The job vs. the career

This week, a group gave me a seat at a table with a mic and a few other current or former postdocs. We were there to share our experience with other postdocs about how to make the most of it. The moderator ended with this question:

What one piece of advice would you give to postdocs?

I knew what I had to say to that. I shared some brief thoughts with those postdocs and subsequently on Twitter last night. It’s advice that I give, because I feel it’s something I needed to hear 5 years ago. This is what my experience has taught me, and I wish I’d figured it out sooner. Here it is, with a little further expansion.

A postdoc is a job. And it’s a temporary job.

We tend to pontificate that postdocs are training positions. We almost treat it as an extension of graduate school, I think. Research research research. Seminar. Research. Meeting. Research… You get the point. It can be tough to shift out of the mentality. You often don’t have very concrete deadlines or contract termination dates. You know we’re going to be here for a few years. You work hard. You maybe think wistfully of the next step and all the other things you should be doing. Then you look up one day and those few years have passed. (And in the current funding climate, those few years may be fewer than they were for your predecessors.)

You should be thinking about where you want to go next and what you need to get there.

While it’s important to be a focused researcher, it’s easy to become engulfed in the day-to-day grind and to lose sight of the “after” life. Sometimes, leaving grad school, you have no idea what you want, so you figure, why not take a postdoc for a few years? Things will become clearer, right? Sometimes you start your postdoc absolutely certain of where you’re going after it. You might be right – but you might also find a few years down the road that you’ve been chasing something without knowing why.

Wherever you are on that spectrum, take the time to think – I mean, really think – about your future. What’s your longterm goal? What’s the next position on the path? What things do you have and what things do you need to make that step? Many of the things you’ll need are multi-purpose. It’s OK if it’s not immediately clear. It’s OK if it changes. It’s OK to have backup plans. The important thing is that your career planning isn’t on cruise control

Then look for opportunities to get what you need.

I’ve said it before. No one is more invested in your career than you are. Take the initiative to find opportunities that can help you advance – education, networking, specific experience. It pains me to hear 30(ish) year olds say, “I wish [my PI] had told me about [opportunity] (before it was too late to be of use to me).” Your PI is not the be-all, end-all information database. We’re adults. We can do this. It takes time and effort. Sometimes you have to step outside your comfort zone. But these are things you can do.

Where do you find those opportunities? Lectures and courses through your institution and their affiliates. Events run by local organizations. Online courses. Networking – face-to-face and online. If your institution has a training, career development, or postdoc affairs office, chances are they can point you to some valuable resources in your area. Talk to mentors and other postdocs. Get out of the lab and talk to people outside your academic sphere.

Research is your primary job responsibility. Publications are a measure of productivity. They’re important. No one will argue that. But alone they’re not sufficient. 

Get your research done and, as possible, published. It’s important for your adviser and for you. Publications are the deliverable in academic research – but depending on where you’re going next and your prior record, the weight they carry differs.

I initially noted that research and publications alone aren’t sufficient, especially when looking outside academia. But I think this is true, regardless of where you go. In academia, proposal writing and communication matters. If you want to work at a liberal arts college, teaching experience matters. Regulatory affairs, experience in trials or FDA approval processes. Science or medical writing, communication with specific target audiences – often who aren’t experts in the field. Every science career requires some skill or experience that you’re not going to get strictly from research.

Basically, do more. Some of it can build out of things you’re already doing. Some of it may require new ventures. I get that thinking about it is exhausting. But this is about your career – and this postdoc is but a small piece of it.

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6 Responses to The job vs. the career

  1. This is a great post and the kind of thing I should’ve taken on board during my PhD. I’m on it now, throwing myself into lots of new things but this is exactly the sort of think people (me) need to hear. Cheers.

  2. bertramlab says:

    This is great advice, advice I will share with my current and former graduate students. Thanks!

  3. Aisling says:

    I totally agree! I believe this is great advice for postdocs, but also for grad students. I’m currently on the path to recruit a PhD student and I was thinking about how to articulate these things to him/her. Your post is very helpful.

  4. Excellent advice. I am going through this at the moment and a friend send this to me. I am finishing off my PhD and need a job for now. My career will probably be taking me in the teaching direction but there is still time for that.

  5. well, said, Belle! I too will pass this on to grads and postdocs. Best wishes for you new position.

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