A major part of my work with biomedical graduate students and postdoctoral fellows is to help them navigate the details of their paths to an academic or non-academic career. They often ask, “Should I consider academia or industry?”
As a former research scientist in the biotechnology industry and an assistant professor at the Academy, I have tested the employment practices and career paths of both worlds. With this perspective, I encourage young scientists to rephrase this question into “Do I want to develop and lead my own scientific space?” And those in the humanities majors ask instead, “Do I wish to pursue further research in my major?”
If you’re trying to make a similar decision, I’d recommend thinking about the kind of contributions you’d like to make as a thought leader throughout your entire career, not just in the first job. Where do you hope to be in the next five to seven years? Do you want to participate in the search for a new scientific problem or a philosophical or technical question? Want to run a team to investigate these questions and solve problems? Do you want to help guide others so that they themselves can become thought leaders? Would you like to contribute to the education of the future generation of thought leaders? In the end, do you want to become the leader of your system?
If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, I would suggest that you stay on the right track for research and development in any sector, academia, or otherwise.
Do I need to complete a Postdoctoral Fellowship?
For the humanities and social sciences, a postdoctoral fellowship may not be required for professorial positions. Your intellectual leadership developed during your Ph.D. It is enough. For most scientific disciplines, a postdoctoral fellowship is the time when a young scientist determines which branch of science he wants to pursue and how to develop his leadership in scientific thinking in his chosen field. The postdoctoral fellowship should be goal-oriented, with a business plan, so that at the end of three or four years, the candidate has deployed profusely, and is ready to apply for a more permanent position.
As a postdoctoral fellow, try to develop your specific area based on what you have already started during your doctoral period. For example, if you have been involved in using a specific research technique to investigate a particular disease model as a PhD, you may want to continue researching the same disease model in your post-doc work to date using a different technique—or, alternatively, to keep the same Research technology field but with a change of disease area. This strategy allows you to build on what you already know rather than having to learn an entirely new technology and field.
Some postdoctoral fellows have changed their areas of technology and research and are still succeeding in taking on research roles in academia and industry. Just keep in mind that if you want to become a world-class expert in a new field and new technology, your postdoctoral years may take a little longer. You’ll start from scratch without the five or six years of knowledge you gained during your Ph.D. in research or technology.
You should design your postdoctoral experience with these key goals in mind:
- To enhance your scholarly expertise with new technologies, experimental designs, critical analyses, grants and proposal writing, and develop improved skills in people management and collaboration networks;
- to publish significant research and apply for leadership positions after four or five years;
- To take part of your research work to your next position with a supportive supervisor.
By the time you finish your postdoctoral fellowship, your colleagues will know you in your specific field of interest. The best time to apply for a professor or R&D leadership position is when the “iron is hot” — in other words, when you’ve deployed well, usually after four years. However, it is also possible to apply for a research position in the biotechnology industry early, perhaps two years later.
Venture into research and development straight from your Ph.D.
I’ve noticed that some students jump straight into industry scholar positions when they get their Ph.D. Business and thought leadership align well with the company’s vision. For example, a new Ph.D. A graduate who has developed an improved method for a new technology. She founded a company working on such technology and wrote a cover letter outlining her experience and how it could help their work. The company was not advertising a job, but upon receiving the letter, I reached out to her for an interview, and then hired her for a position as a scientist.
In the other case, Ph.D. A graduate discovered a company also working in a similar field to his research that was advertising a senior scientist position. Although he did not have the experience, he submitted anyway with a cover letter describing what he could offer. After the interview, the company offered him a post-doctoral industrial position with the possibility of promotion after one year. Both examples show how the power of a cover letter and subsequent interview can create opportunities that didn’t exist before.
When a Postdoctoral Fellowship Is Not Necessary
If discovered during your Ph.D. That your interests are in areas outside of research and development, such as communications, communication, policy, management consulting, business development, or any of the other professions offered at myIDP or ImaginePhD, the Postdoctoral Fellowship is not particularly necessary. What is essential, however, is to develop meaningful connections during your Ph.D. That will contribute to your future career path portfolio. Examples include: 1) video recordings of your presentations and articles written for outreach journals for a communications role, 2) participation in student policy groups for a policy advisory role, and 3) mini MBAs or case competitions for a management consulting job.
Re-enter the academy after an industrial experience
Some students ask me if it is possible to pursue industry and go back to the academy. Such a move is possible as long as you continue to produce the Academy’s currency: publications. If your role in the field allows for publications and the building of your research network through collaborations, this experience will be considered a “post-doctoral” experience when you later apply for an academic researcher position.
If you are interested in teaching in higher education, you can teach a semester or two part-time at your local university while working in industry, if that aligns with your interests and department. If you want to move into a full-time teaching role, try attending some higher education conferences where you can introduce and expand your network. This is, in fact, how I moved from industry to academia. I found some academic mentors, presented at higher education conferences and created opportunities for teaching – gathering feedback and evidence of impact along the way to incorporate into my teaching profile.
In conclusion, whether you decide to pursue research within or outside the academy, know the leadership and critical thinking you learned while pursuing your Ph.D. They will help you in any job or profession. Also, it’s totally fine not to know exactly where to go during your Ph.D. Keep researching, keep initiating, keep in touch and you will create the best path to continuous thought leadership, whatever you decide to do.