Talking with friends and colleagues over the years about their (and my own) efforts to navigate a science career, has led to a list of things to think about what to do when heading on from your student or postdoc life. I hope it is helpful. It is by no means exhaustive, just a list of things that have consistently come up over the years for me and for my friends.
So, here are a few things to think about as you wade through those murky waters!
You’ve earned a Ph.D. and maybe even completed (or are in the process of completing) a postdoc. Now what?
If you are interested in academics, it is a rewarding career. It provides tremendous freedom and flexibility. You are essentially an owner of a small business. Therefore you are in control of all of it -- hiring, firing, management, marketing, generating money, billing, advertising, and everything/anything else you can think about.
Not everyone is interested in staying in academics. This is perfectly acceptable (in some ways more than fine!). Not all scientists like the lifestyle or want to live grant to grant. Academics is changing. Dramatically changing. To add to the lack of grant funding upheaval, there aren’t enough positions available. If you were like me or countless other Ph.D.’s looking at what to do with their careers, you were advised to “look into industry”.
So, what can you do with your extensive, specific, scientific training? As one PI told me once; with a Ph.D. you successfully train yourself out of practically every job.
1. Start early to plan your next move.
I didn’t really do this too extensively and really wish I had. It is important to get the skills and training you need while you are still in graduate school or in your postdoc position. Most of the research you will do to figure out your next step will be up to you.
If you are interested in an academic career, this applies to you as well. You need to make sure you have the right background and training to get a faculty position. You will need publications and (most likely) grants. You need to show that you are productive and fundable. Money is the name of the game, so be sure you can show you know how to get it. Be sure to have a mentor who will help make this happen. If this person is not the person you are working for, you need to find someone who will fill this role for you. It is essential. You will need someone to advocate on your behalf to help you get the faculty position. Without this person, you will not succeed in moving into a tenure-track job (if tenure-track will still exist).
If you want to leave the bench, you also need to start planning early. Since most people will not understand what you are doing or why you aren’t staying in academics, you cannot rely on too many people for help. That being said, your future is your own and you need to take very good care of its planning. Think about what your skills and strengths are to see what type of career is good for you. There are many advice columns and websites that can help you start looking for a career.
When you figure out what field you may be interested in pursuing, start networking. Say, for example, you are interested in science policy. Your training will not provide anything that will help you get this type of job, so you need to rectify this issue. If you have access to classes in policy, that’s a good place to start. You might also try to volunteer in your school government relations department. You might try to volunteer for a national organization. The point is that you need to establish your background in policy beyond just saying you are have an interest in policy. Volunteering or taking classes will help you meet people who work in these fields. They can advise you much better on what you need to do or who you need to meet.
Remember it is YOUR career. Don’t let anyone distract you from your goal. If you are in a situation that is not good for you, think seriously about whether or not it is beneficial for you to stay. Leaving a postdoc before you had planned (or even after you just started) to be in another lab that is a better fit for you may not be a bad plan. It will be uncomfortable for you to leave, but it would be worse to sabotage your career because you don’t want to have the conversation.
2. Be prepared for the outcome.
If you leave a position unexpectedly or approach your PI to say that this opportunity may not be right for you, be aware that you may be asked to leave. In the end, it will probably be a good move since you were looking to leave anyway, but just be aware of this possibility.
3. Network, network, network
You need to meet as many people as possible -- and I mean outside the lab and other researchers you hang around with normally. This takes effort and time, but will pay off in the end. Go to meetings and networking events outside of academic settings. There are networking events for professionals that take place all the time. Most networking organizations will allow you to attend a few meetings without joining up, so you can test drive it to see if it is the right fit for your needs.
Remember you are networking for professional reasons, not out making new friends. When you go to these, you need to have something to offer someone. You can’t just ask for help without lending a hand or help in some fashion.
Also, have your elevator speech ready. You will need to say what you want to accomplish or what you do in 10-30 seconds (the time it takes to ride up in an elevator). If you talk too long, no one will listen.
4. First impressions mean everything.
You will never have a second chance to make a first impression. You’ve heard this one before, but it’s true. Be ready and do your homework! If you don’t have your pitch together or don’t know what path you want to go on, that’s ok (it takes time to work it out) but be ready to answer questions intelligently and succinctly.
Also, if you don’t care about what you are doing or want to do, why should anyone else?
5. Keep an open mind
Since things don’t always work out according to plan, keep an open mind. Educating yourself is never a wasted cause. If you don’t pursue a specific career path, learning about it and meeting people involved in the field will not be useless. You don’t know when or how you’ll use the information.
6. Show up
Show up every day. Even if you decide to work from home, do something career related every day. Someone once said that 90% of life is just showing up. It’s true. By going to networking events and meeting new people, or going to seminar, or being sure to make it to class, showing up means a lot. People will remember you, even if they don’t know your name or what you do. If you are there, it counts. It helps to get yourself noticed, but that is another story for another time.
7. Bring something to the table
Never show up empty handed. It’s good advice for parties and its good advice for job/career hunting. You want a specific job, come up with ways that you can improve the company through working in that position. For example, you want to be the involved in scientific business development for a non-profit. What are some ways you could increase their business? Are there new avenues that have not yet been explored? Even if you don’t use these ideas or they don’t work out, you have provided your future employer with some insight into how you think (and that you are thinking). If they have thought of the idea, then great! You obviously are thinking up some good ideas.
8. Follow through
If you say you will provide something, then do so. If you tell someone you will let them know by a specific date, then do it. This is along the lines of showing up, it’s also good manners and it will help others remember who you are. If you establish yourself as the person who finishes the job when you say you will, it will create a lasting positive impression. Conversely, if you never provide what you say you will, when you say you will, this will make a very bad impression. Nothing spreads faster than bad news about someone.
9. Follow the directions
If you are asked to provide a research plan along with your cv, then do so. If you don’t you probably won’t be considered. Why should you make someone who you want to impress work at finding out about you? Make it easier for them (and let them know you can follow simple directions) by providing the information they want to see.
10. Feed forward
Help others out. If you take advice or help from someone, be sure to turn around and help someone else. They will appreciate it just as much as you did. It’s a good way to say thank you.
There is so much potential if you remain bench-side or go off into the world of industry. Be creative about your career, but also be thoughtful. Designing a new path can combine interesting fields that have not traditionally been combined before. You won’t lose anything by exploring new options -- you might even find something you really enjoy doing!