To Be a Successful PI in Academia...
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.
To Be a Successful PI in Academia, Make Sure That You’re Only 3 Steps Ahead of the Field
First, a little bit about me: I have a BS in Biochemistry from NC State University, and a PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison). After receiving my graduate degree, I took a position as a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Pathobiological Sciences at UW-Madison, and then became a US Global Scholar with the Kauffman Foundation for Entrepreneurship in Kansas City, MO. I am now currently the Operations Manager for the Milwaukee Health Department’s Public Health Laboratory, and a Founder at Satori Labs, LLC.
I have always had a lifelong goal of running my own pharmaceutical company. After graduating from NC State, I made the decision to enter a PhD program instead of an MBA program.
Back then, my career plan was to secure a faculty position with a R1 university, and create spin-off a company from my grant-funded research via SBIR programs.
When I completed my doctorate, I accepted a postdoctoral position in Pathobiological Sciences to venture more towards tackling global health problems associated with tropical infectious diseases, as my ethnic background is Ghanaian.
There was always a supportive network during my PhD training and postdoctoral work. My graduate advisors and the business leaders at UW-Madison’s entrepreneurship initiatives have been some of the best mentors I’ve had. There was also a core group of us in graduate school that were forward-thinking, and always had plans outside of academia; whether it was to go into industry and return to academia or vice versa. We knew we were going to take advantage of opportunities outside of the college campus.
Fast forward to the present, where I have been asked, on many occasions, why I chose to to pursue a position outside of academia. Interestingly, this happened as a 2-step process within the first 8-9 months of my postdoc. First, I came to the realization that I wasn’t going to be successful in academia. Second, I realized that my appetite for success would not be fulfilled in academia.
The combination of these two epiphanies lead to my firm commitment to leave academic research.
Saying 'I’m not going to be successful in academia' was a hard to come to terms with. However, this realization came after a heartfelt lecture my postdoc advisor gave me about my 'work ethic', which is code for working anything less than 12 hours a day in the lab. He said that in order to be successful in life, 'you need to make the commitment to being really good at something'. He followed up by giving the example of his prize student and said; “If you want to be a successful PI, you’re going to have to be more like [her]”. At first I was extremely angry that he told me to be more like his prize student, which happened to be my arch nemesis, but while I feverishly plotting my revenge of success against his words and predictions I thought to myself, “Wait a minute. What if he’s right?”.
If I don't want to do what it takes to be a successful PI in academia, then more than likely...I do not really want to be a successful PI in academia. Simple enough right?
'My appetite for success will not be fulfilled in an academic setting' came soon after. That fall I attended a grant-writing seminar focused on teaching postdocs and junior faculty members how to identify, acquire, and manage NIH grants. While we were talking about specific aims, the lecturer said something that I heard over and over again during my post-graduate career; “As a new PI, you only want to be 3 steps ahead of the field, otherwise, your brilliance will not be noticed”.
He urged us to break down our 'paradigm shifting' ideas into a series of grants and spread them throughout our careers to maintain federal funding. I quickly raised my hand and asked “What if I have a huge, paradigm shifting idea, but I’m still a junior faculty member? What avenues can I use to get funded?” He said “None. If you have a great idea like that, you can either team up with an established PI in your field, or wait until you’re the established PI.”
That wasn't going to work for me.
Right then, I knew that being a professor before starting a company was going to be much harder, and less fulfilling, than just starting a company right away. I decided to look for opportunities to “postdoc” in something other than basic science research, and get started learning how to build companies, and manage cross-functional teams.
During this time of exploration, I considered multiple paths. To get started, I conducted informational interviews with everyone I could find associated with communicating great science to the business world. I interviewed and applied for positions in intellectual property management, product development, grant management, consulting / marketing, and laboratory management.
I was all over the place until I picked up the book “What Color is Your Parachute”, did a self-analysis of my skillsets and personal ambitions, and started thinking about what I want to work towards instead of what I want to get away from. And that lead me to business development and entrepreneurship.
Unlike many of my peers, the economy did not play a major role in my decision to leave academia, but it played a significant role in the job I decided to take after my postoc. The job opportunities these days are so slim that you have to be obnoxiously passionate about a position in order to get it. Otherwise, the next person in line who would love nothing more than to die working in that position for that company will beat you to the job everytime. And trust me, those people are out there.
The uninspiring hiring landscape forced me to do some major soul searching about what I want out of my next position after a postdoc. This lead to a complete reversal of my job searching process.
I started searching for positions that are a value-add to my dreams of entrepreneurship as opposed to contorting my resume to appear to be a value-add to an established company.
If the economy was booming while I was a postdoc, more than likely I would’ve just taken the highest paying job available to me, and been miserable until I finally gathered the courage to leave.
Notably, I still love and respect the higher education system and firmly believe that there is a place for institutions of higher learning in society. In my opinion, academia still holds some of the brightest minds in the world. With that said, I realized during my postdoc that academia exists for the pursuit of knowledge, and not is overly concerned with what can be developed from that knowledge base.
Being that my educational career occurred during the peak of the information age, I view information as cheap and readily available at my fingertips. I believe that the future belongs to those who can sift through the wealth of information available to us as scientists, and translate it into easily understandable communications and commercial products. As such, I’m very interested in seeing what happens to higher education when it is forced to produce a technologies that stem from its innate pursuits.
For those wondering what my words of wisdom would be - my biggest piece of advice is that you have to have better soft skills than the next postdoc gunning for your job. Being able to meet a deadline, communicate scientific results to a general audience, and manage [difficult] people (i.e. other scientists) will set you apart from 99.9% of scientists in your field. The days of being a successful introvert lab rat are over.
It's not publish or perish, its communicate or confine.
The best way for scientists to develop these skills is to take their current research and use their imagination to relate it to 'unrelated' topics.
While I was a graduate student, I became increasingly interested in global health programs and how they are managed. Since I was a fish out of water, I was always asked 'what do you do' by people who I knew wouldn’t understand the jargon of my field. Practicing explaining your graduate/postdoc research to people other than your PIs and colleagues is paramount to being successful anywhere outside of academia.
While you’re venturing out into the exciting world outside of your lab, be sure to find a way to pick up some certifications along the way. Just having one certification in a field outside of your own shows foresight, and easily allows you to stand out amongst a crowd. In my opinion, the fields of quality improvement and lab efficiency seem to be growing at an alarming pace as funding shrinks and budgets need to be stretched. Having a certificate in either of these fields will assure that you are very competitive for a wide range of careers.
Reflecting back on my experience in academia and comparing it to my position within the private sector, I believe the biggest difference is that academia focuses on specialization while industry focuses on cross-functionality and transferable skills. Industry wants to get the most out a person, while academia wants to get the most out of a field of study. However, my opinion is limited, as I was a researcher in academia and I am a manager in industry.
One thing I have noticed about the 2 fields is that the human factors that can make academia unbearable such as office politics and oversized egos are everywhere. You’ll need those soft skills wherever you go.
I wish you luck on your journey.
About our contributor:
Dr. Kwadwo Owusu-Ofori is currently the Laboratory Operations Manager for the Milwaukee Health Department, Public Health Laboratory. His current duties include managing the business operations, public relations, and quality improvement efforts of the reference testing lab. He is a recent graduate of the UW-Madison School of Pharmacy (2010), and an alumni of NC State University (2003). Dr. Owusu-Ofori also serves as the Chief Technical Officer of Satori Labs, a start-up medical foods company designed to create fun and innovative ways to take nutritional supplements. In his spare time, Dr. Owusu-Ofori enjoys playing tennis and golf, mentoring other start-up entrepreneurs, and being stuck on level 88 of Candy Crush Saga. Follow him on Twitter.