Why PhDs Should Stop Applying For Postdocs And Start Applying For Research Scientist Positions

postdoctoral researcher position | Cheeky Scientist | phd researcher
Written by Klodjan Stafa, Ph.D.

I had finally made the decision to leave academia.

I loved research but I knew the academic system was broken and that my true calling was to be a research scientist in industry.

I knew I would never become a tenure-track professor.

At the same time, I always thought I needed multiple titles and many years in academia to gain the necessary experience for industry.

There was no way I was prepared for the job market yet.

So after my PhD, I began a postdoc, like all the other graduate students I knew.

I continued to get paid low wages and work long hours at the bench.

I was treated poorly and received fewer benefits than when I was a graduate student.

This was supposed to prepare me for industry?

Really?

When I was nearing the end of my contract, I began to research potential companies I wanted to work for.

I reached out to people on LinkedIn and set up informational interviews with employees in various biotech and biopharma companies.

That’s when it hit me.

Yes, some of these industry professionals had postdocs but many had master’s degrees or just bachelor’s degrees.

So, why was I dawdling in academia?

Why was I wasting all of this time?

I was very confused.

Eventually, I made the decision to start pursuing an industry job immediately, not later, and was hired into a great research scientist position for Estée Lauder Companies.

I don’t regret my postdoctoral training but I do realize that I could have transitioned into industry without it.

Why You Need To Stop Applying For Postdocs 

The postdoc system is broken and yet the number of postdocs in science has grown substantially.

A recent report in Nature reported an alarming jump by 150% in the number of postdocs between 2000 and 2012.

150 percent!

The number of faculty positions, however, are shrinking.

As a result, thousands and thousands of postdocs are unable to move into more fulfilling careers.

These postdocs have been labelled “permadocs.”

Are you a permadoc?

Why would you remain in a system that no longer functions as it should?

If the academic system is not helping you now, what makes you think spending more time in the system will help you?

Too many PhDs are operating under the misconception that you need a postdoc to obtain a research scientist position in industry.

These PhDs believe that more years of experience behind the academic lab bench will look good to an industry employer.

Wrong.

The truth is that many companies prefer to hire PhDs fresh out of graduate school.

They see newly minted PhDs as fast learners and flexible.

On the other hand, these companies tend to see postdocs as narrow-minded and set in their ways.

They see postdocs as having negative, preconceived notions of industry and, as a result, do not want to hire them.

The longer you stay in academia, the more you hurt your chances of getting an industry job.

postdoctoral position | Cheeky Scientist | phd jobs outside academia

3 Reasons To Transition Into Industry Now, Not Later 

If you think a postdoc is necessary for getting an industry job, think again.

As a PhD, most industry jobs require “less training” than you have and no postdoc experience.

Even if the job posting says “postdoc experience required,” it is often not required.

Many new PhD graduates and master’s degree graduates are hired into these “postdoc required” roles.

A postdoc is not required for an industry job.

It won’t help you get an industry job or higher-tier job in industry.

So, quit lying to yourself.

If you want to be guaranteed an industry position, you need to arm yourself with the transferable skills that employers are looking for and begin to create a network of industry professionals who can help you get your foot in the door.

Stop obsessing over titles and publications.

Instead, start marketing yourself for your new non-academic career and forget about applying for postdocs. Here’s how…

1. On-the-job training is more important than academic experience.   

No matter how qualified, trained or “seasoned” you think you are in a given protocol, when you start a new position at a new company you will be forced to learn it again, following their standard operating procedure.

Be warned.

Your postdoc can’t help you.

No amount of academic experience will help you avoid this.

Your trainer may have less education and be younger than you are.

Many new PhD employees, when they first join a company, start as entry-level scientists.

But overall, the majority of any one company’s entry-level scientists have master’s degrees or bachelor’s degrees only.

What does that tell you?

These non-PhD scientists become vital to the company by building up their experience, becoming an invaluable resource, and making their way up the corporate ladder within a few years to more senior positions.

They get ahead through action and productivity, not through seniority and academic titles.

What’s more, many private companies will subsidize costs for further education or training outside of work.

It is in their best interests to retain talent and they want to invest in people who express a desire to grow professionally.

In other words, companies will pay for their master’s and bachelor’s degree-level employees to become PhDs.

This makes your postdoc experience even more irrelevant.

On a more practical level, companies are not looking for employees who know every single lab technique in the world.

Instead, if a company wants you to know how to do a certain lab technique, they will train you.

This tendency to prefer on-the-job training also makes your postdoc experience irrelevant in industry.

2. You have already gained essential transferable skills during your Ph.D. 

Don’t get me wrong.

PhDs are highly desirable job candidates in the private sector.

But they’re only desirable if they can demonstrate both the technical skills and transferable skills necessary for working in industry.

As a PhD, you have the theoretical background to tackle fundamental questions.

You know how to generate results, how to work independently or as part of a team, and how to scrutinize data.

You know how to strive for scientific excellence.

You know how to strategically plan and manage projects in a timely fashion.

Your research has led to awards, fellowships, and grant funding.

You have been able to effectively communicate your results internally across departments, as well as nationally and internationally at conferences.

All of these experiences and skills make you very competitive outside of academia, with or without a postdoc.

Never believe anyone who tells you that you need a postdoc to be successful in industry.

Still don’t believe me?

Here’s a look at six of the most common skills listed on industry research scientist job postings…

  • Creating and conducting experiments
  • Processing and analyzing data
  • Communicating results to the scientific community
  • Collaborating with industry partners to apply the results of research and develop new techniques, products or services
  • Teaching or training other members of staff
  • Devising or helping to draw up new research proposals

These are the same skills that every PhD-level academic researcher has already gained.

Be confident in the transferable skills you have and the value you can add as a PhD.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to stay in academia longer to develop your transferable skills.

You already have the transferable skills you need to transition into industry.

3. Academia is slow, stagnant, and biased. 

The private sector is dynamic.

It has to be.

Industry follows market trends and the latest innovations in biotech and biopharm.

If a project is no longer economically rewarding, it is scrapped and another is undertaken.

On the other hand, growth in academia is slow.

Academic progress is very hard to measure.

This is not because academia is above politics or above needing money.

It’s because the academic system has become lazy and one-dimensional.

An entire postdoc position can be consumed by a project that yields no results.

Sometimes this is due to an academic advisor who is too stubborn to let a bad project go.

Or because grant funding relies on a bad project—a project based on a hypothesis that was disproven long ago.

As a result, you can end a postdoc in a position that is no better than the position you were in when you started your postdoc.

Research positions in industry are very different.

For example, timing and assignments are motivated by innovation and economy in industry.

The risks can be higher but rewards are higher too.

Most importantly, your growth in industry will be measured and you will get continuous feedback.

Feedback you can actually understand.

If you work hard in industry, you will be rewarded.

Your sacrifices will not go unnoticed.

This is rarely the case in academia though, which is why staying in academia to do a postdoc makes no sense.

If you are debating whether a postdoc will make you better qualified for a research scientist position in industry, stop debating. Instead, realize that a postdoc will not make you a better job candidate for a research scientist position or any position in industry. A better strategy is to start networking with industry professionals and start creating an intelligent professional brand. Most importantly, realize you have the transferable skills and technical tools you need to obtain a research scientist position or any other position in industry right now, without a postdoc.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.

Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.

Klodjan is a Ph.D. and currently works as a Sr. Scientist in the Research & Development department of Estée Lauder Companies in New York City. During and after completion of his Doctorate, Klodjan published several prominent papers in a variety of scientific journals. He got the Brain Mind Institute (EPFL) best PhD thesis in 2013 as well as a fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation. Klodjan believes self-innovation is paramount in today’s competitive job market and encourages other PhDs to take action for themselves instead of allowing others to dictate their choices and careers.
Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.
  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    This is fascinating, Klodjan, and so insightful. I believe you said it all when you asked what makes you think that if the academic system isn’t helping you, it’s suddenly going to start helping you if you just spend more time there? I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Hi Sonja,

      Indeed I do agree with you on a lot of things!PhDs are highly trained individuals with great scientific acumen and if they had an amazing supportive system they’d be doing great things in every sector of the private market. I have been called a “sold-out” because I joined the other side rather than staying until tenure but I did not regret it at all, rather took it on a personal challenge and sought a new refreshing avenue. And yes, elite academics do look down industry as thinking they’re doing better than the private sector!

  • Theo

    Wow, this is really good stuff. You’ve pretty much convinced me. I don’t think I’d make a good college professor anyhow, even if there were any of those jobs left. I like what you’re saying about industry jobs giving you more feedback and being dynamic because of market changes. I think the academic labs get stuck with these studies that go on for years even though it is obvious that the hypothesis is wrong.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Hi Theo,

      If you need extra info, don’t hesitate to reach out to me as I’d be more than happy to help out!Best

      • Kojo Mensah

        Hi Klodjan,
        Really amazing article. I am a PhD student and can already find myself in everything you just wrote down…! But how do I get into contact with the industry (network) and how do I find out what kind of companies/jobs are out there for my interests?

        Kojo

  • Madeline Rosemary

    I’d like to get out of academia yesterday, but that’s not going to happen. At least I can start networking now and see what’s out there and where I would be a good fit. I can see the handwriting on the wall, and it says in big black letters: GET OUT! SOONER THAN LATER. lol

  • Kathy Azalea

    Thanks, Klodjan. A lot of us can see where you’re coming from. I agree – 150% increase in the number of postdocs just means that there is a flood of graduate students in the system, and it’s time to get out. No wonder they really don’t value their grads and treat the postdocs right.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Thank you Carlie!One thing is sure, they(academic heirarchies) want you but they will not invest on you rather use you to achieve papers and obtain grants.Best

      • Dr Jamuna J Bhaskar

        So true, they just want publications. Most of the time they concentrate on number of papers rather than quality of the work. I reluctantly did so much of meaningless work. They are not open to our new ideas. They just want us to do whatever they plan. They expect high science with poor facilities.

      • Federico

        @klodjanstafa:disqus thank you for this article, now I m 100% not interested (I wasn’t at the beginning), now I got more evidence … thanks again

        • Klodjan Stafa

          You’re very welcome Federico!Should you have further questions, feel free to reach out to me.Best.Klodjan

  • Dr Jamuna J Bhaskar

    Great klodjan, your write-up has increased my confidence to join industry. I used to think that I am the only person who got bored of academic phd benchwork. all my colleagues either joined postdoc or asst prof jobs. Though I have worked very hard during my phd research, the appreciation i received was never motivating. As you have mentioned I too found academic research too slow and monotonous. Thank you for such inspiring and bold write-up.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Dear Madeline,

      You told that yourself: laud and out, the sooner you transition the better will be for your career!We’re here to help out should you need any advice as I’ve gone through the struggle myself!

  • Julian Holst

    When I think of all the work my classmates and I have put into planning our careers and preparing for a postdoc and career in academia, it really feels discouraging. But the point is that there are many positions out there in industry that are not only better for us, but will probably relieve some of the glut of PhD’s looking for postdoc positions. I really never heard a more convincing argument to simply bypass the whole postdoc experience and go for the gold. Thanks so much, Klodjan. I hope we hear more from you on this site.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Hi Julian,

      You are very welcome and I will be writing more on the matter!
      Feel free to reach out to us and the undersigned, should you need more info on the matter!

      Best regards

      Klodjan

      • Chandrakanth Gadipelly

        Really great,.,.and very enlightening !!

        • Klodjan Stafa

          Thank you for your message!
          If there is anything else you would want to know, about the transition process, feel free to reach out as I’d be delighted to assist.

  • Harvey Delano

    Wow, it’s really good to know that the postdoc actually doesn’t help, and in fact, could hurt your chances of getting a position in industry. I can’t believe there is so much hype about how important it is, but then I guess the universities used to need postdocs really badly to carry on their research and fill the needed slots. Now it seems like having too many postdocs is actually turning into a problem for them, too.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Yes Harvey too many postdocs can be deleterious for your career!When you hear the expression, overly qualified, it doesn’t mean that industry cannot afford you but rather you are too specialized and seasoned. Being too focused on some detailed projects and topics will actually make you look bad as industry wants people who can easily be flexible and comfortable getting their hands on multiple projects in the block of the eye.

  • Sonja Luther

    It sounds to me like PhD’s just need to get real and stop thinking that their ability to sit at a bench and do these experiments isn’t going to be as sought-after as it was in days gone by. In fact, the idea that industry employers see PhD’s in a rather negative, narrow-minded light is a sorry development and probably based on some pedantic academics who looked down their noses at industry. I’d sure like to see those stereotypes disappear on both sides, and I think your article will go a long way to helping PhD’s market themselves more effectively and prove just how open and resilient they can be.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      You’re welcome Jamuna J Bhaskar!
      I’m delighted to know there are smart people like you that need better appreciation and support for the hard work and yes, is time to act now and set your goals to success by breaking free from academia!If you have further questions, I’d be happy to help out. Best

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    It’s been a long, uphill battle trying to get through school and get that PhD, and when I graduate, I know I’m not going to waste my time with a postdoc. Since I’ve been visiting this site on a regular basis, I’m seeing more and more evidence that the career path most of us shoot for is just not working anymore. I, for one, will be happy to get on with it and get into industry, where I can work on projects that have real relevancy to the community at large. The likelihood of better pay doesn’t hurt, either! 🙂

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Indeed Marvin and I am glad you are getting there! Feel free to reach out, should you need more info and solutions tips on how to transition! Best regards!

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    I almost feel sorry for the people who are still contained in the academic system. It wasn’t that long ago that I got out, and judging by some of these stats, it wasn’t a minute too soon. But at least the grad students of today have access to this information. I chalk it up to luck that events conspired to get me out of there when I did, and I hope that many more PhD’s have a chance to read this material.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Thank you Mathew for supporting the cause!If my article can get people to realize that they need to move forward and reinvent themselves, I’d be more than happy to have achieved my goal of disseminating the right information of what is really going on! Best. PS: out of curiosity, would you be willing to share here your transition experience for other associates and those who might be willing to hear more on that matter?Thank you and best regards!Klodjan

  • Sissy MacDougall

    Coming from the point of view of having a Master’s already, I can only say that as much as I’ve followed this blog, it still shocks me that so many PhD’s opt for postdoc positions that won’t help them. I think it’s a big problem and I’m sure that many young PhD’s, given the benefit of this information, would make fast tracks into industry, where they can find the challenge and benefits they worked so hard for. Kudos to all of you, Klodjan, for bringing this info forward.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Hi Sissy,

      Indeed the problem is real and needs to be solved but PhDs need to understsnd that no further training is needed unless they’re going for that tenure track path to become an academic professor. During a PhD you do get the necessary training to strive and excell in any industry career!Best

  • pravesh verma

    Thanks for sharing nice discussions.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Dear Pravesh,

      You are the most welcome!I’m glad my article can help other people decide to change their lives for the better!

  • Klodjan Stafa

    Hi Kathy, it is indeed true, the academic system is flooded with PhDs and postdocs, highly educated, smart people that can drive this world, yet so poorly treated by barons and untouchable professors, this is not right!I was there and I made the transition and have not regretted for once single second! Moreover, academia needs to partner with industry and help the smooth transition of these people who as highly trained as they are, are left alone at the mercy of the job market with no guidance and support!Best

  • Soumen Saha

    Very well written… Atleast I feel the same way. I am just going to submit my thesis and thinking seriously to enter into industry. But the problem in a third world country that u need havoc networking to get a place and often comparable to academia. Few of my senior faced the problem. Their cvs wasnt considered when they applied independently but the same person got the job through some big fellow. However ur post was more inspiring than my supervisors appreciation.

  • Sidharth Mohan

    This is great. I feel inspired and a little less fearful. I DO think that professors think their grad-students are sell-outs for not taking up the tenure track. What amazes me is how they forget that the situation when they were up for tenure is different from what it is now! there is virtually no incentive to join academia today, sadly. thanks for keeping our hopes up!

  • Thokhir

    Hi Klodjan,

    Nice post and very informative but i still have not fully satisfied. In companies you have to do routine work. Most of my friends they are working in industries they work like robots, they are given some project like synthesizing some compound in a bulk (in Kg’s). They will be given the SOP’s for the synthesis and where is the point of innovation in that. Most of the companies work on a specialized products and they stick to that for years till their patents expires.

    Could you please give some suggestions as i am writing my thesis and i really want to decide to opt industry or postdoc.

  • Zinnee

    Thanks for the article. I totally agree with you, however many of us are stuck in postdocs because we just couldn’t find anything else. For example, after I finished my PhD, I was out of the job for 18 months. I was focused on industry jobs or research in the national labs, but after many interviews, infos sessions, career fairs, networking etc, I was still unsuccessful. So, despite turning down a few postdoc offers, I caved after 18 month because I didn’t want large the gap in employment and I needed the money-despite how small it was. Now I am 6 months into a postdoc and I HATE it, but I am counting down the days until the contract is over-while applying for jobs.

    What would you suggest here for someone who was in my situation, who had little to no success attaining their dream job!

  • Pat R.

    You don’t do a PhD or a Post-PhD to get a job, you do it for the achievement and for the love of research. Post-PhD research is the best research experience you can get. Research is all about passion, if you don’t have the passion and just want a job, then yes, forget about the post-PhD…