By Sally Burn
This week was NPAW2015 – no, not National Prosthodontics Awareness Week (which shares the same acronym), but National Postdoc Appreciation Week 2015. The organizers, the National Postdoc Association, champion our rights year round but use this week to focus wider attention on our 90,000 strong ranks and make us feel appreciated. They have their work cut out. If we take salary, job security, academic job prospects, mental health, and work/life balance (particularly for female scientists) as metrics of institutional gratitude, it rapidly becomes clear that postdocs are not poster children for appreciation.
A postdoc, according to Wikipedia, is “a person conducting research after the completion of their doctoral studies (typically a PhD) as part of a temporary appointment, usually in preparation for an academic faculty position.” The problem for modern postdocs, particularly in the life sciences, is that “temporary” is starting to last much longer and the coveted faculty position is becoming harder to attain than twenty years ago. Moving on then to “appreciation” – what does that mean? The first definition I found was “the recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something.” It suddenly struck me that instead of waiting for a pat on the head from our employers or the NIH, we should instead be focusing on self appreciation of the qualities that make us good postdocs… and recognizing how valuable these qualities are in the non-academic job market.
Transferable skills are something I’ve been thinking about a lot this year, as I prepare to leave the familiar yet cruel bosom of Mother Academia. When I first started thinking about what I could do next I came up with… nothing. Zilch. Nada. I know how to do embryonic dissections and make various chemical solutions. What possible good would those skills serve in the “real” world? I was, I concluded, likely unemployable as anything other than a postdoc. But I didn’t want to be a PI. And so I reached the internal conflict that so many postdocs encounter: we are single-mindedly trained for a mythical beast of a position and when we don’t attain that position, be it through choice or otherwise, we have no idea what else we can do.
Rather than fall into a pit of despair I’ve spent much of the last year educating myself about what else is out there and, more importantly, how utterly, awesomely qualified I am for it. Turns out, postdocs are super-employable. Not convinced? Here are Scizzle’s top skills that postdocs can bring to the table:
1) Research skills
There is a whole world of research outside of academia. And it usually pays way better. Whether your skills are clustered at the forefront of molecular biology, all in silico, or more about standing in rivers collecting insects, they will be highly prized by some employer out there. If you want to stay in research, there are many options: biotech, pharmaceutical, medical devices, government, the list goes on. You are very unlikely to be able to continue your exact current project (possibly a relief to some of us), so think laterally about how your skill set is applicable. You currently culture lung epithelium? Great, you are an expert on epithelial cell biology – cosmetic companies would love to have you in their skin lab. Your postdoc was all about the mouse immune system? Pharmaceutical companies would welcome your expertise in developing human monoclonal antibodies.
2) Project management
Postdocs know A LOT about project management; it’s something we do every day. We identify a question and then design a series of experiments to answer it. In planning our experiments we must take into account time, budget, and resources. As the project progresses we must react to failures or unexpected results by designing alternate strategies, again asking do these new plans answer the original question. Once we have data we analyze it and ask whether it answers the question and/or suggests new paths to follow. We often have a set deadline to achieve all this by (paper submission, lab meeting, conference). All in all, postdocs are project management bad asses. In the real world, this translates to being an attractive candidate for jobs as project managers in the pharmaceutical industry and also in many non-research environments.
3) Writing and communication
A common stereotype is that scientists are socially inept bad communicators. On the contrary, postdocs are communication polymaths. When you write a paper or grant you are taking your vast background knowledge and several years’ worth of data, and distilling it down into a concise summary of why the question is important, what you found, and what that means, usually for a reader outside of your niche. If you enjoy this process you may be ideal for employment at a medical communications agency. Perhaps what floats your boat is peer reviewing manuscripts, trying to decide whether a new finding adds to the field, and whether the authors really have shown what they say. If so, an editorial career could be in your future. Or maybe the biggest kick you get is presenting your work at conferences and then talking about it to anyone who’ll listen at the networking session. If you are adept at verbally communicating your science, particularly to a non-expert audience, you could thrive as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL). MSLs are experts in a field who interact with medical and academic professionals on behalf of a pharmaceutical company, conveying knowledge about a product to those involved with it.
4) Broad knowledge of science and the scientific process
If you are interested in science outside of your field – and are a good communicator – you may want to consider a career in science advocacy, policy, or diplomacy. Science advocacy entails relaying what scientists need, often to the government; science policy involves working on both policies that affect science and on how science shapes policies. On a more international scale, science diplomacy involves scientific collaboration between countries to solve a common problem (we’ve already discussed science diplomacy in depth – see here).
5) Ability to quickly assimilate new knowledge
One path taken by ex-postdocs is consultancy. A consultant may one week be asked to provide a solution to dwindling sales of a car, while the next advising a pharmaceutical company on why they should be switching gears to invest in biosimilars. Your postdoc wasn’t on cars or big pharma? Doesn’t matter. The key skill that you have is your ability to research a topic, assimilate the knowledge, critically evaluate it, and come up with new ideas relating to it. This is what consultants do. And they often get paid very handsomely for it.
6) Data analysis
All those hours spent processing and looking for patterns in your data have real-world value. Data scientists are in hot demand across a range of industries. And if you have coding skills to throw into the mix (particularly Python and R) then you’re even more attractive. If not, it’s never too late to learn – pick up Python online at Codecademy and R at DataCamp.
7) A sterling work ethic
NIH salary for a first year postdoc is $42,840, or $823.85 a week. I am not unique in having worked 12 hour days, seven days a week; a first year postdoc doing this will earn $9.81 an hour, a figure above the federal minimum wage ($7.25) but below the median wage at Costco ($13.14). While earning their $9.81 they will push themselves to get a seemingly hopeless experiment to work, all the while eschewing food, sleep, and normal human contact. Then, once the experiment finally fails they will go home to rest, perhaps cry, definitely eat some ice cream, and then come back again the next day to try something new. The capacity of the postdoc to work hard to achieve results on low pay, with little job security, and with no scope for promotion or financial reward is tremendous. Any employer would be lucky to have a postdoc join their ranks – don’t you forget it!
Want to know more about your next move? Do what you know best – research. Attend career panels at your institution, talk to ex-postdocs who’ve moved outside of academia, and set up job searches (for example on LinkedIn or Oystir) based on your skills – just to get an idea of what is out there. Then identify which skills need working on and gain experiences to improve these. An excellent use of your time would be to scoot over to the Independent Development Plan (IDP) website, where you can generate a list of science occupations you are most suited to, based on your answers to an extensive survey of your skills, interests, and values. Your personalized IDP then sets goals for the year, to help you on the way to your ideal career.