Why Postdocs Make The Best Industry Employees

I had to go into the lab at 4:30 AM for a few days during my first year of graduate school to collect cells at a critical time for a new type of experiment I was running.

I hated getting out of bed the first morning but felt a sense of pride as I walked into the University building my lab was in. “I bet I’m the first one in my lab today” I thought to myself. Then I got a little more confident—I bet I’m the first one in the whole building!

The elevator opened and the blinding lights of the lab hit my eyes. A postdoc zoomed by me with an ice bucket in his hands. Okay, maybe I’m the second one here. Not bad. I threw my bag on my desk, put on a pair of gloves, and went into the cell culture room. Another postdoc was sitting in the hood I was going to use. What? Do these people sleep? (No, they don’t sleep.) I saw three more postdocs from other labs that morning, all before 6:00AM—one in the flow cytometry facility, one walking out of the dark room, and another in the hall on my way to the bathroom.

Over the next few years I saw first-hand how hard postdocs work. I also saw how little money they made and how poorly they were treated. Many of the postdocs I worked with were in their labs before I started graduate school and still in their same labs after I left graduate school five years later. On the one hand, I was impressed and inspired by their tenacity and dedication. On the other hand, I felt sorry for them. I had a horrible feeling they were working for something that would never come.

Never Ending Supply Of Postdocs

The holidays have started and postdoctoral researchers around the world are doing what they always do—working. While tenured professors are vacationing and graduate flying home to see their families, postdocs are staying put. They’ll be in the lab working 18+ hours today, tomorrow, the next day and the next day until (what seems like) the end of time.

After more than 20 years of schooling (with an average of 6 to 7 years of graduate schooling), postdocs continue to work insanely long hours, executing exquisitely complicated experiments, all while getting paid very little for it. In the U.S., postdocs make only $42,000 a year to start. If they work diligently in a big lab for 7 years, they can hit a maximum salary of $55,272 (or ~$26/hour). That’s the same average salary as a librarian or high school teacher. Again, the maximum salary a postdoc will ever receive is the same as the average librarian or average high school teacher’s salary. But at least these highly trained doctors will be paid what they’re worth when they become professors, right?

Highly Trained And Nowhere To Go?

There are hundreds of thousands of postdocs in the world. In the U.S. alone, there are 68,000 postdocs. In Boston—a single city—there are over 8,000 postdocs. And these numbers are climbing. The problem is that more than six times as many PhDs are being granted as professorships are being opened. For example, from 2005-2009, there were 100,000 PhDs granted and only 16,000 professorships opened. This means that 84,000 PhDs had to either get a postdoc, transition into a non-academic career, or remain unemployed.

The bigger problem is that these PhDs are not trained in advancing their careers. They’re simply taught that every PhD should do a postdoc and every postdoc should work in a lab for peanuts until they get a professorship. Many have no idea that well-paying, non-academic careers exist, let alone how to pursue one. But the Phd jobs are there. In fact, there are currently over 22,000 industry research jobs and 24,000 non-research science jobs. There are also 7,000 government research jobs.

Why Postdocs Make Better Employees

In college, you’re nice the people on your hall who have cars so they can take you places. In graduate school, you’re nice to the postdocs in your lab because they can help you get your degree.

If you want to get something done in lab, forget asking your academic advisor. Advisors who don’t have tenure are moody and busy writing grants all day. Advisors who do have tenure are either in a meeting, on holiday, or too far removed for lab work to know the latest techniques (or they’re moody and busy writing grants all day). Every graduate student and technician knows that postdocs are the keepers of the lab.

Postdocs know the most current technologies and methodologies, they know the literature, they know where everything is in the lab, and they know how to get reagents from other labs. Altogether, postdocs know how to get things and how to things done. These are the same skills that make postdocs great industry employees.

1. They work harder than anyone else.

The average industry worker is lazy. Most employees nowadays don’t know how to work hard. More specifically, they don’t know what hard work is. This is because they have no reference point for real hard work. I’ve worked in several elite industries and played a variety of extreme sports but have never met a group of professionals who work harder than postdocs.

When it comes to brute force work ethic, postdocs win. They work the longest hours for the littlest pay and recognition out of anyone I’ve ever met. The key is that postdocs are not doing brainless work. In other words, they’re not building fences or laying brick. They’re not regurgitating information or doing the same routine task over and over again. Instead, they’re creating information. They’re doing high-level research that requires them to understand very complicated concepts while also thinking creativity and constantly changing their approach to the world’s most difficult scientific questions.

A strong work ethic is extremely valuable, especially when done without complaining. Most employees constantly complain about how bad things are at their company. Or, they run their mouths about how much work they’re going to do without ever really doing anything. Postdocs aren’t complainers or talkers. They’re workers. They are highly skilled in finding problems and finding the right answers to the right problems, no matter how long it takes.

Work ethic is a skill that very few people have. Companies who hire postdocs and train them well benefit greatly from their work ethic. The problem is that many postdocs fail to communicate this valuable skill to employers. If you’re a postdoc, it’s important that you let industry employers know you have this skill by using the right language in your industry resume and CV, and by bringing the topic up correctly during your industry interview.

2. They’re experts at managing time, people, and resources.

The average employee does not know how to manage their time. Studies show that most employees spend hours surfing the Internet at work. These employees don’t know how to manage people or resources either. Surveys and studies show that most new hires lack interpersonal skills and waste significant company resources each year.

Postdocs don’t waste anything. They are experts at squeezing data out of the smallest amounts of money and resources. This is because postdocs don’t live day-to-day, they live second-to-second. At any given time, the average postdoc is running 5-10 different experiments while also writing 2-3 different papers and grant proposals, attending lab meetings and seminars, applying to jobs, and staying up-to-date on the literature in their field. Not only do postdocs manage their time exceptionally well, they also manage other people’s time well.

Postdocs commonly have to deal with inept graduate students, angry academic advisors, and dozens of competing postdocs. As a result, postdocs learn which conflicts to engage in and which to avoid. They are experts at navigating their way through the intricate world of office (or lab) politics. Contrary to popular belief, postdocs have excellent interpersonal skills. They’ve learned how to negotiate for equipment time, for reagents, for projects, for grants, on and on. Postdocs are skilled strategists when it comes to making a way when there is no way.

Still, postdocs need to do a better job of communicating their communication skills. Just because you have good interpersonal skills, doesn’t mean that other people know it. A survey of 717 postdoc supervisors in North America, Europe, and Asia showed that communication skills were the most important skills in term of postdoc career success (see below). If you’re a postdoc, make sure you’re communicating your communication skills.

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 5.04.55 PM

Postdocs are not only great managers, they’re great leaders. Many postdocs carry entire projects on their own. Some carry multiple projects that are worth millions of dollars (or euros) in grant funding. Yet, many postdocs don’t see these skills as valuable and don’t leverage them for non-academic positions. If you’re a postdoc, start communicating your management and leadership skills to potential employers. These transferable skills are highly valuable and will get you the job you want. If you don’t know how to communicate these skills, connect with people who do.

3. They’re driven by passion and innovation, not money.

The average, non-academic employee is driven by money. Just money. Studies show that using money to motivate employees actually makes employees work less, not more. The problem is that money is a horrible motivator. It’s an external reward and numerous studies show that extrinsic motivation is very weak compared to intrinsic motivation.

Desires like the desire to be creative or the desire to do significant work is much more powerful than the desire to earn more money. Postdocs are intrinsically motivated to innovate and leave a legacy. They value doing cutting-edge work that matters. They don’t just value getting a paycheck. Good luck finding that in your typical employee.

Sure, postdocs are human and want to make more money. But money is not their strongest motivator. More than anything else, postdocs are driven to make a difference. This is why they work insane hours for almost no money. This is why postdocs live for years in harsh conditions working under extreme uncertainty, facing failure after failure after failure.

Postdocs are also driven by an intense need to learn and to teach. They don’t fear failure, they use it. Postdocs thrive on discovery and sharing, which makes them highly valuable to any company. Most employees just want to finish whatever task their boss gives them and move on. Postdocs, on the other hand, want to pick apart and solve the task so it can be done quicker and better next time. Postdocs have faced so much adversity in their academic careers that anything they experience in industry afterwards is easy in comparison. They’re so used to working without money and with old equipment that they can hardly believe how simple and fun it is to work for a company that has new equipment and money to spend.

The biggest reason postdocs make great employees is because they never give up. They’re committed internally to their work and this acts as force multiplier for the companies that hire them. However, sometimes postdocs should give up. Most of the postdocs that I knew well were working for a professorship, or just working until something better came along. But there were never any new professorships. And nothing better ever came along. So they just kept working. A postdocs drive to succeed can be their downfall if they refuse to change course once they hit a dead end.

If you’re a postdoc who has hit a dead end in academia, it’s time to change course. Don’t just keep doing the same thing over and over again like a fly banging itself against a glass window trying to get out. Instead, do something different. Ask yourself, “Do I feel stuck? Do I keep doing the same thing over and over?” If the answer is yes, then do something about it. Don’t just keep doing what you’re doing.

You will never be successful unless you change. You will never do work that matters or be recognized for your work unless you start investing in yourself. Build your professional network. Get the industry training you need. Make a change now because you’re highly valuable to industry employers and there are industry jobs waiting for you.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

Book a Transition Call
Get Free Job Search Content Weekly

ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD

CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS

Isaiah Hankel, PhD is the Founder and CEO of the largest career training platform for PhDs in the world - Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, DOW Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Isaiah Hankel received his doctorate in Anatomy & Cell Biology with a focus in immunology and is an expert on biotechnology recruitment and career development.

Isaiah has published two bestselling books with Wiley and his methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah About Photo

Similar Articles

Best Of Transition: Ph.D. Jobs & Job Search Strategies January 7, 2023

Best Of Transition: Ph.D. Jobs & Job Search Strategies January 7, 2023

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Every week, we at Cheeky Scientist scour the Internet for the best articles on topics that help in the search for the Best of Transition: PhD Job Search in the industry. Our two consultants independently search for the most informative articles in the categories of networking, CVs/resumes, interviews, transferable skills, academic blues, industry positions, and business acumen. Our consultants vote on a top article for each category and a top overall article for the week – if it’s a recent article that can help readers find and acquire PhD jobs, then we want to include it in this weekly digest.…

4 Red-Hot Intellectual Property Positions For PhDs

4 Red-Hot Intellectual Property Positions For PhDs

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I just got off the phone with an old friend of mine.  We were researchers at the same lab back in our university days. We had lost touch, but when he found me on LinkedIn I couldn’t wait to hear what he’s done since graduation.  He told me he had not wound up in chemistry, which had been his major. Biomolecular chemistry, he reminded me. Instead, he decided to pursue a career in patent law.  Here’s his transition story: I was in the process of earning my PhD in biomolecular chemistry. That’s where I learned that patents were unrecognized by…

4 Oddly Popular PhD Careers In Finance And Business

4 Oddly Popular PhD Careers In Finance And Business

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

PhDs in the sciences and humanities are not qualified to work in finance or business. At least that’s what I thought. That was until I started hearing more of my former colleagues talk about their transition into consulting and financial service roles. These were people who specialized in very niche areas of science. I was surprised to learn that their skills were needed in the financial and business sectors of industry. What can a PhD in the sciences or humanities possibly contribute to finance and business? As always, it comes down to your transferable skills. These sectors are seeking highly…

PhD Careers In Clinical, Medical, And Regulatory Affairs

PhD Careers In Clinical, Medical, And Regulatory Affairs

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I was defending my PhD in 6 months, and I still had no idea what I wanted to do. What job did I want? Where did I see myself in 5 to 10 years? My goal was to get out of academia and into industry – and as quickly as possible. Beyond that, I hadn’t thoroughly considered my options. In fact, when I finally sat down to apply for jobs, I blindly searched for open positions using standard terms: “Researcher,” “Scientist,” “Biologist,” and so on. As a science PhD, that’s what I was qualified for, right? What I didn’t appreciate…

6 Research And Development Roles For PhDs (Not Just Research Scientist)

6 Research And Development Roles For PhDs (Not Just Research Scientist)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

When you envision yourself in an industry role, what do you see? Like many PhDs, you might imagine yourself in a research position where you are developing and performing experiments, analyzing data, presenting the data to your research team, and so on. After all, that’s what your PhD has trained you for, right? But if the thought of spending a life-long career conducting experiments fills you with dread, start looking beyond the bench. There are plenty of fulfilling career paths within Research and Development (R&D) that keep you close to the innovation. As one Cheeky Scientist member recently shared:  …

4 Great PhD Careers In Sales And Marketing (Don’t Overlook #3)

4 Great PhD Careers In Sales And Marketing (Don’t Overlook #3)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Like many PhDs, you may think that Research and Development is the only department in industry that hires PhDs. But the reality is, your skills are needed in every area of industry. That means that every single department within a company is seeking PhD-level candidates. In fact, there are five core industry career tracks that can provide PhDs with meaningful and rewarding work: Information and Data Management (this is a broad category that includes everything from Patent Analyst and Informatics Specialist roles to Medical Writing and Data Scientist roles), Research and Development, Clinical and Regulatory Affairs, Classical Business (e.g., Management…

Data Scientist, Patent Analyst & Medical Writing Positions For PhDs

Data Scientist, Patent Analyst & Medical Writing Positions For PhDs

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

What industry position can I apply to? That’s one of the most common questions PhDs ask once they decide to leave academia. What you probably don’t realize is that you have many options when it comes to choosing a career. So, the real question is not what industry position you can apply to, but what industry position is the right fit for you. Which position better matches your professional lifestyle and career goals?  In previous blogs we’ve discussed how to establish your desired professional lifestyle and how to use it to evaluate your target career track and companies. In the…

3 Factors PhDs Must Consider When Deciding Company Fit

3 Factors PhDs Must Consider When Deciding Company Fit

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

If you recently started your job search, you probably feel the pressure of proving that you’re a good fit for the industry roles you’re applying to.  You have to carefully craft your cover letter, resume, and LinkedIn profile, and prepare for countless interviews just to prove you’re  qualified for a position.  This pressure can make you feel that employers hold all the power, and the only thing that matters is convincing them that you’re the best candidate for the role. Don’t let this pressure make you neglect other key components of a successful career, like company fit.  You’ll likely accept…

8 Work Qualities PhDs Should Assess When Planning A Career Move

8 Work Qualities PhDs Should Assess When Planning A Career Move

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

If you have a PhD, you’re among the 2% of the population who has committed to push a field of knowledge forward.  That makes you one of the most innovative people in the world. This is something special. As such, you deserve to work in a position where your tenacity and ability to solve problems are out of good use. Where you feel satisfied and are rewarded for your job. That’s why I encourage all PhDs to look for an industry position, because academia is a dead end where dreams go to die. However, you have to be strategic when…

Top Industry Career eBooks

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel

The LinkedIn tips & strategies within have helped PhDs from every background get hired into top industry careers.

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD & Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Learn about the best 63 industry careers for PhDs (regardless of your academic background). In this eBook, you will gain insight into the most popular, highest-paying jobs for PhDs – all of which will allow you to do meaningful work AND get paid well for it.

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Learn how to craft the perfect industry resume to attract employers. In this eBook for PhDs, you will get access to proven resume templates, learn how to structure your bullet points, and discover which keywords industry employers want to see most on PhD resumes.