Andrew Thaler

CEO at Blackbeard Biologic

The Rogue Scientist’s Guide to Surviving the Postdocalypse

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Image: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Academic science is in transition. A surplus of newly minted Ph.D.’s and a funding environment that NIH Director Francis Collins has described as the worst in 50 years have combined to create a cycle of under- and unemployment for many recent graduates.

In 2012, 10 percent of science graduates who had held at least one postdoc were unemployed. Before starting his own biotech company, Ethan Perlstein dubbed the current academic job market the “postdocalypse,” and challenged struggling postdocs to share their experiences and help build a mentorship community. There are almost as many articles bemoaning the fate of today’s early-career academic as there are struggling postdocs in the United States.

This is not one of those articles. Over the past two years, and with tremendous support from friends, colleagues, and mentors, I have carved out a niche -- independent from, but interconnected with, academic institutions -- that can best be described as “rogue science.” In the spirit of Perlstein’s call for greater peer-to-peer mentorship among the generation of scientists struggling with the postdocalypse, I’m here to share my experience.

What follows is my survival guide. It is not a definitive pathway to success, nor is it a map away from the ivory tower. Rogue science is about reading the lay of the land, understanding the current ecosystem, and adapting to it. It is about seeing the forest and the trees and deciding where to invest your time, you knowledge, and your experience. It is also about the central paradox of the postdocalypse: Senior scientists, those most likely to be mentors to rising academics, have never seen a funding environment or job market like this and are often the least equipped to advise new Ph.D.’s.

Preparing for the postdocalypse begins before you graduate, while you still have access to resources and networks that you will sorely miss following a successful thesis defense. Once you’re out of the grad-school safety net, expenses start piling up at an alarming rate. Student-loan payments begin. If you’re on the job market, you’ll pay out-of-pocket for the health insurance that your university, ideally, was providing. A frequent shock to new graduates who planned to finish those last few articles from their thesis while job hunting is the discovery that not only do they no longer have access to the journals they need, but that job hunting is a full-time job. All of which leads to my first critical piece of advice that may make your adviser and administrators cringe:

Do not defend your thesis until you have your next job opportunity lined up.

It is much easier to apply for a postdoc while still within the protective walls of your graduate institution. Ideally, you should start looking for your next position more than a year before you graduate. But even then, sometimes things don’t pan out. If you find yourself approaching your defense without a solid position lined up, you may discover that it is in your financial and professional best interest not to defend -- even if you have to pay out-of-pocket for your tuition and especially if you have a significant level of student-loan debt. Once you find yourself out in the wilderness, the average time spent unemployed is 7 months.

Of course, landing that first postdoc is no guarantee of a second, so you may still find yourself struggling to find a place in the academy.

Understand the value of your skills and build a diverse portfolio.

Your Ph.D. comes with a whole host of skills unrelated to the topic of your thesis. You have experience working in a laboratory, and sometimes even running one. You know how to write a scientific paper. You know how to navigate bureaucracy. You’ve written grants and managed funding. You can teach. Those are all skills that can lead to employment and freelance opportunities that will both help you grow and keep you fed while trying to figure out what to do next. Any one of those skills can lead to a job or a contract that involves teaching, consulting, writing, or conducting research.

For example, during the first year after my postdoc, I edited manuscripts for non-native English speakers, wrote copy for an art exhibition, wrote articles for several news and media companies, consulted for a science startup, taught two courses, and ran several workshops. All of those things were related to my field of expertise and provided enough income to sustain me while I figured out my next move.

Along the way I volunteered with citizen science groups, helped colleagues with their research, and published several manuscripts. That’s what I call “subsistence-level science” -- work that keeps you fed while building your network and contributing to your CV and résumé. I also published a science-fiction novel, but that’s a whole different story. Almost all of those opportunities developed from relationships I established in graduate school.

Begin building a diverse network across academia, industry, government, and NGOs before you need it.

The vast majority of jobs, whether in academia, government, or the private sector, come from personal connections. About 80 percent of industry jobs aren’t even advertised. Once you feel that you have a reasonable level of expertise in a discipline (which should happen long before you defend your thesis), it’s time to start making calls and setting up “informational interviews.” An informational interview is not a job interview, it’s an opportunity to talk with people working in a particular field who may know which institutions and organizations could be hiring soon. It’s an opportunity to get your name out there, and let people know what kind of work you’re interested in and what your expertise is. An informational interview is a chance to grow your network.

When setting up informational interviews, make a point to cover as diverse a range of possible careers as you can. Find out who runs NGOs related to your discipline, which companies hire people with your experience. Did you become proficient in operating an advanced piece of equipment? Reach out to the manufacturer and let the company know who you are. Do your homework, go in with thoughtful questions, let people know you’re interested in learning what career opportunities are out there. Remember though, you’re not looking for a job in an informational interview, you’re building a professional relationship. So don’t waste people’s time.

Building a diverse network of not just potential employers, but people invested in seeing you succeed in your field, is the single most important step you can take to surviving the postdocalypse.

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