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Career-transition planning for postdocs

9/22/2017 1:48:18 PM

This week marked the eighth annual National Postdoc Appreciation Week to celebrate the important contributions postdocs make to research and innovation in the U.S. Around the country, institutions showed their appreciation for postdocs with social events, research symposia and career workshops.  

Here at the ASBMB, we love postdocs year-round and offer a number of postdoc training opportunities, awards and career resources to support your professional development. In fact, next we’ll have a great membership deal that will make joining the ASBMB and the National Postdoctoral Association even more affordable than usual. (We’re switching to a new membership-information system this week, so check back.)

Postdocs are the powerhouses of research productivity, and they play a significant role in training the next generation of scientists under them. Postdocs make amazing mentors because they offer experience but still are close enough to the nuances (and frustrations) associated with bench work.
 

We know that postdocs often are underappreciated and overworked. You can read more about the “plight of postdocs” elsewhere. While ice-cream socials and free barbecue are a nice touch (and a much needed break from the lab), institutions and postdoc supervisors can best show appreciation for postdocs by continuing to work toward fair compensation and benefits, and championing for the career advancement of their postdoctoral mentees.

Some would argue (and perhaps rightfully so) that you don’t need to do a postdoc in the first place, especially for industry or nonacademic career paths, but this a moot point if you’re already in a postdoc. And the fact remains: If you want a career in academia, then postdoctoral experience likely will be required.
 

My job here is not to deter you from your career goals but to instead encourage you to be proactive about your career development and connect you with the resources needed to successfully transition to life after the postdoc. After you have enjoyed some much-deserved R&R this week, take some time to really appreciate yourself by doing a little career planning.

Here are a few suggestions on how to spend that time.
 


Assess where you are in your postdoc track.

This fall semester would be a good time to recognize what you have accomplished so far and what you need to do to transition out of the postdoc. One useful exercise is to explore what types of jobs are open, even if you’re not on the job market yet, to see what piques your interest. You can look at the job-qualifications section to assess what other experience and skills you may need to focus on for the rest of your postdoc period. Also, print out a few ideal job postings and add them to your career-planning file as a good reminder of your goals.  
 

You can use this information to update your professional-development plan and review with your supervisor or other mentors. Hopefully you already have started one of these plans, as required by your institution or a granting agency. If not, you can find a number of plan templates online via postdoc associations or try out the myIDP hosted by Science Careers. For example, I found a number of incredibly useful training and development resources, including a career-transition planning checklist on the Argonne National Laboratory’s Postdoctoral Office website. 


Stay updated on funding news.

It’s always a good idea to stay updated on science-policy news to identify trends in the research-funding landscape, upcoming funding opportunities and places that may be hiring soon. Most scientific societies publish government-funding information, including the ASBMB Policy Blotter and the American Institute of Physics’ FYI: Science Policy News. You also can subscribe to foundation news (e.g., Philanthropy News Digest) and get email notifications about federal grants from Grants.gov.

Also check with the sponsored programs or other research-development offices at your home institution or alma mater for upcoming grant-writing workshops. These workshops not only provide useful tips on preparing grant applications but also updates on trends in what individual agencies are funding. Resources (e.g., presentation slides) also may be available on their respective websites. For example, The Ohio State University’s Office of Research website has a number of online trainings posted.  
 


Outline research projects.

I have done a little pro bono career coaching with postdoc friends in the past, and I was surprised they did not have a working draft of any future research ideas or plans. No matter how early in your postdoc you may be, start a project-idea file and allocate time each week to work on related literature searches and writing a mock proposal. Even if you are transitioning out of academia, a similar activity can help identify what areas of science interest you most and to formulate potential business concepts, story ideas for science-communications work, etc.
It also may be time to have that long-overdue conversation with your supervisor on whether you will be able to take any part of your research project with you, if you are applying for academic jobs. If that’s not an option, it’s especially important to be planning a future research program in advance and reaching out to form collaborations.
 


Apply for career-transition fellowships and grants.

Securing a fellowship or grant demonstrates your capability to formulate a clear research plan and the potential to bring in funds in a future research position. Especially useful (and attractive to employers) are fellowships and grants that provide career-transition support, such as funding that can be carried over from a postdoctoral position to an academic appointment.
 

In my mind, I also consider other types of fellowships as a career-transition program — that is, they prepare you for a specific career path with advanced skills and training, not just a replicate of your Ph.D. program. Here are a few biomedical-related fellowship and grant opportunities that I ran across this week on my Twitter feed and from a few web searches.

 
  • The National Institutes of Health offers several types of career-development grants (e.g., K22, K99/R00) to support the transition of postdoc to independent researcher. Such grants fund projects in two phases: during the postdoc appointment and then upon successful transition to a tenure-track or equivalent faculty position. You can visit the “Research Career Development Awards” page to filter through programs and view current funding opportunities. Standard due dates for new K-series submissions are Oct. 12, Feb. 12 and June 12.
 
  • The Howard Hughes Medical Institute recently announced the first cohort of the Hanna H. Gray Fellows Program aimed at increasing diversity in academic science. Fellows are financially supported for eight years from postdoc through the first years of a tenure-track faculty position. Applications are being accepted through Jan. 10 for the next competition round.  
 
  • The Mayo Clinic runs a Clinical Microbiology Fellowship program designed to train post-Ph.D. and M.D. scientists to be directors of clinical-microbiology laboratories. The program includes both clinical components and management training. The application deadline is Dec. 31. It also offers a number of similar post-graduate fellowships for other specialties within the clinical and medical-technology fields.  
 
  • The Burroughs Wellcome Fund offers several postdoctoral fellowships, including the Career Awards for Medical Scientists and Career Awards at the Scientific Interface. Both programs bridge the funding gap between postdoctoral appointment and the early years of an academic faculty position. The CASM is designed for physician-scientists working in biomedical, disease-oriented or translational research areas, and applications are due Oct. 3. The deadline for the CASI has passed for this year.
 
  • A number of disease-oriented nonprofits also fund postdoctoral fellowships with options for career-transition funding to an academic appointment. Such organizations include the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. While the deadlines have passed for this year for those two, you can investigate options offered by other foundations and start a calendar of application deadlines for next year.
 

In the end, I’m not a postdoc and never will be one, so seek out advice from peers who have faced similar career decisions. It’s important to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please comment below or on social media with any career tips and resources for other postdocs.  

 

Donna Kridelbaugh is the ASBMB careers blogger. Connect with her on Twitter (@science_mentor) or at her website (sciencementor.me).