Welcome to My Life as a Postdoc: Overeducated and Underemployed

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog.

I know a lot of really dumb PhDs.

I’m not being mean.  I include myself in this group of book-smart, determined idiots.  Many of us are creative, versatile, lifelong learners who embrace challenge and handle failure with aplomb. And a select few, with the right combination of grit, luck, and guidance, do make careers for themselves as tenure-track faculty. But the vast majority do not.  For all our knowledge, we can be dumb as doorknobs when it comes to navigating careers outside of academia.  Perhaps because we are trained to be so specialized, we lose sight of the big picture. Once we take a postdoc position, many of us languish at the bench relegated to the dreaded “perma-doc” realm without a clue about what to do next.  Yet, when we think about leaving academia, many of us become paralyzed at the thought of abandoning our native land.

Suffering is an inherent part of academic culture.  In graduate school, my friends and I would brag about working in the lab through weekends and holidays, getting by on a handful of hours of sleep a night, and using a toxic cocktail of Red Bull and coffee to push us through full course loads and lofty scientific aspirations (I didn’t sprout wings, but I did almost conjure up an ulcer). We wore our wrinkled clothes and dark under-eye circles as badges of honor. We thrived on the pressure, and if we didn’t, surely something was wrong with us.

I look back on those days with a mixture of fondness and incredulity. I felt at home surrounded by overachievers who, unlike my family and nonacademic friends, understood the addictiveness of unraveling the mysteries of the universe (or trying to, anyhow), until one day, I felt nothing but uneasiness.  The ecstasy of the hunt for truths was displaced by worry about grants, about publishing in journals with high enough impact factors, about continually generating data. Moreover, somehow despite the crazy hours I managed to find the time to get married and even have a child.  Then, for the first time I admitted to myself that I wanted something that academia couldn’t provide: more.  I wanted more time with my family, more flexibility, more fulfillment.

Now, I was left with new mysteries to unravel:  How could I possibly function on the outside? What transferable skills could I possibly have? The research enterprise requires us to spend much of our time focusing on what we don’t know and how to get inside the black box.  Is that why, as PhDs, we can’t fathom switching careers?  Do we become too fixated on discerning what we don’t know and how what we do know could possibly be applicable to “real jobs”?  I’m not sure where this academic Stockholm Syndrome came from, but it’s time for some of us to snap out of it.

Leaving academia does not equate failure.  I know that the decision to leave does not mean that I fell short as an academic.  Prior to this, I had to navigate a sea of well-intentioned colleagues who urged me to apply for tenure-track positions. I believe that my decision to leave reflects my own evolution and maturation as a PhD who believes her time and efforts are better suited for a more well-rounded life, and perhaps more importantly, who now has the courage to voice that opinion.

The next step is still murky. As I write this, I am currently contacting people for informational interviews about writing, editing, and publishing careers in the sciences and gathering together application materials for a master’s program in genetic counseling.  On my best days, I look at this approach as covering my bases, but on my worst, I am so confused about the trajectory of my life that I want to curl into a fetal position and binge-watch Netflix until I forget that I might have wasted the last 13 years of my life doing bench science.  Well, maybe “wasted” is too strong a word …Mishandled? Perhaps. But the situation is not beyond correction.

What I do know is that realizing that academia isn’t for me is sufficient reason to take action.  It should be reason enough for you to take action, too. Over the next few months, I plan to use this forum of the BEST Program blog to explore careers outside of academia and the skills necessary to get them.  Because we DO have the skills: As PhDs, we have learned how to logically attack problems to get answers; how to use failure to change tack and persevere; how to communicate effectively; and most importantly, how to find the tools to improve our lives and move on to fulfilling careers.  Let’s stop being the smartest idiots we know.

LinkedIn: The Unavoidable and Invaluable Platform You Are Using Incorrectly

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog. An adapted form was published in the Atlanta BEST Magazine

Networking. Why is the word sufficient enough to induce such palpable dread?

As an undergraduate standing at the crossroads of graduate school and medical school, one of the factors I considered was that, in the course of a career at the bench, there would be considerably less interaction with people.  It would be just me and my plates of cells and circus of mice.  As a shy girl who deflected any attention that came her way, this sounded heavenly to me.

My hermit dreams were smashed, swiftly and jarringly, once I got to graduate school.  I was yanked into an unrelenting current of lab meetings, departmental seminars, and international conferences.  Every time I presented my data, I battled the nagging angst:  What if I sounded stupid?  What if I was asked something I didn’t know?  The “what ifs” plagued me for days before any presentation, no matter how small.  Often at these conferences there would be networking events at the end of an already long day.  I would think, “Really?! Haven’t we engaged enough?”  Regrettably, I dodged most of these sessions because I lacked the confidence to believe that anyone would want to connect with me.  When I did attend, I’d stand in the corner talking to maybe one or two people – not a great way to expand your network if that’s what you’re looking to do.

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”  You’ve been hearing this for years, and guess what?  It’s the absolute truth.  More than 70% of people land jobs through networking, according to studies in the Academy of Management Journal.  A recent CareerXroads survey showed that only 15% of positions were filled through job boards.  Maybe you’ll be one of the 15%, but I know I’m not willing to take those odds.

For the introverts among us, these numbers may seem daunting, yet relations with others are one of the most primal and natural ways humans survive and thrive.  It’s instinctive to reach out and forge symbiotic connections.  We network every day without a second thought.  Why, then, do networking sites such as LinkedIn seem foreign and impenetrable to some of us?  LinkedIn provides the perfect platform for those looking to reach out and learn from others without appearing too vulnerable.  But there’s a catch:  it must be used strategically and with finesse, especially when a 2013 report by Social Times shows that 94% of recruiters and hiring managers use LinkedIn to vet job candidates.  Only 65% use Facebook and 55% Twitter.

I’m no great expert on LinkedIn.  Years ago, I created a profile, connected with people I already knew, copied and pasted my resume into the appropriate sections, and even uploaded a photograph.  Then I sat back and waited for opportunity to magically appear and transform my life.

Well, I waited for years. And years. A good week consisted of one or two profile views, usually from people already in my network.  For a while, the number of views fell depressingly to zero.  So I added some publications, every single lab skill I possessed, and even started following groups that were relevant to my job search.

Still, opportunity remained stubbornly shy while I began to fear that I had been right all along – maybe there wasn’t anything I could offer to others.  Maybe, despite all those years of rigorous training at the best universities, I remained mediocre.  Suddenly, I felt I was standing in the corner of a virtual networking event, all by myself.

LinkedIn offers job seekers a double-edged sword.  Wield it wisely, and there is the potential to be seen as a PhD burgeoning with intelligence, wit, and creativity, and to make mutually beneficial relationships with both mentors and mentees, who one day may help you find a new career.  But wield it ignorantly, and there’s the risk of remaining hidden under an invisibility cloak or, perhaps even worse, gaining the wrong kind of visibility and alienating possibly  beneficial connections by coming on too strong and asking for too much too fast.

As a scientist, I could see that the empirical data and conclusions were clear:  minimal profile views meant that I needed to take a new approach to LinkedIn. Although it seemed simple enough to just fill out the different sections and import my contact list, I realized that I needed to regroup and do what I do best – conduct research.

So, I spent days reading every article I could find on LinkedIn.  I listened to podcasts.  I read examples of superior LinkedIn profiles. What follows is what I learned, distilled down to what I believe to be the most impactful changes you can make to strengthen your profile.

Your profile should reflect who you want to be

My profile has been staunchly that of an academic.  A few weeks ago, there was hardly anything on there that made me stand out from the sea of other postdocs.  Even though I am considering transitioning to a career in science writing and editing, one would have had to have been a mind-reader to gather that from looking at my profile.

People in careers outside of academia are probably not too concerned with every single technical skill you’ve acquired over the years in the lab (or every abstract and publication).  They already know you have a PhD, which means you likely have the requisite knowledge.  Instead, consider your transferable skills, the kinds of abilities you possess now that hiring managers in any field want:  communication, leadership, critical thinking, mentoring, collaboration, and so on.

Especially if you are transitioning to a new career, approach mentors and colleagues, former and current, for testimonials that speak to your specific attributes.  In some cases, you may end up composing these on your own and giving a list to your advisor(s) — the less work for them, the better.

You may not have that position in industry, government, or science communication (yet), but you are smart enough to identify the skills and characteristics that these sectors are looking for and the relevant buzzwords (see the section on “keywords” below) by which they’re known in that domain.  Make sure your profile uses these words.

Regarding the headline:  It should make people want to click on your profile.  By all means, include your current position, but also include what you are looking for.

For example, my previous headline read:  Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Wayne State University.  My current headline reads: Cancer Biologist Wayne State University | BEST Program Blog Coordinator | Seeking New Opportunities

Donna Serdula, author of LinkedIn Makeover and founder of Vision Boards Media, has an automatic headline generator you can use, often with quite interesting results.

Include a profile picture

If someone I don’t know reaches out to me over any social media platform and they don’t have a picture, I delete the request.  You can’t hide your face at a networking event and you shouldn’t hide your face on such platforms, either.  So take the time to take a flattering picture and add it to your profile.

Some experts suggest getting professional headshots, but few PhDs have the time or money for something so extravagant.  Just make sure the photograph is well lit, in focus, and that the border is tightly framed around your face.  Also, try to look friendly but serious, the kind of person someone would want to engage in conversation.

The summary section: Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?

While the answers to these questions may evolve over some time, remember that LinkedIn is a snapshot of who you are at this moment.  Make it immediately clear in the summary what your goals are.  According to an interview in Business Insider with LinkedIn expert Nicole Williams, the summary should indicate why you are on LinkedIn — Are you looking for a job? Are you looking for a mentor?

Allow your personality to come through in this summary, without getting too personal. “This a great place to reflect your professional brand — explaining why you got into the industry, what you love about it, and what kind of professional you are,” explains Williams.

By the way, did you know that creating a summary of 40 words or more for your profile makes you more likely to show up in someone’s search?

Finally, Williams suggests writing the summary in the first person.  I’ve seen debates about first person versus third person when it comes to LinkedIn.  In my view, first person feels more personal and friendly, but go with the style with which you are most comfortable.  What matters most is that the summary is clear and written well.

Infuse your profile with keywords

In developing your LinkedIn profile, you must write strategically and employ specific buzzwords, AKA keywords.  What does this mean?  Donna Serdula recommends googling several job descriptions for positions of interest.  Then look for the keywords shared by these postings.  Or try copying and pasting the description into Wordcloud, which will give you a visual representation of the most frequently used words in the largest type size.   Then try to infuse these keywords into your profile.

For example, here is a Wordcloud for a job listing for an internship in science writing/editing:

Update your profile regularly

Those who update their profile regularly are more likely to show up at the top of a search for similar candidates. And as Cheeky Scientist recommends, post items often, or make comments.  This will also help promote your profile.

I put this strategy to the test myself.  Prior to revamping my LinkedIn profile, I posted articles relevant to cancer research or pieces I thought might be of interest to postdocs every few days.  And you know what?  People read them.  Or clicked on them, anyhow — 24 people viewed my first post.  My profile views went up almost 200%.  Now mind you, when your baseline is one or two views every few weeks, 200% loses a bit of its punch.  Nonetheless, my profile saw more activity in a few days than it had in the prior several months.

Post something of interest or use to others, and maybe they’ll start to wonder, “Who is this curator of relevant information?” Perhaps they’ll actually click on your profile.

Reach out to people outside of your network … tactfully

LinkedIn has a nice little feature that tells you who is a second- or third-degree connection of a person with whom you might be interested in connecting.  Imagine if it were this easy in real life.  Think about how invigorating it is when you meet someone new and realize you both know the same person. “Oh you know John, too?  How did you meet?”  You two share a connection and this will make you more memorable than those who don’t.

So why do we ignore these little helpful icons?  I admit it. I used to gloss over these, too. Now I take advantage of this networking feature.  Reach out to that mutual friend and ask for an introduction or ask if you can use her name as a reference when reaching out to the desired connection (and then use that person’s name in the subject line of your message).

And while we’re on the topic of sending messages over LinkedIn, make sure you tell this person why you are reaching out to her.  Don’t just use the standard, “I’d like to add you to my Linkedin network.”  The reason you are contacting them should be in the first sentence.

Another tip:  You know who your new connection likes to read about?  Herself.  Maybe show some admiration for what they’ve achieved or an article they’ve written.  But take the time to learn about the person before you contact him or her.

You might also consider making yourself an asset by identifying people in your network who would mutually benefit from being introduced to each other.  Then introduce them!  People will remember that you went out of your way to improve their lives and they will return the favor. Here’s an example of how to go about doing this.

Finish the message with a postscript.  According to Cheeky Scientist, the “P.S.” is read more than any other part of an email, except for the subject line.  See Cheeky Scientist for examples of this type of postscript.

Finally, LinkedIn is a great resource, but it’s not the only one

LinkedIn can be fantastically useful when used adeptly, but sometimes it can be a challenge to make yourself stand out.  You should build up a credible online presence on multiple venues.  Consider becoming active on Twitter, Facebook, and even creating a webpage of your own.

Looking for new connections? I’d be happy to connect with you on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/laurentanabe

New Overtime Law Could Mean Pink Slips for Postdocs … and Maybe That Isn’t Such a Bad Thing

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog

On May 18th, a new ruling by the US Department of Labor makes overtime pay mandatory for workers making less than $47,476 per year. The change goes into effect in December 2016. Rather than pay overtime, many universities are expected to raise salaries to meet the cut-off.

With the average annual compensation of a postdoc hovering around $45,000, and many making far less, the 30,000 to 40,000 postdocs across the nation are counting this as a victory.

But does throwing a few extra thousand dollars at highly trained scientists really count as a win, or more as a consolation prize?

In their December 2014 report The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine argued that postdoc salaries should be raised to a minimum of $50,000 a year, and that many postdocs should be reclassified as staff scientists, with a pay increase appropriate to their education and expertise.

Originally intended as an extension of graduate training, the postdoc is supposed to be a temporary position – a time of skill refinement, critical thinking enhancement, and above all else an apprenticeship.  Apprenticeships, historically, are poorly paid.  But they are so because the benefits of such experiences — extensive mentoring, the bestowing of skills and strategy to novices — are supposed to launch lifelong careers.

Over the years, however, the postdoc has morphed from a brief, guided stint into a directionless, holding pattern.  Many “superdocs” work indefinitely,[1] managing the lab and doing far more than the the position warrants, especially for the pay.  Some do so because they are unable to find positions (on the academic job market or otherwise), but also because they do not receive the mentoring from lab directors who are either stretched too thin or fail to recognize the importance of discussing career plans with their mentees.  Others remain in order to maintain a work-life balance or for family reasons.

Between 2000 and 2012, the postdoc population swelled by 150%, a consequence of newly minted PhDs pouring into such positions by default, as the number of tenured and other full-time faculty positions plateaued and, in some places, waned.  As a result, there is a large pool of “superdocs.”  (For a snapshot of trends in doctoral education in the sciences, see “What shall we do about all the PhDs?”)

As the laws of supply and demand dictate, postdocs are in high supply and consequently, they are cheap.  Many postdocs are trying to raise families on less than what the average college graduate earns.

But if postdocs look outside the academy for employment, they may find that scientist positions in industry are also scarce – the result of stalled drug discovery, expired patents on so-called “blockbuster drugs,” and outsourcing of jobs.  Even the better postdoc positions, at the top end of the pay scale at R1 institutions, are becoming increasingly more difficult to snag.

Further complicating the situation, many doctoral graduates accept postdoc positions even when they are unsure they want to continue doing bench work. According to one study published in Science in May 2016, nearly 80% of life-science graduate students reported that they were planning on doing a postdoc. The reason most cited was that doing so would increase the chances of getting a desired job, even among those looking for nonresearch-oriented careers. Of those who hadn’t planned on pursuing postdoctoral research but ended up doing so anyway, difficulty finding a job was the most commonly reported reason. The study’s authors, Henry Sauermann and Michael Roach, conclude that a “significant share of junior scientists proceeded to the postdoc stage without sufficient information to evaluate nonacademic career options.”  The report urged students to start thinking about their careers before even applying to doctoral programs and called for graduate schools to require applicants to analyze career alternatives and justify why securing the doctorate was the most appropriate way forward. Sauermann said in an email to Inside Higher Ed, “I think that everybody who considers doing a Ph.D. should think about the subsequent steps as well, i.e., the potential need for a postdoc and the possibility of not getting a particular desired job (even with a postdoc).” He noted that “Rather than thinking short term and going step by step (‘Let me do the Ph.D. first and then I’ll think about the next step’), long-term career planning is likely to result in better outcomes.” For example, Sauermann said, a master’s degree may lead someone to work that is just as satisfying as what that person would find with a doctorate.

The new Dept. of Labor ruling may mean that some postdocs can expect a small increase in pay. However, since many labs continue to struggle to maintain funding, there may also be downsizing.  According to Paula Stephan, who studies the economics of scientific research at Georgia State University, “You can’t just say everybody’s going to get more money.”  In a recent article in Nature, she predicted that “There will be fewer postdocs.”

But perhaps thinning out the postdoc (and graduate student) herd is exactly what is needed. Nobody wants to be laid off, but postdocs could benefit from figuring out if they are at the bench because it is part of a bigger plan or because it is the path of least resistance. While the new ruling will only mildly alleviate one symptom of the larger ailing system, it is a sobering indicator that awareness of the problem exists; in the very least, it will ignite a conversation.


[1] Of the more than 40,000 US postdocs in 2013, almost 4,000 had been in their position for more than 6 years (‘The postdoc pile-up’).


Why You Should Be More Audacious in Your Job Search

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog

As I spoke on the phone with Holly Falk-Krzesinski, Vice President of Global Academic and Research Relations at Elsevier, I lamented the paucity of jobs that fit in with my current status, an academic looking to transition into science communications part-time or remotely so that I can also focus on freelance work.  As primary caregiver of a two-year-old, taking full-time work or a long commute is difficult for me to consider right now. Holly’s response took me by surprise: “Call them and ask!” she ordered. She went on to say that just because companies don’t advertise specific jobs, or specific aspects of positions (or over what they are willing to compromise) doesn’t mean they’re not open to such ideas. “That takes some audacity,” I thought to myself, and in truth, that’s exactly what most of us need in our job search — especially women.

Why should we be bolder? And why should we put ourselves out there more often?  Well, the short answer is simply out of necessity. Because in truth, as women we may find greater difficulty snagging that dream job in the first place, given the barriers we face.

In 2012, Yale University researchers created fictitious students named Jennifer and John, whose training and achievements were identical.  Either John’s or Jennifer’s resume was sent to 127 professors of biology, chemistry, and physics at six top US universities. The professors were asked to evaluate the applicant and make a salary offer. Although Jennifer was rated as more likeable, John was viewed as more competent, and respondents said that they preferred to mentor him. Additionally, John was offered a salary of nearly $4,000 more than Jennifer. The lead author of the study, Corinne Moss-Racusin, has stressed that the participants were likely unaware of this bias. But according to the PNAS paper, they may well be “affected by enduring cultural stereotypes about women’s lack of science competence that translate into biases in evaluation and mentoring.” The study’s findings are even more striking given that the woman was perceived to be more likeable.

Failure (by both sexes) to perceive women scientists as both likeable and competent, as opposed to either/or, for example, seems to underscore a trend particular to the US.  Eileen Pollack, author of The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boys’ Club, addresses this and related topics in the book, which is a hybrid memoir of her experiences as an undergraduate physics major at Yale and a critique of science culture in academia and its treatment of women. She relays her conversation with Meg Urry, professor of physics and astronomy at her alma mater: “Urry told me that at the space telescope institute where she used to work, the women from Italy and France ‘dress very well, what Americans would call revealing. You’ll see a Frenchwoman in a short skirt and fishnets; that’s normal for them. The men in those countries seem able to keep someone’s sexual identity separate from her scientific identity. American men can’t seem to appreciate a woman as a woman and as a scientist; it’s one or the other.’ ”

As Pollack and others argue, it is the repeated exposure of women to such stereotypical views that undermines our perception of ourselves (and other women), and which likely accounts for the lack of women in STEM fields, especially at its highest levels. In her book, Pollack points out that the disparity between the sexes in the sciences is largely a cultural, and not biological, phenomenon. She refers to significant research in support of her claims, which were ignited, in part, by former Harvard president Lawrence Summers’ suggestion, in 2005, that there may be inherent differences in scientific and mathematical aptitude between boys and girls, which might account for the paucity of tenured women in these fields.

The Mathematical Society attempted to answer whether gender might play a role in perceived differences in mathematical aptitude by analyzing the performance of women in other cultures. Their 2008 study concluded that such aptitude “is due, in significant part, to changeable factors that vary with time, country and ethnic group. First and foremost, some countries identify and nurture females with very high ability in mathematics at a much higher frequency than do others.” While it isn’t unexpected that societal encouragement (or discouragement) can affect a student’s ability to perform, this has also been confirmed in a frequently cited study from researchers at the University of Michigan. Students with similar backgrounds and abilities in math were divided into two groups: one group was told that men perform better on math tests than women, and the second group was told that despite what they may have heard, there was no difference. Then both were given a test. The findings?  In the first group, men outscored women by 20 points; in the second, they outscored women by only two.

Pollack highlights the views of Londa Schiebinger, professor at Stanford and author of Has Feminism Changed Science?, who believes that women are conspicuously absent in STEM fields because girls are raised to be modest, while boys learn to exaggerate their intelligence and success. Further, girls take the boys’ limited appraisal of their skills at face value, and feel even worse about themselves. Schiebinger cites a study that found that 75% of the women who gave up science, compared with fewer than half the men, mentioned low self-esteem as their reason.

For many female scientists I talk to, encouragement is not commonly a key component of the adviser-graduate student/postdoc relationship. I wonder how many qualified women have fallen by the wayside because of this missing critical piece. Jo Handelsman, the senior author of the Jennifer/John study, believes that women need more reinforcement than men, but only because women spend their lives resisting the stereotype of the male scientist, but also because “men don’t realize they’ve been getting this subliminal encouragement all along, as well as the explicit encouragement.”

It’s not just a matter of feeling more confident in our abilities and decisions, but it is this mistrust in ourselves, this perpetual questioning of our own authenticity and our value, that in many ways, makes us complicit in all the “micro” (and not so “micro”) challenges that we endure. We are often enablers of our own unfortunate fates by failing to see that something is amiss in the first place. Fighting subliminal bias while shouldering our own versions of “imposter syndrome” may seem insurmountable, but I do not believe it is beyond correction. To a large degree, this bias is a generational symptom that should improve as the Old Guard moves on. Are things as bad as they once were? No. Could they be better? Always. We do not need to wait for (r)evolution to render this belief system obsolete.  But before we can begin to propel more women into the upper echelons of STEM fields, there must be collective acknowledgement of the ways in which girls and women are marginalized and the extent to which our own lack of self-assurance contributes.

A dangerous consequence of our consistent exposure to bias is that because it is so prevalent, it comes to seem perfectly normal, even “natural,” as we become desensitized to negative portrayals of women and questionable claims.

Probably the best example of this is the Hewlett Packard (HP) internal report cited by Sheryl Sandberg in her bestselling and oft-cited primer for professional women, Lean In.  She relays the statistic that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100% of the criteria listed. Men apply if they think they meet 60% of the requirements. That’s a striking claim that appears to underscore the pervasiveness of women’s lack of confidence. Except that there’s nothing to substantiate this claim. As I searched for the original article about this in order to link it to my post, I ran into many second-generation citations: articles quoting other articles that mentioned the finding, but none of them citing the actual study. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) cited a Forbes article; the Forbes article cited nothing. Sandberg cited the article, A business case for women, published in The McKinsey Quarterly, which simply referred to the internal research at HP. But that was it. Nowhere could I find methodology, sample size, questions asked, demographics related to the population analyzed, or motivation behind the study. Nowhere could I find anything more than a generalization that somehow made its way into mainstream.

So, how did anecdotal data become “fact”?  Perhaps writers were too busy putting their own spin on the findings: The relatively benign language used in the McKinsey Quarterly story relays a generalization about action —Women only apply for jobs if they think they meet 100% of the criteria listed. The mainstream media reports, on the other hand, circulate suppositions about the underlying motivation — Men are confident about their ability at meeting 60% of the qualifications, but women don’t feel confident until they’ve checked off each item on the list (Forbes). Such an interpretation is quite a leap; the conclusion that women’s confidence is to blame is both convenient and problematic.

Not only must we defend ourselves against the very real obstacles we encounter, now we must be wary of so-called claims that attempt to strip away any progress we have made – Trojan horse claims that on the outside appear to be worthwhile and useful tools for improvement, but upon closer inspection, are unsubstantiated and disparaging.

Entrepreneur and expert on women’s leadership Tara Mohr conducted her own study on the HP statistic, published in Harvard Business Review. She was skeptical of the conclusion that women needed to have more faith in themselves “because the times I had decided not to apply for a job because I didn’t meet all the qualifications, faith [in] myself wasn’t exactly the issue. I suspected I wasn’t alone.”  She surveyed 1,000 professional men and women in the US and asked them to identify the reasons why they didn’t apply for job postings in which they were interested. The least common reason was, “I was following the guidelines about who should apply,” which 9% of men and 15% of women cited. Similarly, relatively few — 10% of men and 12% of women — were worried that they would be unable to do the job well.  In fact, what most determined whether or not one applied was the belief that if they did not meet all of the qualifications, they would not get hired (46% men vs. 41% women).  Mohr concluded that gender may not be linked to any inherent mistrust about abilities; in fact, in most categories on her questionnaire men and women score similarly. For example, for the majority of respondents simply believing that they would not be hired was sufficient reason to not apply because either “I didn’t want to waste my time and energy” or “I didn’t want to put myself out there if I was likely to fail” (68% of men vs. 61% of women). Not surprisingly, neither sex was willing to put in the effort if the return seemed nonexistent. Now, somewhat pronounced differences between the sexes do emerge with respect to worry about failure (13% men vs. 22% women) and following guidelines (9% men vs. 15% women), with nearly double the percentage of women citing these reasons compared to men, but still the overall percentages are relatively low.  The original HP report lacked any information about what percentage of women were part of the cohort who needed to check off every qualification off on their list – one can only assume all women were universally implicated in this phenomenon. For Mohr, the important takeaway from her HBR study is not that women mistrust their own abilities, but rather that there is a misunderstanding shared by both women and men about how recruitment works: “[Applicants] didn’t see the hiring process as one where advocacy, relationships, or a creative approach to framing one’s expertise could overcome not having the skills and experiences outlined in the job qualifications.”

I’ve never met Holly Falk-Krzesinski in person, yet I know from her LinkedIn profile (one of the most viewed on the entire site!) that once upon a time, she was a successful microbiologist with her own lab at Northwestern who went on to also acquire significant expertise in science research career development, scholarly communication/open access, and mentoring women in STEM disciplines. She is also founding president of the National Organization of Research Development Professionals, in addition to her current position at Elsevier. So, when a mutual contact suggested that I reach out to her, my first thought was, “She is an extraordinarily busy and successful woman – why would she want to talk to me?” But within hours of sending out my first apprehensive email, I had a phone conference scheduled, during which Holly and I spoke for over an hour as she kindly offered suggestion after suggestion about how to effectively brand myself, as well as potential careers that could fit in with my background.  A few days after our initial phone call, I sent her an email after encountering an obstacle and asked for advice. She told me to call her immediately. Holly seems to live and breathe the qualities of a caring mentor who isn’t afraid to point out your own self-sabotage. “This is the first email you ever sent me that sounded apologetic,” she said.

Education and publications will only get us so far. In our pursuit of careers outside the academy, we all must start relying on skills we may not even be aware we possess: coaching, teaching, communication, leadership, collaboration, critical thinking, and other “soft” skills that are equally crucial.  Most of us have learned how to work independently, how to take negative results and shift our focus to new research trajectories, and how to effectively market our findings and turn them into publications and funded research grants. As Mohr noted, we should prioritize “taking a creative approach to framing our expertise.”  So apply for that job that might seem like a long shot; in fact, apply to all of them. Take steps to expand your network – send emails, make phone calls, and reach out over social networking platforms such at LinkedIn and Twitter. The worst thing that may happen is you don’t get a response. The best thing that may happen is that you completely change your life for the better, and that’s nothing anyone needs to feel apologetic about.

The Art of the Informational Interview

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog

As a doctoral student or postdoc, you’ve spent years percolating inside of the lab.  Perhaps you talk with your lab mates, lamenting the seeming directionless nature of your days.  Some of you may already know what you want to do next, and to you I say, “Bravo!” Some of you may still be unsure, knowing only the general domain into which you would like to shift:  industry, communication, government, education, perhaps law.  And to you, I say, “Great start!”  Every single decision we make about the trajectory of our career, both what we want and do not want, is a step forward.  I know it is absolutely terrifying to switch tacks when, perhaps, academia is the only thing you have ever known or quite possibly wanted.  The decision to leave when you know that, deep down, that this is the best way forward is a great accomplishment.

So, now what?

Now, my friend, you do what you do best:  research.  And one of the best ways to gather information is through the informational interview.

First of all, what is the “informational interview”?

This is an opportunity for you to connect with someone in your field of interest, to have a conversation that highlights the other person’s particular experiences, the path she took to get to where she is, her satisfaction or dissatisfaction with her company/career.  This is a chance to discuss your background and how you may perceive her field to be (and to see if this perception is correct).  This is your chance to discuss your concerns, to ask for advice about how to proceed to gain a footing in this field, should you decide it is a good fit.  In other words, the information interview is a dynamic and fruitful exchange of information that will hopefully lead to a friendship or a recommendation on your behalf.

What the informational interview is not

This is not a chance for you to sit back and let the other person do all the work, although you may very well find yourself in the position of just listening, in which case you must be prepared to direct the conversation to answer the questions you do have.  This is not the time to ask for a job; you are only gathering information to help you to make a more informed decision about a particular position or company. And you may very well end up with someone willing to help you in this endeavor … just not quite yet.

But, before you can put any of this into practice, you must first secure an informational interview.

Scream it from the rooftops: Network, network, network!

Or whisper it softly to yourself.  Either way, let the world know you are looking to make changes in your career.

For me, informational interviews sometimes emerged from unexpected places – chance encounters with others who were involved with writing, editing, and publishing.  I met one such person in the alley behind my house as I was getting on my bike one morning – turns out my neighbor was a prolific Pushcart prize-nominated writer.  Through her, I joined a weekly writing group chock full of talented freelance writers and editors from the Detroit area. Through that group, I met others who attended a monthly book group, of which I’ve now become a part and guess what – that book group was also full of aspiring writers.

Now, I already have very long days.  Between working in the lab, raising a child, writing for the BEST blog and my own blog, my days are saturated; there are nights when I would love to just curl up on the couch and forget that I am transitioning out of my career into a new one, which is one of the scariest and time-consuming feats I’ve ever tried to achieve.  But I pick myself up and head off to writing or book group anyway.  I do this because I know that in addition to making myself a better writer, I am strengthening my new network and building relationships and that takes effort; it takes showing up.  The discussions I have with the attendees may not be “informational interviews” in the traditional sense, but they are a means of expanding my repertoire of knowledge on the things I need to know at this particular moment in my transition, such as branding, gaining exposure and visibility, building relationships with potential clients, and so on.  It is also a forum for sharing my writing and learning how to improve it, because despite my connections to an unlimited number clients, if my content is subpar, nobody will be interested.

Use social media to find your next informational interview

Let your social networks know you are looking to change careers and ask for advice.  Let your friends know.  Let your neighbors know.  Let strangers know.  Use tact, but let people know. Most will want to help, or will know of others who will want to help.  My point is, you never know where your next invaluable source of information will come from, so cast a wide net and be gracious.

A few weeks ago, I wrote on the blog about the value of leveraging LinkedIn in your job search.  When using social media, make sure you reach out to the right person.  If you are interested in a particular company, look for someone who has a role you would like to aspire to, but isn’t so high up the ladder that they won’t have any time to talk with you.

If you do contact someone over LinkedIn, do make sure your profile is complete (including a professional picture) and your objectives are clear, especially if it is someone you do not know personally.  Alumni of schools you’ve attended are a good place to start when cold-contacting. Also, see my article for advice about how to ask your connections to introduce you to someone outside of your network and about what you should include (and omit) in your first message to this potential new contact.  Elliot Bell, Director of Marketing for The Muse, has some other important bits of advice to consider when composing your email.

Get clear on what you want to know

Whether your interview will be over the phone or over coffee, make sure you know what your objectives are ahead of time.  In several of my interviews, I found that the other person had so much information to share that sometimes I was unable to do anything other than nod.  In this case, it is especially useful to know what you want to learn from your interaction with this person, so you can gear the conversation back to the topics or concerns in which you are most interested.

Lily Zhang, Career Development Specialist at MIT, suggests that you begin the interview with a warm-up.  Since most people enjoy talking about themselves, she suggests you let them, in the beginning, anyway.  Start with an easy opener, such as, “How did you get your start in this field?” or “What’s it like working at your company?”

Understand that this meeting isn’t only about learning about the other person but also an opportunity for you to discuss your background and future goals.  It is a chance to make a memorable impression and showcase what you know.  Zhang suggests framing questions with introductions that display your knowledge, such as:  “It looks like recent developments in the field of nuclear fission are going to be pretty disruptive to the energy industry. How do you think this will affect your company?”

Consider what information you cannot find on your own through web searches.  If you are still in the career exploration phase and are considering several fields, you may want to know if this particular area is a good fit for you, given your particular set of strengths.  You may want to know how you can improve your resume or portfolio in order to become a more competitive applicant.  I am always particularly interested in what this person did when she or he was in my position – how did this person gain the foothold that propelled her or him into that first position outside of academia?

If you are more advanced in your career development plan and have a particular company in mind, perhaps you want to learn more about the culture of the company.  Does the employer expect everyone to work 70-hour weeks?  If so, do they offer perks that might compensate for this level of commitment?  Do people seem happy/satisfied/fulfilled there?  What skills or personality traits does the company look for in new hires?  If you’re contemplating starting a family or already have one, how does the employer handle maternity leave or family medical leave?  Consider honestly how you would function in whatever set of circumstances the company represents.  This is your chance to gain an insider’s perspective because the last thing any of us wants to do is substitute one unfulfilling career for another.

Lily Zhang also suggests that you go with the flow of the conversation rather than firing off as many questions as you possibly can.  Remember that you are trying to build a relationship and that it is already evident that you are looking for a job, so please do not ask your contact to find you one; that is the quickest way to alienate your new acquaintance.  Remember that as with all social interactions, there is a certain etiquette involved.  For example, while you should bring along a copy of your resume, only offer it if your companion asks to see it.

As your interview draws to a close, do ask if your new contact knows of anyone else who might be willing to talk with you.  Just as with social media networking, the likelihood of someone taking time out of her or his busy schedule to talk with you increases if the request is made through a mutual contact.  Also, rather than just asking “Do you know of anyone else I should speak with?” Zhang recommends that your request be specific.  For example, since I would like to transition into writing and publishing, I might ask, “Could you recommend someone I could chat with about how to pitch article ideas to magazines?”  Keep in mind the information you are interested in learning, identify any areas that are still vague after your meeting, and tailor your request for another potential interviewee who might be able to fill in that gap.  Most people find it easier to come up with a name of someone who has the particular expertise you’re interested in finding more about.

Finally, be sure to follow any conversation with a new contact with a thank-you note.  Lily Zhang also recommends keeping this person updated on your meetings with those people she or he may have put you in touch with.  The Cheeky Scientist suggests playing the “long game”:  “If you have not done so already, connect with them through LinkedIn, endorse their skills, and follow their achievements online … Congratulate them for a promotion, pass along an article or conference of interest, or simply write to them to discuss current events in the field.” Remember that in doing this, you are seeking to become a peer, not a fan.  If a position for which you would like to apply opens up at their company, you can leverage the connection to ask for the name of the hiring manager or whether you might mention their name as a reference in your cover letter.

For those especially interested in industry positions, I highly recommend the Cheeky Scientist’s blog post about these types of informational interviews.

Don’t forget that you are more than qualified at gathering information. You’ve done it for a very long time and successfully enough to get a PhD.  Now you are using your energy and ingenuity to change your life for the better.  Good luck!


The Broad Transferable Skillset of the Science PhD

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog


When I first started thinking about leaving the lab, I wondered what I was besides my knowledge of obscure signaling pathways and cell biology. I had been groomed to believe that my “good hands” and capacity for punishing hours were what made me competitive. In research, talking about technical skills becomes second nature – we constantly discuss our methods when conducting lab meetings or seminars and look for ways to improve upon techniques. However, I don’t recall a time as a grad student or a postdoc when anyone ever inquired about my ability to work with difficult personality types or how I figured out the best way to marry the experimental questions I had with those of my advisor. Behavior was only ever discussed in terms of mice! We have spent so many years fine-tuning our technical skills that changing our mindset to focus on the “other” transferable skills may seem difficult at first. I’ve used the term “transferable skills” a number of times on this blog, but in this post, I will broaden the scope of these proficiencies and discuss how you can market them.

What is the range of your “transferable skills”?

You possess skills you’ve been quietly evolving in the background of your life while focusing primarily on your science training while conducting your research – those abilities that have helped you to mentor others, resolve conflict in the lab, set realistic goals so you can graduate, write a paper, grant, and so on. These are the competencies you cultivated on the days when your hypothesis fell apart, when the experiments didn’t work and you needed to figure out a new tack, what enabled you to pick yourself back up and keep going even when you questioned your ability to do so. These are the aptitudes that allow you to be a jack of all trades without even realizing you are, and which will help you to adroitly exit academia and begin a new career.

These abilities are sometimes referred to as “soft skills,” but this is an unfortunate way of describing something so vital to success. In fact, emotional intelligence is so important to potential employers that an interviewing technique was built around assessing this aspect of the candidate. The behavioral interview technique is designed to determine patterns of predictive behaviors from one’s past to help determine if a candidate will fit in well with the culture of the company or when faced with the demands of particular tasks. The behavioral interview is a topic deserving of its own post, but briefly, this process is much more probing than that seen in traditional interviews. Questions, or really requests for stories, often begin with “Tell me about a time when …,” or “Describe a situation …” As you discuss how you reacted to facing a particular obstacle, you may be asked to lead the interviewer through your thought process at the time. For example, you may be asked to discuss a situation in which you were able to successfully persuade someone at work to see things your way (something many of us have experience with – consider your committee meetings or thesis defense). A comprehensive list of behavioral interview questions can be found here.

My description of this common type of interviewing tactic is not meant to instill more fear, but rather to underscore the importance of identifying and understanding what the range of your skill set may look like, how it developed over time, and what might make you unique compared to someone else in a similar position. You should also consider what examples best showcase this know-how.

There are a lot of PhDs out there who have the education, publications, and grants to rival your own. What will set you apart is how effectively you are able to demonstrate your emotional intelligence and “soft skills.” The recruitment company Futurestep performed a survey of 500 industry executives and asked them what they looked for in a candidate when trying to fill open roles in an organization. The most important factor was the candidate’s motivations, with problem-solving and interpersonal skills coming in right behind that.

STEM PhDs are critical thinkers and problem solvers; they are adept at data analysis and have acute powers of observation. However, it is those “soft skills” that scientists often find most elusive in assessing their strengths and weaknesses.

There are lists upon lists of these types of skills. In my view, the general areas that are the most useful, especially when transitioning, include communication and tenacity.


In many ways, this is considered one of the most important. Why? Think about all the ways we use this in our day-to-day, especially in the lab. It is at the core of resolving conflicts; it is how we teach and mentor others; it is central to discussing our findings and their relevance in lab meetings and seminars, with potential collaborators; it is how we propel our data into the scientific stratosphere in the form of manuscripts and grants. It is critical to being successful inside and outside of the laboratory and academia. Under this heading lies myriad other soft skills, including collaboration (teamwork) and presentational acumen.

Collaboration. When I was a graduate student, my advisor wanted me to develop a new model system for manipulating a particular phenotype of neurons that occurred during neurodevelopment for a genetic form of the disease, dystonia. I knew of another lab that differentiated mouse embryonic stem cells into neurons in vitro. Adapting this system to our lab would allow us to observe our phenotype of interest at all stages during neuronal differentiation and maturation. So I started a collaboration with them, working closely with others in that lab to learn the rationale and techniques. When I started doing this on my own in our lab, I visited the collaborating lab regularly to discuss troubleshooting. Eventually, the head of the other lab became a member of my thesis committee and I regularly discussed experiments with him, both formally and informally. The lab members became not only collaborators, but friends.

Collaboration comes in many shapes. From developing relationships with those outside the lab, to finding a way to align the objectives of your own project with those of the more expansive vision of the lab and field, you’ve figured out ways of finding common ground with others. You’ve teamed up with your advisor and other lab members (and possibly other labs) to publish papers and resolve issues that arise during the review process. There are many examples of the ways you’ve contributed to a team to help secure funding and publish data, ways you’ve helped to support and mentor others in their research, ways you’ve learned to cultivate and develop the most valuable currency of the job search – relationships.

Presenting your research. Every single time you prepare and give a talk, write a paper, abstract, or grant, you are tailoring your writing/presentation to a specific audience with a particular interest, knowledge-level, and objective of their own. Perhaps, without even being aware, you’ve figured out how to anticipate what will be expected of you and what language you should be using. Why is this important? Because there has never been more information available to us. As Maria Popova of Brain Pickings writes, “more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.” This is particularly pertinent to science writing and presentation where information abounds, but is often enshrouded in the lingo of the field making it esoteric and impenetrable to most. Knowing how to effectively communicate information in both technical and layperson’s terms is invaluable.

When I received a grant from the American Cancer Society, I was invited to give several talks about our lab’s research on Inflammatory Breast Cancer to a non-scientific audience comprising staff, volunteers, survivors, and patients. These audiences were some of the most captivating and eager to learn. I spent far more time preparing for these talks because I needed to translate terms I often took for granted – “western blot,” “cell culture,” and so on –  when in front of academic audiences. But the effort paid off:  Often people would come up to me afterward, so grateful that the information was presented in a way that was accessible and left them wanting to know more and ready to go out into the world to tell others of what they have learned. This had become the most rewarding aspect of my work – inspiring others to also become storytellers of science, to remove the stigma that science is dry and only for a few select “scientific minds.”


There were days when all my cells died, when the mice did the exact opposite of what my hypothesis predicted, when my project seemed stalled, and when I was exhausted. This coupled with long, lonely hours spent in the lab on weekends and holidays, or endless days of dissertation writing where it seemed I only interacted with the barista at the local coffee shop made for some despairing times. But those were the days that helped me to hone some of the most highly sought traits in a job candidate:  tenacity.

You have likely had days like these, too, when your self-direction, self-discipline, self-motivation, and resilience took a beating but kept on persevering. On top of that, you know how to prioritize and multitask. You planned experiments within reasonable time constraints and to meet deadlines for grants and committee meetings. You delegated work. You ran experiments while simultaneously teaching others, writing papers, or working on talks. You clearly handle stress with aplomb which speaks volumes about your emotional intelligence, which is what job recruiters are quite interested in hearing about. Consider all of the specific times when these competencies helped you to accomplish particular tasks or override obstacles. What were the circumstances of the situation? What was your thought process at the time? Coming up with examples, in advance, will help you immensely during a behavioral interview.

You have a multitude of abilities that draw from your intelligence and perseverance, but sometimes, especially when you’re overwhelmed, you may not be able to clearly see what they are. If you need some help figuring out what strengths you have (and what may need some work), check out Science Career’s Individual Development Plan, myIDP, for taking inventory. This is a great place to start since upon completion you can compare your skill sets with those considered relevant to various scientific career paths.


Broadening experiences and striving to change academic culture: The BEST grant places nonacademic careers in the limelight

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog


In 2014, Science reported that only about 15% of biomedical PhD researchers secured a tenure-track position, leaving 85% to figure out how to best apply their skills and training to “alternative” career paths. The NIH’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training [BEST] grants are designed to help universities expose graduate students and postdocs to non-academic research-related positions in domains such as policy, biotech, teaching, or science communications.

This past October, 17 awardees of the BEST grant came together in Bethesda, Maryland for their fourth annual conference to discuss how to successfully inform a growing population of biomedical and life science graduate students and postdocs about careers beyond the traditional scope of tenure-track research.

The NIH created the BEST grant in 2012 to help recipient institutions train scientists for “nontraditional” career paths. In the subsequent year, Wayne State secured the $1.8 million, 5-year grant. “The funding is set up to provide faculty time to build a program, so after the 5 years of NIH support, hopefully the university will be committed to running this,” said Dr. Patricia Labosky, Program Leader at NIH’s Office of Strategic Coordination. These sentiments were echoed by the grant’s PI and Dean of the Graduate School, Dr. Ambika Mathur, in a 2014 press release: “The long-range goal is to institutionalize these practices so that our students become the next generation of innovators and leaders in science. The extended outcome of our program is to place students in diverse careers in addition to academia, and to educate the biomedical community that such diverse careers are viewed as desirable and successful outcomes of doctoral research training.”

Each awardee tailors their BEST program to suit their doctoral population. In the Midwest, in addition to Wayne State University, the University of Chicago and Michigan State University (MSU), also received the grant. At MSU, the program is a multi-year co-curricular experience, which takes into account its location in an area that is not heavily industrialized. Similar to Wayne State’s BEST program, which has a three-phase training plan that culminates in a career exploration or internship, the University of Chicago’s myChoice program is a multi-step curriculum designed to expose participants to a variety of career paths, such as entrepreneurship, teaching, policy, industry, communication, among other areas. Another feature of MyChoice is that programming is open to participants from other institutions in the Chicago area. (A full description of each BEST awardee’s program can be found on the NIH-BEST site.)

While the mission of the BEST grant seems straightforward enough, it poses a serious challenge to scientific training culture in academic institutions which has tended to view nonacademic careers as a lesser choice and failed to provide students and postdocs with information about other viable options. As a result, many doctoral students are often confused about their possible career trajectories once they make decisions to depart from the tenure-track route.

Where did this scientific training culture come from, and how can we help transform it to benefit the academic labor force while serving the scientific research enterprise?

An Academic Pyramid Scheme?

Over 50 years ago, Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, in a speech entitled The Uses of the University (1963), explained how historical forces have shaped the role of the university in society. The university was no longer cloistered, but now “a prime instrument of national purpose,” with its job to produce “new knowledge,” which was “the most important factor in economic and social growth.” He noted the deficiencies of sprawling universities, which included large classes that made researchers too busy to teach. He also warned of the possible negative impact of federal influence.

Paula Stephan, professor of economics at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University and Science Magazine’s 2012 Person of the Year, referred to the current graduate and postdoctoral training system as a “pyramid scheme” that uses young aspiring scientists as sources of cheap labor for grant-funded research, yet fails to reciprocate in the form of career opportunities. In How Economics Shapes Science, Stephan argues that federally funded academic research squashes innovation by probing “safe” questions. According to Science, “She shows why the demand for low-cost graduate students and even lower-cost postdocs is perpetual, insatiable, and out of proportion with subsequent career opportunities.”

Stephan’s work is an assessment of the culmination of those circumstances – historical, economical, and otherwise – that have brought us to this point. Despite her rather grim observations, however, there is an optimism inherent in the growing acknowledgement of the situation. As was clear at the NIH-BEST meeting this October, not only policy change but cultural change will be required to prevent the current system’s implosion, as well as to produce innovative research and to recultivate an atmosphere of reciprocity, as opposed to the lopsided relationship that most labs rely on to produce data cheaply and quickly. As Stephan notes in the Science article, now is the perfect time to discuss “the need to provide students with good information and help them explore alternatives early in their graduate career.”

The discussion is occurring and it can be quite vehement. Strategizing is underway whether or not academia is ready for it. At the NIH-BEST meeting, PhD students and postdoc delegates from BEST awardee institutions discussed their impressions of this culture and the “countercultural” influence of the BEST program in an open and frank conversation. Many praised the program for being a lifeline in an atmosphere where expressing interest in anything beyond the academic career track is still disparaged.

The NIH already acknowledges that federally funded students and postdocs should be actively engaging in career development. A clarification published in 2014 by the NIH’s Office of Management and Budget states that “this dual role is critical in order to provide Post-Docs [and graduate students] with sufficient experience and mentoring for them to successfully pursue independent careers in research and related fields.” This is a stipulation of all those supported by NIH grants. The problem is that in most training settings, little mentorship or direction outside of the traditional career trajectory that assumes a future academic position is provided.

Waiting for the “switch to flip”

At the NIH-BEST conference, a panel comprising graduate students and postdocs from the BEST awardee institutions discussed their impressions of academia, their experience with the BEST program, and what they perceived to be the biggest obstacles in eradicating the taboo associated with considering careers outside of academia. The discussion was enlightening, frank, and oscillated between palpable frustration and burgeoning hope.

One graduate student from a Midwest institution, who had previously worked in industry and who wanted a PhD to advance her career, discussed how swiftly and forcefully her perception changed when she got into graduate school: “I was blindsided … I really couldn’t understand why people weren’t giving me the information I was seeking. In some cases, the [principal investigators (PIs)] couldn’t help me. They’re trained to help people who want to go into academia.” She continued, “Our mentors, throughout our training, are PIs. Even if they want to help, they don’t think they can teach us anything more than academic careers. This is what makes us think that it’s either an academic career or not. Our mentors are paving the path for us down that one way.”

Natalie Cain, a postdoc from UC Davis, spoke of her experience as a graduate student and the hope that she would one day acquire the desire to pursue an academic career. Cain noted that, “The people above you are telling you that this is what you’re supposed to do and you’re just hoping that at some point the switch will flip and you’ll say, ‘Yes, I do want to work in a university.’ You might wait a long time for that switch to go and then when it doesn’t, you’re playing catch up.”

Waiting for the switch to flip often times leads to procrastination. Students, believing that eventually they’ll want to follow in the footsteps of their mentor, delay considering other options and pursuing career development opportunities. Ada Weinstock, a postdoc from NYU, suggested that high achievers who may be unsure of their options in the sciences go on to graduate school and postdoc positions in order to put off making a life decision for fear that it will be the wrong one. She noted that “We are so afraid of failing that we don’t want to make a decision … Give people tools to help them make a decision.” Heather Clancy, a graduate student from University of Colorado, summed up the problem perfectly: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Yet resistance to programs such as BEST is perplexing. Scientists are taught to evaluate all reasonable possibilities when designing and interpreting experiments, but they seem to possess blind spots for applying the same rationale to their own lives. Maybe herein lies the psychological crux of the problem:  PhD programs attract dynamic overachievers who are both open-minded and perfectionists, searching for validation from mentors that may never come. Couple this with the natural propensity for scientists to evaluate all information before making a decision.  The paucity of said information, as well as the robust disparagement of searching for it, creates a perpetual procrastination loop and a plume of postdocs unsure of where to funnel their energies.

Although a topic for another article, it is worth mentioning that the panel of BEST delegates at the conference was entirely female. Perhaps this was coincidental, but it may reflect the general frustration, unrest, and urgency that many women in STEM fields experience, who not only carry the burden of the under-funded and under-mentored academic system, but also the additional obstacles of unconscious bias and multitasking in the face of other life choices, such as motherhood. In fact, mothers are likely the most in need of choices outside of the traditional trajectory. Much like the persistent discouragement of pursuing careers outside of academia, women who are considering families must also guard this potentially stigmatized desire.

The Postdoc Holding Pattern

Oddly enough, the so-called “alternative path” is actually the dominant route taken by most. This is not due to a failure to “cut it,” but in most cases, a realization that one’s desired life path may be incompatible with what an academic career entails, as well as wanting to avoid the overwhelming uncertainty of securing sufficient funding and tenure in the future.

The numbers overwhelmingly corroborate the emergence of students deliberately veering away from academia. Melanie Sinche, director of education at The Jackson Laboratory and author of Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Sciencesurveyed just over 8,000 PhDs who graduated between 2004 and 2014: 22% were in tenure-track faculty positions and 13% in non-tenure track positions, leaving a whopping 65% in so-called “alternative” careers. Nearly 68% completed one postdoc and 27% two distinct postdocs (4% engaged in three or more). Maybe even more disconcerting, only 28% of the sample employed outside of the tenure-track felt the postdoc was required or preferred for employment in their current position (80% believed the PhD was necessary). These figures, presented at the NIH-BEST conference in October, led Ms. Sinche to conclude that a primary goal of the BEST program must be to discourage PhDs from using a postdoc position as a “holding pattern,” and to encourage them instead to engage in career decision-making earlier in their training.

Programs like BEST offer students and postdocs additional insight into other viable career options and help them to identify and cultivate transferable skills, the significance of which is often overlooked.  It also turns the abstract “someday” into something real. It forces busy scientists to take the amorphous “future plans” off of the back burner (in a lab environment where it is often difficult to plan beyond the next experiment, committee meeting, or grant deadline) and thrusts it into the forefront.

Not everyone who enters the BEST program decides against academia. One postdoc from UCSF on the conference panel had her desire to become a tenure-track faculty member confirmed while participating. She may be a member of the most important contingent of BEST, because those who decide to stay in academia will be at the forefront of the cultural change. These future professors and lab directors will not foist their own career template on future generations of young scientists, but hopefully, guide them to resources to help them make their own fulfilling life decisions.

In the meantime, current and future PhDs may find solace in Ms. Sinche’s survey, which found that the majority of PhDs are quite happy in their present positions (academic or otherwise). As I listened to the panel of inspiring and determined women at the conference, I knew that each would eventually find her own route even if she has to blaze through stagnant convention to get there.

As the program wound down, one student said, “This has been a long time coming. It is going to take a huge overhaul. The mindset will still be there in years to come, but we need programs like BEST to change the culture.”  Indeed, it will have no choice but to change, fueled by programs like BEST, and inspiring people like the ones I met at this enlightening conference.