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NOUVELLES  ::   Le monde microbien

Le monde microbien

10 juin 2013
So you have a degree, what now? Employment after the Ph.D. An editorial by Denice Bay


It’s been a few years since my Ph.D graduation and as I witness the departure of yet another crop of ‘shiny new’ graduate students, all happy to be finished and anxious about their future careers, I tend to ponder my own current and future directions in research.  As rather ‘old’ post-doc now (or so I’m told by undergrad students and occasional department staff member) and a recently appointed research associate, I had dreams of wearing ‘the tweed gold monogrammed jacket’ of tenure track professor-hood as a new grad. Today, I am grateful to still be doing research as scientist as the odds apparently weren’t too favorable for me [1]. Many of my fellow grads are currently unemployed, in post-docs/ research associate positions, or for the lucky handful in tenured positions, or have already changed career directions entirely towards either industry or left academic research completely for a more lucrative and liveable work hours (a wise choice considering many had new families to feed).  So, it’s with little wonder that my outlook has become somewhat darker than what I had started out with as a fresh grad. It’s important to note at this point that I love the research I do. Especially considering all the seriously cool things science can and will offer in the soon to be future! All things considered, this really is the best time to be doing research. However, if you’ve been keeping up with news articles over the last 2-5 years, the value of a Ph.D, post doc, and even University/ College education is seriously being called out, as undergrad and graduate employment is plummeting annually [2-4]. Perhaps you’ll understand my internal conflict, as to the value of a Ph.D and this year’s crop of new graduates currently being released into the ‘academic wild’ to pursue their fortunes (if any?).


“It’s time to make your own luck.”

So, the question is what should I be telling my recent graduates and those currently enrolled? In fact what should I be telling myself? The likely hood of personally securing a tenure track position these days maybe closer to winning a lottery, especially considering the number of other highly qualified fellow tenure track seeking candidates. My last two non-acceptance (let’s call a spade a spade here ‘rejection’) letters for academic applications informed me that I was one of 300-500 highly qualified applicants. Those are some pretty tough odds to beat (especially when I’m lacking the ever elusive yet prerequisite Nature/ Science paper(s)).  But I suppose they are better than lottery odds (now where did I leave that ticket...). I digress. What to tell the new crop of graduates? I am constantly musing over questions at the lunch table about what the future holds for microbiologists. I should note, I’m hardly a reliable prognosticator (“based on the fall of these microfuge tubes from the thermocycler block, I see your future will hold...”) and my training makes me want to fall back on some real figures numbers. Well, lately my advice is “I think it’s time to make your own luck.”


Is it time to consider self-employment?

For those grads that are still seeking a future tenure track academic position (myself included) I wish you the best of luck, start seriously networking now.  Tenure track is still the dream of many post-docs but it may be a ‘Shangri-La’ for most [2]. It’s important to note here that in academic research, hiring seems to follow a sinusoidal curve. Post-docs may struggle one decade to find a position, while in another there are almost more positions than can be filled. Perhaps new grads can simply wait it out post-docing until the next wave of tenure track vacancies resumes but the financial market doesn’t look too promising for another couple years. What does this mean for other ‘senior’ post-docs (like myself), who can only live off post-doc earnings for so long before considering the not so enticing ‘plastic bag over head + deep breathing’ retirement plan? If academia is cooling off right now, what about possible industry work?


‘Research scientist’ jobs are great but tough to come by without ‘relevant’ work experience.

Lately more and more long established pharmaceutical (‘big pharma’) companies are cutting down their research and development (R&D) divisions for a variety of reasons (most recently AstraZenaca, Roche, Pfizer) some of the bigger reasons stem from the market collapse in 2009, clinical drug trail failures (eg. Baxter International 2013 Alheimer’s drug and Eli Lilly Cancer and Alzheimer’s drugs), and the shrinking timeline to recoup money invested in R&D during the patent to clinical testing to final product phases.  Many ‘research scientist’ positions in ‘big pharma’ require strong backgrounds in good manufacturing procedure (GMP), quality control (QC) (and other application acronyms to be defined) that we would not get exposure to as a University grad student (why technical college grads are currently better equipped for the working world). Even so, if you are fortunate enough to have an employer overlook these aspects there’s likely only a desolate cubicle of administrative paperwork happily waiting for you.


Biotech might be the future goal for most Ph.D’s

However, small and large biotechnology companies (eg. vaccine/ drug developers, animal and environmental biomarker detection, agriculture innovators) seem to be weathering the financial storm, somehow gaining enough steam to invest in what could be healthy R&D divisions. If pure biotech isn’t other pseudo- academic companies like Genentech in the US (voted the most innovative company in 2012 according to their website) appears to be the “Google” for scientists and promotes publication of research findings in scientific journals. For those lone wolf grads out there with some nifty results that could be marketed, there’s also the possibility to start their own small biotech. However, the financial climate for raising enough capital to start in Canada can be daunting with limited venture capital opportunities [5].  For those internet savvy grads/ post- docs, other less conventional revenue streams like Crowd funding (websites such as http://www.kickstarter.com/ or http://www.rockethub.com/) may be an alternative to fund a start-up project.  Keep in mind biotech companies have been around for decades and although many come and go like the tides, any attempt to get a biotech going is better than nothing at all. As the adage goes, “you learn more from failures than successes”.  

So, in an age where science fiction-like innovations are soon to be a common occurrence (or already for some...) why not take advantage of these opportunities and get in on the action? Yes, post-docing isn’t always an easy (or even straight forward) career path it still has its merits and can become a rewarding and maybe even lucrative employment opportunity depending on what the person wants to get out of it. Just to clarify, an academic tenure track position is still a viable path for some but consider merging your future career directions with alternative science paths like biotech, science consulting or research scientist options. Having diverse options is likely to help scientists survive the sinus wave of employment better than a single specific path. Perhaps my advice to new grads isn’t that bleak afterall, but my advice hasn’t really changed either, “The best luck of all is the luck you make for yourself” - Douglas MacArthur.


Things to consider preparing for after (or just before) graduation:

Before making what feel like huge future career decisions perhaps keep these thoughts in the back of your mind.


1. Have a clear and useful idea of what you want/ like to do (besides video gaming or shopping, or nothing...). This sounds deceptively simple, yet most grads I talk these days have almost no clue about what they want or like to do. However, most knew what they don’t like about their grad work. Perhaps start by elimination until you determine any ‘likes’ that remain. If you know what you want the only obstacle standing in your way is your own confidence and ability (and yes, money...).


2. Set small attainable goals overtime to make your idea/ goal a reality. Almost everyone has an idea, but few are organized, motivated, or prepared enough to accomplish them. Break up the tasks to reach the goal, it makes them easier to accomplish and they can be distributed to others who might be able to help reach them faster.


3. Never overlook networking; find other like minded individuals. These days, it is pretty much impossible to do it all on your own. If you have a good idea, it’s likely others may have had a similar thought and could provide some much needed help. Most successful entrepreneurs commonly state their pathway to success was linked to having the right group of people and the right connections.    


4. Be sure stay employed somewhere. Having no income is tough these days, especially if you have dependents to feed. If unemployment is looming it is time to consider taking on post-docs/ lab tech/ research scientist jobs unrelated to or indirectly tied to your research experience. This isn’t the worst scenario to be stuck in since unrelated jobs can potentially offer a new perspective on your career goal with the added benefit of a steady income and networking potential. Remember: this employment doesn’t have to be forever.  


5. ‘Hang in there’ and persevere.  Life’s tough, always has been always will be and maintaining a good perspective on reality is a useful thing especially in career that encourages you to fixate on minutia. Also, never let the ‘nay-sayers’ get you down. Yes, negative advice can help you prepare for the future but if everyone followed it, there would never be any innovation/ progess.


References for this article:

1.     E. Martinez et al. (2007) “Falling off the academic bandwagon. Women are more likely to quit at the postdoc to principal investigator transition” EMBO Report, November; 8(11): 977–981.


2.     K. Powel (2012) “The Postdoc Experience: High Expectations, Grounded in Reality” Science Careers, August 24, 2012. http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2012_08_24/science.opms.r1200121

3.     J. Rohn (2011) “Give postdocs a career, not empty promises” Nature (471) 7, March 2, 2011,  http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110302/full/471007a.html

4.     Dave K. (2009) “Say NO to the Second Post Doc!” The Black Hole Blog- University Affairs  November 15, 2009 http://scienceadvocacy.org/Blog/2009/11/15/say-no-to-the-second-post-doc/

5.     Tony Wanless (2013) “Venture capital climate in Canada still chilly for biotechs” Financial Post. April 30, 2013. http://business.financialpost.com/2013/04/29/vc-climate-in-canada-still-chilly-for-biotechs/


Other articles on this subject:

6.     (2011) “Fix the Ph.D” Nature 472, 259–260, Published online 20 April 2011, doi:10.1038/472259b

7.      D. Cyranoski et al. (2011) “Education:  The PhD factory” Nature 472, 276-279, Published online 20 April 2011, doi:10.1038/472276a

8.     A. McCook (2011) “Education: Rethinking PhDs” Nature 472, 280-282, Published online 20 April 2011, doi:10.1038/472280a

  1. R. Gosling et al. (2011) “Seven ages of the PhD” Nature 472, 283–286, Published online 20 April 2011 doi:10.1038/472283a
  2. M. Talyor (2011) “Reform the PhD system or close it down” Published online 20 April 2011 | Nature 472, 261 (2011) | doi:10.1038/472261a
  3. P. Fiske (2011) “What is a PhD really worth?” Nature472,381, Published online20 April 2011, doi:10.1038/nj7343-381a


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