the experience to anyone, especially to anyone who is immediately uncomfortable with the idea of it.
In the mean time, I continued reviewing grants and doing statistical work when it came up. After the better part of a year, I came back into contact with someone I had met back when I first moved out to D.C. He had taken a position as CSO (Chief Scientific Officer) at a biotech startup and knew I had experience in neuroscience and statistics. He wanted my opinion on a product they were working on. That conversation continued and I met the CEO of the company. After this, I was offered a position doing capital development with their company.
I think the most important takeaway lesson I’ve learned from my experience since graduate school is that activity is the key to accomplishing my professional goals.
In many ways finding work is quite similar to sales, and so it would make sense that the most important aspect of success in either endeavor would also be very similar. My sales manager once sent our sales team a quote by Calvin Coolidge as a motivational tool. I think it’s a very appropriate quote to share with an audience of highly educated and talented people:
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
It’s a heavy-handed statement, but one that a person might do well to keep in the forefront when striking out and getting away from the ivory tower.
About our contributor:
Albert finished his Ph.D. in 2012 in neurobiology. After a fleeting moment as a postdoc, he decided to abandon academics wholesale and jump headfirst into the job market with no prospects and no idea what he wanted. Over the past few years, he has filled his time with various volunteer positions, regular consulting work as a statistical consultant, and work as a business to business outside sales representative. He is currently working for Origent Data Sciences, Inc. as a business development consultant.