Grad Student Advice Series: What to do with your PhD: Post Doc or Real Job?

But not everyone wants to wade through several more years of shake flasks and pipettors, in hopes that serendipity and networking will eventually lead to where they want to be. Many are more comfortable taking steps — now — that keep their options open but help them move toward the career they want to end up in.

My Story: An Alternative Science Career Choice- Field Application Scientist (The Article That Saved My PhD)

Update: **As of Jan 2013 (7 months later after writing this blog post) I am now working as an Associate Product Manager at a Life Science Biotech Company and I did it through networking as discussed below.**

I found that in grad school you are entirely on your own. No one informed me of any career options apart from doing a post-doc. It was only through self-realization and hard work that I found out what I wanted to do. In all honesty, it started out with me typing on Google, ‘How to transition from science into business.’ Up came an article by David Jensen titled, ‘Tooling Up: The Application Scientist Career Track.’

If grad schools had more outside speakers from AAAS or Science Careers Magazine like David Jensen come give talks it would open the eyes of graduate students all over campuses. The problem is that graduate students do not seek out these opportunities or they put off having to worry about getting or even thinking about a real job. My school in particular (UW-Madison) has not had a speaker from AAAS for years. So, if related speakers like this do come to colleges, it needs to be more often and be more apparent (and emphasized that graduate students attend). I cannot tell you how many grad students I have approached and they have no laid out career path. No direction.

If you read David Jensen’s article it states, “But not everyone wants to wade through several more years of shake flasks and pipettors, in hopes that serendipity and networking will eventually lead to where they want to be. Many are more comfortable taking steps — now — that keep their options open but help them move toward the career they want to end up in.” Even the ones that want to stay in academia or even go into industry. They think a post-doc is necessary for this (this is only true for academia). And to be honest, a lot of people that I know who have graduated that are doing post-docs still don’t know what they want to do after their post-doc.

In my opinion, the whole point in getting a PhD is to get a job. A post-doc is only delaying this process (unless you want to be a bench research scientist than it is logical).  And not surprisingly, the ‘non-traditional careers‘ apart from the lab bench are now becoming ‘traditional careers.’ I have done informational interviews with PhDs from various biotech companies in my area. And it was ONLY then did I realize what kind of options were even out there.

Why am I so against doing a Post-Doc? Read this article and you will understand why: Give Post-Docs A Career, Not Empty Promises

I said to myself, “People actually use their PhDs in ways I never even thought possible.” They aren’t just stuck at the lab bench. They are business leaders at a company. They are product developers. They are head of a marketing segment. They are in the field helping a sales team, doing product demonstrations, shows, and presentations. How I see it: By getting the PhD first, I am demonstrating my scientific knowledge, expertise and ability to learn. The science is the hardest part to learn. This will allow you to later transition into more of a business role later on, and the business aspect will be much easier and quicker to learn.

An Excellent Stepping Stone

Interestingly, a lot of ‘high up’ business professionals in biotech industry that I have interviewed have started out as a Field Application Scientist (or in-house Tech Services), then they used that as a stepping stone into more of a business role. And the PhD is perfect for this type of position because it shows you have the technical expertise and scientific knowledge, and earns you the respect. No one told me anything about a FAS role. I just assumed that I was ‘stuck’ or ‘obligated’ to do a post-doc. So the other choice was to bow out with a Master’s degree? I didn’t know what my options were coming into or during my first years of graduate school. And being in academia most college professors have no interest in bridging the gap between academia and industry.

When I say ‘stuck’ I mean 3-5 more years of being stuck at a lab bench doing something that I do not fully enjoy (ie not using my interpersonal/people skills, extroverted personality, and other skill sets outside of science). I’m coming up on my 5th year and my project is going really well.

The good news is that I realized and it was pointed out (by my PI and thesis commitee) that I have only ~1 year remaining. That’s the last remaining year(s) of my life that I will be at the bench (full time), which didn’t seem so bad. This also gives me a lot of time to network, which made it more obvious that I need to finish, skip the post-doc and obtain a role that will put me in a position of strength allowing me to transition more into a business role. After all, networking is 75% of landing a job. Some will argue it’s 90%. Either way, it’s a large percentage. A cold resume submission these days only works 4-24% of the time helping you land a job. Anyways..

Post-Doc Obligation?

I have taken career/professional development workshops for graduate students, and talked to numerous people on campus in terms of career options (One example: To be honest, I got very little out of it. Everything I heard was about a post-doc. Or it was tailored specifically to academia-related positions. If you’re lucky, the event you attend would at least give you a brief overview of what to expect in industry. Most events I attended only gave me a broad overview of possible jobs without ever really going into the specifics or tailoring it to the individual. That is easy to do. It is a one-dimensional ‘broken system.’

What about the specific positions AVAILABLE in industry? Separate the academia group from the industry group then dig way deeper. Why not answer the real question? And address HOW to do it (i.e. informational interviews)? Where do people end up? I think a test could be used to assess people’s personalities and define their goals.

The first question you might ask is “Do you want to work at the lab bench your entire life?’ I can guarantee a fair amount of people will say “No.” Ok, so then what alternative options are available? They just think “I’ll do a post-doc then I’ll figure it out.” Statements like that indicate no direction. It shows that someone is naive and doesn’t even realize what career options you can even obtain with an advanced degree.

Sure colleges have career fairs. But I think the effort needs to be multiplied by 100. Ever think about individualized career workshops vs. going to some big generalized seminar with just a panel of speakers that discuss “What to do with your PhD?” all crammed in within a few hours?

I honestly got more out of doing one-on-one informational interviews in terms of career advice then I ever did attending a career fair, happy hour, product show, or any academic sponsored seminar, conference or presentation.. I learned a lot more and established a personal relationship with someone who might just offer me a job coming out of school (although this was not my main purpose/goal in doing informational interviews). I offered value to that person in return and built a personal connection.

These connections could be very important later on down the road for collaborations or even if I were to start my own company. The beauty of it all is that I got to ask them whatever questions I wanted and they took the time to answer them. Most people were in your shoes, therefore they will take the time to help. That is the attitude that I now have when I launched my website and blog. I will be writing another blog (and even e-book) about how I used informational interviews and LinkedIn to build a network out of thin air. And it’s still growing.

So again, a post-doc does NOT answer the question as to the direction of my career. What about after a post-doc? What about straight out of grad school? No one answered these types of questions and to be honest faculty in academia may not be aware because they aren’t working in industry (or know anyone working these types of roles in industry). It’s not that they aren’t willing to help, it’s just that in many cases they just don’t know. But until you actually TALK to the people in the field and do informational interviews (and find out how they transitioned away from the bench) you will never understand. That is at least how I learned and came to the point that I am at now.

If I could go back in time, I guess I wish I knew all of this a lot sooner (ie my first year of graduate school). That is why I am writing this post. However, I am still glad I stumbled upon the ‘untold’ importance of informational interviews and the possibility of non-traditional science careers on my own. Therefore, I will continue to build my network until I graduate. I will leverage my contacts and hopefully have a job interview ~1 month before my thesis defense. Then when I successfully defend, I will transition directly from grad school to a job. No post-doc. In my opinion, you are 90% ahead of all PhD students if you know what you want to do prior to graduation, because no one really figures this out until after the fact.

And let’s face it, networking to get a REAL job out of grad school is going to be much harder than networking to obtain a post-doc (some people don’t even have to network to get a post-doc because it is an easier position to obtain i.e. cheap labor to continue working at the bench).  Networking is a skill that can be learned. I just think that grad students are too afraid, are too introverted, or just think that they don’t need to network (or they postpone as long as they can). My next E-book on Networking (and my own personal experience) will be released sometime in 2013.

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

You have to find out what motivates a person, and for me it is the type of job I will obtain out of grad school. The light at the end of the tunnel. A post-doc is not the light at the end of the tunnel. It only lengthens the tunnel I’m already in. If I don’t have a clear direction or path laid out in front of me, everything diminishes and I think in the back of my mind that there is no point to getting a PhD.

I’ve struggled in my early years of grad school, but things are much better now that I have a focus and the insecurities (of my future) have diminished.  So if you are in graduate school, start networking and doing informational interviews NOW!

No one is going to seek you out as a graduate student. You are going to have to seek out the opportunities yourself..

Further Reading:

Some Important Things Most Students Never Ask About Graduate School

Give Post-Docs A Career Not Empty Promises!

Tooling Up: The Informational Interview:

 The Postdoc Experience: High Expectations, Grounded in Reality