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Cultivating Your Vendors for Career Success
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T. Eugene Day


By the time you finish a postdoctoral position, you will have spent upwards of a decade, maybe more, in higher education as a student or trainee. Often the structure and individuals supporting this process carry a tacit assumption that one day you will seek a position of independent scholarship, generally on the tenure track at a major research university. Yet a large cohort of you with doctoral degrees, many with postdoctoral academic experience, are searching for professional positions beyond the academic career ladder. You’ve spent a great deal of time training to be a subject matter experts, often in a narrow field of study. How do you find and pursue careers that take advantage of that experience?


Cultivate your vendors. In virtually every field of study, there are professionals with products or services for us, or our departments, to buy. They call, they email, they even show up unannounced at our workplaces. Dealing with vendors is often seen as an annoyance, a waste of time, or a distraction from crucial duties. But these vendors often have or know of precisely what we will want to find for ourselves: a professional position directly in our own field, outside the academy. 


Networking with vendors is easy. It is a big part of their job, and so they are eager to make friends. After all, professional scientists become future customers. But they may also become future colleagues. These vendors represent companies that develop and manufacture the things scientists need to advance science. Generally this means they employ scientists in similar disciplines to collaborate on creating and improving those reagents, devices, and software packages. Vendors will often know when those positions are available.


Vendors also have intricate connections with corporations and institutions. They may know of positions that haven’t been posted yet. They sometimes have knowledge of needs and plans that can enable a potential applicant to tailor their résumé and cover letter. They often know precisely the problems specific labs and companies are working on and precisely the scientific expertise that’s needed. Good vendors are usually the sort of people who like making connections and introductions. Asking them to do so—boldly—has, in my experience, been met with enthusiasm.


After receiving my doctorate, I took a position at a local research hospital. After 18 months as an engineering gopher for the chief of staff, I was promoted to a principal investigator position in our research department. After three years in that post, our leadership changed, and the position I held was converted to soft money. I had some grant funds, but not enough. I needed to move on, and relatively quickly—before my funding ran out and I found myself unemployed. I reached out to my sales contact for the company that makes software I use. It's a specialized software, specifically for people with my skills. I hoped that they'd know who else was looking for people like me, and in fact, they did. Within six months, I had a new position with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where I remain today. 


The professional opportunities aren’t limited to finding full-time positions. The company routinely reaches out to me when people are considering their software to ask if I will describe my experience with it to potential new customers. I'm not paid for this, and they do not pressure me to present any particular opinion. But sometimes customers will hire me as a consultant when they realize they want the software and someone experienced to perform the work. When I publish papers using the software, the company often highlights the work in their newsletters and at conferences. The relationship between a vendor and a practitioner of the discipline can be fruitful in a variety of ways.


So how do you position yourself to have a good relationship with your group’s vendors? Volunteer. Ask your PI if you can be responsible for liaising with vendors. Offer to weigh in on which should be the ones your group makes purchases from. Talk with vendors and listen to their pitches. Let those you prefer know that you like their products. If you can, be the person who makes the phone call when a new order is being placed. Offer to connect your vendor (if you like them) to friends and colleagues in other labs.


Vendors function as vectors for information. They are roving science workers. They know who is expanding, who is increasing spending and who is cutting back. They know who’s hiring before it hits the job boards—and they can help fill those positions before they’re ever advertised. They can help promote your work. They can make introductions that lead to collaborations and consulting gigs. Vendors are a part of your network, not a distraction. Invest a little time with them, and you may discover some incredible opportunities.


T. Eugene Day, DSc, is a program manager with the Office of Safety and Medical Operations and a research scientist with PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, specializing in discrete event simulation and agent-based modeling in healthcare operations, practice, and policy. You can follow @EugeneDayDSc on Twitter.


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