Professional development and career training has to include postdocs

By Arne Bakker for Beyond Academia

Earlier this year I attended the ‘What Can You Be with a PhD’ (WCUB) conference in New York. This biannual conference aims – like our own Beyond Academia conference – to expose graduate students and postdocs to non-academic career paths. I learned a lot about my own career options, but also got valuable insight into current professional development issues that PhDs are facing nationwide. One thing that particularly struck me was that almost every panelist I encountered had worked as a postdoc for several years after grad school before transitioning away from the bench.

An ideal world would see postdocs interested only in academia

In an ideal world every postdoctoral researcher (at least those working in the life sciences) is committed to pursue an academic career. The decision to continue working in a laboratory after finishing grad school should be fueled by a drive to build a career based on research, teaching and scientific mentoring at a university or college. In contrast, for those scientists that are interested in non-academic career paths, obtaining a PhD is the ideal moment to move from the academic environment into a different industry.

Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. While the postdoc institution as a whole used to be something specifically focused on training future PIs, this has definitely changed over the years and postdocs are increasingly interested in pursuing non-academic careers. Unfortunately many faculty haven’t made the same transition and still believe the only goal in supervising their postdocs is to prepare them for academic positions. There is not a lot of attention on the development of other professional skills. As the NIH report on the Biomedical Research Workforce puts it: “Although a postdoctoral fellow is considered a trainee, in many laboratories fellows receive little additional preparation for their future careers, even for those in academic research.”

Valid reasons for postdocs to look beyond academia

There are actually very valid reasons for postdocs to be interested in something other than tenure-track positions. In the first place, there are many more postdocs working at the bench than there are tenure track positions available. With an estimated postdoc workforce of 43,000-89,000, a sizeable portion of these scholars will switch career paths simply because they will not find a job at a university.

More importantly though, many graduate students don’t feel they are ready or have the necessary skills to move away from the lab environment after grad school. They either don’t know what options are available to them – something we are actively trying to change at Beyond Academia – or they have just been too busy with their PhD research to develop skills that make them competitive candidates for other options. Indeed, every single panelist at the WCUB conference indicated that the main reason for working as a postdoc was the fact that they needed to refocus after grad school and find out what career they really wanted to pursue. They simply weren’t ready yet when they got their PhD.

Additionally, in the current economy recruiters have the luxury to pick candidates that have postdoc experience, even when a job ‘only’ requires a PhD. I have spoken to several people in hiring position at non-profit organizations and they told me that they currently only consider postdocs for positions that require a PhD. Similarly, when you browse job postings for industry positions, they now frequently require ‘several years of postdoc experience’ despite traditionally being PhD-level jobs.

And finally, career goals can obviously change. A postdoc position is definitely different from being a graduate student. There generally is more independence and researchers usually have their first experience with (the often dreaded) grant writing.  Some postdocs simply realize that they enjoy supervised research more than independent science, or that they dislike grant writing so much that they decide to change their chosen career path.

Postdocs must be included in professional development initiatives

Whatever the reason, many postdocs indicate they want to be able to develop professional skills that prepare them for a variety of careers. For example, in a recent survey of postdocs at UC Berkeley by the VSPA 56% of respondents said they have an interest in moving into industry, while 69% said they wanted more training in job-search strategies. To quote the NIH report again: “postdoctoral researchers who do not go on to conduct research in an academic setting should receive training in the skills needed and information about other career options.“ This is something that is definitely not always embraced by the faculty that supervises postdocs.

Ideally, graduate students will obtain their PhD with a wide range of skill sets and clear goals that will allow them to choose between careers inside and outside of academia. Fortunately there have been a lot of initiatives to move towards this goal. For example, there is the “Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST)” grant initiative of the NIH that specifically aims to improve professional and career development for graduate students and postdocs. However, we have to realize that, for various reasons, a sizeable portion of the postdoc workforce will be interested in developing a broad range of professional skills that enables them to work in a variety of positions. Universities have a responsibility towards postdocs that goes beyond preparing them for the tenure-track positions. It is therefore extremely important that all professional development initiatives for PhDs that are currently being developed nationwide explicitly include postdocs as part of the target audience.

Arne Bakker is a co-organizer of the Beyond Academia conferences and a postdoc at UC Berkeley. He is also a board member of the Berkeley Postdoctoral Association, where he is tasked with career and professional development. He grew up in The Netherlands but now loves life in the Bay Area. Find Arne on LinkedIn