If you hadn’t noticed, it was National Postdoc Appreciation Week (#NPAW) last week. Held each year during the third week in September, all kinds of initiatives and activities are organised to highlight and celebrate the invaluable contributions made by postdoctoral researchers and to support them in their careers.
You only need to do a Google search or enter the hashtag into social media platforms, such as LinkedIn to find a whole cacophony of events taking place in recognition of the crucial role played by postdocs the world over. Perhaps you’ve been involved in such an event.
As we enter this new week, post-NPAW 2023, it’s clear that the plight of the postdoc is still very much an issue in terms of the career challenges faced by contract researchers. So, for my September blog, to acknowledge this fact, I’ve decided to focus my blog on postdocs, who will at some point in their careers be facing a future ‘post-postdoc’.
Your post-postdoc ambitions
Whether you’re a postdoc considering your career trajectory towards a permanent academic career or you’re a postdoc thinking of moving into business or industry, one thing’s for certain: You can’t postdoc forever.
There will have to be a crossing point in your career when you move into other roles. I say roles because it’s likely that you will not remain in your first post-postdoc role for the duration of your career. You’ll get promoted or you’ll move sideways or along and across and into other positions, as you find your ideal career path.
Try not to grieve too much for the postdoc that you leave behind when you finally move on. Did you grow up wanting to be a postdoc? Did you aspire at school or even university to be one? I doubt it very much. Perhaps you were curious, inquisitive about the world, you wanted to make a difference, were inspired by scientists on TV. You most probably wanted to be a scientist.
Whenever I look up ‘Scientist’ on LinkedIn with the ‘People’ search, the results I get hardly ever include scientists working in academia, only those working in industry. Scientists in academia call themselves postdocs or research associates, lecturers or associate professors.
You don’t have to badge yourself in the outside world as a postdoc – you can title yourself something more meaningful such as Bioscientist, Evolutionary Biologist, Astrobiologist, Developmental Biologist, Biomedical Scientist, Bioinformatician, etc. You can even add in other descriptors of yourself such as creative, solutions-oriented, technology-focussed, resourceful problem-solver, etc.
Think about a more suitable title and then add it to your LinkedIn profile.
Your post-postdoc transition
I see a lot of postdoc CVs and many of them are not fit for purpose. Don’t get me wrong, they usually contain loads of great experiences, technical skills and achievements. The problem is that when you are applying for a new position, you need to present yourself not as you are in your current role – a postdoc – but as the person you’re aiming to be next.
For example, if you’re aspiring to be an independent researcher – include information about your research ideas, where you see yourself creating a new research niche as an emerging researcher in the field of XXX, focus on funding successes and collaborations, rather than listing your technical skills. For permanent academic posts, do the same but include collegiate activities, such as resource management, committee representation or reviewer responsibilities.
On the other hand, you may be looking to become a senior scientist in a biotechnology company. In this case, change your language to match the industry, tell them about your experiences relevant to their job requirements, leave out long lists of publications and teaching (or just add in a link). Make sure to mirror their job requirements, especially including examples of your interpersonal skills, personal qualities and experiences.
If you’re moving to an entirely different type of role, such as science administrator – you will need to re-organise your CV quite dramatically. Your scientific knowledge and skills need only be mentioned briefly and more broadly to show that you are an experienced scientist. More central to the application will be managerial, communication and organisational skills. Perhaps your attention to detail, ability to meet deadlines and write reports.
If your CV is successful and you are called for interview, continue to present yourself in terms of your future role so that you’re taken seriously by your prospective employers.
Imagine yourself already being a post-postdoc.
Your post-postdoc addition
Looking at post-postdoc roles can be a bit daunting when you see that perhaps you don’t ‘tick all the boxes’. Don’t be put off by this though. Employers don’t expect you to be able to satisfy more than perhaps 50 – 60% of their criteria. What they’re looking for is someone with the right attitude who will fit into and contribute to their work culture and community.
For some jobs, however, you may need to up-skill and get some career development in areas that are central to the position. In this case, look for opportunities to bolster your CV with whatever outstanding experiences or expertise is required. And if you can’t manage this, then look for jobs that interest you and make use of the skills that you most enjoy using and want to develop further.
Whatever you do, you can look forward to a bright post-postdoc future by considering getting support from a qualified career coach or adviser. Beware of paying too much – if the fee seems to be too high look elsewhere; there are plenty of reasonably priced or even free services and courses for you to make use of. Better still, contact the research support centre at your own institution, which may host career development workshops (such as my own) or offer funding to support researchers with their professional development.