In this episode, the founder of the podcast Dr. Tina Persson discusses the question that every PhD faces sooner or later in his/her academic career: “Should I make a postdoc or not?”
Tina, being the professional career coach and recruitment specialist in the present and the Assistant Professor in the past, provides the unique perspective on this issue and gives valuable advice.
In academia, we are trained to work hard, long hours, and tend to be very critical about our own achievements. That mindset must be re-evaluated to following: I can learn, I am not afraid to fail, I can ask for help, I like feedback, I can say “I don’t know”, and I contribute to a team
– Dr. Tina Persson, Career Coach
Welcome to PhD Career stories - a podcast about people who have created their own career paths, outside academia. My name is Karin Martinsson, and it is my pleasure to introduce this podcasts very own Tina Persson. She was once an Assistant Professor at Lund University; today she is managing her own company and working as a transitioning expert, coach and trainer for PhDs wanting to switch from academia to industry. Take it away, Tina!
Tina: Hello everybody!
My name is Tina Persson Founder of my own company Passage2Pro and of the Podcast PhD career stories. I have a background as Assistant Professor at Lund University together with over 10 years experience in industry as Recruiter and Talent Manager. For the last 3 years I have worked as Transitioning Expert, Coach and Trainer for PhDs wanting to leave academia for industry.
In this podcast I will talk about the topic: Should I do a Postdoc or not?
Maybe THE most common question I get as a Career Coach for PhDs
I’ll remember my own decision, in this matter, autumn 95. That is now over 20 years ago. After my PhD, instead of taking a job in industry, I decided to take a postdoc in Germany at the Max Planck Institute, Göttingen. The reason, at the time, was more based on the feeling that I wanted to do something differently from my friends. Many of them started to work at AstraZeneca in Lund or in Gothenburg. I, on the other hand, wanted to leave Sweden to learn to know another country. My choice landed on Germany. That is what I know today after many hours of coaching and reflection about my past behaviour. And, I am smiling. Because my choice was based on feelings not facts. As Postdoc, I was a good postdoc. But, very interested in conferences and after-work with colleagues. Having a beer, having fun and learn to know the culture in Germany and of course getting many new friends. I, of course, learned to speak the German language. Something, I am very glad about today as it helps me a lot in my business. English and Germany I spoke on daily basis.
I was a postdoc for over 5 years. AND, yes, I was procrastinating. The academic career had started and I did not know anything about the world outside of academia. How could I? So, therefore, the most logical step was to apply for a Research position back in Sweden.
Shortly after, I realised I was on the wrong track. I should have known. But I was in my comfort zone – the world outside of academia was very diffuse and strange.
My transition to industry turned out to be both hard and tough, as I was not prepared for the road trip. But with hard work and a strong will, I finally got the chance I was looking for. My first job in industry was as Recruiter. If you want to learn more about my story you can listen to my podcast #1, on the PHD Career Stories Channel. And don’t forget – there are many similar stories worth listening to on the same channel.
But what did I learn as recruiter?
Well, as Recruiter I learned that I was not alone with my story and that I was not the only one procrastinating my career in industry with the feeling of being confused, angry, frustrated and afraid of the future. I also learned that industry is not interested in your academic background but what value you can bring in the future for the company! Once you have passed to an interview – It is all about your personality and values – It is about YOU.
So, my answer on the question: If I want a career in industry, Should I do a Postdoc? My answer is: NO! I only have one exception for my clients. I’ll come to that later.
But why is a Postdoc not rewarding in industry? I usually summarise it as following: 1. As postdoc you will add technical skills. You will add more technical skills than what you have as PhD, as such more research methods and theories 2. You adopt academic attitudes and academic habits. They are mostly not attractive for industry. 3. You are building a Personal Brand leading you to Professor, thus people will believe you are aiming for an academic career.
But what do I mean by that? I will start with the first statement:
Technical skills also called hard skills. Questions you must ask are: 1. Is industry interested in my technical skills, I have learned as Postdoc? The risk you take is that you learn techniques and methods not applicable for industry. They are, simply, not only interested in your hard skills, but how you can go from Theory to Practice - in a clever way (or smart). Smart meaning: Value for company with respect to profit and efficiency. It could very well be that industry use methods you as postdoc would like to change, as you find them outdated, but for industry they are, at the moment, “good enough” That is one scenario: The other scenario could very well be that you don’t meet expectations in your hard skill. This is very common when it comes to Programming, Java, Python C++. So, before you start applying for Programming, data science or data analytic jobs check your level, on what level is your programming efficiency? This you can do on various web pages. In any case, before Industry hire you they will test and measure your skill level when it comes to programming.
You adopt attitudes and habits designed for academia. The longer you stay, the more academic you become. In academia you train to raise funding, writing manuscripts, guide students and doing research. You adopt to the people you have around, as you have to, in order to survive in the academic environment. Basically, you are trained in the organisation you are working in. So, if you don’t want to stay in academia – Leave! And get trained in industry and instead learn the industrial way. The natural career step for a PHD or Postdoc is to stay! And if you ask your supervisor and/or PI they will most likely guide inside of academia. Simply, as that is their experience and the career path they have done. They have their network within academia and as such: They can train you for an academic career path not for an industrial career. So, if you leave academia, you are on your own! Is that tough? Yes, it is. As coach I call that: You are stepping out of your Comfort Zone and that can hurt and it is scary! But, the more scary it is – the more you will learn, and as such, you will grow. If you, never, have been scared - it just mean - that you have stayed in your comfort zone for quite a while. So, get out of there. It is rewarding on long turn.
The longer you stay in academia the stronger your Personal Brand will be indicating, for your surrounding, that you are aiming for an academic career. If you start to apply for jobs outside of academia after 2-4 Postdocs you will, most probably, get the questions: Why do you want to leave academia? And: “Are you sure you don’t want to be Professor?” Or, in worse case – “Have you failed?” Well, now it is your job to convince them that you actually don’t want to stay in academia. And that is, of course possible, but the hill is for long-term-postdocs much steeper.
The fact is, that many clients that I have been coaching see them self as failures. For a person with so many years in academia, maybe 4-10 years, it could be seen as a bit odd. As most people outside of academia has less year education than PhDs and Postdocs.
In academia, we are trained to work hard, long hours, and tend to be very critical particular to our own achievements. That mind-set must be re-evaluated (coaching and training) to following: I can learn, I am not afraid to fail, I can ask for help, I like feed-back, I can say “I don’t know” and I contribute to a team by.
Long hours does not mean you learn more! It could mean that you can’t prioritise and take decisions. Prioritising and taking decisions are key skills for being a successful PhD in industry. You also need to learn about collaboration and communication as well how you can use the force of a team! Agile team spirit, asking for help, take help and not being afraid to take a wrong decision.
But, maybe, the most important thing is: To understand how you can help company business and how you can help to build company value – thus helping company to profit and growth.
So, my answer to the question: "Should I do a Postdoc or not?" is: NO. It is a clear NO if you want to continue after your PhD in industry.
Apart from one exception as I mentioned above in the beginning: If you want to change country. It could be easier, prior to starting your industrial career, to take a postdoc. The reason is: Usually, it is easier to get a postdoc position in a new country than a job in industry. But, this is the only exception for taking another postdoc.
So finally, thanks for listening to me and I hope I have shared some tips and trick that could help you in your career and decision making. My tip is to listen to other podcasts on the PhD Career Stories Channel. Get inspired and learn from other PhDs is one way of reflecting and learning. PhD Career Stories is a career podcast for PHDs in transition looking for their next step in their career or life situation.
We are all different but we will in the future all have a story to be told. Storytelling is a model for humankind – before we could write stories they were passed through generation to generation by telling.
We at PhD Carer Stories hope you to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, on our webpage www.phdcareerstoriers and on LinkedIn. You are very welcome to feedback us, connect with us and in short time more members of the team will tell you their story.
All the best from me.