A postdoc sets you up for a variety of careers, including academia, editing, working in industry, core laboratories and more.
The obvious path for many people doing a postdoc is to look for a more permanent academic position as a tenure-track professor. But it isn’t the only one! There are plenty of other things a postdoc can do. Here are just a few examples.
For those who have the want, determination, and, let’s face it, a bit of luck, working as an academic professor can be worth the battle. Dr Esther Bullitt is currently going through her application to become a tenure-track professor. “There were biological questions that I wanted to pursue, and having the independence to do so was absolutely compelling,” she says. One of the challenges that she faces in her application is to make sure that she stands out from the rest of the crowd. “There are many excellent scientists working on many interesting questions, so you need to demonstrate a broad set of skills that go beyond a great project and a well-developed plan for the science.” To be promoted to professor, Bullitt says that postdocs need a well-documented track record in: funding; publishing your research; being nationally and internationally recognized as an expert in your field; giving invited seminars; teaching; university committee work. “Probably in about that order,” she adds.
If this doesn’t sound appealing, there are alternatives in academia to becoming a PI or professor. In a core facility, a centralized technology-based laboratory, scientists can maintain and support sophisticated equipment for use by their host institution’s researchers and often by external customers, too. An interest and background in working with technology will help get you a position in such a lab. Many academia-based core facilities offer training to customers, allowing them to use the equipment themselves. Gerd Prehna the associate director of the Center for Structural Biology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, makes an agreement with academics that wish to use the equipment that in return for becoming a co-author on the paper, he offers training to the academic staff to use the core equipment. “It’s a training formula that we have here, and it works very well.”
Scientists working in core labs don’t have to worry so much about the pressures facing PIs – finding funding and publishing papers – but working in a core laboratory doesn’t mean you will stop doing your own research. Prehna works together with researchers at his institution to create partnerships. “On the academic side I’m a research assistant professor in the microbiology department,” he says. “When you’re a research assistant professor, you can write grants but you’re not a tenure track. So you can climb to associate and full professor that way too in a department but not get tenure.” Core facilities also operate in industry, but as for-profit services, unlike those in academia, says Patrick Descombes, core director at Nestle. “We tend to work more like a service provider,” he says. “We don’t give customers the freedom to come and use the instruments because it takes too long and costs too much.”
Another career track in academia is to work as a staff scientist, which might seem like an attractive option for postdocs that don’t want to worry about chasing research grants and running a laboratory. The SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in the USA offers a determined career track for those looking to work as staff scientists. They would work on developing theories, conducting research and devising methods to apply to scientific principles. All levels of staff scientist (Associate staff scientist, staff scientist, senior staff scientist and distinguished staff scientist) require a PhD or its equivalent in a relevant scientific discipline. Uwe Bergmann was part of the committee that put this career structure together and has also followed it since receiving his PhD. “Your job is to run and manage an instrument, but also to spend about 50% of your time on research, which in the ideal case, is related to the instrument that you are running,” says Bergmann.
Those interested in becoming staff scientists, core directors or data scientists can now apply for a K05 “research specialist grant” from the NCI, which offers to cover 100% of the salary of candidates sponsored by a PI and their institution. The 5 year award can also be taken from one institution to another, if the grant holder moves.
But for those postdocs who aren’t interested in staying in academia, there are plenty of other options.
After completing her PhD in 1992, Nessa Carey purposefully decided to move to a different institution for her postdoc. A combination of new PhD students and a traveling supervisor meant that it was an opportunity for Carey to step up her game and expand her responsibilities. “In some ways it played havoc with my publications, because I couldn’t focus on “my” research as much, but I learnt a lot of other skills,” says Carey. “It also meant I was seen by other people in the medical school as someone who could and would do more than was usual for a postdoc, and that’s what got me an academic appointment.” But Carey decided to leave academia to work in industry.
After her full-time academic appointment, Carey left academia to become the senior director at Pfizer. In 2014, she moved away from Pfizer to become International Director at PraxisUnico. Having worked in industry for more than 10 years, Carey advises that if you’re thinking of moving into industry, “try to do that as soon as possible, simply because the first job is the hardest to get.” But if you want to do a postdoc, make sure you are able to show that you have new skills and expertise at the end of it.
If you know you want to work in industry, choose your connections well. “Try to choose a supervisor who collaborates with industry,” says Carey, “or a project that is part of a collaboration or somewhere they will have the chance to take part in an exchange with an industrial lab.”
Bronwyn Wake left academia in January 2012 after one postdoc because it “was very narrowly focused and I felt frustrated with the lack of progress I was making.” Two weeks later, she started working as an editor at Nature Climate Change (NCC). “I think the skills from my PhD and postdoc, such as interacting with scientists from various disciplines, how to distil the key points of an article, multitasking, have been useful in editorial.” She got the job by speaking to one of the presenters at the 2011 Naturejobs Career Expo in London. Richard van Noorden was speaking about science writing and editing, briefly touching on manuscript editing. “I followed up with him at the end of his talk and he put me in contact with Karl Ziemelis, who very kindly spared me an hour of his time to chat on the phone about manuscript editing. This convinced me that it was something I’d like to aim for and luckily an opportunity came up at NCC.”
Teaching is another role that benefits from a background in academia. Dr Thomas Weller is a physics teacher at St Paul’s School for boys in London. He completed his first postdoc at STFC in the UK and then went to Harvard to do his second. “I was always praised for the clarity of my presentation and explanations, and I enjoy explaining things,” he says. “I tried science parties for party time work and loved it.” His background as a postdoc made sure that he had a thorough understanding of the process of science, a deep knowledge of the subject and how to understand more when knowledge is yet to be met. This all feeds into the way he teaches at school.
Unfortunately it is impossible for me to list all the possible career options that postdoc researchers have, because they are unlimited. What you need to remember though, when looking for what’s up next, is to really think about what it is you love doing. There is no point at all in doing something that doesn’t make you feel good in the mornings. Choose to spend your time doing things that you enjoy—science, family time, running, baking, whatever it is that floats your boat. But for those who aren’t sure, there are plenty of places to look for help. This is what we’ll look at in the next part of this series.
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