I once heard a professor say that some postdocs become highly skilled super-technicians during the course of their research contract(s). Much valued by their PI, group members and even other research groups, these postdocs are experts in specific technical areas such as scientific techniques, specialised equipment, methodologies, programming, troubleshooting and other activities associated with functional aspects of the research process. Whether through their own volition or unintentionally, they spend a great deal of their time working on the more practical aspects of the research project, and may even lend a hand to other groups who value their specialist advice.
If you recognise yourself as being such a postdoc then you may want to take some time to review your role in the context of your career plans. Ask yourself:
- Did I proactively choose to go down this route or has it happened in a more passive/happenstance way?
- Do I enjoy this more technical role? Does it give me satisfaction?
- Am I developing useful skills and competencies which will increase my employability in terms of my career plans and aspirations?
This final question is very important: What are your career plans? For example, are you aiming for a permanent academic or group leader position, or would you prefer a specialised functional post such as a facilities manager, senior technical scientist or lab manager? Permanency in academia requires high-impact papers, evidence of funding success and a fast-growing international profile, accompanied by high level research skills and an enterprising disposition. Technical careers generally require knowledge and expertise in particular scientific/technical areas including lab techniques, informatics and programming, accompanied by analytical and problem-solving skills and a willingness to engage with a range of projects and people offering your insights and expertise to their research.
As a ‘super-technican’ you may consider yourself disadvantaged within the academic work environment in terms of your career progression possibilities and, in most cases, your assessment of the situation is correct: There are few opportunities to apply for a permanent specialist technical position within universities and research institutes and so it is likely you will need to consider other work environments such as industry and the commercial sector to find a suitable place for you and your specialist skills. This is not such bad news: the academic role generally involves leading a research group, writing grant proposals, recruiting and managing personnel, writing papers, preparing lectures and teaching, doing administration, assessing essays and exams, attending committees, etc. This may not appeal to your skill-set and personal interests. Instead, in industry you can put your skills to good use and develop your career along a path more suited to you – the divergent range of jobs within private sector companies means you could start off in a technical role and move into other areas such as regulation, quality assurance, advisory or communications as well as progressing to senior levels. Imagine. You may even find yourself with a job title that says ‘scientist’ rather than ‘postdoc’!
Here are a few suggestions:
- Review your skills and interests against potential careers using my PhD Career Choice Indicator: Follow the instructions and if ‘Functional’ is your Number 1 choice, consider your 2nd preference as well: Is it ‘Social’, ‘Research’, ‘Enterprising’, ‘Artistic’, ‘Administrative’? Combinations of your interests influence the role you might prefer such as something more people-orientated, innovative, creative or managerial.
- Research the job market by getting to know the careers and vacancies on offer: My resources page provides some jobsites but there are many more.
- Review your current network. Do you know anyone who could help you with your job search, give you insights or put you in contact with others who can help you?
- Use Social Media such as LinkedIn and Twitter to search for jobs and people in career areas of interest. This is a good way of finding smaller companies.
- Refer to some of my previous blogs about postdocing:
- Refer to other information and blogs: