By Alaina G. Levine for Science Magazine.
The postdoctoral appointment is not only a time of exploration and hard work, but also a time to learn and hone critical skills that will enable you to move into a position of independent research. Skills such as leadership and management, teambuilding, communication, fundraising, and even marketing are required to advance, and one must be adept in all of these areas to succeed in this highly competitive economic landscape. There are multiple opportunities for postdocs to not only gain these necessary abilities, but also demonstrate them to current and future employers. The key is keeping a watchful eye out for chances to learn and sharpen your talents and to articulate your value to decision-makers.
Zoe Cournia is a Greek chemist who received advanced training abroad and desired to return to her home nation for permanent employment as a researcher. After graduating with her Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Athens, she pursued her Ph.D. at Heidelberg University, Germany and postdoctoral training at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. To stay connected to her country’s academic community while away, she corresponded with her undergraduate mentors and asked for introductions to other scientists. Whenever she came home on holiday, she volunteered to give research talks at her alma mater and elsewhere. Pretty soon, she was receiving invitations from universities across the nation to give seminars. “I may have left the country physically, but I never left the Greek academic system,” she says. After five years of notable research which included publishing, presenting, and mentoring combined with connecting with colleagues and lecturing activities in Greece, Cournia landed a job as an investigator (lecturer) in pharmacology and pharmacotechnology at the Biomedical Research Foundation Academy of Athens, Greece.
You need to be focused on the science, but you also have to have a career perspective in mind,” she says. “You need to know where you want to go.”
A career plan is an important element of any scientist’s path, but there must be other aspects associated with it, in addition to significant scientific outputs, especially during these troubled economic times. In Cournia’s case, while continuing her research, she also gained skills in project and grant management, networking, marketing, and independent leadership that ultimately helped her obtain the position at the academy.
For every postdoc pining for a professorship, a good rule to follow is to use your current appointment to find and leverage opportunities that will make you extremely attractive to potential employers. Specifically, you have to learn and hone certain skills that hiring committees look for when recruiting talent. It may not always be easy to chip away time in your day to become a better communicator or to solidify your fundraising expertise, but it is necessary to gain a competitive advantage.