Posted by Filipa on 8, March 2021

Post-Doctorate in the USA, Consultant in Portugal

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 filipa.moraes@cienciaclara.pt

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.

8. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/14/upshot/so-many-research-scientists-so-few-openings-as-professors.html?_r=0

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