During these difficult times, are you ready to think about what can you change in your career exploration?
I’m a post doc researcher: now what?
After a 5-year postdoc in the United States, I decided to pursue a career away from the bench and return to my home country, Portugal. When I told my postdoc supervisor I wanted to continue a career in education and, career mentoring his answer was simply: “You’re crazy!” Don’t get me wrong; my postdoc supervisor was one of the greatest mentors I have had in my life so far. He was supportive, encouraging and gave me all the tools to be successful in the lab. However, I knew that I could not ask him for any help with networking outside academia; he was not aware of the specifics of this area, so this was too much to ask from him. As a result, I sought mentors in places wherever I found people working on the subject that interested me.
Consultant in Portugal
I arrived in Portugal 6 years ago and, since then, I have been an entrepreneur trying to put my consulting business off the ground. While doing so, I have been talking with a lot of startups and acceleration programs, but whenever I mention that I want to help bridge the gap between academics and the startups people often tell me: “Are you dealing with Academics? Good luck with that!” and just giggle. Yes, Portuguese CEOs need to be coached to accept highly qualified people as PhD holders. However, as scientists, we need to work to change this mentality “ that academics are difficult to work with”.
Opportunities for postdocs: landscape and prospects
The number of PhDs in life sciences (or in STEM areas – Science Technology Engineering and Math) is growing at a steady rate worldwide. The knowledge scientific research produces is of paramount importance for a developing society. As a member of the scientific community, it has been a privilege to work with some of the most creative and brightest people in the world.
When a student decides to pursue a PhD, he/she usually aspires to be a professor at a university. Yet, the number of PhDs awarded annually has been growing much faster than the number of faculty positions created each year. Schillebeeckx and colleagues compiled different studies from the National Science Foundation, and, after crossing and processing the hard data, they have shown that in the United States, there are seven times more PhDs awarded in science and engineering than there are newly available faculty positions. Thus, only about 25% of biomedical science PhD recipients are in tenure-track positions five years after earning their degree.
Restructuring PhD training: faculty positions shortage vs. postdoc abundance
As scientists, we are used to think systematically:
1. We observe a pattern, a trend
2. Is this trend a problem? Let’s collect data.
3. If, after analyzing the data, the answer is yes, we can say there is a problem.
4. Should we address it and, if so, why is it important to address it?
5. If we handle the issue because it is important, so let’s study the source of the problem.
6. After analyzing the cause(s), can we brainstorm together about possible solutions?
The research community has acknowledged the need for restructuring PhD training programs. There are International Recommendations to Research institutions (EU and USA reports1,4,5) to expand their curricula to be more interdisciplinary and entrepreneurial, and to provide more information about different career paths.
However, these recommendations are not always aligned with faculty interests, making it difficult to implement different strategies to address these issues.
Two approaches to PhD career strategy: the old days vs. nowadays
For instance, when I talk about career strategy to senior academics in life sciences, sometimes the reactions are something like this:
· Senior Academic X: “30 years ago, no one asked me for training in teaching nor in soft skills to get the job as Principal Investigator I have now; I just started doing it.”
· Senior Academic Y: “Students are worrying too much about soft skills and not talking enough about scientific issues. This is taking too much of the students’ time. Why don’t you organize retreats about science instead?”
We must understand that, when senior academics were searching for a university job, the situation was not as serious as it is today for junior scientists.
Top-down or bottom-up postdoc career moves?
These are some of the reasons I agree when Schillebeeckx and colleagues say that top-down approaches alone will not bring the needed change, as they fail to understand the role that graduate students and postdocs play in that transformation.
So as this study shows, with some successful examples, the approach should be bottom-up. I believe Master’s, PhD students, and Postdoctoral trainees should forge their own paths and take control regarding what they want in their community, and stop waiting for the solutions to come from their seniors.
Young academics in the Portuguese marketplace
Some might say: “This is all very nice, but in Portugal there are neither companies nor a market to integrate young academics.” Indeed, in Portugal we do not have enough Industry to incorporate all scientific researchers with a PhD. There is a lack of Research & Development (R&D) tradition in Portuguese companies and we, as a society, need to find solutions to this problem proactively.
Making it happen: leverage your postdoc and be strategic career wise
As a PhD holder you can’t change many things that influence the job market. On the other hand, there are things you can change.
Here’s what you can do to make the most of your postdoc and international research experience:
· Discover what really drives you
· Improve your transferable skills
· Show your skills effectively
· Research your own options and priorities – be specific and pin them down:
1. What are they exactly?
2. Do you want to stay in Portugal, no matter what?
3. Do you want to stay in Academia no matter what?
4. Do you really want to continue to do bench work?
· Actively build a strong supportive network to create new opportunities.
All of the above are crucial steps to make the transition to a post-academic career in core research areas such as Industry, Consultancy, Publishing, Data Science, Science Policy or Science Management.
Life sciences are out there for you to research and build your own path and career. Circumstances are not what they were years ago, but you don’t have to be their victim. The bottom line here is: as young academic and postdoc, be resilient, proactive and do not give up.
If you need help or if you want to know more about Ciência Clara training programs contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Schillebeeckx, M. et al. The missing piece to changing the university culture. Nat Biotech 31 10 (2013)
2. McCook, a. Nature 472, 280–282 (2011). Diversifying the training experiences of the biomedical research workforce.
3. Extramural Nexus, http:// nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2013/03/08/diversifying-the-training-experiences-of-the-biomedical-research-workforce/ (2013).
4. National Science Foundation. Science and Engineering Indicators 2012, Appendix Table 5–16. National Science Foundation (2012).
5. Fiegener, M. K. Doctorate recipients, Table 12. National Science Foundation (2011). Source: NSF/NIH/USED/USDA/NEH/NASA, Survey of Earned Doctorates
6. Europe Science Foundation (Pilot Project Report). Career Tracking of Doctorate Holders. 2015
7. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2014. doi:10.17226/18982.
I have been asked this question a few times so I decided to write a post about it:
“In the recent 5 years I see many students follow alternative career paths, since they don’t think they have achieved enough within a 3 year PhD studentship. What would be your tip on how to handle millennials?” (Lab Group Leader)
Here it goes what I think about this subject:
1) I believe there is a crisis in Academia regarding recognizing their Human Resources, PostDocs assignments are general low paid
2) In addition, funding is also a big problem and Universities are being influenced by big Pharma funding.
3) I believe science knowledge should be a goal by itself and I think this is a key message otherwise students only want to study something that will be applied soon after their PhD ( to secure a “job”) and this is very dangerous for fundamental research.
4) Millennials (and not only) want to have an impact very soon, want to find their true calling very soon, they are not aware these things take time; paciente and resilience – soft skills they lack:))
5) On the other side I believe academia needs a big reform (revolution) a) in the way it gets funding, b) in the way it deals with the students and postdoc fellowships/contracts, c) in the way it gives their researchers the support, mentoring, recognition and sense of belonging they need to pursue their work.
6) For me the big crisis in employment in Science Fields is related with the sense of purpose. Each research Institution should have at least 3-4 big offices: Funding/ Communication/ Advanced Training or Teaching center/Career office. These offices should support the Lab Group Leaders that already have a lot on their plate and sometimes need to be magicians to deal with many things they were not trained to do.
7) Below is a video about millennials and it deals with “the time you need to reach something that truly matters to you”.
8) Nevertheless if there are companies that give better job conditions to a doctorate than Academia, the argument that says that “doing science research is noble enough” is already outdated and we should all give Universities good tools to maintain their brains.
“Nowadays, everything you want you can have it instantaneously…. EXCEPT: a) JOB SATISFACTION b) STRENGTH OF RELATIONSHIPS, there is no app for that, they are slow, uncomfortable, messy processes. (…) What this generation needs to learn is patience… that things that really matter like love, job fulfilment, self confidence… all of these things TAKE TIME” (from: Simon Sinek)
It really depends on your country and on the demography. This answer requires strong social science research and, to my knowledge there are only a few studies on PhDs employment rate, mainly in America and EU.
The Atlantic published an article in 2014 following the unemployment of PhDs in USA..In the image below you can see unemployment rate distributed among the different areas of study.
Nevertheless, I think the unemployment rates are not only influenced by the field of study but they are also related with:
a) The fast growing of PhD holders and the lack of professor jobs in the Academia.
b) The lack of transferable skills training, and the lack of career support in the Universities Graduate Programs. These skills are essential for the transition of PhD holders to jobs outside academia.
Answer in Quora by Filipa P. Moraes, PhD:
- For Self-learning by books or by taking online courses you need to be very disciplined to set your own goals. Most people start very driven with an online course and after 2 weeks they have already dropped it. I believe the lack of accountability or the absence of a colleague doing the same course with you is a bummer for the majority of the students taking online courses.
- You have to know what is your “learning persona” do you think you learn better by reading, by visualizing, by building concept maps, by writing, by discussing and articulating what you learned, by drawing? There are different kind of learners and the teaching content and delivery should be designed to address all the learning types.
- If you take an online course make sure there is: a) evaluation/quiz so you are able to evaluate your learning progress, b) there is a network of people sharing their progress c) you have a course buddy for accountability. Some online courses have a social network group and peer learning feedback.
- University is not only a place to learn but is a social experience, you build relationships and you start to be involved in other side projects creating communities, these factors are crucial for the sense of purpose and belonging. In addition when your confidence levels are higher due to your social interactions, you learn better.
So it really depends on:
a) Your learning persona. How disciplined you are to follow a self paced course.
b) What is your country and what is the offer in terms of higher education
c) What stage of your life you are – are you a high school student? Are you retired? Are you working and don’t have time for university classes?
I was running late to this networking breakfast, organized by Tec Labs, where Diogo Felisberto was the guest presenting his work at Kaizen Institute. As a freelance consultant, working by myself, every opportunity to see people and to establish meaningful collaborations is chased and nurtured.
Don’t get me wrong; I need a great amount of alone time to develop training programs. At the moment, I’m running a career development program for Ph.D. students and Post-docs. In addition, I’ve been preparing weekly content for this 10-week scientific writing program I am providing to a group of Scientists at Hovione. I’m currently giving them tools for paper writing.
Putting out fires to avoid getting burned
As a result, every week I’ve been putting out fires, but, as Diogo told us this morning, good management and proper establishing of KPIs are there precisely to avoid having to be out there putting out fires on a regular basis; preventing fires should be the norm. His words resonated so much with me, his talk was so important that something clicked in my mind.
Kaizen, which literally means “change for the better,” is an inspiring method to improve productivity in a company. Although they used to work with large corporations only, they are now adapting their services to the problems of startups. I can’t wait to hear more from them, particularly because Diogo didn’t tell us which specific areas they will target, which kind of startups they will want to work with. Still, I got a lot of value in the hour I was listening to him. Actually, more value than if I had been studying on my own and reading FORBES papers about productivity.
High-value event for startups meets little turnout
Oddly enough, despite the high value of this event, there was little turnout from the startups present at breakfast. This made me think. What is the problem? Why don’t other startups jump at the opportunity of a breakfast network per se? Don’t they acknowledge their peers’ value? Don’t they believe in the power of synergies? Even more so, if we add the presence of people like Diogo explaining to us how we can be more productive and sharing good tips for better management… Is aiming for fast grow and improvement a hindrance to networking with our peers?
Startups Networking: prejudice vs. getting value for your time
I saw peers from the startups, incubated at Tec Labs and, like me they share similar problems. Sure, time is precious. For companies starting up, every hour is important. But thinking that spending one hour networking with your peers and with a high-value guest is a waste of time is, I believe, a completely out of date prejudice.
So many ideas, so few people to benefit from them: why?
After breakfast, I talked a bit with Bruno – Tec Labs project coordinator about this, because I was puzzled with the low turnout. Some of our questions danced in my mind as I left the venue.
Why startup founders dismiss networking events:
- Is it because this is a community of startups with scientists as founders?
- Is it because we are Portuguese?
- Is it because, in practical terms, we don’t see the value of this type of events?
Missing out on networking and collaboration opportunities: a big no-no
Not attending this kind of meetings, where peers and high-profile experts can listen to and learn from each other, is a problem because it can prevent inspiration and postpone development.
I hope in 10 years we have a study that can show us whether Portuguese startups can grow faster with collaborations or not. Despite the expansion of the Portuguese startup ecosystem, the extent of growth through collaboration remains unknown.
Startup founder, show up!
If you think collaborating and attending networking events on a regular basis is a waste of time, think again!
Networking – three reasons why all entrepreneurs should care: trust, funding, and development.
- We can have similar targets and clients love it when companies work together to provide them with the best service or to deliver the best product. By networking, you get more trust from the customer.
- We can apply for funding together. Following the status quo in Academia where different labs in different countries could collaborate to access financial support, we can join our ideas and our resources to apply for funding that otherwise we would not to be eligible to apply. Collaborate, and you may actually get the funds you need.
- Some of the other startups could be potential clients, so we could test our message, test how we communicate, how we can pitch our service or our product in a friendly environment where the error would be a great tool for fast learning and decision making. Network and you may evolve.
One of the things an incubator place as Tec Labs can give us is the feeling of being part of a community, this sense of community increases productivity, and thus it will improve the success of startups.
As a consultant starting my own business from scratch, I cannot stress enough how hungry I am for this kind of events, where I can learn with my peers.
We have this incredible opportunity to not act like old companies. Actually, these old-school corporations understood the value of collaboration and, at the moment, they are hiring consultants like Diogo to implement a collaborative culture inside their communities. If we really want to be innovative, we need to see networking with peers from a completely different perspective. By different I mean: “let’s grab this ‘networking space’ Bruno and Rita have set for us! Otherwise, in the future, we might lose it due to low participation.”
Not trying to attend networking events will cost you
One thing startups might not be aware of is the cost involved in not trying to attend networking events, not trying to be open to collaborations with their peers. As Martin Zwilling put it, effective collaboration is a necessity, not an accessory. This goes along with what many entrepreneurs are saying about the value of collaborations between startups.3,4 All things considered, the opportunity costs involved in not trying out a collaboration strategy are too high not to take them into account.
PS – Feel free to go through four must-read articles on this issue: