Andrew Thaler

CEO at Blackbeard Biologic

Surviving the Postdocalypse: Filling Your Knowledge Gaps

Full welders

Image: Women working in Welding Department, Lincoln Motor Co., Detroit, circa 1914-18 (Library of Congress)

As you make the transition away from academia and into the world of rogue science, don’t be surprised to find that your graduate-school and postdoctoral experiences have left you with several knowledge gaps. You will need to fill them before you can become an effective freelance scientist.

The academic experience imparts a highly specialized set of skills that serve you well at a research institution, but may leave you lacking in the wilderness. Learning to identify which skills you need for a nonacademic career— and how to acquire them — is a skill unto itself.

When my last postdoc ended and I set out to become a “rogue scientist” in marine ecology, I realized that there was a wealth of skills that I still needed in order to be flexible, adaptable, and competitive in this new ecosystem. I lacked all but the basics of coding — I had a little HTML knowledge and could brute-force my way through R programming, when needed. I had only a rudimentary knowledge of the sensors that marine ecologists rely upon to collect data. And after years of using some of the most advanced robotic assets in the world to conduct deep-sea research expeditions, I realized that if I wanted to be able to continue plumbing the depths, I needed to learn how to build and operate underwater and aerial robots myself.

Clearly some of those are pretty big, specific tasks. So let’s focus on the most basic and universal one: learning to code.

  • Find your mentors. Figuring out where to start can be daunting. Find mentors who have either been down the same road, or are already experts in the skills you need. Asking for advice is an art. Don’t monopolize their time or try to turn them into your full-time instructor. Right now you’re just looking for advice on where to start. And today, the reality is that for any skill, where to start is usually the exact same place: Google.
  • Embrace Google. It never ceases to amaze me how often people who are looking for very basic information fail to do their own web search before approaching the experts. Doing your homework before you seek advice will (a) make you more confident in your questions and (b) mean that when you do finally need expert advice, your mentors won’t have been annoyed already by basic questions you could have answered on your own. Searching “How to X” is your best friend when it comes to figuring out what you need to do in order to learn a new skill. Many of the best experts invest a significant amount of their time creating how-to guides on a particular skill. Read them, and when you finally do need to approach the experts, let them know you’ve been using their guides.
  • Dive in. Learning by doing works best for me, so my approach, regardless of the skill I’m trying to learn, is to start a project for which that skill is essential and dive in. I realize that approach doesn’t work for everyone. So figure out how you best learn new skills, absent the confines of an educational institution, and dive in.
  • Open-source is your best friend. Especially when it comes to coding, the world is full of open-source projects looking for contributors. Find one that both suits your knowledge base and will help you pick up new skills. Maybe you’re a geologist learning Python and you find a project that needs your specific knowledge, and from which you can get Python guidance. If your training leans toward marine science, and you want to learn how to build your own oceanographic instruments, you can always join my open-source project, Oceanography for Everyone.
  • Don’t be afraid to screw up. Because you’re going to, and that’s OK. Graduate school and postdoctoral training put a high value on success and rarely train us to deal with the failures that are so common to doing rogue science. You’ll find that you rarely learn as much when you succeed as when you fail. In my first year on the nonacademic track, I had a litany of failures and only a handful of successes. Don’t let the fear of failure cause you to shy away from tackling new challenges.

Here’s the bad news: Learning new skills is no guarantee that you’ll become successful as a rogue scientist. The best you can hope for is that by building a diverse knowledge base, by possessing an array of complementary skills, and by being adaptable to a fast-changing environment, you will be more competitive in the current job market.

My final advice: Don’t wait until you desperately need some new skill to figure out how best to do it. Start now. Learn that programming language you’ve been putting off in your third year of grad school. Figure out which skills your fellow postdocs have that you lack and start learning. Or do what a thousand hardware hackers have done at the beginning of their skill-building and program a computer to make an LED blink.

And let me know how it goes (preferably via Twitter).

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