Postdocs for the non-academic: 3 caveats and 3 unexpected perks

Non-academic postdoc: 3 caveats and 3 unexpected perks - My science career rebooted - Heather Fireman Jackson

So you’ve finished your PhD and want to do a postdoc. Maybe you’re already working as one. I salute the important work you have done and will do to further science.

If at some point you have an inkling that your post-postdoc job will not be in academia or research, my dear postdocs, let me bring your attention to some important things you should be aware of.

(1) During your next job search, you will have to overcome negative biases about PhDs and researchers.

Why it’s an issue:

I know, how unfair, right? We all worked hard to build our research cred, rack up research status symbols, all so we can claim our spot in the research hierarchy. And now some cruel blogger is telling you that all that experience is a liability? And that the research hierarchy doesn’t even matter outside of research?

Yet everyone I’ve asked has easily been able to come up with biases or perceptions of PhDs that they think might concern a hiring manager when considering one as a candidate. The biases vary by industry and type of role, but here are some I’ve heard:

  • Not able to keep up with the fast pace of this industry
  • Not able to be deadline-driven
  • Too theoretical, not practical enough
  • Too specialized
  • Too focused on details to see big picture
  • Just google PhD stereotypes for more articles and examples…

Damage control:

Talk to people who work in the roles or industries you want to work in. Bonus points if they too made the transition from research.

Tell them you’d like to understand the biases and perceptions you’ll need to overcome as a PhD coming from research. Ask them what they think would be the concerns of a hiring manager when considering you as a candidate for whatever role in whatever industry.

Then listen closely to their responses, and think about how you would counter those concerns with examples from your experience. Or consider actively trying to acquire more of the practical or deadline-driven experience you may be lacking while still a postdoc.

Ask this question in a networking situation, and it feels like getting handed the keys to the kingdom. When you’re in an actual interview, you can pose the same question (“What concerns do you have about my background…?”). Then you’re already prepared to demonstrate exactly how you crush that stereotype.

(2) Make sure that you’re actually gaining skills and experience that will be assets to your next job search.

Why it’s an issue: 

Seems to me that many people choose their postdoc (or even their PhD project or a job for that matter) based on what they’re comfortable doing rather than what will help them get their next job.

Early exposure to some hands-on work in your field (like a part-time undergrad research job or a class project) can end up sending you down a career rabbit hole, which may get pretty specific and which may or may not be the right fit for you.

Our interests and skills are living things. What we started out thinking we were interested in (and good at) will evolve. They will grow and change, maybe into something we never expected.

Damage control:

Think of it like career ergonomics. Choose jobs that fit into your career goals – don’t force your career goals to fit the jobs you happen to have had.

If you haven’t yet started your postdoc, choose your position wisely. What does that mean? You may be assigned to work on a specific problem, or you may have the option of choosing which corner of your group’s sandbox you’d like to play in, so to speak. Either way, ask lots of questions about the projects, what you’d be doing, and what techniques/equipment/methods you’ll be using. This information will give you a better idea of what skills and knowledge you will be learning and how these things fit into your career plans. Ask the PI to tell you all about the practical applications of your group’s work and their collaborators in industry. Maybe your postdoc work could translate directly to roles in industry later.

If you’re already in the midst of your postdoc, take stock of the skills and experience you’ve gained so far. Evaluate those against the qualifications your next job will require. You still have an opportunity to make course corrections or get involved in other activities that will add value to you as a candidate.

(3) At least at my organization, postdocs are not included in the formal performance evaluation system (something to do with our status as temporary hires).

Why it’s an issue:

You may be thinking, “Great!” But watch out: this practice of going without performance feedback for several formative years in your career isn’t doing you any favors.

Formal performance evaluation is more than just HR bureaucratic paperwork and an awkward meeting with your manager.

It’s an exercise in evaluating yourself. Articulating what you’ve accomplished. Taking an honest look at where you need to improve and identifying your blind spots. Setting short and long term career goals and making a concrete plan for the training, development, and experience you need to get there. If we’re not forced to sit down and evaluate these things, few of us will do it of our own free will.

Also, if you’re not periodically going through the exercise of translating your 40 hours and the way you spend them  into measurable accomplishments, it is very easy not to make measurable accomplishments. Consider that for a moment.

The performance metrics in research are quite different from those in industry. Your thesis advisor or research mentor may make a big deal about the impact factor of the journals you’re publishing in. But the employers you’ll be courting will care more about things like the processes you’ve improved and how much money your efforts have saved/earned the company. Regardless, you’ll still need to make your case for how your postdoc experience prepares you for roles on the outside.

Damage control:

If you do take the initiative to seek regular feedback from your manager and mentor, you’ll be in a better position to spell out your accomplishments and demonstrate your value during your next job search.

I know, I know, nobody really likes subjecting themselves to critique, because most of us are afraid of a bad review.

The key is to remember that the whole point of the process is improving yourself and reaching your goals. That’s why everyone is participating in this process. Your manager and company want you to keep developing yourself so that you can be more of an asset to the company. You want to improve – who can honestly say that they have no room for improvement?

It’s not about making you feel anxious or crappy about your shortcomings. And because you are requesting performance feedback that is totally optional, you and your manager are under less pressure, and the process and feedback you’ll receive should ideally be more relaxed and open than they otherwise might be.

Then again, the postdoc has its perks, if you use your time wisely:

(1) Everyone knows that a postdoc is a limited-term position.

It is accepted by your employer that you will likely move on after your postdoc. There’s no need to worry that you will catch your manager or mentor off-guard or that you will be seen as abandoning the team. At organizations with designated postdoc positions, permanent staff positions tend to be limited. Even if you want to stay on, you may not be able to. Networking contacts and potential employers won’t require extra explanation or justification for why you’re looking for a new job.

How to use it:

You probably will need to explain why you want to transition away from research. Be prepared to spin your non-research career objectives (always in a positive light) when the topic comes up.

(2) Your manager and mentor will do what they can to help you find your next job.

This is probably not something you can say about every other job you’ll have.

A postdoc blends professional experience with apprenticeship, and postdoc managers and mentors know that part of the job is to help postdocs develop their careers. And no, that does not mean molding you in their own image and disowning you when you don’t follow in their footsteps.

Unless you work for some kind of research snobs, they will probably be pretty supportive when you start to look for your post-postdoc position. Their ability to help you with industry contacts will vary depending on how far your desired role and industry are from what you’ve been doing as a postdoc.

How to use it:

Be proactive in discussing your post-postdoc plans with your manager and mentor.  Bounce ideas off them. If you are interested in something completely different from research, for instance government relations, they may know people in that role that you can talk to, maybe even within your own organization.

It’s good to keep the lines of communication open, get on the same page, and avoid making assumptions. That way, you will feel confident asking for advice on finding a job elsewhere – or asking for help securing of those permanent positions at your current organization.

(3) Postdocs are usually relieved of the pressure to secure funding or manage budgets or people, leaving us free to focus on developing our skills.

Additionally, postdocs at national labs bear no teaching responsibilities.

How to use it:

Make the most of it. Don’t limit your development to your technical expertise – that goes for people seeking any type of post-postdoc role.

Get involved in societies inside and outside of work that will give you opportunities to network and build transferable skills. Your postdoc association and alumni association are great places to start. They are likely to be active and host frequent events, plus they can always use more people who are enthusiastic to pitch in. Offer to organize events or take on leadership roles.

Your institution may have its own Toastmasters club, and your locality will certainly have professional society chapters in your discipline. Participate in education outreach: you can give back to the next generation and show kids just how cool your discipline is.

Your involvement in outside activities provides great success stories and lessons learned to tell in interviews. These activities may even be what got you the job lead in the first place!

Veteran postdocs: what insights have you collected during your stint? What do you wish you had known at the outset?

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