Sunday, January 1, 2017

Confessions of a Postdoc on Leaving the Ivory Towers

Like many before me, I have followed the grad school and postdoc path fully toward its uncertain destination. I gathered some data along the way. This is my story.

1. Prologue
Right now, there are over 40,000 post-doctoral ("postdoc") scientific researchers working at universities and research institutions in the U.S. These are the primary authors of the large majority of peer-reviewed research papers, often working 50 to 60 hours/week for an average salary of about $45,000/year. They usually have experience teaching at universities, and they have been mentored in the finest methods of research by the most brilliant minds in academia.

2. Fluid Mechanics
Although the postdoc position was once intended to be the bridge of training between earning a PhD and becoming a professor, that scenario does not play out for most PhD graduates these days. In the sciences, the flow of PhD graduates pumped out from academia has become increasingly greater than the trickle of new tenure-track professors hired into academia, leaving about 90% of PhDs to spill over into some other form of employment. This is especially true for those who did not attend one of the more prestigious universities.

I am among those 90%. As I began my 5th year as a postdoc and accepted that the odds of a future faculty position were not in my favor, I took inventory of my skills and interests, identified and cultivated transferable job skills, and began considering careers beyond the ivory towers of academia.

3. Priorities and Realities
When the scales of academia fell from my eyes, I came to realize that many of the other career paths may pay better, have more job security, require less travel or demand fewer hours of work on evenings and weekends in comparison to faculty positions. These factors are all more important to me (and my wife) now than they were when I began graduate school as an untethered bachelor.

That said, I have a huge amount of respect for the minority who are cut from the herd to become research professors, and how much they are capable of doing. Teaching, research, mentoring, writing, fund-raising, management, innovation -- they do it all. It is a prestigious position in society, and deservedly so.

After I began the process of updating my CV, converting it into a resume, polishing personal statements, creating a web portfolio and putting out applications, I learned how hard it is to get noticed. There are a lot of good positions out there, but there are also an increasing number PhD candidates competing for them. For what it's worth, LinkedIn will tell you how many people have applied for an advertised position, and that number can sometimes be in the triple digits. That may give you some idea of how many jobs on average you will need to apply for in order to get hired anywhere.

Earning a PhD trained me to think about the world around me in ways that are rare in a post-truth world, and I am forever grateful for that. However, it did not help me gain the experience that is desired for a lot of positions in the biotech and pharmaceutical sectors. My job searches gave me reason to believe that a bachelors or masters degree in the biological sciences with several years of cGMP industry experience would yield more opportunities on the job market than a PhD with postdoc experience. Thus, I am somewhat empathetic to the arguments raised by some who question the value of a PhD in today's economy.

4. Planting Seeds Beyond the Ivory Towers
During 2016 (my final year working as a postdoc), I applied for 38 different jobs over a 7 month period. 

Here's a graphic I made that illustrates the outcome. The positions are numbered, and the initial response to each of my applications is classified, along with how many days it took to receive that response. The pie chart shows the proportion of the various types of jobs that I applied for.

I ended up with one job offer, which I accepted. That's a 2.6% success rate, although accepting that offer meant that I had to withdraw from the searches for two other positions (#36 and #37) that potentially could have had positive outcomes for me. 

Mostly, I applied for openings in the U.S., but a few were abroad too. I applied for positions that did and did not require a PhD, inside and outside of academia, doing teaching, research, writing, or some combination of those things.

The responses to my applications varied widely. Aside from the occasional automated email confirmation, 23 of the 38 applications disappeared into the ether of forevermore with no response, positive or negative. Of the 15 that did respond, 9 were negative responses informing me that my application would not be considered, and 6 were positive responses requesting some type of interview, writing test or other follow up.

The amount of time it took for me to receive any kind of response generally ranged from a few days to a few weeks. But in one odd case, a company responded with a request for a brief phone chat 73 days after I had submitted the application (#37). They were hiring on a rolling basis, which was probably a factor.

I participated in a brief phone interview with one well known biotech supplier (#35). As it concluded, the interviewer explained that I would be contacted by so-and-so for a more thorough follow up interview over Skype the following week. I never heard from them again.

In another case (#36), I was received a rejection email 10 days after I applied. Then, 12 days later, they contacted me again to request a phone interview. I wondered if these HR idiosyncrasies could be some indication of how the broader organizations function, but I guess I'll never know.

It is hard to identify many clear trends from this data, given that my personal experience is only a small sample size. I can't say that one job type was more responsive in any particular way. The academic positions generally had a longer response time, which is expected given the amount of application materials that they requested and the Fall 2017 start date for those positions.

5. Projections and Reflections
Ultimately, the position I accepted (#38) was as a Public Health Scientist in the virology lab at my state's department of health services. It was one of the few local positions I applied for, and incidentally the only one that resulted in an in-person interview. 

I prepared for the interview by going over general job interview questions I found on the internet and writing out responses. This proved helpful. I showed up on time, in a suit and tie, and tried to remember to make eye contact with everyone on the interview panel. It turned out that one of the people working there that was on the interview panel was a person I had known previously from my department when he was a graduate student there. I don't know if that was a factor.

While it is not the highest salaried position that I pursued, it will be a modest increase in salary, and an improvement in benefits such as retirement plans. And, it should generally consume only 40 hours of my week unless there is a public health crisis. The value of more time on the evenings and weekends to spend on all the other things that I enjoy in life, like our newborn son, will not be insignificant.

I have loved the creative and scientific aspects of working in academic research, and feel very fortunate to have been able to do so for so many years with some of the smartest and most interesting people that I have known. But I am also eager to work in a more application driven environment that has important implications for public health in my state. I am eager to have stability, to know that my employment status is not ephemeral, and to know that I can put down roots if I want to. Plus, I am able to continue working in virology, my current and chosen field of interest. 

I hope that this information will be useful perhaps to others in my field who sometimes wonder where their PhD will take them.

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