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  • NATURE CAREERS PODCAST

Planning a postdoc before moving to industry? Think again

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Do you need a postdoc to thrive as a scientist outside academia? Julie Gould explores the pros and cons with industry insiders.

Nessa Carey, a UK entrepreneur and technology-transfer professional whose career has straddled academia and industry, including a senior role at Pfizer, shares insider knowledge on how industry employers often view postdoctoral candidates. She also offers advice on CVs and preparing for interviews.

“It is very tempting sometimes for people to keep on postdoc-ing, especially if they have a lab head who has a lot of rolling budget and who likes having the same postdocs there, because they're productive and they know them,” she says. “That’s great for the lab head. It’s typically very, very bad for the individual postdoc,” she adds.

Carey is joined by Shulamit Kahn, an economist at Boston University in Massachusetts, who co-authored a 2017 paper about the impact of postdoctoral training on early careers in biomedicine1.

According to the paper, published in Nature Biotechnology, employers did not financially value the training or skills obtained during postdoc training. “Based on these findings, the majority of PhDs would be financially better off if they skipped the postdoc entirely,” it concludes.

Malcolm Skingle, academic liaison at GlaxoSmithKline, adds: “You really will get people who have done their PhD, they’ve done a two-year postdoc, they think they’re pretty much going to run the world and single-handedly develop a drug.

“They have got no idea how difficult drug discovery is, and their place in that very big jigsaw.”

“And why don’t postdocs get great salaries straightaway? Well, actually, they haven’t proven themselves in our environment, where, if they’re any good, then their salaries will go up quite quickly.”

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-03109-3

This six-part Working Scientist podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland (UQ).

UQ research creates change right across the world, every day. Find out more about this content.

References

  1. Kahn, S. & Ginther, D. Nature Biotechnol. 35, 90–94 (2017).

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

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Transcript

Do you need a postdoc to thrive as a scientist outside academia? Julie Gould explores the pros and cons with industry insiders.

Sponsor message 0:00 This six part Working Scientist podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland. UQ research creates change right across the world every day.

Julie Gould 0:18 Hello, and welcome to Working Scientist, the Nature Careers podcast. I’m Julie Gould. And we're in the middle of a series of episodes all about the postdoc.

In part three of the series, I spoke to several people about the challenges that COVID-19 had brought to the postdoc community.

They were far reaching, and many of the challenges that had already existed for this community had become exacerbated.

One of the biggest challenges was finding that next position.

We heard from Michael Moore, about his now-rescinded faculty position from a Michigan institution.

We also heard from Paula Stephan, who said that basically, the academic job market is in tatters.

As fewer faculty positions become available, more postdocs will stay as postdocs, meaning that more PhD researchers (or graduate students, depending on where you are in the world), will be unable to take that postdoc position that they want, because they’re all taken.

So basically, there’s a giant blockage in the system now.

So what can you do? Well, it has been made clear over the last few decades that the chances of landing that coveted full time tenure track academic position, are slim anyway. The numbers vary a little bit, but across the western world, about 5% of PhD researchers will have that job.

The rest? Well, more than ever, now, people who aren’t doing a PhD or a postdoc will end up working outside of academia, whether in research or not.

But that’s okay. It’s actually a really good thing, because that’s exactly what we need.

And this is something that David Bogle, the pro Vice Provost of the doctoral school at University College London, thinks is important for people to remember,

David Bogle 2:05

Most people see science as driving innovation.

In the UK, the industry strategy, we want 2.4% of GDP to be R&D. The European Commission would like to see it 3% across Europe, I can’t remember what it is in the US, but they certainly see it as growing.

So if we want to grow research and development in the economy, most of that is going to be in the private sector, not in the public sector.

These are our researchers that we should be training to help drive that innovation in all these economies, be they from developing countries or developed countries.

Julie Gould 2:42

Now, I also know that it’s really hard to move away from academia, especially when you're in an environment that often still considers it a failure to leave.

It can be scary. It makes you think about who you are as a person and about why you decided to do science and research in the first place. It challenges you to think about who and what you are.

So what I want to do in this episode is share some insights on what industry is looking for, to arm you with the information about what they want from postdocs, (and what they don't want from postdocs), to help you feel prepared and good about finding your next job.

But before we go down the road of what it is like to work in industry, I want to share this small quote from Pearl Ryder from the Broad Institute in the US. (Hello again, Pearl).

She’s doing a postdoc and has made the decision to leave academia to work in industry. And here’s how she feels about it.

Pearl Ryder 3:34

For me, it feels like I’m choosing different opportunities. And so the people...I have had enough support from the people around me to be able to continue that path forward.

Julie Gould 3:49

Let’s keep that positive mindset throughout this episode.

Going into industry does not mean that you’ve lost an opportunity to work in academia. It means that you've gained an opportunity to work in another environment.

And this opportunity is something that many of you postdocs will be taking during and after this current pandemic.

So let’s dive in and see what industry is really like.

Dr Nessa Carey is a freelance consultant and trainer, and a visiting professor at Imperial College London.

And she spent many years as an academic, and also as a researcher in industry, with Pfizer and other biotech companies.

Nessa’s advice during these challenging times is to make sure that you spend some time doing self reflection.

What do you really want from your career and out of your life?

Nessa Carey 4:36

I would certainly try not to think of COVID as being something that’s driving you out of academia.

Because the reality is that most people who do a PhD, don't stay in academia anyway.

If you look at the UK figures, it’s something like one in 200 people who start a PhD will eventually become a professor.

So think of it from the point of view of maybe COVID is actually just Just giving you an opportunity to press reset, to think about actually do you really want to stay in academia anyway?

Is COVID maybe just making you review your options more rapidly or earlier than you otherwise might have done?

I don’t mean to underestimate the difficulty and the stress if a contract is coming to an end, you know,

I’m really not trying to dismiss those very legitimate concerns of people on fixed term contracts.

But it is worth thinking, "Actually, would I really have stayed as a postdoc forever, I have to make a plan for what I'm going to do at the end of being a postdoc anyway.

"And maybe it’s just a time to press reset, and to think, okay, let’s take this time where I'm not in the lab, for example, all the time, and do some work on what do I really want out of my career and out of my life."

Because it is very tempting sometimes for people to keep on "postdoc-ing", especially if they have a lab head who has a lot of rolling budget, and who likes having the same postdocs there, because they’re productive, they know them.

That's great for the lab head. It’s typically very, very bad for the individual postdoc,

Julie Gould 6:04

The next step is to look at what people in industry want from a postdoc.

Nessa Carey 6:09

Either it was people with very, very deep knowledge of a really well-defined technical area. So, people who were phenomenally skilled in a technique that was unusual, and very demanding.

Or we were looking for somebody who could demonstrate that, essentially, they had mature transferable skills. And those were the things that made positions postdoctoral positions,

Julie Gould 6:33

Big tick, you’ve got that one. That is what postdocs spend their time developing anyway. So why is it sometimes so hard to get a position in industry that requires postdoc level training?

Nessa Carey 6:43

Because a lot of the time, if they’ve done a PhD, then you know that they have a certain level of technical capability, a certain ability to learn new knowledge.

And often, that's all that you need, if it's a role where the techniques are fairly well established within the company, and where you can actually give training in any particularly quirky bits.

Also, if it’s a technique that's really well established, then somebody with a PhD is probably just as suitable.

On the other hand, if it’s very much an emerging field of technology, than somebody who has a postdoc, and really deep experience might be more appropriate.

Julie Gould 7:23

Before we go any further, it's time to let you know what industry really thinks about postdocs.

I spoke with Shulamit Kahn, an economist at Boston University, about her research on postdocs and their transitions into industry.

And during her research, she spoke to many different industry representatives. And this is what they said,

Shulamit Kahn 7:42

Some of them said, "Yeah, we like the people with postdoc, you know, they have, they tend to be better people that, you know, the smartest people will get good postdocs, and we’ll go on them.

And you know, some of the businesses industry appreciate it.

And there were other people from industry who say, "Oh, they learn such bad habits on research in academia, especially like pharmaceutical research."

If you think about pharma, they have very high standards of how to do research and how to be very careful and things like that.

And there are other people who say, "I’d rather the people don't spend more time in academia and academic postdocs.

"I’d rather they learn how to do research our way, the good way, the clean way, the way that will get us FDA approval quicker."

Julie Gould 8:29

So the moral of the story is, what industry thinks of postdocs depends on who you talk to you? That’s good to know.

Now, what about if we look at money, the stuff that makes the world go round?

How much do people in industry really value those with postdoctoral training in a financial sense? This is something else that Shulamit Kahn and her co author Donna Ginther looked into.

In 2017. They published an article in Nature Biotechnology about this.

And here's a quote from the conclusions of their paper:

"Outside of tenured academia, employers did not financially value the training or skills obtained during postdoc training. Instead, x postdocs pay an earnings penalty for up to 15 years....(We skip a little bit).

And then it says, "The time spent in a postdoc position not only constitutes a sizable financial sacrifice, but does not yield the desired academic career. Based on these findings, the majority of PhDs would be financially better off if they skipped the postdoc entirely." End quote.

So really, the idea of thinking very carefully about your research. and about your future career, and about going into a postdoc, is a really good thing to do.

Shulamit Kahn 9:40

If you know where you want to work, and kind of what you want to do, (the postdoc) and you think that you're prepared by when you graduate. You know, your work, did your PhD in subjects that you're pretty good at what you want to be doing, then postdocs really are just the way to delay your life.

You know, if you want to start being a grown up and an adult, if you want to set roots somewhere, if you want to make some money, make more than 50,000 a year which, you know, otherwise you'd be getting more like 100,000 even, to begin with.

Really, our feelings aren't being my co author and I after looking at all the postdoc is, it's not the way you should go.

Julie Gould 10:27

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute, though. Shulamit is a researcher...

Shulamit Kahn 10:30

I will say, research is fun you know, it is fun.

And if you have no reason that you need to grow up sooner, and start making more money and having children and stuff like that. It's a fun thing to do.

So that's the other thing. It is fun. Especially if you have a good PI. If you have a bad PI. I've heard it could be hell.

Julie Gould 10:54

What does industry have to say about this, about the fact that even if you do several years worth of extra training as a scientist, and as a postdoc has been described to do, why aren't you financially valued outside of academia?

Here's Malcolm Skingle. He's the academic liaison for GlaxoSmithKline

Malcolm Skingle 11:11

You really will get people who have done their PhD. they've done a two year postdoc, they think they're pretty much going to run the world, singlehandedly develop a drug. They have got no idea how difficult drug discovery is, and their place in that very big jigsaw.

Now, why don't postdocs get great salaries straightaway?

Well, actually, they haven't proven themselves in our environment, where if they're any good, then their salaries will go up quite quickly.

Julie Gould 11:41

Okay, things might not be sounding too good right now. I hear you. But I don't mean to put you off any of these industry positions. Don't forget, I'm trying to help you here. Those who are in the know are in a better position. So now that you know these things, how do you navigate that world of industry? There are some key differences that you need to be aware of, between working in industry and academia, says Nessa Carey.

Nessa Carey 12:04

I think one of the things that can be difficult, (but that's actually more of a personal thing), is getting to grips with the fact that your research isn't your own.

Usually in industry, you're part of a team. And you're all trying to work to the same end.

I think that can be quite challenging, because it's very different from most academic environments.

I think also, one thing that can be difficult for people who come from an academic background, is to understand the pragmatism of industry.

In industry, for example, if you're in a role which is about drug screening, what you need is to be able to triage several hundred, several thousand compounds. You don't need precise data on every single compound. You don't need everything to have been done to a very high number of replicates, because what you're doing is triaging.

You're picking out the best from a bunch. That can be quite difficult for people who have come from an academic background, where the emphasis is on publishing, and therefore the emphasis is typically on a large number of replicates on a smaller number of samples, for example.

So that can be quite challenging, I think, for people to get their head around, that actually there's a pragmatism.

The other thing, of course, is that a project can be killed in industry, and there's probably not very much you can do about it.

And that is deeply difficult for everyone. But I think that's difficult for everyone whether they spent a lot of time in academia or not, because people pretty much put their heart and soul into research no matter what sector they're in. So that's challenging.

Julie Gould 13:34

So now that you've got the information about what industry thinks about postdocs, and some of the challenges that you might face when you're looking for the research position outside of academia, let's focus on how to get those jobs.

First off, the most important thing that anyone can do right now, whether job hunting or not, is to build networks.

And networking is not a negative enterprise, says Alaina G Levine, a professional speaker and STEM career consultant.

Alaina G Levine 14:00

It's actually the exact opposite of it. And it makes me smile when I think about it, because it's the most positive and even generous act that you can do. Because networking is "What can I do for you? How can I help you? How can I help advance your team, your research group, your project?"

So the definition of networking is a spectrum of activities in which we are aiming to build a mutually beneficial partnership, where we're both providing value to each other over time, in various ways.

And it's aiming for the long haul. And so when you think about this from the perspective of a postdoc, or somebody who is looking to get into a postdoc, or to leverage their postdoc, to go on to the next stage in their career, what we find is that networking can help you with this because what I can do as a postdoc is I can start to reach out to professors, and researchers and other professionals that are in my field or in a related field that I want to go into, and ask them for informaal conversations which we can do over Zoom, of course, because all networking these days is on virtual platforms.

And so I reach out to them. And I say, I think there's ways that I could potentially help. I see alignment between my own interests and goals and experience.

Would you be open to an informal discussion about collaborating? And that entry, that point where you make that for them, where you clarify that you are not trying to get something from them, what you're trying to provide something to them, and that's what the conversation will explore, is the bedrock of networking.

Juile Gould 15:36

Once you've done the networking, it's time to start looking for jobs.

Nessa has got some good advice on how to write your CV and make it suitable for jobs outside of academia.

Nessa Carey 15:45

What happens when a postdoc applies for a job is if they're applying for an academic job they know what an academic CV looks like.

That's great for academia. Don't send your academic CV to a non academic job. Do the thing of structuring your CV properly, so that people can see what you can do and how well you do it.

Make sure that you emphasize skills, and yes, skills and knowledge, but particularly skills.

Make sure you're emphasizing your transferable skills.

And make sure you match the job spec and the person spec.

Go through those point by point and structure your CV so it's really easy for someone like me reading it to go, "Oh, yeah, they fit seven out of the eight of the person specifications."

And make sure you're evidencing them. Don't just repeat what's in the person spec.

Nobody is convinced by a statement that says "I can work well on my own but I'm also a team player."

Give evidence of both of those things. Make sure absolutely everything is in there. And do it from the point of view of thinking "What is the employer looking for?"

They really don't care what you've got as your A-levels.

So if you do want to put those down, put them at the end of the CV, but focus on the things that the employer is looking for, and make it really easy for them to pick you.

Julie Gould 17:12

Let's say you've written your stellar CV and cover letter, and you've gotten the chance to go for interview. Hurrah!

What does one of these look like? Often the interviews are tricky to prepare for, says Malcolm Skingle from GlaxoSmithKline.

They really like to see how you apply those transferable skills like problem solving, in the real world, whilst you're under pressure

Malcolm Skingle 17:32

At GSK we have problem solving at interview.

And so you can't actually swat up for it. You have to think on your feet. At certain selection processes we will have applicants working together. And you'll see who...you will almost have as many observers as you've got people who are being interviewed.

And they're just watching the behaviours, on how people are getting the answers to the challenges, how they're getting to where they need to be.

It depends what it is. Sometimes it's you know, a formal talk, where you have to think about the strategy of whatever you should be doing, and how that might work.

Something that I always do, when I interview, I usually have a subordinate who's going to be a peer of the person who's going to get the role.

Because then the dynamics are very different because you're trying to impress the boss, and you're saying the things actually work with this person.

So it has to be a bit measured. And then sometimes I'll let my boss you know, for good measure.

Julie Gould 18:37

Here's another thing to keep in mind. The next job you take is unlikely to be the dream job, especially if you're a postdoc who's been dreaming of becoming a professor or PI within academia, Alaina says that this is an opportunity to learn, to research, to apply your scientific skills to yourself.

Alaina Levine 18:54

But every opportunity that you pursue, every job that you take, and indeed every networking connection that you build, and grow and nurture, you are getting insight and data about the world, about career paths, about opportunities, about organizations that you might want to work for. And you are also gathering data about yourself because you are a complex system in a complex system that changes. As you are engaging new people you are learning new information, it changes how you see things, it changes how you view yourself.

And so to be aware of the idea that we often have to take constant data about ourselves and about the ecosystem and being aware that the ecosystem is going to change us as we move forward is going to be very, very helpful.

And it's also going to alleviate some of the fear and uncertainty that we may have, particularly during this extremely challenging time with COVID.

Julie Gould 19:48

Alaina calls it career planning in a crisis. But don't let it get to you, she says, because as a STEM professional, you've got the skills to do this to own this, to drive forward and to control your own career development,

Alaina Levine 20:02

You won't have all the answers at any given point in the system. However, you have an advantage in that you've studied science and engineering and mathematics. And having studied these fields gives you an understanding and an ability to take data from the world and mine it and gather information from that data that allows you to make an informed decision. That's something that you get from studying STEM. We're going to take that exact same training and mindset. And we're going to apply it to our career development by taking data about ourselves while taking data about the universe of possibilities as we move forward as we network with people as we learn more about different companies, different organizations, different opportunities.

Julie Gould 20:50

Now, what I want you to take away from this is that doing work outside of academia, whatever role you take, does not mean you have to stop being a scientist, and it does not mean you have to stop being you.

In the next penultimate episode of this series about postdocs, I'm going to take a look at how the research culture is changing within academia.

And whilst you wait, why not take a look at what else the Nature Careers team is doing?

There's a series of articles being published at the moment with the results and insights from the first postdoc survey Nature has done which I think makes for a really interesting reading. You can find all of them on their website at www.nature.com/careers

Thanks for listening.

Sponsor message 21:39

This six part Working Scientists podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland. UQ research creates change right across the world every day.

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