January 24, 2022, by Jackie Thompson
Transitioning from PhD to Postdoc
By Dr Erin Connelly, School of Life Sciences, University of Warwick and UoN alumna
Determining your pathway in academia is specific to personal circumstances and varies greatly by individual and discipline. However, this post will attempt to draw out some general practical steps that may be transferable to a wide range of situations. This post is based on a talk given to PhD students at the University of Nottingham in November 2021.
There is no secret formula to navigating the postdoc landscape. It can be difficult to identify exactly what works in one situation and not with others in the hope of extracting transferable steps. The concept of survivorship bias, the tendency to focus on survivors of some selection process and overlook everyone else, is endemic to academic experiences.
To counter this narrative and encourage perseverance, Melanie Stefan and Johannes Haushofer have received widespread attention for the publication of their individual CV of Failures*, which logs the positions and awards they did not receive. Those examples help to demonstrate that there is much that goes into surviving a selection process that is beyond our control. Perhaps it is better to reframe the terminology of ‘failures’ into something more accurate to reality, such as: ‘I just did not make it to the end of that selection process’ instead of ‘I failed.’
At the postdoc (and beyond) level, selection committees face the genuinely challenging task of choosing amongst brilliant, accomplished equals, and the final decision has nothing to do with personal ‘failure’ of the applicants. There is an element of chance and factors beyond one’s control. That said, the following will highlight some practical things you can do to enhance your CV and improve your chances of surviving academic selection processes.
These actions may be broken down into the following categories: narrative CV, network, collaboration and interdisciplinarity, and funding track record.
UK Research and Innovation is one of the main organisations driving a change toward formulating a different kind of academic CV and interview process. Already this format has been integrated into research impact reporting systems, such as Researchfish, and it is likely to become the preferred style.
A traditional academic CV may be defined as concentrating on publication quantity and metrics (‘Publish or Perish’ mindset), quantity of grants, and years of academic positions. These elements of an academic career will always be valuable but limiting the focus, unfortunately, excludes the myriad other ways in which PhD students, postdocs, and academics create impact in their institutions and communities.
A narrative CV includes public/community engagement, leadership qualities, volunteer work (such as service on committees), mentoring, and other examples of influence beyond traditional measures. This style captures the broad impact of a person’s full activities in many different categories over the traditional paradigm which prioritises quantity of publications and positions. Some practical protocols that can be implemented as a PhD student include teaching experience outside of the academic institution (such as for The Brilliant Club); graduate centre electives; mentoring through Academic Services; interdisciplinary projects; committee and editorial board service; non-academic work experience; and community and institutional leadership activities.
Network, collaboration and interdisciplinarity
Network, collaboration, and interdisciplinarity may be considered together because they all speak to an ability to connect with people, to diversify, to work across boundaries, and to innovate. These qualities are in high demand across the academic landscape and the business marketplace.
Interdisciplinary work and collaborative projects have been the lifeblood for creating new fields and driving research forward. Also, considerable research now shows that the more diverse, inclusive, and collaborative a team is the more it drives innovation, creativity, and market outcomes**. Evidence of interdisciplinary or collaborative work currently is viewed as a favourable, often required, quality in funding and hiring calls.
A network may be all the connections made during a PhD journey. A great way to build a personal academic community and support system is by other non-academic work; leadership and volunteer opportunities; and by getting involved in short-term projects during your PhD. This will also serve you well if you need to find a career outside of an academic environment.
It may sound irrelevant or even cruel to highlight building a network of connections and collaborative work during a pandemic when such opportunities are limited. There is understanding, from hiring committees, of the pandemic influence on interpersonal connection as the networking opportunities for most students/postdocs/academics have been negatively impacted by cancelled conferences, closed offices, and transition to online spaces. The point here is to find ways to work (or frame your journey) within the imposed limitations and, when possible, to demonstrate an ability to pivot during challenging and evolving circumstances. Outside of the pandemic burden, academia is an environment often characterised by uncertainty that selects for an ability to demonstrate resourcefulness and resilience in the face of obstacles (such as experiments that do not go to plan; rejection of publications; innovative ideas that do not work as expected and so on.).
Funding track record
Evidence of funding is a category that appears even in the narrative CV model. Applications for academic positions or to funding bodies will ask about grants or awards received in the past. It is not a requirement, but in such competitive environments it is better to have a response than to leave a blank on an application.
No one expects PhD students or new postdocs to attract top grants or to compete with established academics, but a track record of receiving or attempting funds can be beneficial. Even small awards, that may not make a significant financial difference, are important as they evidence an ability to attract investment. Those small awards may be used to build a foundation to access higher quality awards.
In addition to university resources (such as the Careers and Employability Service), a good place to find opportunities is the Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding, which is a major repository for diverse funding possibilities.
In the area of grants, rivers often run to the oceans, and the opportunity to list even small awards can demonstrate to more significant funding bodies that you can manage funds. Again, this point is related to the consideration of competing with equals for a very limited number of positions. A track record of funding is another way to stand out if decisions come down to minor differences on a CV. Also, applying for awards and funding during your PhD provides the opportunity to practice grant writing skills and to learn the language and protocols of this specialised method of writing, which is essential for a future research career. University career services or graduate centres often offer grant writing workshops, or you can seek advice from supervisors or established academics in your discipline to see examples of applications and to learn effective skills.
This post is not intended to be prescriptive or to add more pressure or requirements to already stressful and complicated academic journeys. Hopefully, it is a useful summary of a few practical protocols which may be helpful in building experience toward an academic career.
It is best to consider the postdoc pathway in a non-linear way. The days of directing attention solely toward completing a thesis and then moving directly to an academic position are long gone for most PhD students today. It is not news to this audience that there has been great misrepresentation of the academic job market, abuse of labour via precarious positions and eternal temporary contracts, and a separation of academic achievement from financial translation, which simply is the ability to survive, and even thrive, in the world by being paid for one’s expertise with some degree of stability. Academia is afflicted by its own version of ‘starving artist’ syndrome which has the greatest impact on new graduates and early career researchers.
On a positive note, there are people and institutions and funding bodies that are actively changing that situation. Practical ways to navigate this tricky landscape during your PhD experience include collaboration, an international network, interdisciplinary applications of research, non-academic work, openness to activities that may not seem ‘academic’ but may enhance a narrative CV, and connecting with like-minded institutions seeking to change the status quo research culture.
*Johannes Haushofer, https://haushofer.ne.su.se/; Melanie Stefan, A CV of failures. Nature 468, 467 (2010); https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7322-467a
**See for instance: Zaggl MA, Pottbäcker J. 2021. Facilitators and inhibitors for integrating expertise diversity in innovation teams: The case of plasmid exchange in molecular biology. Research Policy 50, 9 e104313. (doi:10.1016/j.respol.2021.104313); AlShebli BK, Rahwan T, Woon WL. 2018. The preeminence of ethnic diversity in scientific collaboration. Nat. Commun. 9, 5163. (doi:10.1038/s41467-018-07634-8); Bang D, Frith CD. 2017. Making better decisions in groups. R. Soc. Open Sci. 4, 8. (doi:10.1098/rsos.170193); UK Research and Innovation. Addressing under-representation and active participation. [updated: 15 December 2020; cited: 8 December 2021]. Available from: ukri.org; Hewlett SA, Marshall M, Sherbin L. 2013. How Diversity Can Drive Innovation. Harv. Bus. Rev. Available from: https://hbr.org/2013/12/how-diversity-can-drive-innovation; Connelly E, Harrison F, Furner-Pardoe J, Lee C. Power and Pitfalls of Interdisciplinarity: A Case Study of the Ancientbiotics Collaboration (forthcoming 2022) Available from: https://ancientbiotics.co.uk/
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