Traditional careers in academic science increasingly are recognized by many grad students and postdocs as being restrictive and problematic. Rather than drop out of science, many individuals escape the negative features of the traditional faculty job in academia by finding more satisfying positions permitting research and teaching of science to be continued long-term. Since this escape requires thinking new thoughts and a willingness to be unconventional, it is never easy.
Today’s dispatch covers an explicit and inspiring story of how one postdoc overcame these difficulties. A heartfelt biographical note by Dr. Matthew Tuthill describes how he found satisfaction and fun with both research and teaching at a somewhat unusual job position, after being progressively disheartened when pursuing the usual path to get a Ph.D. and advance up the academic ladder. His story emphasizes that hunting for a new science job in science is never hopeless!
A postdoc becomes dissatisfied!
Matthew Tuthill was following the traditional route for young researchers to obtain a job as a university scientist, but after several years researching as a postdoc he began to have serious doubts about his possibilities for landing long-term employment as a faculty scientist and getting research grant awards It was disheartening that the research grind was diminishing his interest for continuing to work at science. Many other postdocs today have exactly the same difficult feelings.
What to do?
He then made the difficult decision to abandon the stock academic path and try to find a new career that would better satisfy his ongoing enthusiasm for being a professional researcher. His choices widened when he looked at the work of his graduate school mentor, who had made important contributions to society by founding a Cord Blood Bank, and of a professor at a local 2-year college, who advanced student training in scientific research by involving them in the lab production of monoclonal antibodies.
He met with that professor, who worked at a 2-year community college, and came to see that the standard view about the limitations of working at such institutions is very wrong. Those realizations opened his mind to recognizing that there are some good science careers with research and teaching outside of big universities and medical schools. These opportunities had not been apparent earlier because they are wrongly considered unworthy for serious researchers; that realization emphasizes that job seekers must consider all possibilities for their job hunt (see: “Other Jobs for Scientists, Part I” , “Part II” , and “Part III” )!
A new job with both research and teaching opens up!
Dr. Tuthill then was appointed to a faculty position at the same “quiet junior college in the middle of the Pacific” (i.e., in Honolulu) . His employment involves both teaching science and scientific research, and provides the opportunity to help the young science students to develop personally and learn to conduct research. He states that “many of my research mentors and peers considered it career suicide” to work at a community college ; however, for certain individuals this unconventional choice really is a dream come true.
After 10 years of working in this small academic institution, Dr. Tuthill concludes that his job there has helped him grow as a dedicated academic and as a science mentor. His earlier dissatisfaction has been replaced by renewed enthusiasm for science and growing self-satisfaction for being an unconventional academic. Thus, there is a very happy ending to this story!
Lessons to be learned from Dr.Tuthill!
This true story nicely illustrates several directives that young scientists often overlook! (1) There are many jobs outside universities and medical schools that are open to Ph.D.s in science; some involve research and/or teaching, while others do not involve direct research (e.g., in advertising, finances, industries, law, media, sales, software, etc.). (2) The more you talk with other working scientists, the more you will learn about which unconventional job possibilities are available. (3) Always be open minded and think creatively when seeking a new job; sometimes you even can create your own new position. (4) Never give up your hunt, and, be open to unexpected and unconventional options. (5) Your final goal is to find a position that suits your abilities, your ambitions, your interests, and your skills; all individuals are different, so concentrate on finding a position that .will be good just for you!
I enthusiastically encourage all graduate students and postdocs to read Matthew Tuthill’s fascinating biographical story for themselves. “Making a difference, differently” is in a recent issue of Science (December 2, 2016, volume 354, page 1194), and is available on the internet at: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/354/6316/1194 . Good luck!
Postdoctoral training is intended to provide new Ph.D.s in science with advanced research experience under the guidance of a successful senior scientist. This typically lasts from 1-5 years, and results in an independent researcher with several research publications as first author. In response to the current difficulties with finding a job as a faculty scientist in academia [e.g., 1], questions are arising about whether this advanced research training as a Postdoc is necessary. The intriguing possibility that the years of postdoctoral research training are not needed is nicely described by Erika Check Hayden with a new article in Nature, “Young Scientists Ditch Postdocs for Biotech Start-ups” . Today’s dispatch looks critically at the pros and cons of skipping postdoctoral training by starting a small business where the new Ph.D. is the owner and chief researcher.
Is postdoctoral training in research absolutely necessary to be a good scientist?
Postdoctoral training has been regarded for a long time as an essential prerequisite to hold a faculty position in academia. However, many doctoral scientists working in industry have been hired without postdoctoral training, and went on to produce good research results; this is made practical by the facts that: (1) new research staff in industry usually receive a special intensive training period upon starting their new job, and (2) industrial research often involves working within a small or large team of co-researchers. If one looks only at doctoral scientists working in universities, some science faculty also can be found who were hired having no postdoctoral training (e.g., in departments of anatomy or computer science). Thus, the answer to this question clearly is ‘no’!
Why is postdoctoral training still deemed so essential for faculty scientists?
Postdoctoral research training is required in academia because new Ph.D. scientists need several qualities not provided by their graduate school education: (1) full independence as a researcher, (2) experienced judgment for designing and evaluating research experiments, (3) wide practical knowledge and experience with conducting research projects, getting results published, obtaining research grants, presenting reports at science meetings, dealing with bureaucrats and the public, (4) in depth knowledge in a science specialty, so teaching can be done with confidence, and, (5) understanding the business aspects of being a faculty scientist. New Ph.D. scientists generally only have limited expertise with a few research methods and approaches; being a postdoc greatly expands their hands-on experience, expertise, and critical judgment.
How will this new arrangement operate, and what will it lead to?
New Ph.D. scientists now can found a small business where they are the owner, chief executive officer, and principal researcher . First and foremost, this new career pathway requires one very determined individual with total commitment to making this unconventional activity succeed. Support funds for early stage financing must be found, and are available from start-up organizations, venture capitalists, and biotech incubators . Those associates not only provide money to get a lab furnished and staffed, but also give valuable advice about handling business concerns; that is particularly important since new science Ph.D.s usually have zero experience about business and financing. Lab space is available for rent or at some university-based incubator facility. Research technicians, managers, accountants, lawyers, etc., all can be hired as needed, and as funding permits. Some individuals already are doing this, thereby avoiding the need to spend more years as a postdoc before starting independent research .
The original aims of this new career path are to skip the postdoctoral period, yet immediately start doing research, receiving a good paycheck, and being an active part of science. After early stage financing is obtained, continuation of research depends on success of the business (i.e., generating profits, persuading investors to buy stock of the new company, outdoing commercial competitors, and having good luck). Ideally, some large industrial company will buy the promising small business and then take care of all financial matters. Note that being successful at research is not enough; one must also be successful at business! Industrial research is different from academic research, and industry accepts that business must direct their research activities!
What problems will this new career path face?
Many non-science problems can arise in any small business, particularly with development of new commercial products, marketing and advertising, and increasing sales. I know of one young doctoral physicist who formed a small service business with several colleagues over 30 years ago; his venture collapsed when alternative methods developed that were less expensive. At some large industrial labs, there are quite a few graphic stories where company administrators suddenly cancelled an entire large research project for business reasons; if this arises within small research companies, then everything stops.
Thoughts about business and science!
Businesses exist to make financial profits. Scientific research exists to find new knowledge and to test the truth. These 2 are fundamentally different! Although science at universities conducts basic and applied research as part of its traditional mission, today academic research increasingly is just amother business entity where money is everything, and faculty scientists are hired to increase their academic employer’s profits by getting research grants. Hence, many faculty scientists researching in academic institutions already have merged their science with a business! The destructive problems in academic research will recur within new small research businesses!
A fusion of business with scientific research seems to me to be full of difficult problems. Success will not be easy! The new article by Hayden explicitly states, “Most young biotech firms fail” , but does not identify the causes. I feel that the chief cause is the inherent conflict between science and business. Ex-Postdocs can either seek the truth or they can seek money!
Some brief discussion!
In my opinion, deserting the postdoctoral experience altogether is not a good answer to solving current problems for postdocs. I suggest and urge young postdoctoral scientists who are dissatisfied or feel trapped to: (1) devote much more attention to seeking good science-related openings outside academia (see: “Postdocs in 2016 Need to be More Clever, Not More Angry!” ), (2) recognize the basic purposes of science and of business, and, (3) closely inspect what is displayed in the incredible photo in Hayden’s article , showing the courageous young and eager biotech scientist, Dr. Ethan Perlstein, standing alone inside his empty business “laboratory”!
Fusion of scientific research with a small business might work for certain new science Ph.D.s, but that is not a general possibility. The result could be exchanging one problem for others!
By producing new research publications in science journals, postdoctoral fellows try to grow their reputation as active young scientists full of promise (see: “Postdocs, Part 2” ). Postdoctoral researchers also typically solidify their identity with a given field of science. One or more postdoctoral training periods usually are followed by acquisition of professional employment in universities, medical schools, industries, science-related organizations, new small businesses, etc.
This article is only for postdocs! It uses a question and answer format to offer my advice about some common problematic situations faced by postdocs in any area of science. This advice is based upon my own experiences and observations during 2 postdoctoral appointments, and later as a faculty researcher and teacher. I hope all of this will prove interesting and useful to you!
What practical accomplishments should I work for as a Postdoc?
Number one is to make research discoveries of importance, so that you will be first author of publications in major science journals. Number 2 is to expand your technical expertise with research instruments, experimental approaches, and, subjects being investigated (e.g., other minerals, other stars, other life forms, other bases for chemical synthesis, etc.). Number 3 is to make yourself known to leaders in your chosen research field; this often will provide more opportunities later when you are seeking a job opening, a collaborator, or, advice and counsel. All of these will help establish your identity and reputation as a professional scientist.
How can I work on my own special subject of interest as a postdoc?
This common question is misplaced, since you should have settled this before accepting any appointment as a postdoctoral fellow (see “Postdocs, Part 2” ). Once your position starts, your options are limited because you then are obligated to work on the research project(s) of your chosen mentor. Recognize that all the skills and experience you acquire now with any research operations can be used sometime later to examine your own favorite research subjects.
Should I work only on a single research project as a postdoc?
If your mentor approves, you can work on other projects, too, if they do not interfere with your primary research objective. For example, you might contribute your expertise with some research instrument to the project of a fellow postdoc who does not know how to operate that, but needs the data. These internal collaborations are a good way to get some extra publications and to increase your range of research experience. But, remember what your chief effort always must be given to!
How can I, as a young postdoctoral researcher, get noticed by other scientists?
You must take the lead! The number one way to get noticed is to publish important results of your research in good science journals; quality always gets noticed, and speaks for itself. You should present research results every year at science meetings. At meetings, you can invite a few selected scientists to come and look at your poster; if they have given an invited talk, find them and ask one or 2 well-phrased questions about their research. Another good request is to ask for permission to show one of their published figures during your presentation of an abstract at a science meeting.
Should I take a second or third postdoctoral position?
If you are committed to finding employment as a research scientist, but no suitable job openings are available, then the answer is “yes”. With an additional postdoctoral period, you then will be able to continue doing research and will gain additional publications. However, if you have not found a job because you are out-competed by other job seekers, you should look for additional training at another postdoctoral position so that will fill in your weak area(s). There is nothing wrong with working as a postdoc for some longer time, provided you are not used as a technician or a slave. If you can find a suitable mentor who values your work, has research interests like yours, and is well-funded, this can be eminently satisfactory; as a “Research Associate”, your salary will advance, you will publish as first author, and you will not need to worry about getting research grants.
How can I learn about good job openings?
As the saying goes, “Read Science (magazine) backwards!”. Study all their listed jobs every week, so that you can discern who is offering jobs, what types of positions are available, and which job opportunities and requirements are prominent with different fields and different kinds of employers; there also are several other good sites listing science job openings on the web. Annual meetings of science societies often have a job center listing current openings; in some cases, interviews are conducted at these meetings. Let a few of your professional contacts (e.g., scientists familiar with your work, your former thesis advisor, members of your thesis committee, external collaborators, etc.) know that you are actively looking for a position; not all jobs are advertised, and your associates might bring a few of those to your attention.
What is most valuable in a postdoc’s curriculum vitae (c.v.) for landing a good job?
Number one is peer-reviewed publications of your important research results. Number 2 is how many research methods and instruments you have used and mastered. Having given some guest lectures in a course could help in getting a university faculty job. Attending advanced technical workshops can be a plus. Applying for a patent, receiving a postdoctoral grant, or giving invited seminars always is impressive. Customize your c.v. for each open position (i.e., an application for a university job is quite different from an application submitted for a job at an industrial R&D center).
What should I present for my job seminar?
Present something that is interesting, very solid science, and not too controversial. Include some results that are not yet published, and be absolutely certain to leave at least 10 minutes for questions from the audience before your scheduled time limit is over. Remember that your audience must be able to comprehend everything you say, and must see exactly how you and your research will fit into their local activities (i.e., not all employers want to hire a super hot dog researcher!).
How do I find out about the research grant system?
First, ask your postdoctoral mentor and other local research grant holders to advise you about their strategy for meriting an award. If your mentor reviews grant applications, request that you will be allowed to read one of them and then to also read their critique. Second, carefully study the detailed instructions for writing a grant application put out by the several different federal granting agencies. Third, if and when you feel up to it, spend one month to compose a practice grant application; ask your mentor to criticize it, and you then will learn very much that you now do not know! Lastly, study my recent article on “Unasked Questions about Research Grants for Science, and My Answers!” .
Why will I later have to spend so very much time with research grant applications? I want to work on research, not on shuffling papers!
After my first postdoctoral job, I have decided that I will not work in a university. I want a science-related job in business. How should I apply for such?
My best suggestion is for you to seek advice on good approaches from one or more scientists having exactly such a position. Be rigorous in checking out all possible employers, and note who has been hired recently. Before your interview, get facts and figures about each business, and then adapt your c.v. or resume to the specific company or opening. Try to construct a few ideas whereby your science and research training will help them with their business activities and objectives. Be aware that many large companies have an initial training period when the new employee is fully instructed about their business and the employee’s role(s).
For many university scientists, their postdoctoral years were the best and most exciting in their entire career. Work hard and enjoy it!
This second part of a pair of articles about Postdocs is intended specifically for graduate students and current Postdocs.It presents useful advice and information about how to be a successful Postdoc and how to maximize your rewards for doing lots of good research work.This part differs enormously from the introductory first part, which is intended to be informative and interesting to general readers (see “All About Postdocs, Part I: What are Postdocs, and What do they Do?” in the Basic Introductions category).
Quite a few practicing scientists working in universities or industries will readily admit that their earlier time as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow was amazingly important for their career, and actually was very much fun (see my recent article in the Scientists category on “What is the Fun of Being a Scientist?”)!Any Postdoc must work very hard, but this effort will be recognized later as having been a sublime chance to do really good research, because there were not yet any of the usual job worries about grants, teaching responsibilities, or bureaucratic intrusions.
How Do You Decide What to Work on as a Postdoc?
A very big question for graduate students finishing their thesis project involves asking themselves who they should work with as a Postdoc, in order to become an expert researcher in some field of special interest?In turn, new Postdocs ask themselves a corresponding question, about exactly what they should work on?Both questions are important, and really are the same in the practical sense.Ideally, graduate students should find their new home as a Postdoc according to what kind of scientist they want to become; similarly, Postdocs should work on some research project which has their personal interest and will prepare them to become a professional expert researcher in that area of science.The reason these 2 questions are equivalent is that all research activity in modern universities is determined by research grant awards (see my earlier article in the Money & Grants category on “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities”).Hence, postdoctoral research opportunities directly depend on the research plans approved and funded by those grant(s) held by the Postdoctoral Mentor; this successful scientist often is famous, and will be your teacher, supervisor, supporter, and guide during your period of postdoctoral work.The Mentor’s obligations to their research grant(s) automatically either define or circumscribe what any new Postdoc in their lab can work on.
The Mentor might even explicitly assign a research topic to their new Postdoc, along with indications about which methodologies will be used.The extreme example of this scenario is where some extremely famous and very long-funded senior scientist greets their new Postdoc and then goes over to a giant map displayed upon a wall; together, they look at the large branching tree-like diagram where an entire lifetime of connected research studies is depicted, along with the names of previous graduate students and Postdocs who have worked on each of the many small branches.The supervisor then informs the Postdoc which of the next steps is their assignment.At the other extreme, a Mentor might give the new Postdoc vastly more freedom, and state that anything is okay so long as their new lab investigations are within the scope of the Mentor’s research grant; of course, the Postdoc’s designs for new experiments should be submitted for review and criticism by this Mentor before anything begins at the laboratory bench.Most new Postdocs will find their situation to be somewhere between these 2 extremes.It is best not to get emotional about any restrictions or mandates, since a large part of the goal for all Postdocs is to learn many new and different research approaches; even any directed work will fulfill this goal nicely.
Graduate students should recognize that advertisements (e.g., in each issue of the journals, Science and Nature) inviting applications for open postdoctoral positions almost always state a particular research subject or domain, meaning that there will not be any completely open choice for what will be investigated.As an example of this situation, assume that you are a new Postdoc coming to work with a Professor in a Department of Materials Science.This Mentor is a well-known expert on dynamical aspects of self-ordering chemical polymers, and has a research grant involving experimental studies of one class of organic polymers.It would be extremely unlikely that this Postdoctoral Mentor would or even could let you concentrate of working with either inorganic polymers or organic crystallography.However, this same Mentor might acquiesce to your having a small (5-10% effort) exploratory project in those areas, provided that such will be done in addition to your large (90-95% effort) main project dealing with self-ordering organic chemical polymers; the rationale for accepting this new aspect would be that the additional exploration could serve to expand the capabilities of the lab’s research operations and the scope of a future grant application.Despite any anxiety about priorities, Postdocs should never hesitate to discuss their ideas for new experiments with their Mentor; this will produce useful criticism from the Mentor’s longer experience.Postdoctoral Mentors are your research partners, and almost always are eager to discuss new ideas and science questions from their postdoctoral associates.
In general, it is a good idea for Postdocs to work on several projects and to also participate in some joint effort(s) with other researchers in the same lab.This will make the Postdoctoral Fellow more valuable, and provide them with more publications.Regardless of what you work on, it is important to start realizing that the clock is always ticking, and you are expected to produce good publications and abstracts from the beginning of your postdoctoral period.Presenting an abstract about your thesis research at a science meeting will be okay only if you also give a second abstract about recent results from your postdoctoral project.
What is Expected of All Postdocs?What should Postdocs Actually Learn?
Young scientists can think of the postdoctoral experience as a chance to show what they can do in the research laboratory, and, as an opportunity to learn how to do much, much more.All Postdoctoral Fellows need to produce good research results of publishable quality from their hands-on experimental investigations.Postdocs must dive right in and produce good results within their first year of work.This means that there are very different time limits than were present during the period of graduate studies leading to a doctoral degree (i.e., many graduate schools set a time limit of 7-10 years for a thesis to be completed and defended successfully).The message here is that since Postdocs have to produce publishable results, there is no time to waste any time!
Postdocs can not push things into the future (e.g., “I want to learn this new method, but I do not have enough free time to do that now”).Instead, they simply must accomplish that and do it right away.It is a very poor idea to take up postdoctoral time to finish publishing their Ph.D. thesis research; some Mentors even will refuse to accept any recent graduate for work as a Postdoc in their lab unless that person already has finished publishing their thesis results.Thus, the work and time schedules of Postdocs typically are very much more intense than was the case for their thesis research in graduate school.
In addition to enlarging their expertise with new kinds of lab experiments, Postdocs should also seek to learn many other important new skills.In science, these will include large expansions of knowledge, research capabilities, problem solving, critical judgment about experiments and data interpretations, and the organization of scientific investigations.Postdocs also will learn much outside the laboratory, including how to construct applications for research grants, criticize the published output of both other scientists and themselves, deal with business and regulations, handle the resolution of problems and disputes, and, manage time and money.Some of this will be accomplished simply by doing and observing, but other aspects necessitate requesting time with the Mentor for personal instruction.Various philosophical and practical issues for being a successful modern scientist commonly are encountered by Postdocs; these include how to avoid wasting time or money, be able to say either “No!” or “No thank you”, correctly evaluate priorities and decide what is possible now and what should be put off until later, evaluate and judge the output and capabilities of other lab workers, learn the importance of always adhering to professional ethical standards (see my earlier article in the Big Problems category on “Why is it so Very Difficult to Eliminate Fraud and Corruption in Scientists?”), plan ahead for hours, days, weeks, months, and years, etc., etc.
How are Postdocs Evaluated?
Evaluation of the quality, progress, and success of Postdoctoral Fellows traditionally is done by scoring the number and importance of their research publications, and, by inspecting where they are able to later find employment.Being a good Postdoc will be a big help for you in both aspects, and later will aid you in meriting research grant awards.The Postdoctoral Mentor also benefits notably from your level of success with researching and publishing.
Graduate students are not always clear about the differences between their graduate thesis research and their postdoctoral work.There are major differences in the number of experimental studies conducted, the number of other lab personnel working with you, the types of research instruments and experimental approaches utilized, and, the speed with which progress must advance.Here, I will limit myself to explaining the key paradigm of “promise versus performance”, when used as a yardstick.A typical doctoral graduate in science has acquired basic knowledge, some advanced skills, a thesis, and some small number of research publications.Most of this initial performance (i.e., What has this student already done?) barely registers in the domain of promise (i.e., What can this young scientist do in the future?).During the subsequent postdoctoral period, the young professional develops more and more performance through their new research findings, new publications, new advanced skills, new levels of expertise, and a growing reputation as a researcher; as a consequence of that, their promise also increases dramatically during the postdoctoral period.When Postdocs later will be considered for their first real job position, they often are viewed as having advanced to reach a level of around 25% performance and 75% promise.In universities, after new faculty appointees have acquired research grants, achieved more good publications, shown that they are successful in teaching courses, and given evidence of their good independent judgment, their reputation and status will advance so they are valued about equally for both performance and promise (i.e., continued success in the future).The chief message here is that the postdoctoral period should produce large increases in both performance and promise.
Working withYour Postdoctoral Mentor
For all Postdocs, the Postdoctoral Mentor is your teacher, supervisor, and coworker.The main job of a Postdoctoral Mentor is to guide you to become a successful professional scientist.Ideally, this Mentor will be a scientist who has your admiration, conducts studies that fascinate you, always impresses you by their expertise, is someone with whom you can communicate well, and serves as a model for exactly what kind of professional scientist you would like to become.The Mentor even can become your friend!Picking a good Postdoctoral Mentor thus has several big consequences for your career in science.The choice of a Mentor often is finalized in coordination with your selection of where you will work as a Postdoc and afterwards (i.e., industry or university, research institute or hospital, domestic or international location, big or small institution, large or small lab, etc.).
Both your thesis advisor and your Postdoctoral Mentor play important roles for your future life as a scientist, and both deserve your respect and gratitude for their efforts on your behalf.Both can serve as your main role model for being a professional scientist.But, they also have some significant differences.The thesis advisor typically regards you as a student colleague, while the postdoctoral mentor looks at you as a collaborator and coworker for their research project(s).Hence, the latter often interacts with you in a more flexible way than is the case with the former.You will not often openly disagree with your thesis advisor, but it usually is much easier to disagree and challenge your Postdoctoral Mentor.This becomes particularly important when you are discussing exactly what experiments to work on and how to conduct them; there can be much more give and take with your Mentor as your co-worker in research.
Concluding Remarks for GraduateStudents and Present Postdocs
Developing your professional reputation as a researcher in science often depends mainly upon what you have done as a Postdoc.Regardless of what area you work in, your job as a Postdoctoral Fellow is to become an expert scientist, to produce excellent research results, and, to publish important research reports.For many successful professional scientists, the postdoctoral experience is seen many years later as one of the most creative and productive portions of their entire career.
Make the best of your research work and time as a Postdoc!Dr.M wishes you much good luck with everything!