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