I recently came across two enlightening studies from CIHE and Vitae that highlight Industry’s perceptions of postdocs as potential employees; the conclusions are both dire and exciting. The consistent theme in these reports is that, although industries that actively recruit postdocs universally recognize their scientific problem solving and data analysis skills, they have significantly less confidence in leadership, communication skills and adaptability to non-academic environments and practices.
The practical consequences of these realities are outlined in an ASBMB Career Insights article entitled “How to Prepare for a Job in Industry” in which a recently hired scientist observes, “it’s a given that you are an expert,… it’s the other things that are important in the decision on a hire.”
So the question for you then becomes: How can you use this reality to your advantage?
In this extremely competitive landscape for post-postdoc jobs – most of which are now in industry (latest figures suggest only 8% of postdocs attaining tenure-track academic positions), the best opportunity to really differentiate yourself from your competition is to develop these non science skills and demonstrate those competencies in resumes, cover letters, and interviews.
There are two reasons for this: 1) Industry has clearly stated that this is an important consideration in their selection process, and 2) because there is so little training of these skills in postdoctoral programs, the opportunity to separate yourself from the rest of the applicants is much greater.
Part of the challenge for graduate students and postdocs is the lack of training in these “soft skills” that are made available in most programs. The driving force in most programs is to have postdocs generate as much high quality data as possible with the goal of generating as many high quality publications as possible since publications and data are the fuel for generating grant funding. Along with those reasons, publications are the primary metrics used for judging the laboratory principal investigator’s productivity, and possible promotions.
So, it’s not surprising that many PIs would much prefer their postdocs to spend their available time generating data rather than taking evening or weekend courses to learn these “soft skills.”
We at sciphd.com see this phenomenon repeatedly as we talk with university postdoctoral program leaders while setting up workshops on preparing postdocs for careers in industry. The frustrated refrain from these leaders is that despite them all agreeing in the importance of teaching these skills, budgets are not available to provide the training. The postdocs who attend these workshops overwhelmingly realize the importance of developing these skills, get excited about their new realization of the soft skills they actually do have but didn’t realize were important, and leave with a fresh and more optimistic perspective on their career possibilities.
But the challenge that remains for them is how to obtain the training for the skills they lack and the funding to pay for it. To put this in perspective, certificate programs that teach these skills can easily cost thousands of dollars, and executive MBA type programs can cost tens of thousands (just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that formal MBAs are required for PhDs looking at careers in industry – they are not).
Given the stated importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education in keeping the United States competitive, some re-prioritization of available resources, as well as industry-university partnerships are two possible ways to address this growing problem. After all, it is in industry’s best interests to invest in appropriate training for their future workforce. The return on investment would be well worth it.
One encouraging sign was the newly announced NIH Director’s Early Independence Award that will provide $250,000 per year for five years to ten exceptional early career scientists directly following completion of their PhDs. The goal here is to shorten the time from obtaining your PhD to running your own productive academic laboratory by eliminating the postdoc period altogether, and instead relying on mentorship of faculty at your new university. It’s an interesting idea, but I can’t help but think how much more impact an equivalent $12.5 million might have on providing thousands of postdocs formal training in the soft skills they require to successfully transition into industry and help drive the innovation and development of new medicines and technologies that will advance our culture and keep us competitive.