Various Lies

Monday, March 9, 2009

Thoughts on careers, Re-redux

Over at Nature Network, on The New York Blog, Caryn Shechtman discusses her experiences and thoughts after a recent career advisory fair. As is typical of these, Caryn points out the discussion was steered primarily towards to the academic career search. I think that’s sad, but common, and it makes it very hard for young scientists to grasp the possibilities offered away from the bench. Over at Training Professor, the inestimable PiT discusses something similar.

Some of the things both talk about are very near and dear to my heart; I’m an advisor to our Postdoc Office, and am developing a career development package with our Postdoc Advisory Council right now. I’m also a member of the Board of Directors of a large charity that works with junior scientists, so believe me when I say I take the thesis of training and mentoring junior scientists very seriously. I made the decision to leave the bench last year, and it wasn’t easy. Part of that is the cultural dynamic that if you can’t make it to faculty, you’re a failure. This is a pervasive and pernicious untruth.

There are between 60-90,000 postdoc scientists in the US, and only ~20% will go on to become full time tenure track faculty at major/tier 1 research institutions. About 60% of that 60-90,000 say they want a FT-TT position. Spot the disconnect? the biggest reason for this gap is not the quality of scientists nowadays as some assert, it’s just that there aren’t enough jobs: an increasing candidate pool coupled with a lengthening age-of-retirement.

It is especially vital nowadays that young scientists formulate and focus their career aspirations early on, in order to be as competitive as possible when the time comes to take the next steps in their career. Over at Nature Network there’s a very nurturing environment that can be incredibly useful as a career guidance resource. There are senior faculty who blog and post regularly, as well as those of us who have moved away from the bench, those moving away from the bench and those went away and then moved back again.

As a PhD student you have a different set of concerns than you will as a postdoc (if that’s where you go). But now is a great time to think about where you want to steer your career and start building that into your program. If you want to go onto a traditional postdoc the path is fairly clean, but if not, what other skills might you need in the “real world”. and that argument extends to postdocs who find themselves looking at non-bench jobs for whatever reason. You have to find a way to encourage your mentor to help you develop, or find ways to develop, alternative skills.

The best western blot in the world is no good if you want to work for the Discovery Channel as a science advisor!

At my University I work closely with our Postdoc Office in developing schemes to get our postdocs any additional training they might require. Do you need teaching skills, communication skills, editing skills, writing skills? What else?

It can be hard breaking down the traditional barriers, especially if your PI is of the opinion that your hourly productivity is the sole determinant of his/her future success (a common fallacy). Making the moves can be emotionally challenging too.

As Christie says in her close, “it seems you just have to put yourself out there, try your best, and hope you get the job.” True, but maximise your chances for success by developing an Individual Development Plan (IDP) and putting together a mentoring committee to help you define, plan for and reach your goals. Then it doesn’t have to be such “a random and try-as-you-go process”.


Professor in Training said...

Totally agree with everything you said. Something's got to change and maybe the economic downturn will provide the impetus for a change in thinking at the grad student level.

tideliar said...

I just had *another* telecon about that. I'm working with our postdoc council and one of my suggestions is find a revenue stream other than grad-recruitment.