It’s been awhile since I have done a career guidance post. As my post-doctoral fellowship comes to an end I am greeted with the dilemma of what to pursue next. Many other Post-docs in this world I suppose will get to this point, where they are faced with the decision – to pursue another Post-doc/find a job in industry/find a job in government/have kids and be a stay-at-home dad or mum/pursue a complete career change/get that elusive PI (Principal Investigator) position/etc.
So what do you decide? Which is the best choice? Are you even in a position to choose?
The truth is for PhD holders/Post-docs in the field of biological sciences, there is a shortage of jobs, both in academia and industry. This article sums it up nicely: STEM crisis or STEM surplus? Yes and yes. In essence, in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), job availability differs between various fields. Although jobs are relatively easy to come by for certain STEM fields like computer sciences, petroleum engineering, materials sciences or nuclear energy, job shortages exists in other fields such as physics, astronomy, chemistry and biology.
For academia, this is especially true and for more STEM fields in general. The first graph in the article shows this pretty well – basically all STEM fields aside from perhaps Statistics are generating more PhD graduates than the number of tenure-track positions available to absorb them. You hear about this all the time of course, though some may still be oblivious. So listen up PhD newbies, 7.6% of PhD life science graduates go on to achieve tenure-track academic positions. I don’t mean to kill your academic dreams, but would it not be prudent to realistically evaluate your chances? Another thing I am still surprised to hear from current PhD students is the impression that academic Professors earn lots of money even when compared to industrial counterparts. Please refer to the second graph in this article.
But its not all doom and gloom, the biotech industry is rapidly growing. Exciting scientific discoveries in recent times – induced pluripotent stem cells, CRISPR-gene editing, next-generation sequencing, nanotechnology etc. – herald the coming of a new biotechnological age. And people with PhDs will be needed to drive this. A recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW) saw jobs in Massachusetts grow by a record 4.9% in 2014 (the highest since 2008) with about 2000 job listings per day on average. Even in Germany, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a report on the biotechnology sector indicating positive growth in employees (5.8%) and companies (1.6%) in 2014.
So how do you take advantage of this growing trend? How would one jump from being a Post-doc in academia for example to a well-paying job in industry? Here’s some key pointers that would help:
1. Stay updated – read lots!
It helps in any industry to keep updated with current trends. This not only makes you more knowledgeable and attractive to potential employers but also allows you to foresee opportunities that may affect your career decisions. Hard to find the time? I know, but hey, time is what you make of it!
This is a tricky one. Not everyone, me included, is the kind of person to attend networking events. But networking is essential to job finding. To me, networking is defined by investing time in building relationships. Some prefer to do this at large events, others like doing it one-on-one. Either way, doing so allows you to meet new people, form connections and provides opportunities for them to help you in your job search. LinkedIn is great for networking. Most people would not be averse to meeting up for a coffee and chat if you simply ask. Just make sure not to waste their time and pay attention to their interests – asking someone out for coffee to ask directly for a job is ill-advised. What you would want to do instead is to learn more about what they do, build good rapport, and ask for more connections that may help you in your job search.
3. Take a course
There are certain skills that are more in demand than others. Bioinformaticians for example are currently in great demand, so it would not hurt to take a course in computational methods for data analysis. If, for example, you are more interested in delving into a marketing/sales/business development/finance position, taking a course in these areas will not only allow you to learn more, it will arm you with skills that your desired job requires.
4. Try something new
You may find that research is not your cup of tea, but how do you even start to make the switch? And how will you be sure you will even like doing what you choose? The only way is to TRY IT. For example, I wanted to work in a start-up, and I was fortunate enough to find a Post-doc position in one. Of course, though I like research, I was interested in other things too like how a business is run, product development, marketing and so on. And this I volunteered to do at the company, which has turned out well so far and may lead to more opportunities down the road. But what if you are a Post-doc in academia? Well, there is a technology transfer office in every university, and several Post-docs work closely with them, some even transitioning to work in these offices. Whatever it is, finding a way to try something out gives you experience that will only help when you decide to do it seriously as a job. Sometimes you have to do it for free, sometimes you have to take a risk and quit your job to do it, either way, its better to TRY than to not have tried at all.
5. Promote yourself
This is hard to do for some, more easy for others. However, you HAVE to do it if you want that job! No one else will do it for you. Well some will do it if you ask them to e.g. friendly and helpful previous bosses and PhD supervisors. Continue to promote yourself even when you get the job, it helps you get promoted. Do not expect your boss to be aware of your great work, he’s busy with his own stuff. So highlight your achievements, mention this in your CV, enjoy the recognition, do not curse and mutter under your breath of being undervalued if you yourself are not bringing these achievements to light. A note of caution, in Germany, self-promotion can be seen negatively. So do not overdo it. In America though, everyone is self-promoting shamelessly, so be prepared to join in if you do not want to be drowned out!
Another issue, what if you are happy being a Post-doc? Can one stay a Post-doc forever? Although there are certain positions like Staff Scientist where one can enjoy the benefit of doing research without the bureaucracy of administration and grant application, these positions are hard to come by. Funding agencies find it hard to justify funding these positions if there are plenty of lower paid Post-docs willing to do the same work. Post-doc-ing long-term also means working on a contract basis, not especially stable if you want to start a family or buy a house. However you do find some places that provide good salaries and benefits for Post-docs. See a list of these top institutes here and a survey on post-doc salaries across the world in 2013 from The Scientist.