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Meanwhile, many postdocs still think professional development means asking their mentor to write a letter of recommendation or help them get a speaking engagement at a scientific meeting. The usual trouble is that some postdocs reach age 30 without ever having given serious thought to the marketable skills they have acquired over years of professional training or how to translate those skills into a job.
"I've found that for people who've spent their whole training expecting to follow that path into academia, the outside world is a swirl of possibilities that they just don't know anything about," says Peter Fiske, a geologist, entrepreneur, and author of two books to help scientists achieve their career goals.
Bill Lindstaedt, who runs the career-counseling center at the University of California, San Francisco, has developed a set of basic tools geared specifically for Ph.D. scientists. "We ask them about their skills, values, interests, and passions, and we ask them to prioritize their list. Once they get a feel for what they might want to do, we help introduce them to people in that field and they can start building a career network. Oftentimes, they find they don't even have to look for a job, because once they begin meeting people, opportunities start coming their way."
Fiske says that the eye-opening exercise of developing a list of skills while still in graduate school made him realize he had a lot to offer a prospective employer; his 35-item list ran the gamut from "ability to conceive and design complex studies and projects" to "good listener." Moreover, he suggests, all postdocs should do a critical assessment of their strengths and weaknesses each year and create a concrete plan to gain the skills they need to get the job they want.
In that spirit, some universities are now offering professional development through a tool called the Individual Development Plan (IDP), which was first devised in 2002 by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. The IDP is a template intended to guide postdocs through a process, with the participation of their mentors, that allows them to create a roadmap of where they are, what they hope to accomplish during their postdoctoral fellowship, where they'd like to end up afterward, and what skills they need to acquire in order to get there. It's a simple exercise intended to lay out a plan and clarify expectations for postdoc and mentor alike.
HHMI investigator Celeste Simon has always talked frankly to prospective postdocs about their career aspirations and how time spent in her lab could benefit both parties. Simon says she is dismayed when she hears other scientists belittle non-academic career paths. On the contrary, she has mentored postdocs who chose careers in the pharmaceutical industry, education, M.D./Ph.D. track, and science editing.
"If one day I look back on my career and know that people say 'she was a really good mentor,' then I will feel that I really succeeded," says Simon, professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "And if I got a few good experiments done along the way, great!"
One of Simon's former postdocs, Jeffrey Perkel, a science writer and undergraduate lecturer at Idaho State University, Pocatello, calls Simon a "sterling adviser" because of her determination to bring out the best in graduate students and postdocs in her lab, no matter what career path they choose.
Photo: William Vasquez