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The POSTDOCket, October 2019
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Knowing the Competition: A Different Type of Challenge in the Job Market

By Avanti Dey

Colleagues holding rope and competing at tug of war.

Many job opportunities you face may pit you against your own colleagues.

It is no surprise that navigating the job market in academia can be a daunting task, particularly when it comes to looking for faculty positions. Postdoctoral scholars entering the job market and seeking faculty positions face a number of challenges, ranging from a limited number of available positions in contrast to a boom of advanced degrees to unpredictable funding sources for young investigators. Moreover, with nearly three-quarters of all faculty positions off the tenure track, the pressure to secure a tenure-track position is higher than ever. The crux of this tightening job market means that there are considerable increases in job-market competition. One issue that often goes undiscussed is that this competition is frequently with fellow labmates or colleagues.

Knowing your fellow applicants – whether personally or professionally – can be an added hitch to navigating an already stressful application process. In speaking to several postdocs now in faculty positions, it became clear that while experiences varied widely, some common threads emerged.

Not all competition has to be acrimonious—sometimes a little friendly competition can even give you the extra push you need.

The professional side

The knowledge that there is a limited number of desirable jobs every year remains on the minds of postdocs applying for faculty positions. This knowledge is exacerbated by the fact that there are usually many more qualified applicants than there are positions. News of these positions travels through the grapevine, and it is not uncommon to be aware of who your competition may be. Cameron*, who is currently an assistant professor in psychology, said that conferences could sometimes be uncomfortable affairs, as it was often the case that multiple applicants for the same position were in attendance. There was also an additional factor of seniority, he said, in which more senior postdocs or even assistant professors would apply for positions, some without a particular interest in the job, and thereby diminishing the opportunities for more junior postdoc applicants.

The personal side

Even when not specifically talking about jobs, some postdocs still felt an underlying sense of competition. Another postdoc named Richard* said that casual conversations in the lab could sometimes turn to job talk, with lab members not only trying to avoid revealing too much information regarding their application but also attempting to find out more information from the others. “It was more comfortable talking about it with some than others,” he said, “but I always had a hard time not viewing them as the competition, even when we weren’t talking about jobs.”

In contrast, Jaya,* a postdoc in organic chemistry, noted that she would often exchange research and teaching statements with colleagues whom she knew were applying to the same or similar positions. “Maybe it was a product of coming from lab environments, both in grad school and during my postdoc, that were very close-knit, but we would always try to help each other out. It was a very collegial environment – stressful, obviously, but it didn’t really feel competitive, more like friends or teammates helping each other out.”

Colorful person standing out in front of monochromatic crowd

Work on what you can control to help stand out from colleagues.

How to stand out

How, then, does a postdoc manage to stand out from amongst colleagues who share the same research specialization and credentials? The most resounding advice was simple: be yourself. “As opposed to trying to shoehorn yourself into a position that isn’t a great fit, find positions that play up your strengths,” Cameron recommended, “especially if you can identify common strengths with faculty during the interviews.” Similarly, Maria* noted that “It’s like applying for a job under any other circumstances. You write a research statement that could be used for all jobs, but then you end up tailoring certain components to a specific institution. It’s sort of strategic, but it still feels true to you as a researcher with your own line of work.”

How much does strategy really play into the job search when you know your fellow applicants? “It depends,” said Max*. “There’s really no way around the fact that multiple similar people are applying for the same job, so you just try to work on what you can control. For me, it was about presenting my authentic self in the most compelling way possible, rather than worrying about strategy or who else was applying.”

Getting on with it

Despite the challenges of having to compete with labmates or colleagues during the faculty search, many postdocs acknowledge that competition is an inherent part of academia or any other job for that matter. “There’s always going to be competition for grants, funding, lab space, etc.,” Maria observed. “The important thing is that you stay professional and focused.” “It’s the nature of being a scientist,” added Richard. “There’s always going to be stress in the process of applying to jobs, but you just have to try your best to get on with it.”

Although it can be stressful and sometimes awkward, interacting with labmates or colleagues applying to the same positions is the nature of being a postdoc with expert knowledge. However, as the interviewees in this article have noted, many aspects of the job search are beyond one’s control. Therefore, concentrating on putting one’s best foot forward as an applicant is often the optimal solution. Furthermore, not all competition has to be acrimonious—sometimes a little friendly competition can even give you the extra push you need to be a better candidate.

*Names have been changed.

Avanti Dey, PhD is currently a postdoc at the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas, and the study coordinator for the engAGE Project.

University System State Budget Cuts Create Scholarly Uncertainty

by Ian Street

Scissors cutting the Alaska state flag

Budget cuts to the University of Alaska education system is indicative of an overall loss of prioritization of higher education for states as a whole.

The University of Alaska system has a budget of $302 million, serving 26,600 students. Earlier this year, Governor Dunleavy proposed a budget cut of $135 million for Fiscal Year 2020, which is 40 percent of the budget. These steep cuts resulted in the Board of Regents declaring a state of exigency on July 22 to implement such steep cuts, which would have entailed the dismissal of tenured faculty and any other changes necessary to meet this lean new budget.

A deal was reached in August in which smaller cuts over the next three years totaling $70 million ($20-25 million in cuts each year) were passed and exigency was lifted. This is still an eventual ~20 percent cut in the budget to the state university system. This impacts faculty resources; any early career researchers or those without well established labs and extensive grants rely on these resources to an extent. However, there is some uncertainty as to what will be available to them. The Board has promised to keep cuts to administration and minimize the impacts on scholars and students. However, the final plan for implementing the stepped cuts is still ongoing.

Assistant Professor Kat Milligan-Myhre, PhD, a biologist at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, stated, “Postdocs should be concerned about state funding. While not all universities rely on state funding for faculty, many do. Cuts to state funding mean fewer faculty hires, and more positions with no or few benefits or security, like adjunct or term professor positions. Those positions typically don't have time dedicated to research, which means they are even less stable. In addition, our state is requiring cuts to administration level positions without specifying which positions those are. That means that rather than cutting higher-level administrators, support administrators who directly help students and faculty are cut first.”

Eroding Opportunities in The Last Frontier

In Alaska, these cuts were caused by the Governor’s desire to increase the Permanent Fund Dividend, which is a sum of money that residents of Alaska receive each year based on the State’s invested money from oil reserves. However, preserving this program meant cutting the state budget of funded programs. A version of the budget with less severe cuts was sent to the Governor’s desk by the state legislature. However, using line-item veto power, Governor Dunleavy restored his 41 percent budget cuts to the university system, forcing the decision about financial exigency after a long-shot attempt at overriding veto in the legislature.

Exigency would have meant being able to eliminate departments and tenured faculty with 60 days' notice. Although the state university system costs the State of Alaska $302 million annually but provides over three times that in benefits to the state of $1,000,000,000 (one billion) in benefit to the state, which equates to over three times the value of the annual costs. Universities are also an investment in the future workforce, ideas, and local knowledge that consistently show a high return on investment.

“Postdocs should be concerned about state funding. While not all Universities rely on state funding for faculty, many do. Cuts to state funding mean fewer faculty hires, and more positions with no or few benefits or security, like adjunct or term professor positions.” - Kat Milligan Myhre, PhD

The University of Alaska cuts may be less drastic now, however, as Milligan-Myhre notes, “This cut to state funding of universities is indicative of an overall loss of prioritization of higher education for states as a whole. In Alaska, fewer people say that they value higher education. Thus, employers are bringing in people from the outside to work in higher-paying positions, and those people tend to have higher turn-over once the reality of living in our extreme and more isolated environment sinks in. We have a higher turnover rate among our teachers and health care workers, like doctors, which results in poorer outcomes for both education and healthcare.”

Speaking up for the Knowledge Industry Nationwide

The University of Alaska is just one more example of some states slashing university budgets and causing the elimination of departments and programs. In 2015, Governor Scott Walker and the state legislature cut the University of Wisconsin budget by $250 million, stripped protections of tenured faculty, and reduced the shared governance model previously in place. The University of Kentucky system is another example of a state university system that was affected by severe budget cuts.

While most postdocs and research are federally-funded, state funding and governance for universities can have an impact on facilities and set the policies shaping the institutional culture. Budget cuts have a negative impact on the morale and stress level of those working through times of budget cuts making effective scholarship and teaching more challenging. Promoting scholarship pays dividends in the long term; however, it can be fraught with uncertainty in the short term because it is not clear ahead of time just what work will be most fruitful. The case is always made in retrospect.

Cuts like those happening to the University of Alaska System and elsewhere potentially mean fewer programs, departmental resources, and loss of entire campuses depending on how budget cuts are implemented across a state university system.

The budget cuts are also personal. According to Milligan-Myhre, “[I] will be one of two assistant professors in the department by the end of the academic year. If faculty positions are cut, which the president indicated they would be during his presentation to the board of directors in June or July, that would mean that I am most likely to be cut. I am from Alaska originally - I grew up in Kotzebue Alaska and was in the lower '48 for 20 years earning my degrees and training - and am finally settling back in. This is where most of my family lives, and where my kids can learn about our Inupiaq culture. However, I have been fighting for funding for the university for going on five years, since I got here in 2015. The endless budget cuts and threatened job status have made me and several of my colleagues extremely stressed. One compared it to a relationship...after a while you stop fighting to make it better and start looking for a way out. I don't want to leave, but I also want to be able to focus on research and teaching and outreach rather than writing to my legislatures and hanging on every word during Board of Regents meetings and legislative caucuses.”

While maintaining federal budgets for research definitely matter, it is important for any scholars desiring a healthy university system to pay attention to, and advocate for, state funding and policies as well (state legislatures may be more accessible, too). The NPA’s Advocacy Committee is willing to work with regional and local postdocs, PDAs, and PDOs, providing them with resources and processes they can use to make their voices heard by state or local policymakers. As part of the industry tasked with generating knowledge, postdocs have a role in maintaining it for their future opportunities and that of future scholarship the enriches The United States.

Ian Street, PhD, is the deputy editor of The POSTDOCket.

NPA to Kickoff 2020 Career Fair with POSTDOCket Article Series

by Kristen Scott, Natalia Martin, and Shakira Nelson

Announcement reading POSTDOCket career fair series

The POSTDOCket announces it will put on an articles series to compliment the NPA 202 career fair.

The NPA debuted its first ever Career Fair at the 2019 Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida. While small, this event was an important step in solidifying and expanding previous efforts of the NPA’s Board of Directors to ensure that we bring valuable career-oriented opportunities to our members. The Career Fair was an evolution of previous conference offerings that focused on connecting postdocs to participating organizations and companies in conference sessions like Career Connections. The NPA is excited to announce that the 2020 Career Fair will be held during the Annual Conference next March in San Diego, California! We are looking forward to a bigger and better event this year!

Preparation is Half of the Battle

We listened to your important feedback regarding our first event and have come up with a strategy to address one of the most important issues brought to light: preparing for a successful career fair. We want all of our Career Fair attendees to get the most out of the event and believe that preparation is a key aspect of achieving this goal. We want to get our members thinking about preparing their resumés, curriculum vitae (and knowing the difference), LinkedIn pages, and brushing up on their networking skills well ahead of the main event.

To get our members ready, the Board has teamed up with The POSTDOCket to kick off a series of professional development articles next month with an article on how to use LinkedIn to prepare for a career fair. The series will run through March 2020 and focus on one topic per month.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

The Board has also teamed up with the NPA Resource Development Committee to complement the POSTDOCket articles series with two my Postdoc webinars next spring leading up to the Career Fair. We are excited to see what next year will bring and hope that you will team up with us to prepare for 2020 Career Fair. Stay tuned for webinar topics and other Career Fair related resources in the coming months!

Ways to Transition to A Career in Regulatory Writing

by Simone Otto

Girl writing on a giant pad of paper

Transitioning to regulatory science writing career can be satisfying and invigorating, but requires some knowhow | modified from Freepik

A postdoc is a temporary training position, but what the postdoc is being trained for is often poorly defined, but almost never includes training in drug development or regulation. Despite this, many postdocs are interested in this type of transition. After years of being deeply connected to research, a field in which they are asked to be generalists and their science applies directly to human benefit, can be exciting. In addition, there is an emphasis on team work as well as a potential for home-based work, two items often high on the bucket of desirable for a postdoc.

This training gap leaves many postdocs unprepared as they consider how to transition to their next position, a position for which they may have had no formal training whatsoever. So how can a postdoc translate a decade of research into preparedness for a career in drug development or regulatory writing? This article discusses a few methods.

Get Training

While a postdoc may have spent years training on learning the latest technique in optogenetics or mass spectrometry, very few have spent much time learning the rules of writing or the basics of drug development. If a program offers any classes in writing, whether it is grant writing or scientific writing, or general writing, consider taking these classes to develop a writing style and demonstrate you are taking the time to learn skill sets that will be important for your next position Furthermore, take classes or seminars that are focused on translational science or drug development to gain a basic understanding of the process and the language of the field.

Four people fit together like puzzle pieces sharing ideas and networking.

Forming connections and networking could help you fill in the missing puzzle piece you need for your career transition | modified from Freepik

But it is important to not just rely on your institution for these programs. Consider seeking out programs put on by national organizations like the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society (RAPS) or the American Medical Writer’s Association (AMWA). Getting certifications is not only useful in terms of the basic knowledge you gain but also is a way of showcasing your commitment to prospective employers.

Get Experience

Many positions are available for experienced regulatory scientists/writers but entry-level positions can be scarce and very competitive. One way to beat out the competition is to get some introductory experience. There are many companies that offer internships. Some are unpaid, but most are paid. They often occur over a summer or as a part-time internship over the course of six months or a year. Planning early for one of these internships allows for multiple applications while still pursuing your postdoc. It is also true that showing satisfactory work during an internship can lead to a job offer.

Medical writing is not the same thing as regulatory writing, however, working in medical writing can often provide opportunities to be exposed to/develop experience in regulatory writing. Many regulatory writers have also had a year of medical writing experience, either on staff or while self-employed, and this can be a mechanism to get experience. Even setting up a website to showcase potential medical writing pieces can be useful in a job application.

While direct experience is ideal, related experience can also be extremely beneficial, particularly if it can be used to prove organizational skills, leadership, teamwork skills, or writing skills. In this vain, participating in your PDA, organizing a career fair or other career development event, teaching a class, or writing for a newsletter or magazine can be very useful additions to your resume.

Writing experience can be particularly useful since it can demonstrate that you can take a difficult scientific concept and explain it in plain language for a broad audience. The ability to target your message for your audience is very important in any field, but particularly so in drug development. It is important to understand what is important about what you are writing and emphasize that; being a quality writer who can do this quickly and well is a skill that can open doors.

In addition, there are many editorial jobs available that will give you experience in copy-editing. While not directly relevant to regulatory writing, these jobs can be done part-time in the evening or on weekends to provide paid experience in a writing-related field, and possibly a professional recommendation.

Get Connections

Networking, networking, networking. While many scientists hear these words with a small internal shudder, it is still true that while you are seeking to transition to a new field it is very valuable to meet and talk with people who are already in that field. This not only gives you the opportunity to learn more about particular positions or particular companies, but it alerts friends and colleagues to your interest in working in the industry. This can be very useful because, in a competitive industry, getting an internal recommendation from someone who knows you can be integral to getting an offer to interview.

Networking comes in many forms; there are several groups such as Women in Bio and Healthcare Business Women’s Association that provide networking events. In addition, there are groups that meet to help with your resume, LinkedIn profile, interview skills and so on; these groups can be useful because of gaining tips from other job seekers. It is entirely possible that your next job offer comes from a LinkedIn or Twitter connection, so learning how to properly manage your social media presence can be very useful.

Finally, there are informational interviews. Often times these are over coffee, at a time that is convenient for both participants. These can be very useful, not only because you can garner information about the job you are seeking but also because of the morale boost from talking to someone who has been through the type of transition you are attempting.

Focus your message

Writing a resume is different from writing a CV. Many scientists know this, but it is difficult to put this into action. This is even truer when resumes are screened by algorithms that are looking for keywords. This means you have to hone your resume down to a couple of pages and then revise it with each new application to target that specific job description-a very time-consuming process.

In the process of doing this, it is very useful to think outside the box. Since every successful application coming in will have the same few words, use the letter to emphasize what is original about you that you, and you alone, can bring to the table. Find a way to connect with your audience (your future employers) by doing some research ahead of time. Understanding where they are coming from and what their needs are will help you understand whether this particular job will be a good fit for you and how to communicate this in an application.

Finally, make sure you include some well-written pieces that they can read which demonstrate your writing ability. Ideally, these should be short, non-technical pieces that translate complex science for a broader audience. If you have submitted something to be read, be prepared to discuss it.

Be Persistent

Not every application will lead to an interview. Not every interview will lead to a job offer. It is tempting to feel defeated and overwhelmed when trying to make a transition to regulatory writing. However, persistence will eventually pay off. Some postdocs find their job in a single interview, but others take a year of looking and a dozen interviews before they finally land a job. It only takes one job offer for that door to open, and with a little experience, your next transition will be so much smoother.

Joining different job boards, such as Hittlist or those provided by organizations like the American Medical Writers Association can be very useful, as can hiring a recruiter. In addition, checking up on your favorite companies through social media can alert you when a job is posted.

On a final note, every postdoc is temporary; but every experience you have as a postdoc is part of the permanent record of your life. Each of these moments is valuable; any one of them, considered in the right light, might be evidence of the skills you need to transition to your next position. As a PhD scientist, transitioning to regulatory science can be satisfying and invigorating; staying in science while focusing on direct human health benefits.

Simone Otto, PhD, is a former postdoc, a regulatory scientist, and the editor in chief for The POSTDOCket.

Thank you to new and renewing Sustaining Members of the NPA!

Sustaining Members are a vital part of the NPA. Sustaining Members represent a range of professional societies, postdoc associations, postdoc offices, and other organizations that serve the postdoctoral community. Students, postdocs, faculty, and staff at NPA Sustaining Member institutions are eligible to join the NPA, at no cost, as Affiliate Members. Check to see if your institution is an NPA Sustaining Member.

Welcome to our new members!
  • Northern Arizona University
  • University of New Hampshire
Thank you renewed members for your continued support!
  • Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute
  • City of Hope Beckman Research Institute
  • Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology
  • Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Oregon State University
  • Society for Neuroscience
  • University at Buffalo
  • University of California, San Diego
  • University of California, Santa Barbara
  • University of Louisville
  • University of Maryland Baltimore
  • University of Massachusetts Medical School
  • University of Nevada, Reno
  • University of Pittsburgh
  • University of Wisconsin Madison
  • Van Andel Research Institute
Please consider joining the NPA in forwarding the interests of postdocs on a national level!

Associate Editors

Thank you to our associate editors for October!