After the PhD, What's Next?

So you've finally got your long awaited PhD degree. Congratulations! But what are you going to do next? This is often an overwhelming question for freshly minted doctorates. After so many years of tedious laboratory work, your next step seems more crucial than ever. It could determine the direction in which your career heads!

Frankly, fresh doctorates in Singapore today have many more choices than ever before. During my own time--I got my PhD a little more than a decade ago--there were precious few career choices for me outside academia. If I was graduating today, though, I could choose to do a postdoc, get a contract research job, transition into industry, join an exciting start-up venture, or move on to administrative positions in academia or a government agency. In a way, the increasing number of choices makes it harder for young scientists to decide on a career path.

The best way to go about making that decision is to spend some time thinking about what you really want to do with your life. Still burning with the desire to discover? By all means, stay on in research, but move out of your current laboratory to do a postdoc! Joining another laboratory expands your horizons and opens entirely different doors. Although you may feel tempted to stay on in your current PhD supervisor's laboratory--after all, it is a familiar environment and a well-known research area--that is often not the best option, unless you are sure that your supervisor is willing and able to facilitate and accommodate your continued growth and increased independence. If you are really committed to R&D, look for a postdoc position in prestigious laboratories around the world. It makes a difference if you are trained in top universities such as Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, or Caltech!

From what I have seen over the past 10 years or so, scientists with postdoc experience from well-respected institutions or laboratories stand a much better chance of getting one of those coveted faculty positions at Singapore's universities and research institutes, especially if they have had joint publications with reputed mentors in high-impact journals. So, do not miss the opportunity of doing a postdoc abroad. It is worth all the time and effort. For the local PhD, doing your postdoc abroad would give you a very different experience altogether. Well-established laboratories and even mentors in the United Kingdom and the United States are often better positioned to give you a richer research experience.

If, for whatever reasons, you need to remain in Singapore, taking up a contract research position is an option, but be sure you join a good laboratory with ample funding to support you over a period of at least 3 to 5 years. It is important to check the background of the laboratory, how it is being supported, and what the ongoing projects are. Remember, there is no guarantee of project continuity unless the project has potential for some major breakthroughs. Explore opportunities under major R&D initiatives. They are likely to be well funded and so more secure.

There are plenty of contract research positions, and the prospects of each vary. So, do your homework. Find out more about the projects and the people involved--in particular, the principal investigator leading the team--before joining the laboratory. Find one that suits you well, but make sure you are clear about what you want to get out of the experience. Very often, people find out only too late that they don't like a particular research project after they have signed on the dotted line. In research, you can't work for the sake of working. Interest in the project is critically important.

Engaging in project-based contract research could be a valuable experience, especially if you have the chance to work with a good team. You could always move on to more independent positions after your first contract. A good track record in research could help you advance into semi or fully independent research in due course. A good mentor who has your career interests in mind could even allow you to compete for your own grant or allow you to work in collaboration with existing members of the team. However, always be prepared to move on when necessary. No contract position guarantees any continuity. So, be smart and well prepared for any sudden change in events.

Already burnt out by the hectic lifestyle of a researcher? There are good options outside the research laboratory. The biotech and pharmaceutical industries offer a range of non-laboratory-based jobs that make use of the transferable skills--management, leadership, and computer skills--you've inevitably picked up during the course of your PhD. If you enjoyed those aspects of your PhD, then look for a job in which you can further hone them. Industries offer a variety of fast-track, mid-level entry positions for eligible PhDs with the right prerequisites. If you are the meticulous, analytical, and organized type, a position in a clinical research or regulatory department might be a good starting place for a completely different career experience. For you articulate and outgoing types, a product management or a specialist trainer position might be a good choice to jump-start your industry career.

Do not feel intimidated by entirely new roles and unfamiliar environments. If you're convinced that you are not the type to stick to the bench all day long, then make the move out of the laboratory sooner rather than later. You could be wasting your time if you have no intention to commit yourself to a lifelong career in laboratory R&D in the first place. Delaying your entry to the career of your choice will put you behind others in terms of job seniority. This is because with no relevant or related experience, you always have to start anew, no matter how long you have been working. Your laboratory experience doesn't always "count." So, if you move into your selected field immediately after your PhD, you would not lose precious time.

Interested in administrative work? Recent government initiatives have resulted in a demand for PhDs in highly respected administrative positions, too. So, if you want to be involved in executing policy, administering and managing R&D program funds, then joining government agencies for R&D development is a good option. You would receive excellent in-house training and certainly lots of exposure. And compared to private sector and contract research, these are fairly secure jobs that do not involve worry about competing for your subsequent grants. These are certainly choice jobs for those who enjoy being desk-bound and prefer to have more job security.

Whatever it is, your first postdoctoral step is very important. It will pave the way for your future career path. So, do think carefully and plan early. In fact, you should start planning even before wrapping up your PhD research. It may take you longer than expected to land the job of choice. So, never wait for the last minute.

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