A doctorate — the highest level of education — is generally thought of as a launchpad for great career opportunities. Yet, a PhD hardly prepares one for jobs, says Pragati Agnihotri, a scientist in the American biotech corporation Advanced Bioscience Laboratories, Rockville, Maryland. Here are a few things she learnt first-hand that might offer guidance to future PhDs and postdocs in their career journeys.
My PhD was from the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow, India. Doing a PhD was an obvious option since I had little guidance on what jobs I could take up after a masters in biotechnology. PhD offered a decent fellowship for five years. Unlike the US, in India, no lab rotation and minimum interaction with scientists mean one has limited topics to chose from for a PhD.
I was lucky my supervisor let me study what interested me. Using limited resources, I spent the early years designing the experiment. For a structural biologist like myself, getting a protein crystal, a decent diffraction pattern, or a structure solution were considered the only cause for celebration. Later years saw me focus on data analysis and writing the paper, followed by postdoc applications. Results and publications were the only criteria for success. Life revolved around this.
However, many of us eventually chose careers beyond research. This trend was later highlighted by the Royal Society of Chemistry — only 3.5% of PhD holders get permanent research positions and a mere 0.45% make it to the level of professor.
In the US, after a PhD, scholars do myriad things beyond the conventional — they join reputed pharma companies, run their own blogs or explore entrepreneurship. Indian PhDs, however, stay in long postdocs. They realise later that despite impressive publications, it is difficult to get well-paying jobs in the land of opportunities without strong communication skills and network.
It takes years of effort, articles and career development guidance to learn the ropes of effective networking, efficient communication and tailoring one’s CV. Based on my experience, I shortlist here a few skills that might prepare future PhDs for better job opportunities.
Researchers need support from colleagues throughout their career — whether it’s for recommendations, job referrals, help for green card applications or troubleshooting experiments. During PhD, we somehow forget the importance of networking till we start our search for postdoctoral positions or for a job. In about five years of doctoral studies, we come across Principal Investigators (PIs), peers, alumni, application scientists, marketing people and multiple keynote speakers. That is one strong network to stay in contact with.
But we attend talks on specific fields. Nobody ever tells us we won’t necessarily end up working on the same topic, and that we need to know much beyond core subject areas. Also that PhD and postdoc are a transition phase and one still needs to choose a career after that.
During my PhD, I never felt the need to have an updated LinkedIn profile. The job search was frustrating because even after being an exact match in skills, there was no encouraging response.
Developing a LinkedIn network helped me improve my CV, it provided real-time vacancies and referrals. Joining professional associations and social media networks brought me in contact with people in the same boat. Though it is unreasonable to expect a job by simply networking, it provides helpful feedback. Thus, it is always beneficial to attend poster and mixer sessions, talk to speakers and stay in touch with peers.
Scientific Writing and Communication
Every PhD is a scientific writer but being proficient requires time and effort. “English needs improvement, take help of native speakers,” is a frequent reviewer’s comment on our manuscripts. Competent writing can save us long hours and improve the quality of publication. Courses and workshops on writing skills should be part of PhD coursework. There’s a lot of freely available material on EdEx, Coursera and LinkedIn Learning to improve writing. My personal favourite is “Writing in Sciences” by Dr. Kristin Sainani on Coursera.
Presentation skills are key. I have learnt there is much more to a good presentation than data and that presentation is a skill that can be learnt like all others.
Doctoral work is specific and rarely a perfect match with available jobs. However, there are multiple certifications that open up a plethora of career paths.
Project Management: If you are good at collaborative projects, this can be interesting. Certifications like PMP, Prince, CAPM can boost job prospects. Data is the most expensive resource. Automation of drug discovery or manufacturing is a big focus of innovative research.
Data Science: Expertise in biology and data science is a rare combination with a significant edge. If one is working on clinical samples or is interested in such jobs, certifications from CCRA, ACRP-CP, CCRC and CCDM can help find clinical jobs.
Regulatory Framework: Specialisation in regulatory affairs is an advantage for jobs in industrial and regulatory authorities such as FDA and FSSAI.
Patent Certification: Another career augmenting certification is studying patent law.
Science Writing: If one is good at conveying complex research to a range of audiences, professional writing skills and certifications are valuable additions to a PhD degree. Communication skills, mentoring experience, adaptability, critical thinking and management can take you a long way.
PhDs are experts at learning. Some direction regarding what to learn in addition to the highly specialized PhD topic is always useful. So, it’s worth broadening one’s horizon and to never stop learning.