As I mentioned in a previous post, current career perspectives for postdoctoral researchers are, to put it mildly, difficult. An academic career will be possible for only about 3.5% of current postdocs, so being able to understand the alternatives is increasingly important.
The Life Science Post-doc Committee at Imperial College organised the 2nd Life Science Post-doc Symposium last Thursday, focusing precisely on what other options are available for highly skilled, extremely well qualified and science driven people, ie, the postdocs.
The morning session had a mix of scientific talks from current postdocs in the Department of Life Sciences – Mark Woodbridge, Mathilde Gendrin and Chris Wilson – and presentations on three alternative career paths: biotech industry, government based research and consultancy.
Many myths persist regarding research in industry and Mike Whelan, Head of R&D at iQur, clearly explained why they are nothing but myths! His personal experience and knowledge of the biotech industry, particularly where small companies are concerned, shone a new light into industry careers paths.
More importantly, his description of the many roles and jobs associated with biotech companies clearly opened new avenues of possible careers for postdocs. How many of us had no idea that our skills could be used in Clinical Trial Management roles, or as IP managers or even that our knowledge can be essential to deal with regulatory issues associated with biotech products?
An eye opener, as well as a very interesting and engaging talk.
Research within government departments is probably not an option that comes to mind of most postdocs when considering research careers beyond academia. It was therefore very useful to hear from Tim Atkins from the DSTL on such options and the interesting and new challenges faced by researchers in his department.
When many of us think about consultancy, we probably think of multinational companies and don’t really understand what a life science postdoc could do in such conglomerates. Kath Everard shared her experience at the Department of Health, given a renewed view of how transferable our skills can be.
Taking on the fact that in order to succeed in any career path, there are core transferable skills required, the symposium included hands-on workshops: how to tailor your CV for a non-academic job and how to communicate your science effectively.
In the Science Communication workshop, we had Lucia de la Riva Pérez introduce some “do’s and don’ts” when talking to children:
Stephen Curry‘s talk on blogging as a researcher reminded me why I started this blog – and what I MUST do to keep it going and hopefully interesting!
Simon Levey then talked us through the main points you must consider when talking to the media:
We then asked the participants to prepare an exercise: explain your research to a friend with no scientific background in the pub. Me, Lucia, Simon and Stephen played the role of “non-science pub mates”, taking it to some extremes occasionally, in order to highlight how hard it is for scientists to loose the jargon and remember what “common language” actually means. Although our seemingly silly questions made us all laugh – “healing crystals for cats?”, “patho-what?” and “you build houses with beer?!” where amongst the favourites – we all realised the common pitfalls we fall into when trying to talk about the very intricate, speciallised subjects we work on.
Ending the day, a discussion on taking road less travelled, starting with first person experiences from several guests: Tim Atkins, from DSTL; Athene Donald, an successful academic and Fellow of the Royal Society; Georgina Ferry, a science writer; Julia Heathcote, a fulfilled science teacher; Jesus Rogel-Salazar, a former city worker that returned to academia and Mike Whelan, a biotech researcher for 25 years.
As well as hearing the many different ways you can be successful in different careers, there was opportunity to probe and discuss difficulties attached to these different careers – as well as the potential benefits.
The main “take-home” message: think about what you want to do, prepare yourself, understand the job market and take a chance. It’s not easy and not all options suit everyone but there are enough options to explore that you DO have a choice.