PostdocTraining: the why, what and how

Kerstin Fritsches is a former research fellow who spent the majority of her 12-year research career on soft money at the University of Queensland, Australia.

She learned more than she would like about the challenges facing early career researchers (ECRs). While her research focused on what fish and other marine animals can see (taking her to some wonderful locations), she has been passionate about improving the situation for ECRs, and involved in postdoc policy and career development training for many years.

An apparently universal need for accessible and effective career development training motivated Kerstin to leave academia and found PostdocTraining to offer career development training tailored specifically to postdocs and their institutions.

The Research Whisperers met Kerstin at the 2012 ARMS conference, and were impressed by her passion for her work and savvy approach to alt-ac careers (‘alt-ac’ = ‘alternative to academia’). We invited her to tell us the story of moving from fixed-term researcher to company founder. 


Saddest sign in the world (By Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr)

A life in research looks like an incredibly rewarding prospect. It’s a ‘sky’s-the-limit’ kind of career, a chance to change the way the world thinks and works, and to make a fair living while doing so.

But how many researchers do you know across the academic spectrum who aren’t ‘living the dream’?

We decided we knew too many, and established PostdocTraining to offer support. The program is aimed at new postdocs who are isolated, dependent and worried about surviving the next grant round. They include ECRs unsure of how to start carving their niche and making headway down their own research path. We also wanted to help lab heads and directors who wanted to make their research teams more effective, efficient and productive, and researchers keen to transition to positions in and outside academia, but not knowing how to make a start.

PostdocTraining is rooted in the need to tackle these issues head-on in research. We started it to offer the kind of program I wish I’d had when I started my career as a researcher on ‘soft money’.

I adored my early years in academia after finishing my PhD in 1999. I was steeped in research, running projects, managing relationships with industry sponsors, setting up my own lab, competing for funding and establishing international research collaborations. At the same time, I received next-to-no training in how to actually do any of these things, which were well beyond the skills I had learned during my PhD.

On paper, the task was simple: work hard, publish well and plentifully, and I’d ‘make it’. The reality was harder: conceiving, planning and budgeting projects; attracting funding, building networks and supervising students; not to mention muddling my way through managing people, time and resources while juggling research leads, fieldwork and writing!

A set of ‘how to‘ instructions and a little targeted support for developing my skills would have saved me – and my long-suffering supervisors and collaborators – a lot of precious time, worry and lost opportunity. I did have helpful advisors and mentors but, like many, I was largely expected to learn ‘on the job’. I found out the hard way about failing to plan, to think through risks, or to plot career moves. How much better could I have done with some training? How much more productive could I have been if I’d known about working smarter (rather than harder), in managing projects, people and my time?

I became a real convert to career development training and ran training workshops for ECRs at my faculty. I met so many postdocs who were passionate about their work, but also very nervous about their prospects and unsure of their career options. Through career training, I also discovered a passion for being an entrepreneur and the realisation that the skills I had developed the hard way by running my own research program had actually prepared me very well for starting a business.

In late 2011, my business partner Steve and I started PostdocTraining to help fill the training void that exists for a great many postdocs worldwide.

Our idea was to enable ECRs to hit the ground running in the crucial first years of their career; to know the questions to ask when planning career moves, develop and deliver strategies for working smarter, and make informed decisions. We specialise in the early years post-PhD, a time which sets postdocs up for independence, for producing the science, networks and skills that will be the foundation of every successful career, within or outside academia (dark side or not, there is life outside academia!).

Career training makes sense for postdocs and institutions alike:

  •  Institutions recognise that postdocs do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to research output. Research in the sector confirms that postdocs who receive formal training and structured oversight are happier, produce more papers and report less conflict with their supervisors (Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey, 2005). Investing in increased productivity and fostering the independence of ECRs makes clear economic sense for institutions.
  • Academic research as a career is exceptionally competitive.  Wrong turns and even one-off mistakes can severely affect chances of success. Learning by trial and error is definitely not an effective strategy for success in this high-pressure environment. Targeted career training ensures ECRs can position themselves more effectively for success.
  • Conservative figures internationally estimate that only 2-3 out of every 10 postdocs will remain in an academic career. The majority of those trained in research move into industry, government and non-academic university-based careers. However, most postdocs we speak to feel their research experience on its own leaves them ill-prepared for careers other than in academia. Their work environment typically does not provide many insights into other career options. Teaching transferable skills and giving insight into career options outside academia are vital functions for good career training for postdocs.

Most postdocs, supervisors and research managers agree that career training would be highly beneficial for all involved. So, why are these programs not standard?

  • Traditionally, research training has been similar to an apprenticeship, with the understanding that postdocs will learn ‘on the job’. With more postdocs and graduate students per supervisor and a tightening bottleneck affecting career prospects, this model simply is not working any more. The benefits of investing in postdoc training to enhance research capacity are starting to be recognised, but academic cultures change slowly. There are many postdocs who would like more direction and support now, but are missing out because training focussed specifically on their requirements is not available at their institution.
  • Postdocs are notoriously hard to train in formal programs. Having run seminar-based programs myself, I know how hard it is to fill a room as postdocs don’t have the time or feel comfortable about leaving work for several hours to attend training sessions. For this reason, it’s important for career training programs to be flexible and understand the postdoc day-to-day context, which ours does.

A research career is tough and exciting at the same time, and attracts people who are dedicated and determined. I believe my mission in founding PostdocTraining is to help postdocs achieve their full career potential, wherever they decide they want to end up.

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8 Responses to PostdocTraining: the why, what and how

  1. sarahasloan says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. Perhaps even start earlier. I have just finished my postgrad honours, and will start a PhD next year. I am already starting to plan my career (if you ever can plan a career), and it seems there is limited advice out there. I have already began to focus on my outputs and networking, but it would be nice to know more about academia, what to expect and what I can start to do now to “make it” in a few years time.

  2. Hi Sara. You are right, it’s never too early to start being strategic about your career. LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman has come up with a nice concept: think of your career as a start-up, you are never the finished product and in state of permanent beta! That’s where personal and professional development training beyond the actual technical and research skills are so important whatever level you are at. The demands on your skills change as you go through your PhD and then postdoc and further career path, and networking is a great way to find out what’s required. Don’t forget to talk to people who are just a couple of steps ahead of you (as opposed to being much more senior than you) – you can work out from them what you need to learn next. Good luck, sounds like you are well on track with your thinking already!

  3. crystal_clear says:

    Hi, I think this topic hit the heart of my problem. I am in my final year of PhD in computer science and I am so excited to continue working in academia, in fact I used to be a teaching assistant in my undergraduate school for many years. Now for future I am so set up my mind that I want to do post doc. I love my area and I love lecturing, however, I find it nearly impossible to know where and how to start. I asked many seniors, but always I get a broken answer which leave me more confused. I am a very organised person and adore future planning; I am very depressed as I feel I am lost and don’t know where to start really. I knew from doctors and professors that to have a grant for a project is like mission impossible these days even for them, so I feel like if they say so what about me!! I have no experience in writing for grants and I don’t know really where to start. is there an advise I can request from you? Unfortunately it seems ur program is based in Aus. which is far from me as I am based in UK! But is there a way that I can have tips about where to start my steps?

  4. Hi – great to hear you so fired up about your career! Actually we’ve based our program online and made it available to people from anywhere because we realised this is a global issue and the challenges are very similar whether I speak to our clients in the UK, US, Sweden or Australia. 

    So I definitely understand your frustration and confusion. We have a free guide ’8 Keys to Being a Successful Postdoc and Securing the Career You Want’ that you can download on our website http://www.postdoctraining.com where we put together ideas and resources to give you practical advice for your career, including on tackling the tricky funding issue. Have a look and then get in touch with further questions if you like. All the best, Kerstin.

  5. bollywoodmel says:

    What a great post – it really hits the nail on the head with the changing nature of academia and the lack of tangible skill sets post-Phd that you desperately need for project management and planning. I have found most supervisors tend to operate on the assumption you will stay in academia (which is what they know best) leaving you quite unprepared for how to take your PhD (and 3+ years OUT of industry) back into industry or in my case the NGO sector. Any suggestions or advice would be great.

  6. Glad you like the post. I guess the most important thing is to recognise the problem – as you have – and then actively take charge of your own career. As you said your supervisor often doesn’t know the answer or his/her answer is not relevant to what you want to achieve. Networking more widely and informational interviews really help to find out what employers want and what you can and want to offer. Then find ways to develop and demonstrate those skills, whether that’s through training, getting involved in initiatives, volunteer etc. Unfortunately doing the research alone isn’t enough anymore, whether that’s for a career in or outside academia. Hope that helps!

  7. Rosemarie says:

    I guess I am in the 7/10 fraction of postdocs who leave academia…it’s nice to know that statistic since it makes me feel normal :) My postdoc training was awesome and I loved doing research but I felt like I was only using a small fraction of myself everyday while the other part of me was just wasting away….thank you for this article. I have started (12 days ago) a new project that now involves all of me.

    • Hi Rosemarie. Thanks for the comment and congratulations for starting your new venture! We meet quite a lot of postdocs who feel like you: loving research but realising that its actually just one (very specialised) way of using the range of talents they have. Sounds like you have found what you love doing, I wish you all the best. Kerstin

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