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What To Do With Your PhD After Graduate School: Post-Doc or Real Job?

June 09, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 212

An Alternative Career Choice: Field Application Scientist

I found that in grad school you are entirely on your own. No one informed me of any career options apart from doing a post-doc. It was only through self-realization and hard work that I found out what I wanted to do. In all honesty, it started out with me typing on Google, 'How to transition from science into business.' Up came an article by David Jensen titled, 'Tooling Up: The Application Scientist Career Track.' If grad schools had outside speakers from like David Jensen come give talks it would open the eyes of graduate students all over the entire campus. If speakers like this do come to colleges, it needs to be more often and be more apparent. I cannot tell you how many grad students I have approached and they have no laid out career path. No direction. If you read David Jensen's article it states, "But not everyone wants to wade through several more years of shake flasks and pipettors, in hopes that serendipity and networking will eventually lead to where they want to be. Many are more comfortable taking steps - now - that keep their options open but help them move toward the career they want to end up in." Even the ones that want to stay in academia or even go into industry. They think a post-doc is necessary for this (this is only true for academia). And to be honest, a lot of people that I know who have graduated that are doing post-docs still don't know what they want to do after their post-doc. In my opinion, the whole point in getting a PhD is to get a job. A post-doc is only delaying this process (unless you want to be a bench research scientist than it is logical). And not surprisingly, the 'non-traditional careers' apart from the lab bench are now becoming 'traditional careers.' I have done informational interviews with PhDs from various biotech companies in my area. And it was ONLY then did I realize what kind of options were even out there. I said to myself, "People actually actually use their PhDs in ways I never even thought possible." They aren't just stuck at the lab bench. They are business leaders at a company. They are product developers. They are head of a marketing segment. They are in the field helping a sales team, doing product demonstrations, shows, and presentations. How I see it: By getting the PhD first, I am demonstrating my scientific knowledge, expertise and ability to learn. The science is the hardest part to learn. This will allow you to later transition into more of a business role later on, and the business aspect will be much easier and quicker to learn.

An Alternative Career Choice: Going Into Business

Interestingly, a lot of 'high up' business professionals in biotech industry that I have interviewed have started out as a Field Application Scientist (or in-house Tech Services), then they used that as a stepping stone into more of a business role. And the PhD is perfect for this type of position because it shows you have the technical expertise and scientific knowledge, and gives you the respect. No one told me anything about a FAS role. I just assumed that I was 'stuck' or 'obligated' to do a post-doc. So the other choice was to bow out with a Master's degree? I didn't know what my options were coming into or during my first years of graduate school. And being in academia most college professors have no interest in bridging the gap between academia and industry. When I say 'stuck' I mean 3-5 more years of being stuck at a lab bench doing something that I don't fully enjoy (ie not using my interpersonal and people skills and extroverted personality). I'm in my 4th Year and my project is going really well (past my third committee meeting now). The good news is that I realized and it was pointed out that I have only ~1-1.5 years remaining. That's the last remaining years of my life that I will be at the bench (full time), which didn't seem so bad. This also gives me a lot of time to network, which made it more obvious that I need to finish, skip the post-doc and obtain a role that will put me in a position of strength allowing me to transition more into a business role. After all, networking is 75% of landing a job. Some will argue it's 90%. Either way, it's a large percentage. A cold resume submission these days only works 4-24% of the time helping you land a job. Anyways..

Post-Doc Obligation?

I have taken career workshops and talked to numerous people on campus in terms of career options. To be honest, I got nothing out of it. Everything I heard was about a post-doc. Or it was simply comparing and contrasting academia to industry. That is easy to do. It is a one-dimensional 'broken system.' What about the specific positions AVAILABLE in industry? Separate the academia group from the industry group then dig way deeper. Why not answer the real question? And address HOW to do it (i.e. informational interviews)? Where do people end up? I think a test could be used to assess people's personalities and define their goals. The first question you might ask is 'Do you want to work at the lab bench your entire life?' I can guarantee a fair amount of people will say no. OK, so then what alternative options are available? They just think "I'll do a post-doc then I'll figure it out." Statements like that indicate no direction. It shows that someone is naive and doesn't even realize what career options you can even obtain with an advanced degree. Sure colleges have career fairs. But I think the effort needs to be multiplied by 100. Ever think about individualized career workshops vs. going to some big generalized seminar with just a panel of speakers that discuss "What to do with your PhD?" all crammed in within a few hours? I honestly got more out of doing one-on-one informational interviews in terms of career advice then I ever did attending a career fair, happy hour, product show, or any academic sponsored seminar, conference or presentation.. I learned a lot more and established a personal relationship with someone who might just offer me a job coming out of school. Not only that, I got to ask them whatever questions I wanted and they took the time to answer them. Most people were in your shoes, therefore they will take the time to help. That is the attitude that I now have when I launched my website and blog. I will be writing another blog (and even e-book) about how I used informational interviews and LinkedIn to build a network out of thin air. And it's still growing.

So again, a post-doc does NOT answer the question as to the direction of my career. What about after a post-doc? What about straight out of grad school? No one answered these types of questions and to be honest faculty in academia may not be aware because they aren't working in industry (or know anyone working these types of roles in industry). It's not that they aren't willing to help. But until you actually TALK to the people in the field and do informational interviews (and find out how they transitioned away from the bench) you will never understand. That is at least how I learned and came to the point that I am at now. MBA or not, it really doesn't matter. You have to work for several years before you are even ready to pursue an MBA, and in it a lot of situations the job experience will take precedence over the MBA (and you may not even need an MBA down the road). Anyways, I am probably just venting frustration here, but if I could go back in time I guess I wish I knew all of this sooner. It isn't too late for me to continue to build a large network (so far I've done quite a bit of 'damage'). I intend to have a job interview ~1 month before my thesis defense. Then when successfully defend, you transition directly from grad school to a job. No post-doc. In my opinion, you are 90% ahead of all PhD students if you know what you want to do prior to graduation, because no one really figures this out until after the fact. And let's face it, networking to get a REAL job out of grad school is going to be much harder than networking to obtain a post-doc (some people don't even have to network to get a post-doc because it is an easier position to obtain i.e. cheap labor to continue working at the bench). Networking is a skill that can be learned. I just think that grad students are too afraid, are too introverted, or just think that they don't need to network (or they postpone as long as they can).

You have to find out what motivates a person, and for me it is the type of job I will obtain out of grad school. The light at the end of the tunnel. A post-doc is not the light at the end of the tunnel. It only lengthens the tunnel I'm already in. If I don't have a clear direction or path laid out in front of me, everything diminishes and I think in the back of my mind that there is no point to getting a PhD. A struggle maybe, but look where I've ended up because of it. More to come..

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Article Tags:

Graduate School


Phd Career Options


Informational Interviews


Post Doc


Field Scientist


Business Role

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