Everything I Needed To Know To Be Successful...
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.
Everything I Needed To Know To Be Successful in My Career I Learned From My First Job
A Circuitous Career Path and What it Has Taught Me About Academia
I recently took stock of my career and came to some surprising conclusions. I promise I will get to those conclusions eventually, but first I need to give you some background to set the stage for what I am going to say.
I have worked in science in various capacities for over fifteen years in both industry and academia. My scientific career path went something like this:
Graduate student and teaching assistant (M.S., Biology, West Texas A&M University)
Industry lab technician (analytical chemist, Amarillo, TX) and part time instructor (community college, online environmental science)
Industry lab technician (senior microbiologist, Madison, WI) and part time instructor (continued from previous)
Research assistant, teaching assistant, grad student (M.S. and Ph.D., Physiology, University of Wisconsin-Madison), and part time instructor (continued from previous)
Postdoctoral scholar and freelance writer
Recruiter and freelance writer
Entrepreneur (freelance writing and career services)
I worked in industry long enough as a Master’s level scientist to realize that it was not what I wanted long-term. I began graduate work toward my Ph.D. with the intention of teaching at a smaller school. I had done quite a lot of teaching before, during, and after obtaining my Master’s degree, and I loved it. Confusingly, my love of bench science (essentially squashed while working in industry) was rekindled during this time. The concurrent realization that I enjoyed and was talented at writing—combined with persuasion from my Ph.D. advisor—briefly convinced me that I should pursue an academic path.
I successfully secured pre-doctoral and postdoctoral grants, but realized that I was not publishing enough to be competitive for the type of funding that would enable a transition into a faculty position.
I was also becoming more and more specialized in niche skills, and felt no love for the techniques I was doing. I rarely ever saw my postdoc lab advisor. I felt disconnected from the rest of the scientific community, and uncertain of my ability to continue to get my own funding.
My brain practically shouted, “This is not where I want to be!”
I decided to leave academia for a private-sector job as a scientific recruiter in a staffing agency. When I interviewed for the job, the hiring manager was passionate about career mentorship as the defining facet that set her company apart from other staffing agencies. This entailed evaluating where candidates wanted to go with their career, and facilitating that career path: from entry-level positions, where the candidates could acquire critical skill sets, to senior scientist, or even managerial roles.
I was sold. The career mentorship aspect appealed to me, and fit well with my love of teaching.
Through my involvement with the founding committee of the fledgling postdoctoral association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I felt that I had good insight into what I perceived as a disconnect between academia and industry.
I believed that as a recruiter, I would see the problem from the other side of the table, and be able to use that knowledge to mentor graduate students and postdocs.
Although I did indeed see the academia-industry mismatch first hand, and gained insights into the perspective of potential employers, the mentorship aspect of the recruiting position turned out to be only a disappointingly small (and diminishing) portion of what was involved with the job. But it did crystallize for me what I wanted to do next.
I ventured out on my own to launch an entrepreneurial venture, Adeptify, which represents the fusion of my passions for career mentorship and freelance writing.
Suddenly, I had to be adaptable and creative, market my skills, pitch prospective projects, and network like crazy. Not only that, but I had to do a lot of administrative things like writing contracts and invoices, keeping tabs on overhead versus income, paying quarterly taxes, and on and on.
Now let me return to the original premise of the article: Taking stock of my career.
What I realized was this: when I think of which job it was that had prepared me the best—as far as transferrable skills that were useful for every position I ever had but especially this venture—it was my first.
I worked at a lesser-known southern chain restaurant that shall remain nameless. During my tenure there, I hosted, waited tables, manned the cash register, bartended, trained new employees, and did all the nitty-gritty stuff that all those jobs entail.
I learned how to handle money. All the time. Since I kept my own “bank,” I knew how to make change quickly without the help of a register or calculator. I had to settle up at the end of the night. Whatever I had left were my tips. If I came up short, well…you know what happened. I am grateful to have had this experience now that I have to carefully manage the finances of my new business.
I learned time management and multitasking. There’s a lot of walking involved with waiting tables and bartending, and the more I could get done during a single pass through the restaurant, the better. I was very efficient, and could refill a coffee cup, deliver a check, and take an order, then pick up empty plates on my way back to the kitchen.
This came in very useful during graduate school, what with navigating coursework, attending seminars, doing research, and writing grant proposals. The skill is critical to me now, since I have to manage and prioritize several projects at once—in addition to keeping up with the marketing and administrative aspects of my business.
But by and large, the most valuable set of skills I learned involved interacting with people.
And I don’t just mean talking. I mean that I learned how not to bring my problems to work: no matter how awful my day had been to that point, I checked it at the door and did my best to maintain a level of cheerfulness and professionalism that was not forced.
I learned how to deal with difficult people. Everyone who has ever worked in any sort of customer service capacity has had rude customers. One that I remember in particular came in quite often. He always spoke as though I was an annoyance, even though I was doing nothing more than taking his order or bringing his check. He didn’t tip very well as a general rule. I learned to say as little to him as possible, and to remember what he liked to order. But he asked for me each time he came in. One Christmas he left me an enormous tip—without comment—and never came back.
Then there were always the maladjusted coworkers, or those who were having a bad day and biting everyone’s heads off. I learned not to take these things personally. But even worse…
I learned how to deal with harassment. When I watch corporate training videos explaining what constitutes harassment, I have to laugh. Of course it’s all harassment, but it pales in comparison to what I had to deal with as a 19 year-old waitress. Back then we didn’t have training videos explaining what sexual harassment was—and I got it from customers and co-workers alike.
The worst was a lecherous manager who made my life hell until I confronted him and asked him to stop. I told him that I could not work under those conditions, and that I’d be forced to file a complaint. There were witnesses, I pointed out, since he always seemed to make the horrible comments in front of other people. It turns out that he had been reported several times before--he apologized and promised to stop, begging me not to report him. Wise or no (I was 19! I didn’t know how to deal with this stuff!), I decided to give him another chance. While I wouldn’t recommend that strategy to anyone in this day and age, it worked.
From this experience I also learned to recognize the early warning signs of a bad situation and to proactively deal with it before it develops into something intolerable or unmanageable.
I learned how to communicate myself in a nutshell to customers who were interested and wanting to make conversation. Where was I from? What did I want to do with my life? What was I doing to get there? This translates nicely into the “elevator pitch” that I now use when networking with other professionals, colleagues, and potential clients.
I learned how to listen. From taking and remembering orders to lending a sympathetic ear to a down-in-the-dumps bar customer, I became a very adept listener. This is particularly important now when I need to remember names, understand exactly what clients’ needs are, remember what kind of work a colleague does, or recognize potential opportunities.
I learned how to interpret nonverbal cues. I always appreciate wait staff who are capable of seeing what I need rather than constantly buzzing by the table with a disruptive “can I get you anything?” I never wanted my customers to have to ask for anything, but I didn’t want to annoy them either. So I watched their body language throughout the meal. I watched drink glasses. I learned to recognize restlessness as a sign that I should—do something, maybe refill water or bring the check. Maybe I’d do both. I learned to recognize when I was interrupting a conversation or dealing with a customer who did not want to talk.
As a result, I’m fairly good now at deciphering whether the person I’m talking to is actually interested, or just being polite.
This informs my decision of which elevator pitch (the “me-in-a-nutshell” talk) to deliver: the one-sentence summary, or the whole hairy enchilada including past research, career path, skills sets, and the like—or something in between.
Or maybe it isn’t the appropriate time for an elevator pitch at all. Maybe we just talk baseball. And I mean that literally: at a recent biotech networking event, I found myself standing next to the very friendly CEO of a small, local pharma company. The World Series was on T.V., and that’s what we ended up talking about. As a result, we had a very enjoyable conversation that ranged over many topics, but somehow never came around to career aspirations. He asked for my card when we parted ways, and the next day I had an invite to connect with him on LinkedIn.
I guarantee that he remembered me as the post-graduate who carried on a good conversation, but did not try to foist a resume on him or ask for a job.
These are, in large part, skills I have that I did not learn from going to graduate school and completing a Ph.D. That’s absolutely not to say that my Ph.D. was worthless, or that I wouldn’t do it again. Quite the contrary: because of that advanced training I am a not only a good scientist, but I understand how to communicate science. I understand what differentiates a good grant application from a bad one. When I pitch a science article, say, for a nutrition magazine, having a Ph.D. in physiology lends a lot of credence to my proposal.
My point is that all of the highly specialized training I received in graduate school and beyond was built upon a solid foundation of basic skills that were laid down during my first job.
It is this type of skill set that seems to be lacking in a good percentage of graduate students and postdocs.
I am a firm believer in new high school grads not going straight to college. Let them work a year or two to allow them to figure out if they WANT to go to college.
When young people figure out that [insert undesirable job here] is not what they want to do with the rest of their life, higher education (or vocational training) has an intrinsic value that they can appreciate.
I’ve known a LOT of people who went straight into college, then grad school, then a postdoc—without really having any idea of what they wanted to do. It’s easy to slide along through college and grad school, and tell yourself—whether consciously or not—that you’ll figure it out later. These are the graduate students and postdocs who, when asked what they are going to do with their degree, look at their shoes and mumble something vague about working in industry.
The problem with the inertia approach, as I like to call it, to career planning is that there are things you need to be doing during this time period to even have the ability to choose the path you will follow.
A Ph.D. is not a golden ticket to the career of your choice.
If you decide two years into your postdoc that you’d like to follow the academic path and pursue a tenured faculty position, you should have publications to show for it in addition to having secured your own funding. You should be well on your way to obtaining transition-to-faculty-type funding like a NIH K99/R00 award. If you don’t, you’re probably not going to make it.
If your goal was industry all along, you should be doing research to find out what aspects of industry you are interested in. Are you sure you understand what R&D in industry entails? Talk with someone who does it. Do you have a vague idea that you might want to be a product manager? Talk with someone who does it.
Informational interviews are priceless: not only do they provide you with an insider’s take on your career of interest, but the interviewee can often provide additional contacts for you to seek out.
There is a communication breakdown between academia and industry.
On the academic side I believe that it stems, at least partially, from a lack of certain critical interpersonal skills and networking abilities that should be taught or cultivated during graduate school, as well as a lack of understanding of what it is that makes industry tick.
The end result is that the new Ph.D. or postdoc is not as good at self-marketing to prospective industry employers.
On the industry side, there is a certain “black box” perception about what constitutes a qualified candidate, what the expectations are, and how candidates can make themselves more attractive to hiring managers.
It’s a problem I am continuing to probe as part of a biotech advisory group in the Madison, WI area, and seeking to address through some of the career coaching services offered through my new business. My goal with this is to mentor and coach candidates who are attempting to transition out of academia so that they better communicate who and what they are—be it through written or interpersonal means—to convey a professional and capable image that will be attractive to employers in industry.
About our contributor:
Michelle earned her Ph.D. in Physiology in 2010 and was an AHA-funded postdoctoral fellow until 2013, when she transitioned into a private sector role as a scientific recruiter. As such, she has a unique perspective on the challenges facing academicians looking to transition into industry--both from the side of the job hunter, and as a recruiter trying to match candidates' skill sets with available industry positions. Michelle has now ventured out on her own to found Adeptify, the brain-child of her dual passions for career advice and freelance writing.