A Recipe for Career Success

Sara is 2 years into her first postdoc, and she has begun to give some serious thought to the next step in her career. Although she is concerned about starting a family and is apprehensive about diving into the publish-or-perish, grant-intensive faculty cycle, she hasn't really considered any option other than applying for academic positions. During her many late nights in the lab she takes time to read the back pages of major science journals and scans online career sites. She visits the job board and tries to talk to PI's at the one major meeting that she attends each year.

Despite the generally glum articles about academic careers for scientists, she tells herself that she'll be able to find something. "After all," she thinks, "Gary in the next lab got a faculty position, and his CV wasn't much better than mine." But even though she hasn't started applying for jobs, Sara has already convinced herself that a fellowship extension, or even a second postdoc, might be best, because then she could get a few more experiments done and maybe one or more new publications. "After all," she thinks to herself, "isn't everyone spending 3 to 5 years in postdocs these days?"

Sara is walking a path familiar to many postdocs and graduate students at academic research labs across the country. These talented young scientists have tread the first part of the well-worn trail from graduate school to a postdoc and on, hopefully, to a satisfying permanent job at a university, an academic medical center, or in industry. Many have become complacent, egged on both by the rosy advice of mentors and frequent reports of imminent science-workforce shortages.

But guess what? The job outlook for science Ph.D.'s should foster anything but complacency. Most graduate-degreed scientists end up, eventually, with rewarding careers, but the path is not well-marked and many end up in a different place than they expect to. You need to start thinking about possible career outcomes (yes, plural!) right now.

Where Are the Jobs?

Consider the statistics for a career in academia. The number of postdocs studying in science and engineering (S&E) fields at U.S. degree-granting institutions grew 18.6%, from 36,158 to 42,889, between 1994 and 2001, respectively.1 Over the same interval the number of S&E doctorates holding tenure-track positions increased 6.1% (from 36,830 to 39,080). The number holding non-tenure track positions (e.g., soft-money research faculty) has, meanwhile, increased 38.3%, from 21,500 to 29,740.2 These data are sobering for young scientists who went into graduate school expecting to move into tenure-track positions when they emerged from their postdoctorates (or even sooner). In the biomedical sciences the numbers are dismal: only 14.4% of scientists are in faculty jobs within 5 to 6 years of receiving their Ph.D., down from 34.3% in 1981.3

It is becoming increasingly evident that the job market is changing. Ph.D. scientists and engineers are finding jobs outside the traditional realms of employment. So where are the jobs? Just take a look around--they are everywhere! Today you can find scientists working for private industry, government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, newspapers, law firms, venture capitol groups, and many other areas. Some of the doctorates employed in these areas continue to do research, including those who start their own companies, but many more are finding that their scientific training has opened doors to exciting new job opportunities in regulatory affairs, informatics, technology transfer, science journalism, science policy, and education, among many others.

[ Editor's note: our index of monthly feature indexes is, I think, the best available introduction to the kinds of jobs scientists are doing these days.]

Although scientists with advanced degrees have always been employed in these fields, the trend toward "alternative" career tracks for Ph.D. (and increasingly M.S.) scientists and engineers are increasing dramatically. Unfortunately, lots of young scientists don't know that these are accessible and entirely respectable--even deeply satisfying--careers, and many express frustration that they are ill-prepared for these types of jobs.

Take Charge: Preparing to Enter a Changing Job Market

So how do you prepare for a career as a scientist in a changing job market? Many young scientists have told me that their graduate programs instilled a false sense of security and fostered complacency about the necessity of developing career-building skills. It is unfortunate that most graduate programs in the sciences view the Ph.D. as a purely academic degree, rather than seeing its close similarity to professional degrees.

[ Another Editor's note: interested readers might want to read our analysis of the "professional science master's degree" programs that are popping up all over the country].

This contrast could not be more evident than when you compare career preparedness offerings at a typical science graduate program with most MBA programs, even those at the same institution. Typical MBA resources include an orientation to career projections during the first year of the program, career coaches and teams, and a career center that is an integral part of the degree program. Many such programs take great pride in their very high rates of placement of graduates in high-profile, lucrative positions. For most science graduate students and postdocs, however, all of those roles are combined into one, ill-trained person: your PI. Although your PI may (or may not) try his best to look out for your career, he can't be everything to all people. Given this situation, it becomes, by default, your personal responsibility to look after your career.

When should you start to plan your career? As early as possible, preferably as you begin graduate school or even before. If you are a postdoc now and haven't done much planning, you may have some catching up to do, but with a bit of resourcefulness you can make up for lost time. The really important question, however, is how to plan for your future career. In my talks with young scientists across the country I've encouraged them to embrace the following concepts: due diligence, personal accountability, and agility.

Due Diligence: Researchers Researching Their Careers

Jim Austin discussed the concept of due diligence in the context of career development in a recent Next Wave article called The Perfect Postdoc: A Primer. In a nutshell, "due diligence" means researching every step of your career with an eye toward balancing short-term sacrifices against long-term career satisfaction. Yes, believe it or not you should have your long-term plans in mind all the time, and those plans should always be the ultimate metric for what you are willing to "put up with" as your career develops.

It's incredibly important to start by sitting down and figuring out your career game plan. Develop a primary plan and a backup plan. A key element in all of this is research; surprisingly, people who rightfully pride themselves on their skills as researchers usually don't use those well-honed skills when planning their own careers. Don't get me wrong--this isn't necessarily easy to do.

Start by talking with your peers, your PI, others in your department, and strangers at meetings about job opportunities and pitfalls. Use the Internet and professional publications to get an overview of the job market--how many openings are there in your field each year? How many candidates? Join a professional society; many of them provide not only networking opportunities, but also career development workshops at their meetings and online. Above all, revisit your career plans frequently to determine whether you are making progress toward your goals, and whether your goals have changed (or ought to). It is essential that you also not feel obligated to stick with your original plan. After all, continued exposure to other career options may cause you to alter what it is you want to do. More on that in a little bit.

If you plan on doing a postdoc, make sure you have mapped out that career choice as well. As Jim Austin wrote in his article, pursue due diligence when researching a potential lab prior to joining it. But beyond that, make sure you know what you want out of the experience, and do everything you can to ensure that you achieve your goals. For example, if you want to do research and some teaching, choose a mentor who will support that goal (or, even better, provide teaching opportunities and funding).

If you have decided to work in industry (or think that you might like to), choose a PI who has industry connections or does collaborative research with industry. Design a postdoctoral program that allows you to work both in academic and industrial settings--even if it means that you have more than one PI and really confusing funding. Always keep in mind that postdocs and postdoctoral positions are a dime a dozen--you have little to lose in applying some strong personal lobbying for what you want. After all, if you don't get it there are other positions waiting for you. Shop around until you find a postdoc that gives you what you want.

Personal Accountability: It's Your Life; Take Charge!

Personal accountability is another catch phrase borrowed from the business world. This concept encourages you to take personal responsibility for all aspects of your career, including your mistakes. It also promotes self-reflection about what makes you happy and what works with your personal situation (family, income, etc). If you are unhappy or feel unfulfilled in your current position, it's up to you to make the changes necessary to achieve your long-term career and lifestyle goals. There's no one to blame but yourself. Sound a bit too much like something out of a motivational speaker at an executive retreat? So be it; scientists looking for jobs have a lot to learn from the business community.

How does this concept help you develop your career goals? We have all heard stories (or told them ourselves) of graduate students and postdocs who get little attention from their mentors, or wish they had more independence on their projects, or wish they could start a family but don't feel able to. [ Yet another Editor's note: check out this month's special feature on Science and Parenthood.]

Personal accountability means judging for yourself whether the negative factors of your careers can be changed within the context of your current position, and whether they are acceptable in light of your long-term goals. Sitting in the lab late at night with a lab mate and complaining (yet again) about your current mentor, project, or position won't really solve anything, although it might make you feel a little better. Instead, identify the core problems and try to resolve them. If an honest assessment of your situation (and I mean really honest) convinces you that the bad outweighs the good, you may have to consider making a major change.

Agility: More Than Simply Stretching

Planning and self-analysis are essential, but as Robert Burns wrote, "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley." Even if you know exactly what you want, and work diligently to get it, things might not work out. Furthermore, the best opportunities often arise unexpected. Most adults change jobs several times during their life, and scientists are no different. An academic researcher moves into administration, or leaves academia for industry (or starts her own company). An industry or government scientist moves to academia or to the nonprofit sector. It happens all the time.

And many of these folks will tell you that these career changes weren't planned, but came along serendipitously--opportunities arose out of their professional and nonprofessional activities. Agility means keeping yourself open to these possibilities, designing your professional life to expose yourself to them as much as possible, and cultivating the ability to take advantage of them when they arise.

How do you become agile? It's a lot easier than you might think ... and also harder, in a way. You could join and become active in professional societies (especially as a graduate student) and take advantage of the increased networking and exposure that societies provide to broader issues. Serving on a university or department committee, or being an active member of university organizations, provides equally valuable networking and exposure. Many young leaders in science have started journal clubs or organizations (postdoc associations, entrepreneur clubs) and identify those activities with their later success. Stepping outside of academia and the university to work on passion-based projects (nonprofits, reelection campaigns, or charities) or with industry networks is a great way to gain new perspectives and personal networks that may broaden your career outlook.

There is a common thread to these activities that many science leaders will identify as critical: You learn about yourself by regularly moving outside of your comfort zone and challenging yourself to think in new ways. This is something that many young scientists don't work hard enough at. It isn't easy, but the payoff can be remarkable.

Even if you remain on your original career course, being professionally agile can result in exciting opportunities. At a recent talk on leadership in science, a prominent physicist who is very active in societal issues explained his extracurricular activities this way: "I never want to be in the position to say that I wish I had done that when I had the chance." That's a pretty good philosophy to live by.

Raymond Clark is a member of the executive board of the National Postdoc Association. The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Postdoctoral Association or the Postdoc Network.


  • NSF Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering

  • NSF Survey of Doctoral Recipients

  • H. H. Garrison et al., "In an Era of Scientific Opportunity, Are There Opportunities for Biomedical Scientists?", FASEB J. (published online 2 October 2003; http://www.fasebj.org/cgi/reprint/03-0836lifev1.pdf)

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