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Transferable skills and portable careers

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With academic jobs scarce, postdoctoral fellows must develop skills that will make them competitive for jobs beyond the university setting, but even those who go on to academic careers can benefit from learning the skill sets that industry demands.

Success in today's job market requires more than just solid lab skills and a stack of publications. Whether seeking tenure-track academic jobs, industry research positions, or nontraditional science careers, many job seekers are finding that a well-honed pipette thumb is not enough to land them an offer. "I don't know anyone who's gotten a job who spent their postdoc at the bench the whole time," says Crystal Icenhour, who was recently hired as vice president and director of research at IDX Labs, a startup in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Postdocs must develop skills beyond the laboratory if they're to be competitive in the tightening job market, says Icenhour. Where nonacademic jobs once required skills that did not carry over to academia, that's not necessarily the case these days, says Gregory Kopf, who spent more than two decades at the University of Pennsylvania before moving to Wyeth Research. He has since returned to Penn as an adjunct professor. "When I first started in academia, the training skill sets were very different for industry and academia, but the lines are starting to become a lot more blurred," says Kopf. "Leadership, project management skills, the ability to develop goals and manage budgets and your lab—these are skills that are just as important for academia as for industry."

The ability to work well in a team is the No. 1 skill that industry employers look for, says Neil Stahl, senior vice president of research and development sciences at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals in Tarrytown, New York. "You have to be able to sort through issues and communicate effectively in a nonthreatening way."

Academic scientists also need team skills so they can work effectively on committees and form successful collaborations. Running a lab or working on a research team both demand strong interpersonal skills and diplomacy. "You have to be able to say the right things without antagonizing your colleagues, and that's a skill that many postdocs don't have," says Chee-Keng Ng, a principal research scientist at Wyeth Biopharma in Andover, Massachusetts. "We need people who can fit into the teamwork culture."

Whether the goal is to secure NIH funding or to sell the corporation on a novel idea, success hinges on the ability to communicate. "How you package and present your data matters, especially in a large company," says Ng. "You need to be able to communicate well, especially to people who aren't as expert as you. You have to be able to explain the science to the managing director on the project," says Stahl.

Project management is another skill in high demand. "In academia, you have to manage your research so you're competitive for the next funding round. In industry, you have very tight timelines, and you have to manage your project so you can meet those deadlines," says Kopf. Meeting project goals requires effective management of people and time, yet many postdocs don't recognize the importance of honing management skills until they start sending out their resumes, says Philip Clifford, associate dean for postdoctoral education at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

"When you get to a postdoc, there are virtually no rules," Clifford says. Many postdocs lock themselves in the lab and hope that their toil will pay off in publications that lead to the job they want. "People feel that they need to do project after project and publish, publish, publish," Clifford says, but he suggested that they need to develop skills beyond the bench too, even if it means getting out of the lab.

Charting a path

From the start, postdocs should identify the skills they need to make themselves marketable in their chosen career path so they can maximize their training, and the sooner the better, says Clifford. "We propose that people go through a self-assessment process to identify their own values, skills, and interests and then look at the potential universe of jobs that fit those," he says. website offered by AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) and books like Cynthia Robbins-Roth's Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower are good places to start. "Do some informational interviews with people in the career path you're interested in and find out what skills they use, then figure out what you need to do to get them," says Clifford. Some institutions employ career counselors that specialize in science. For instance, the Medical College of Wisconsin has hired a career adviser specifically to work with postdoctoral fellows and medical students.

Robert Tillman, postdoctoral program coordinator at New York University School of Medicine, advises budding scientists to create an individual development plan (IDP), through a process like the one developed by the FASEB Training and Careers Committee. Creating an IDP involves a four-step process to identify a well-suited career path and formulate a plan to achieve it. Tillman's institute has adopted IDPs as part of its postdoctoral handbook. "It's a way to focus my strengths and weaknesses in relation to my goals," Tillman says. "If I'm a postdoc and in four years I want to become faculty, what do I need to do to achieve that? How do I get there?" An IDP provides the roadmap for getting from a postdoc to a dream job.

Some postdocs expect that they will try for a tenure track research position and, if that doesn't work out, then they'll think about a plan B. But this type of approach sets postdocs up for failure, says Clifford. "Keeping your options open is exactly the wrong approach. You're not really doing the things that will direct you toward a specific career." There simply aren't enough tenure-track positions to go around, so postdocs should have an alternate plan in place from the start, Clifford says.

Many postdocs tell themselves that if they don't land a job at a top research institution, then they'll just apply for a teaching position. But that's a mistake, too, says Clifford, because teaching-oriented universities want people with proven teaching skills. "If your goal is to work at a teaching institution, you need to figure out how to get that experience," he says. Regardless of what career path you hope to follow, "you need to identify the skill sets that are necessary for that career option, and figure out how you're going to get those," says Clifford. Someone seeking a job in biotech, for instance, might consider a business course or even an MBA, he concludes.

Managing to learn

Bench skills are just one component of a successful science career, yet they've long been the focus of graduate and postdoctoral training programs. "Whether you run your own academic lab or take a position at a company, learning how to manage people, projects, and budgets are necessary skills, but traditional graduate and postdoctoral training do not offer formalized courses in these topics," says Garth Fowler, outreach program manager for But that's changing as AAAS,, and other organizations step in to fill the void with courses and workshops devoted to these topics.

In 2002 and 2005, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute partnered on a course to teach laboratory management skills to postdocs and beginning faculty members. Though the course's focus stood squarely on the needs of the academic scientist, many of the skills taught, such as time management, project management, collaborations, and mentoring, carry over to nonacademic jobs as well. Organizers have turned the course into a book, Making The Right Moves: A Practical Guide To Scientific Management For Postdocs And New Faculty available for free from the HHMI website (

In 2005 organizers of the BWF/HHMI program put on a "train the trainers" course in an effort to encourage similar programs at institutions across the country. "They wanted to spread the wealth," says Lisa Kozlowski, assistant dean for postdoctoral affairs and recruitment at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Kozlowski attended the course and then, with support from AAAS and, collaborated with three other Philadelphia-area institutions to develop a lab management course for postdocs from all four institutions.

A total of 55 postdocs enrolled in the Philadelphia Scientific Management Course, which is ongoing and split into four sessions spread over five months ( Topics include leadership skills, time management, project management, funding, mentoring, and landing a faculty position. Vera Hintz, a postdoc in TJU's department of dermatology, is attending the course and says it prodded her to look for opportunities to gain skills that will enhance her resume. When she looked at job ads, she saw that many wanted experience planning meetings, so she volunteered to help plan the TJU's postdoctoral research symposiums. Hintz says the course has taught her to view her career as a project that she needs to manage, rather than just something that simply unfolds on its own.

Laboratory management courses like TJU's are becoming more common. Last November, the New York University School of Medicine, also with support from AAAS and, put on a two-day workshop, Management Skills for Scientists, open to 25 people. "We wanted it small so it would be interactive," says Tillman of NYU. Postdoc Marie-Hélène Delmotte attended the course and says it helped her recognize that her lab skills alone might not be enough to land her the position she wants. "My resume is good but I realized that I need more to find a job. I need to know myself and know how to sell myself." Delmotte says the program helped her understand the importance of developing short-term and long-term goals for her career. Instead of focusing solely on her research, she is putting energy into mentoring, an effort that will pay off in a skill she can add to her resume.

The management course is just one way Tillman's institute is promoting career development. The school's office of learning and development offers courses on topics ranging from how to give an effective presentation to managing conflict and running meetings. Tillman says that NYU also helps about a half dozen of its postdocs enroll in a 16-week Fundamentals of the Biotech Industry course at the Center for Biotechnology, a state-funded center created to support the region's growing biotech industry.

Acting the part

Of all the laboratory management courses that have sprung up, perhaps the most innovative is the Laboratory Management Institute at the University of California, Davis. The institute holds a three-week intensive program divided into five courses: leadership, management, best practices, mentoring, and innovation. Participants come from a wide range of disciplines and receive a certificate and 14 credit hours through the UC-Davis extension.

The program's hallmark, Lab Act, employs professional actors to play out the concepts explored in the course. Instructors discuss strategies for handling management issues, then actors play out scenarios that workshop attendees anonymously submit. Participants discuss what happened and work on new solutions that the actors then try out. "We're all about practicing," says LMI director John Galland. "We use Lab Act to allow students to try out different solutions without putting anyone on the spot."

In addition to the summer program, LMI offers a year-long program for postdocs. "I'm impressed at how effective it has been to watch the actors role play," says participant Tamara Holst, a postdoc at the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture. "It's almost uncanny how well the scenarios translate across different labs, and the way to defuse a situation is usually similar across the board."

Taking the initiative

Formal programs like LMI's are not yet the norm, but even without them, motivated postdocs can find ways to develop useful and necessary additional job skills. Icenhour of IDX Labs made her resume stand out from the rest by getting involved in the postdoctoral associations at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and at Duke University where she did a second postdoc. She also joined the board of National Postdoctoral Association and credits this experience with teaching her the skills she needed to land her current job as vice president and director of research.

"My NPA experience really emboldened me," says Icenhour. "As a board member of NPA you're reviewing the employee handbook, revising budgets, and running committee meetings. The experience introduced me to a lot of the things I do in my daily work life now." Not every postdoc has the luxury of enrolling in an institute-sponsored program like LMI, but as Icenhour's experience illustrates, motivated postdocs can create their own opportunities to learn skills beyond the bench if only they would step out of the lab.

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