We know that postdoc career anxiety is very real. There are many more Ph.D. holders seeking tenure-track faculty jobs than available positions. Other trainees, realizing that academia isn’t the right fit for them, are grappling with tough questions such as, “What do I do now?” and “How do I get there?” Making a big career shift can seem daunting, but it’s possible—and it can lead to satisfaction and success. Here, five former postdocs now working in nonresearch careers describe how they used their postdoc time to figure out where they wanted to go, and to build the requisite skills and connections to make the move. Their accounts have been edited for brevity and clarity.
My focus after graduating was on obtaining a faculty position in academia, so I chose a lab at a great university doing great science, where I was comfortable with the people and felt I had a great chance to succeed. But a couple of years into my postdoc, I realized that the tenure-track path wasn’t for me.
I had become quite interested and invested in changing how the National Institutes of Health operated with regard to training issues. I was passionate about making real change, and I knew that science policy was how I could do that. To improve my resume, I took part in Capitol Hill Day visits and wrote a lot of policy pieces, mostly letters to the editor of my local paper and fellowship applications. I’ve come to find that writing is about 85% of a science policy job, so getting experience with this skill was extremely important. After 5 years as a postdoc with 2 years on the job market, I left research for full-time work in policy.
Ideally, I would have considered my career path much earlier in graduate school and moved straight to science policy, skipping my postdoc. But practically, I formed personal and professional relationships during my postdoc that have been instrumental in getting me to where I am today.
It is never too early to think about what you want to do with your career, and you should cultivate multiple possibilities: Have plans A, B, C, and D. Sit down to think about what skills you need for each of these possibilities. You’ll find that some of these skills can be used across most or all of your potential careers. Then if plan A doesn’t work out, you can more readily transition into a different career that you know you are also interested in.
As I got close to completing my graduate degree, I started to question whether I wanted to eventually run my own lab. But I also saw wisdom in the advice I received from my grad adviser: He reminded me that leaving academia after my Ph.D. would make it hard to return later, and that doing a postdoc would allow me to gain experience while also giving me space to reach a decision about my future career direction outside of the pressures of grad school.
During my postdoc, as I became certain that I wanted an “alternative” career, I found myself at my institution’s professional development office. In a meeting with the director, I mentioned my interests in thinking, reading, and writing about scientific questions. She jokingly said that it sounded like I should be a PI. But then she told me about a science communication course for trainees that she was starting, and asked whether I would like to help organize and teach it. In working on that course, I met some amazing individuals with careers in science communication, and I was struck with the idea that this was something I could do. I was already helping colleagues by reading and editing their manuscripts and proposals, and I knew I loved it. So, about 2-and-a-half years into my postdoc, I decided to take a leap. I left my position and started advertising myself as a freelance editor. I know a number of science editors who have not done postdocs, but I am glad that I have that experience under my belt. I believe it gave me additional insight into writing as an independent researcher, especially with respect to applying for grants.
For any postdoc wanting to leave academia, I suggest finding a mentor who can provide guidance and support on nonacademic options. Few people will turn down a request that says, “I think what you do is great, and I’d like to know if you’ll help me find my way.” Also, try to gain a variety of experiences to help inform your career decisions. For those wanting to become editors or science communicators—practice! Read, write, and do it some more. Ask other researchers if you can see proposals or manuscripts they’ve written, as well as the reviews. Look for internships or courses in science writing, and figure out whether you’ll need, and how to get, other skills to complement those experiences.
It wasn’t until I became disillusioned with an academic career, near the end of my Ph.D., that I started seriously exploring industry options and realized that I actually belonged there. It’s the kind of fast-paced, high-tech, focused problem solving that I enjoy most. But I also knew that it would be difficult to find a door into the type of work I wanted to do, so I stayed in my lab to finish some projects and develop new skills and relationships (and keep paying rent). My PI was disappointed but supportive. My first bit of advice is to let your PI know where you’re at. Be honest. If she or he isn’t willing to help you do what’s best for your career you’ve got a much bigger problem.
My postdoc involved building out a core facility that utilized a bunch of new technology. In the process, I developed not only marketable expertise in those technologies, but good relationships with people at the companies I was working with. Those relationships ultimately led to a couple of interviews and a couple of job offers. I worked hard but was also very lucky.
So my second big piece of advice is to talk to people. Talk to your graduate school and postdoc cohorts, talk to other PIs, talk to sales reps, talk to field support folks (like me), and talk to people you meet at conferences. It’s impossible to know where an opportunity might come from, so building a network of people who not only know what you want to do career-wise, but what you can do skill-wise, is crucial. Finally, it’s a lot easier to move around within industry after you have a few years of experience than it is to break in with zero. Don’t get so caught up chasing your dream job that you miss a chance to get your foot in the door.
I initially decided to do a postdoc because I defended my thesis earlier than I expected, and I did not have a clear vision of what I wanted to do with my degree. I wanted a postdoc that would prepare me for both research and nontraditional careers, and I was interested in neurophysiology. I ended up accepting a fellowship at the Stanford University School of Medicine. I was not disappointed—the talented folks in the lab taught me a ton about the science, and the broader Stanford community offered bountiful opportunities to explore alternative careers.
Despite a positive experience in the lab, I decided that a research career was not my cup of tea. I turned to the career center for counsel and eventually decided to pursue a career in management consulting or finance given my interests in the life sciences industry, problem solving, teamwork, and business. I participated in a variety of activities to make myself a more competitive applicant, including joining a consulting case practice group, participating in a student consulting organization, founding a finance-focused biotechnology group, and contributing write-ups for a sell-side investor relations consultancy. Two-and-a-half years into my postdoc, I found a position with L.E.K. Consulting as a life sciences consultant, and I have not looked back since.
During my postdoc, I honed a variety of skills that are relevant for nonacademic careers, including project management, written communication, problem-solving, and collaboration. Doing a postdoc also offered a bit more flexibility to explore job options without classroom and thesis deadlines (albeit at the expense of less secure funding). Postdocs looking to move into nonacademic careers should leverage all of the resources available to them—including peers, student groups, career centers, and classes—to learn about which career options may be the best fit. They should then pursue that trajectory with the same dedication that they applied to their research.
I began a postdoc immediately after graduating because I was considering a career in academia with the intention of obtaining a tenure-track faculty position. However, after 6 months I cautiously made the very personal decision to pursue a career outside the ivory tower. After extensive research into various industry roles, medical writing emerged as a natural fit. I have always enjoyed writing and was the person my labmates sought for help with any writing project, which were pretty good signs that I might find a career as a medical writer rewarding. I gathered experience through obtaining freelance writing and editing projects from colleagues, going on informational interviews and coffee chats with seasoned writers, and taking advantage of opportunities to network at career conferences and panels hosted at local universities.
Initially, I worried that I’d find a job too quickly and not have sufficient time to finish my postdoc project, but that was not a reality I was fortunate enough to encounter. I joined the American Medical Writers Association, filled out job applications on a near daily basis, and lived and breathed LinkedIn. I found medical communications agencies through writers on LinkedIn or acknowledgements in publications and began contacting their companies (and their companies’ competitors) for job openings. I went months without a reply to a single email, but ultimately, this tactic got my foot in the door. I happened to reach out to an agency a short time before it initiated a candidate search, so I was already on file when a position became available. After just a few months in my new role, emails and calls from recruiters became commonplace, and after 1 year I moved on to my dream job.