In September, fellow blogger Bob O’Hagan reviewed an opinion piece that was published on nextscientist.com entitled “How To Know If You Should Leave Academia … Before Wasting Years In Postdocs”. The article, written by Dr. Shelley Sandiford, essentially recommends that upwards of 90% of those who receive their PhD should not pursue a postdoctoral position because they are not suitable candidates for academic positions. The trouble with the article is that it assumes all postdoctoral fellowships and training programs are academic and all of them aim towards the ultimate goal of an academic post. This notion is a complete overgeneralization. If you think your goal is to be an academic principal investigator, then by all means, follow Dr. Sandiford’s cynical advice; however, if your goals are outside of academia, there are postdocs for you, too. Industry, government, and clinical fields can be very different from your graduate experience, why not get a taste of them through a postdoc?
In recent years, many biotech and pharmaceutical companies have created specific postdoctoral training positions with a strong focus on mentorship and helping you become a proficient, independent scientist. Postdoctoral positions in industry may get graduates who are unable to land a permanent position fresh out of grad school a ‘foot in the door’ at a company in which they’re interested, a chance for firsthand experience that will help them decide whether the industry culture is right for them, or simply provide more experience on their CV for the job they really want. These positions usually come with notably higher salaries than their academic counterparts and may lead to permanent positions. Some well-regarded postdoc programs are through Genentech, Merck, Pfizer, and Novartis. These positions are sometimes more difficult to find through traditional job searching routes, but with a little time and effort (and Google), you can uncover many more industry opportunities.
While the government experience may seem outwardly similar to the academic one, there are some notable differences. I shared an insider’s perspective of the life of an NIH senior investigator in my previous post. If you dream of an independent research career, but don’t see yourself as a traditional academic PI, a government position may be for you. Additionally, government jobs for biomedical graduates aren’t limited to only bench careers; you can use your scientific training as a program director, scientific review officer, or writer! A government postdoc could be with the NIH or with one of several other agencies specializing in varying fields from agriculture to public health. These government agencies also have special divisions just for helping their trainees build their future career beyond their postdoc. Listings are often found on the agency’s individual website, or usajobs.gov, so be sure to search through both.
For those specifically interested in infectious disease, immunology, public health, and microbiology that are looking to enter the clinical field without getting a medical degree, you may want to consider clinical microbiology and an accompanying postdoc. Although I’ve been in the field of microbiology and infectious diseases for years now, I was only made aware of this career path myself very recently! The duties of a clinical microbiologist usually include working directly with healthcare providers to analyze patient samples, managing teams of medical technologists, and implementing new clinical diagnostic methods. Clinical microbiologists are typically required to be board certified after completing a two-year postdoctoral program accredited through the Committee on Postgraduate Educational Program (CPEP) and the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). More information about CPEP training programs can be found here. There are several CPEP-approved postdoctoral training programs around the United States with focuses in different areas of clinical microbiology, so check out the list here.
Long story short, there are postdocs out there for everyone: from academia, as Dr. Sandiford expounded upon, to industry, and beyond. If you are able to go directly into your chosen career, go for it, but for many, a postdoc (in its many forms) is a great stepping stone to success.