The question of whether or not to do postdoctoral training after graduate school has become a popular topic. For graduates intent on pursuing an academic career, the answer is an obvious yes. But what about those who have decided to pursue scientific work in industry, or who are undecided?
Postdoctoral training is supposed to be just that—a training period where, subsequent to one’s graduate school research directed by a Professor/Principal Investigator, a graduated student gains experience directing his or her own research program. S/he applies for funding based on their own project and develops strategies to answer their own proposed hypotheses. It is a period of time when the former student learns to think and act more independently. In the past, when the academic tracks were more common or popular than the opportunities afforded in industry, it helped prepare the researcher to run their own research laboratory and establish a track record of grant funding.
Today, there are many avenues a scientist can pursue in life, social, formal, and applied sciences. Research and development in industry is a popular pursuit.
But is a postdoctoral training period still relevant?
Some would say ‘no,’ arguing that what you learn in a postdoc (independence, how to pursue scientific leads on your own, publish or perish, competition) is counter to the needs in industry.
R&D in industry is typically a team-based effort where communication, cooperation, inter-dependency, shared information, and open dialogue are necessary to succeed. Those attributes aren’t just necessary for you to succeed, they are necessary for the company to succeed. But they are not what is typically learned in a postdoc setting.
So, do you skip the postdoctoral training and try to go directly into industry? Recruiters still find that most companies looking to hire entry-level PhD scientists still require at least 1-2 years of postdoctoral experience. So how do you make that period benefit your career the most?
For those who want (or might want) a career in industry, doing a postdoc in industry is still a good idea. An industry postdoc offers multiple advantages. One, you will get first-hand knowledge of a different approach to scientific discovery in a new environment. Two, you will still get the opportunity to lead and develop your own project, though you may not have to come up with the ideas or secure the funding. Three, you can still publish. Four, it will count as industry experience — a very important “plus factor” in the next step of your career.
If you cannot secure a postdoctoral position in industry, you can still make yourself competitive for industry roles in an academic postdoc. Choose training in an area that complements your graduate studies, but also has direct relevance to the real world (i.e., a human disease for life scientists). Find out what disciplines or subjects have a high demand for skills and background knowledge, which companies in your desired geography need such attributes, and which academic labs use those approaches to answer questions. Life scientists with technical skills in one therapeutic area such as infectious disease can find ways to apply them in a new field, such as immune-oncology or biomarker discovery (hot areas currently) OR scientists focused in a discipline such as neuroscience can pick up new techniques and approaches being used in this resurging field of interest (i.e., optogenetics).
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