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SOME Q&A JUST FOR POSTDOCTORAL RESEARCH FELLOWS IN SCIENCE!

 

Look!  I'm Getting Paid to have Fun Doing Research!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Postdocs are Paid to have Lots of Fun Doing Research!!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

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! 

The short answer is that science faculty in academia need to obtain money for their research expenses, and research grants are the traditional way to get that.  What makes this much more difficult nowadays is the intense hyper-competition for getting research grant awards (see: “All About Today’s Hyper-competition for Research Grants” ); every scientist is competing with all other scientists, and everything in a career as a university scientist depends upon getting and staying funded.  Recognize clearly that as a university scientist you also will be a business person (see: “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities “ , and, “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” )! 

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). 

Concluding remarks. 

For many university scientists, their postdoctoral years were the best and most exciting in their entire career.  Work hard and enjoy it! 

 

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OTHER JOBS FOR SCIENTISTS, PART II: RESEARCH JOBS IN INDUSTRY OR GOVERNMENT LABS

Many Jobs are Available for Doctoral Scientists  (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Many Jobs now are Available for Doctoral Scientists   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Commercial industries now employ a very large number of doctoral scientists for their research and development efforts.  The annual total money spent on scientific research and development by all USA industries was almost 300 billion dollars in 2011 [1].  Very large research facilities established and run by the federal government also employ very many doctoral researchers from all branches of science.  New science Ph.D.’s and Postdocs who are seeking their first employment should have a clear understanding of the fundamental differences between researching in industry vs. academia, and in government research centers vs. universities.  These distinctions are discussed in this Part II discourse.

Researching in industrial research and development centers

The goal of industrial research operations usually is to build a new product or to improve some existing commercial offering or process, thereby increasing the profits of that company.  Experimental research areas at each center are highly focused and are selected with regard to their commercial products and activities; they do not involve any wide array of topics.  Company research programs not only provide salaries and benefits, but also furnish money for all equipment, supplies, and other expenses needed in their laboratories.  Provisions for compliance with regulations, environmental protection, health, legal issues and patents, maintenance of facilities, safety and security, waste disposal, etc., usually are done in-house or via contracts with outside operators.  Decisions about key questions for researchers such as what will be investigated, how the experiments will be conducted, how much time can be spent collecting data, who will work on what aspects in the team research effort, when something needs to be patented, and, when a project is completed or must be stopped, all are reviewed and made by research officials and/or company directors.  There is much more emphasis in industrial science operations on obtaining patents, and less pushing for published research reports, than is found at universities.

When university faculty scientists look at industrial research workers, their eyes usually open very widely since some aspects definitely are utterly wonderful (i.e., better salaries and benefits, laboratories with the latest research equipment and a full range of supplies, teams of good coworkers and research assistants, interactions with stable collaborative groups, and, absence of the need to apply for research grants).  On the other hand, this excellent working environment is accompanied by certain problematic aspects; these include that research projects can be stopped by administrative decision, a research worker can be transferred out of a project and inserted into another study at any time, and, some traditional parts of research freedom are missing or restricted (e.g., opportunities to work on a subject of one’s own choosing).  Each company has a different culture and some particular distinctions, so individual young job candidates must always carefully evaluate the respective positive and negative features involved locally.  If an industrial research center needs a doctoral worker in exactly the same area as the researcher’s own personal interest, then that employment can be very wonderful.  Those biomedical and physical research scientists working in industrial laboratories that I have met all seemed very satisfied with their professional careers.

An outspoken essay by Julio Peironcely for new science job seekers recently has appeared on the Next Scientist website and deals with how to find employment in industrial research and development centers (Peironcely, J., 2013.  Leaving academia: How to get a job in industry after your PhD.  Next Scientist, Helping PhD Students Succeed (April, 2013).  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nextscientist.com/job-in-industry-after-your-phd/ ).  This article is very illuminating and provocative, and is highly recommended by Dr.M for all job candidates.

Working in government laboratories and national/regional research facilities

The USA federal government sponsors and supports its own national centers and special facilities for research (e.g., Argonne National laboratory (Argonne, Illinois), Brookhaven National Laboratory (Upton, New York), National Center for Electron Microscopy (Berkeley, California), Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (Richland, Washington), Sandia National Laboratory (Albuquerque, New Mexico), etc.).  The research direction at each of these operations is related to the targets of their governmental sponsor and funding source (e.g., Agricultural Research Service [2], Communicable Diseases Center [3], Department of Energy [4], National Institutes of Health [5], etc.).  Much additional information about all governmental labs, their current research operations, and their different sponsoring federal agencies is available on the internet.  Government labs all are large operations and often participate in “big science” (i.e., working with unique research instrumentation costing millions or billions of dollars); most have valuable programs enabling use of these special facilities by visiting research scientists.

When compared to university research operations, the labs at government research laboratories have many similarities.  The government research centers, just like universities, have huge bureaucracies, very many rules and regulations affecting all research workers, and, all sorts of administrative reviews that gauge research progress.  Doctoral science employees often have job titles and ranks analogous to those at universities.  Both reports in science journals and patents are valued at the government research centers. Amazing wastage of money is easily evident in laboratory operations at both government research centers and universities (see my earlier article in the Money&Grants category on “Wastage of Research Grant Money in Modern University Science”).

One of the biggest differences is the absence of the hyper-competition for research grants (see my recent article in the Money&Grants category on “All About Today’s Hyper-Competition for Research Grants”) at the government laboratories.  This is due to the fact that most of their research activities are funded internally.  However, government centers do have several levels of internal funding, and there is some normal level of internal competition between the different government sites and between the several different research operations at each site.  Another distinctive difference is that graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are found at both universities and federal research centers, but are much more numerous at academic institutions.  Research at government centers generally has more of the flavor of group efforts; individual stars at government research centers usually are associated with group efforts, and these successful scientists often can be given leadership positions at their location.

Concluding remarks

Employment seekers must be realistic and realize that no job is perfect!  Employment at academic science departments, industrial research centers, and government laboratories all have different advantages and disadvantages.  These positive and negative features must be carefully and realistically evaluated before accepting any position.  It always is very valuable to talk frankly to one or more current employees, and to ask about their views on the local positive and negative features; after that, you then must ask yourself, “Do I want to be like this current worker, and will I be personally satisfied with this working situation?”.

The main message from Part II is that many good jobs for doing laboratory research are available at industrial and government facilities, as well as in universities.  I recommend that graduate students and Postdocs wanting to find a job doing experimental lab research should become familiar with all 3 of these different settings for employment as a research scientist.  This will enlarge your available opportunities for finding a supportive working environment.

The forthcoming Part III in this series will be directed to the virtue for young scientists of being more creative and unconventional when seeking to find a suitable employment position.

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[1]  Wolfe, R.M., National Science Foundation, 2013.  Business R&D performance in the United States increased in 2011. Available on the internet at:  http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf13335/ .

[2]  Agricultural Research Service, US Department of Agriculture, 2014.  About us.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.ars.usda.gov/AboutUs/AboutUs.htm .

[3]  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014.  About CDC Prevention Research Centers.  Available on the internet at: http://www.cdc.gov/prc/about-prc-program/index.htm .

[4]  US Department of Energy, 2014.  The Office of Science Laboratories.  Available on the internet at: http://science.energy.gov/laboratories/ .

[5]  National Institutes of Health, US Department of Health and Human Services, 2014.  About NIH.  Available on the internet at:                      http://www.nih.gov/about/ .

 

 

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