5. Postdoc conundrumFor many PhD candidates, undertaking postdoctoral training after their PhD programs appears as the “natural” career transition upon graduating. This is not an exact science and in today’s post, Dr Victor Ujor discusses the ‘postdoctoral concept’ and offers beneficial tips for PhD candidates thinking of the of the next steps in their career after the PhD

For most PhD students particularly in the sciences, as soon as they near the end of the grueling PhD journey, they are literally feverish at the prospect of landing a real ‘money-paying’ job. In today’s economy, such jobs are few and far between. Nonetheless, they still exist, but to get one, you ought to have a roadmap from the onset. An overwhelming number of PhD candidates drift towards the Postdoctoral end of the job spectrum for a number of reasons.

First, most PhD candidates feel they are expected to do a postdoc – gain extra experience, get more publications and then land the real job. In some cases, that does happen, but if one does not have a clear-cut strategy as to how to negotiate the winding Postdoctoral alleyway, they might end up stuck in a convoluted maze for an unpleasant period of time. Second, more often than not, Postdoctoral positions are more available that positions in industry, which pays more. Third, some PhD candidates are confused about their career prospects i.e. should they decide to ditch academia for industry.

For PhD candidates at the confusing intersection between the end of the PhD program and a vastly hostile market, perhaps it is important to clarify the concept of a postdoctoral experience .

 What is a Postdoctoral experience really?

The Postdoctoral position was originally created as an avenue for fresh PhD graduates to further enhance their skills. Whilst pursuing a PhD, most students exert an enormous amount of energy on designing and conducting experiments. Mostly, if they do not have the kind of supervisor who cracks the whip on their backs to publish, they only begin to consider publishing at the tail end of their program (this is largely a European scenario, as most students in the USA and some in Canada are under immense stress to publish). Even in North America where most students are likely to publish before graduating, their supervisors or Postdocs in their lab take a lead role in the writing of manuscripts intended for publication. As a result, the postdoctoral experience is the actual time when PhDs are meant to polish their scientific writing skills, in addition to the learning and expanding their knowledge of specific techniques in the lab.

More so, grant writing is now such an important part of academia in most western countries – find the money or be fired. In fact, landing a lectureship (Assistant Professor) position is largely dependent on your grant writing skills, particularly in the US. Hence, the postdoctoral experience is indeed intended to offer training in these areas in preparation for the rigors of life in academia.

It is deserving of mention that postdoctoral positions were originally designed to last just a few years. Today, it is not uncommon to find PhDs languishing in the thorny Postdoctoral alley for years on end. A lot of factors such as lack of publications, poor relationship with supervisors, which can derail a PhDs career path (often leading most to hop from one job to another without a coherent plan of action), poor or lack of exposure to grant writing, which leaves one at the lowest rung of the job applicants’ hierarchy, among numerous other factors account for this unpleasant scenario.

In light of these, it is important to begin with the end in mind i.e. whether to take the postdoctoral route or not, and if going with the postdoctoral option, have a clear plan of action. Such plans of action whether or not you are considering a postdoctoral position include;

  • Be a scout – be prepared from day one: It is important that you work out what route you intend to take and prepare squarely for it from the day you step into your PhD program. Often, PhD students leave this to chance, expecting something to happen along the line rather than take decisive steps towards industry or academia. If you are intending to work in industry, you ought to figure out the type of industry you want to work and the skills you need to get there. Incorporating these skills into your PhD research work and honing them along the way will prove invaluable to your ultimate goal. The same applies to academia. If that is your intention, then begin to think of the type of lab where you’d like to take up a postdoctoral position and the likely skills and connections that will get you there.
  • Network without ceasing: No matter which path you choose, gone are the days when you rely on your ability or performance alone. There are over six billion people on our planet, hence, the number of science PhD graduates seeking the same things you want has grown astronomically over the past twenty years. The power of the internet in the global village means that you will be competing with folks in India, China, Singapore, South Africa, Germany, Holland, England, France, Egypt, Taiwan and the rest of the world for the same jobs. There is always a better candidate out there depending on who is looking, and when you are the job seeker, you have no control over that! In that case, who you know…who you’ve come in contact with might prove invaluable. A word from someone who knows someone in the company you are keen on, or the lab you want to work in might make all the difference…that is after you have learned the requisite skills!!!
  • Join professional associations, make friends, be visible (not noisy), and contribute: The importance of networking cannot be overemphasized in this day and age. In line with that, one way to stretch your tentacles and gain a wider reach is to join professional associations. Don’t be that demure, reclusive member that no one knows about their existence. Don’t be the noisy, rambunctious fellow that drives everyone up the wall either. Contribute maturely, have a voice; one that people want to hear, and make time to talk to people one-on-one at conferences. Always be armed with business cards and pass them on with undying liberality. Pay attention to others, ask sincere questions about their work and look for links between your work and theirs, and do not hesitate to highlight those links in bold bright colors for them to see and appreciate.
  •  Write, write again, and write some more: One skill that will make you shine both in industry and academia is writing. Sadly, this is one skill that most scientists abhor. If you want to succeed, learn how to present your ideas and scientific principles and arguments in a clear, easy to follow, and coherent manner. If your reports stand out in terms of content and quality, you will be a star in industry. If you can make sense of data and articulate your findings on paper, you will publish with less difficulty and ultimately script winning research proposals. With these, the red carpet will be rolled out for you in academia. Again I say to you, hone your scientific writing skills if you want to be a high flyer.
  • Do not overlook the soft skills: I have no idea why they are referred to as soft when in actuality; they make the most difference in most cases. Resilience, being a good listener, willingness to offer a helping hand, leadership skills, ability to manage one’s self (emotions) and time, open-mindedness etc. are skills that always make a massive difference. The road will be tough; tougher than you can imagine. Resilience; the willingness to pick yourself up when no one else cares, and soldier on will prove invaluable irrespective of what path you take. The people you lift up in the lab might be the ones to offer you a job years down the line. In a dog-eat-dog world (both in industry and academia) your ability to read the pulses of people around you and manage yourself accordingly will keep you one step ahead of the pack.

Apart from academia and industry, have the open-mindedness to think of jobs in government, in publishing, as well as consulting (which might mean working for yourself), as other areas where you may ultimately excel. In all, know thyself and find what best fits your personality and skills.

Finally, If you do take the postdoctoral route, research your supervisor like a whole PhD on its own. Working with the wrong person might set you back 5-7 years…just like that. No matter what you do, plough yourself into it with vigor. In addition, remember to have fun…there is always more to life!!!

Dr Victor Ujor is an Assistant Professor in Renewable Energy at the Agricultural Technical Institute,Ohio State University, Ohio, USA. Dr Ujor is a keen writer and member of journal editorial boards. Outside the workplace, Victor is a great soccer enthusiast and supports Chelsea FC -bleeds blue too.

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