Confessions of a Postdoc (23): The Road Less Travelled… Until Now
(April 24th, 2015) Since 2010, Anjana Nityanandam has shared her inner thoughts, experiences and feelings that come with being a postdoc. Here are her latest insights into the world of a research scientist that many are probably all too familiar with.
An increasing number of postdocs is looking for alternate careers in science and technology, outside of research. Perhaps they are disillusioned by the constant uncertainty, exhausted from the relentless demand to publish, frustrated by the never-ending personal monetary issues, or maybe they just realised research isn’t really their cup of tea anymore. Perhaps the romance of scientific discovery has waned. Whatever the reason, the proportion of postdocs looking into opportunities in the business side of scientific innovation (as well as teaching positions in academia and editorial positions at scientific journals), is growing by leaps and bounds. R&D is only a small, albeit important, part of companies dedicated to selling either drugs to treat diseases, or products to facilitate research. Sales and marketing, product management, technical support, technical writing, clinical and regulatory affairs are all essential components of the machinery, and they are all hiring PhDs for the job.
As I myself started looking into these avenues, I realised the biggest challenge in making a career switch, even if to a somewhat related field, is not figuring out how to get there, but to know, with some certainty, that this is what you really want at this point in your career. In addition to planning, designing and executing experiments in the lab (which requires several valuable skills), what is it that you are really good at that you could perhaps translate into a prospective livelihood? For the indecisive among us, arriving at that answer could take a few sleepless nights. However, it is comforting to know that there are actually plenty of resources to help you make that decision. I propose a three-step process. Step number one is information gathering. The more you know, obviously the better informed your decision is going to be, even if you are hearing the same things over and over again from different sources. It only reaffirms your impression of a new and hitherto unfamiliar territory that you might venture into. From informational interviews on LinkedIn, to local networking events and career symposia, all you got to do is find people who are doing the kind of jobs you are thinking about, reach out to them, and ask them what it’s like! There are two things to note here. First, people, in general, like to help. If not out of the kindness of their heart, then for the simple reason that it makes them feel important and significant. Second, there is no better resource to learn about a job you have never done before than by talking to those already doing it. Things that probably didn’t even cross your mind while you were considering this line of work might turn out to be instrumental to the decision-making process, now that you’ve heard about them straight from the horse’s mouth.
Step number two is to make a list. Speaking as a true scientist, there is no better way to go about charting an alternative map of your future career than an unbiased and analytical examination of your strengths, and equally important, your shortcomings. Yes, nothing is impossible if you set your heart and mind to it, but if you lack a certain essential skill set, chances of success will dwindle. Therefore, it is prudent to be realistic about your career choice. So make a list. For example, here are some skills that will be on my list - I like to write and edit and I do a bit of both (so I have some experience), I know I like public speaking and I am not too bad at it, I enjoy teaching and have been a good mentor to aspiring science professionals. On the other hand, I know I am not a people person, I am most certainly not an extrovert, and I am not an academic investigator in the sense that I would rather solve problems than ask questions. Match your list to the requirements for each of the jobs you are considering (information that was gathered in step one), or get a professional to do it. Most Universities and Research Institutes (at least in the US) have counsellors to help postdocs chart their career path, whether in academia or outside of it.
Once you know what you are aspiring to achieve, implement step number three - get proactive. How? Sign up for professional development courses, go to career symposia, volunteer at places that will give you relevant experience, volunteer for events that might help you establish useful contacts, go to networking events and talk to people. If you are as shy as I am, and fearful of ‘networking’, I will say this - just show up. Half the battle is won by just being there. Show up, and you will see that things will start to unravel on their own. Conversations will start, and information will be exchanged. People in a position of influence are happy to talk. They like sharing experiences, giving advice when solicited, and providing useful career information.
The world is for the go-getters. I always think of something one of my favourite TV actors Jared Padalecki (from Supernatural) said at a fan convention, in response to a question about how he manages to balance career with family life. He said, ‘Nothing takes care of itself. You have to work at it.’ That is one hundred percent correct. Absolutely nothing takes care of itself, whether personal or professional. You have to make opportunities happen, or at the least, take full advantage of those that fall into your lap. I will give you one example. I recently found out, through a sales representative, that a big biotech company was organising a symposium where one of their speakers cancelled one week before the event, and they were looking for a substitute to fill that slot. Here was an opportunity for me to do something I like (giving talks), that would look good on my CV, and perhaps in the process I could meet some important people from this company. So, I volunteered. Not only did I accomplish all of the above, I unexpectedly received a major confidence boost from all the positive feedback to the talk.
My impression from all the career symposia I have been to is that there are opportunities aplenty for those looking for a way out of research. The struggle lies in figuring out which direction to pursue. But once you have accomplished that, single-minded dedication will get you wherever you aspire to go. Stay strong and believe in yourself.