How postdocs can maximize their career chances in a competitive world

Workshops at National Postdoctoral Association annual meeting help postdocs expand their career vision

Belinda Lee Huang, PhD, is Executive Director of the NPA.The number of postdoctoral scholars has been rising steadily over the past few decades, making the competition for positions in the academic market as intense as ever. Meanwhile, other career options are available, but many postdocs don’t know where to find them or how to prepare for them.

The NPA offers resources and programs to address these critical issues for postdocs and guide them to find a wider variety of career options, including jobs in the corporate sector.

Career preparation was one of the topics addressed at the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) annual meeting March 13 to 15 at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, which drew 139 postdocs. The meeting is a must for many US based postdocs faced with their rapidly evolving roles in a deeply competitive environment, especially for the majority, who are in biomedical sciences. Most are under extreme pressure to secure funding for their research, write, publish results, apply for grants and show demonstrable impact. The NPA meeting enables postdocs to network with each other, receive career and professional development and meet representatives from companies.

At the NPA, we believe strongly that a postdoc is a temporary, not permanent, position, and that postdocs should receive mentored training to help develop their skills before they accept a career position. Some postdocs in the arts and humanities spend one to two years teaching and publishing, which enhances their CV and enables them to be more competitive on the academic job market.

Postdoctoral scholars attend a poster session at the National Postdoctoral Association Annual Meeting.

Postdocs in the biomedical area have appointments that can last five years as trainees. They spend a great deal of time working for their principal investigators, publishing papers, and trying to get grants so they can become principal investigators. In the last three decades, the numbers of postdocs have risen significantly at a rate of 10 percent per year, according to the National Postdoctoral Association Institutional Policy Report 2014: Supporting and Developing Postdoctoral Scholars.

Speaking to postdocs at different universities, I often hear their worry and concern about future job prospects. NPA Advocacy Committee Chair Juliet Moncaster, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the Boston University School of Medicine, is concerned about the lack of jobs in academic research. “There are a lack of career options; one is training but for what?” she said. “Training should change because the PI jobs are not out there, (and) the type of training should be for (a) career option that is not academia.”

What is a postdoc?

The NPA defines a postdoctoral scholar as an “individual who has received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence to needed to pursue his or her chosen career

Postdoctoral offices at universities have many workshops to help postdoctoral scholars maximize their opportunities during their appointment. At the University of Maryland School of Medicine, postdoctoral scholars are strongly encouraged to create an individual development plan (IDP). Through the IDP, postdocs and their faculty advisors work together to establish mutually aligned goals and expectations throughout the postdoctoral training period. Postdocs should attend workshops offered by their postdoctoral office on writing grants, communicating their research, giving presentations and networking.

There are also many attractive career options in the commercial and nonprofit sectors, although a different approach may be needed to find these jobs and get an interview.

Most people miss the mark in getting a job at a company by thinking they can just “apply.” With 300 to 400 applicants for each position, how can you make yourself stand out? To apply for a position in XYZ Company, you need to craft a resume/CV that is tailored for the position you are interested in. Look at the job description carefully, and work on building your competencies based on what the company is looking for.

Gaia Vasiliver-Shamis, PhD, Director of Career Development at the Office of Postdoctoral Education at the Emory School of Medicine, gives the following tips for preparing a curriculum vitae:

With employers reading 500 CVs, postdocs should make sure they place their biggest accomplishments at the front of the CV: their grant funding and awards in an easy-to-read "easy on the eyes" format. They should have one inch margins, so that people can write notes in the white space. Also, have a couple of people review it and give feedback. Because some of the search committee members might be from other disciplines, spell out abbreviations for them, and don't use terminology another discipline might not understand.

Postdoctoral scholars networking at the NPA meeting.Networking is important. Before applying for a job, it’s always helpful to find people you know that are working at the company (maybe you went to the same university as undergrads). You can use LinkedIn to find colleagues and other important contacts, such as the hiring manager for a job you are interested in. You can also reach out to the talent acquisition team directly. As one bio/pharmaceutical manager said to me, “It’s really about finding the right opportunity and getting the appropriate visibility.”

At the NPA meeting, workshops covered a range of topics of important to postdocs, such as:

  • How to Avoid Self-Sabotage and Win at Salary Negotiations (Presenter: Dara Wilson-Grant, MS, Ed, LPC, Associate Director of Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
  • International Postdoc and Graduate Student Spouse and Partner Programming at UC Berkeley (Presenters: Sam Castañeda, BA, Director, Visiting Scholar & Postdoc Affairs, UC, Berkeley; Susan Musich, M.Ed., President, Passport Career)
  • Yes, All Meetings: How to End Harassment in Professional Settings (Presenter: Sherry A. Marts, PhD, CEO, S*Marts Consulting LLC)
  • Achieving Meaningful Change at Your Institution (Presenters: Rebecca Bauer, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar, Stanford University; Antoine de Morrée, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar, Stanford University; Catherine Gordon, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar, Stanford University; JT Neal, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar, Stanford University)

The challenges of biomedical research

The NPA’s member postdoctoral offices estimate they support about 79,000 postdoctoral scholars. This includes both postdocs employed at national labs and postdocs who have earned doctorates outside the US. An estimated 60 percent are international postdocs, here on temporary visas, according to the NPA Institutional Policy Report 2014.

[pullquote align="right"]For those in the biomedical area, there are many career options available: patent law, scientific writing, public policy, business development, biotech and pharmaceutical, government and nonprofit.[/pullquote]

Many postdoctoral scholars aspire to become tenure track faculty and principal investigators. However in 2010, three to five years after receiving a doctorate, only 10.6 percent of life science graduates were employed in tenure track positions. For all science, engineering, and health (SEH) doctorate recipients, 19.7 held tenure and tenure track positions three to five years after the doctorate, according to the National Science Foundation National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics Survey of Earned Doctorate Recipients (1993-2010). Thus many postdoctoral scholars enter their training expecting to become faculty, but the number of faculty positions has been flat and is not increasing. More institutions are going toward non-tenure track hires, according to the American Association of University Professors. Because of the changes in the academic landscape, postdocs need to expand their concept of career options. For those in the biomedical area, there are many career options available: patent law, scientific writing, public policy, business development, biotech and pharmaceutical, government and nonprofit.

If you did not get a tenure track job, pursuing another career outside academe used to be called an “alternative career.” I think that term is incorrect because as a former career counselor, I believe a career is a career. In one’s life time, one will have may have up to seven careers (Wall Street Journal) and the challenge is to equip oneself for the variety of jobs out there and to develop one’s skill set.

Exploring careers beyond academia

Our Career Connections event at the 2015 Annual Meeting was developed out of our desire to put companies/organizations and postdocs together for an information session about career opportunities. It was a high-energy event of 13 companies and 100 postdocs in a “speed networking” format. Companies spent 10 minutes speaking about their career opportunities and postdocs gave a one-minute elevator pitch. Then they moved to the next table to meet and greet a new company.

A variety of companies and organizations participated:

  • The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR)
  • Center for Veterinary Medicine/US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • Elsevier
  • Finnergan (Intellectual Property Law)
  • Research in Germany
  • IM Systems Group
  • MedImmune
  • Meso Scale Diagnostics, LLC
  • Pfizer
  • Regeneron Pharmaceuticals
  • St. Jude
  • University of Pennsylvania Center for Innovation

Holly J. Falk-Krzesinski, PhD, and David Ruth at the Career Connections event.Dr. Holly J. Falk-Krzesinski, VP of Global Academic & Research Relations at Elsevier, said, "I found it an amazing opportunity share about my own career path and talk about the vast range of career options available to STEM postdoctoral fellows.” At the event, she spoke about the early career and professional resources Elsevier has developed, including the new Publishing Campus, Academic Press, STM Digest, and Cell Career Network.

Elsevier also supports NPA through its New Scholars program.

“The NPA is such an important organization, representing postdocs who are clearly an underserved academic population,” said David Ruth, Executive Director of the Elsevier Foundation. “Given their level of attainment, they represent a significant investment and a critically important workforce in the research ecosystem. People in the postdoc phase of their research careers and personal lives have particular needs, and that’s why the Elsevier Foundation decided to support them, in this case with a grant to study gender-related programs and policies that help postdocs manage their careers and lives.”

Tips on preparing your elevator pitch

Everyone should be prepared to pitch themselves to a potential employer, wherever you are – in the elevator, in a grocery store or at a cocktail party. Here are some tips from Kristene “Tina” Henne, Postdoctoral Program Lead at Argonne National Laboratory:

1. Be ready to communicate your value at a high level for a nonspecialist. You have 30 seconds to 1 minute to sell yourself to someone you’ve just met. Where do you begin? How do you do that? Luckily, there is a lot of advice out there:

2. Think about what the company representative would want to hear. Think back to the high-level missions and values for each company. What language do they use? Check out this perspective from an industry researcher who represented his company at a postdoctoral career fair: Talking the Talk – How to Sell Research for Industry.

3. Practice, practice, practice!

4. After giving your pitch, don’t forget to give them your business card. You can have business cards made at any number of vendors inexpensively. Then follow up with the companies you meet by sending them an email and keeping in touch periodically.

New Publishing Campus will support postdocs

Hannah ForemanThis month, Elsevier will launch the Publishing Campus, a free and open online training platform for all researchers or training partners in academia in April. It will offer online lectures, interactive training courses and professional advice from experts in the industry as well as a broad range of useful resources and networks. For each interactive training module or online seminar that a researcher completes, their work will be recognized with a personalized awarded certificate from Elsevier.

“At Elsevier, we’re committed to helping researchers meet the challenges of today’s increasingly competitive environment,” said Hannah Foreman, Head of Elsevier’s Researcher Relations. “We are proud to assist you on your way to publishing a world class journal article or book.”

The Elsevier Foundation’s support for NPA

Elsevier Foundation buttonNPA logoThe Elsevier Foundation New Scholars program supports projects to help early- to mid-career women scientists balance family responsibilities with demanding academic careers and addresses the attrition rate of talented women scientists.

In 2013, the Elsevier Foundation supported the NPA project Advancing Postdoc Women with a 2-year $70,000 grant to expand their ADVANCE project through a screening survey, focus groups at the 2013 annual meeting, workshops at the 2014 and 2015 annual meetings, a comprehensive associations/professional societies survey to map the resources available, an online clearinghouse of resources and guidebook for women postdocs. For more information, contact Foundation Program Director Ylann Schemm (@YlannSchemm) at


Related resources


Elsevier Connect Contributor

Dr. Belinda Lee Huang is Executive Director of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), headquartered in Washington, DC. She manages operations of the nonprofit association, which works to develop and promote national policies and programming that benefit the postdoctoral community and thereby the entire US research community. Dr. Huang is committed to diversity, equity and leadership and has held lecturer positions in Asian American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and California State University, East Bay, and founded and directed an undergraduate student affairs program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. She has served as a Senior Career Counselor at the University of Pennsylvania, and facilitated Intergroup Dialogues on diversity issues at the University of Maryland, College Park.

As an organizational leadership consultant, she developed a leadership development program for Asian American college women, and presented it at 15 selective liberal arts, and research institutions. She publishes on faculty of color, organizational change, and women leaders. Her forthcoming publication on women of color senior leaders advancing in US academe will be published by Springer Press in 2015.

Dr. Huang holds a PhD in Higher Education Administration, Education Policy from the University of Maryland, College Park, a master’s degree in Student Personnel Administration from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a bachelor’s degree in Humanities from UC Berkeley.

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