Friday, May 6, 2016

Postdoc Required? Check the Job Ads!

Both the New York Times and C&EN have written pithy pieces today referencing the recent Science survey about factors influencing postdoctoral study. 

The tone of all three comes across as confused, painting Ph.D. students as ill-informed, directionless lambs who take on postdoctoral appointments as, in the words of the Science authors, "default...holding patterns" because they "...don't know what they want to do with their lives." (NYT).

Well, for those of us, like me, who postdoc'd with the intention of going into industry, why did I "waste my time in a post-doc" (Science) for seemingly no reason? Here's some telling quotes, highlighting from me:

From Science: " goals are quite diverse even among these postdoc-planning students...[t]his may be surprising, given that the postdoc is not typically considered a stepping-stone toward nonacademic careers"

From C&EN: "Many students don’t have a sense of how many jobs are available or what background they require, Doyle says. Chemistry students think they need a postdoc for some high-level industry jobs in the pharmaceutical industry, for example."

From NYT"[in 2013]...the most common reason students gave for doing a postdoc was that they thought it would increase the chances of getting the job they wanted."

These sound bites sound aloof at best, slightly pandering at worst. Here's my question: Did anyone quoted for this story, or the authors of the Science study themselves, actually read the job ads for the industrial positions in question? Maybe students' fears are well-justified, because the ads I'm seeing from multiple companies read like this:

GSK, API Chemistry Automation Team Member

Pfizer, Sr. Scientist - Obesity + Eating Disorders

Amgen, Scientist, Immuno-Oncology

Genentech, Sr Scientific Researcher, Discovery Ophthamology

In case you missed it, all recommend postdoctoral research. I didn't have to go digging for these, either - simply typing "chemistry" along with "postdoctoral" or "post-doc" into the Career search engine on any corporate site will reveal roles like these. I find it rather ironic that the last quote from the Science lead author reads: "We don’t know enough about the industry labor market” (C&EN write-up). That seems to be the only part of this whole situation I completely agree with. 

OK, grumpiness aside, how can this situation be fixed? I actually appreciate the incentive strategy advanced in the paper, which neither news outlet captured well. Here's most of the penultimate paragraph from Science, highlighting again mine:
"Whereas the recent National Academies report recommends that students make career plans early in the Ph.D. program, we argue that they should consider labor market conditions and career options before starting a Ph.D. program. Doing so may avoid escalating commitment to a research career and may prevent individuals from entering a postdoc holding pattern. Graduate schools could encourage career planning by requiring that applicants analyze different career options and justify why a Ph.D. is the most promising path forward. Funding agencies could implement similar requirements, especially in conjunction with moving a larger share of funding from research grants to training grants and individual fellowships."
Amen. One thing I believe saved me from five years of postdoc purgatory was walking in "eyes open," understanding exactly what jobs I'd qualify for and where I needed to end up to pay back all my student loans. I also realized it would be no cakewalk: I began applying for jobs in my second year of study, and never looked back. 

Grad students: If you're confused about your options, feel free to drop me an email at seearroh_AT_gmail. Confidentiality guaranteed.


  1. I know the ads say postdoc required but I think it's highly dependent on the candidate. All graduating organic phds except one went straight to industry jobs from my department upon graduation

    1. Counterpoint - which year? I think the hiring climate depends more on market dynamics and overall economic prosperity more than on strength of individual candidates.

      The year I departed, it was tough for even chemists with 3-4 first-author papers to find positions sans postdoc.

    2. That's a great point I was referring to this year. Seems like a lot more positions available now than when I started grad school

  2. Abbvie told us that they would only hire w/postdoc. Same (non-postdoc) people they turned down went to Pfizer, Genentech, GSK, and seems that it really is required for some positions

  3. One point that people are missing is that your PostDoc supervisor can be of tremendous help when it comes to finding a job, especially if you work for a well-known professor. I always tell people to really "take advantage" of your professor, and ask him/her to directly ask friends in industry if they have open positions and to write good recommendation letters etc.