Training and mentorship often do not align with careers available for Ph.D.s and postdocs.
Academia has traditionally viewed graduate education and postdoctoral training as preparation for a faculty career. However, estimates of the number of PhDs who enter tenure-track faculty positions range from 8 percent for life science Ph.D.s within 5 years of graduation to 20 percent for biomedical postdocs.
Thus, our training programs must reimagine the pipeline to address the needs of a changing scientific workforce, particularly as they relate to diversity.
Perhaps one of the more striking datapoints Dr. Lambert presented during his talk is that while the percent of underrepresented minorities earning bachelors, Ph.D.s, and entering postdocs in the biological sciences has risen over the last 20 years, their representation in full professor roles has not increased since 2001.
Data have shown that underrepresented groups including women and certain racial/ethnic groups are less interested in a faculty career at research-intensive institutions than well-represented male researchers.
Surveying Postdocs to Understand Their Career Choices
Dr. Lambert presented data he and his colleagues collected from postdoctoral scholars regarding their motivations for academic research careers. This research group was specifically interested in understanding what factors motivate postdocs to persist in academia. In total over 1,200 postdocs from 50 universities were surveyed.
What were the results?
Nearly 50% of respondents reported a faculty career at a research-intensive institution as their top choice.
- Interest in a faculty career wains around year 2-3 of the postdoc, representing a potentially critical time for mentorship and career support to be provided.
- Those reporting that self-worth and career mentorship were large determinants in their career choice were more likely to indicate an interest in a research-intensive faculty career.
- Conversely, those rating financial security as a key determinant of their career choice were more likely to pursue non-faculty careers.
Two key metrics, outcome expectations and research self-efficacy, were higher among those interested in pursuing a faculty career versus those who chose career paths outside academia.
- Outcome expectations: expectancy (will my effort lead to high performance), instrumentality (will performance lead to desirable outcomes), & valence (do I find the outcomes desirable) lead to a motivational force to pursue an academic research career
- Research self-efficacy: belief in one's own ability to succeed at research-related tasks (publish, secure grants, mentor students, develop novel & successful research ideas)
Female postdocs rated themselves lower in research self-efficacy and had lower outcome expectations than male postdocs. Self-worth, the sense of one's own value or worth as a person, was also a strong factor in determining career choice. In fact, the strongest predictors of underrepresented minority postdocs indicating an interest in pursuing a research-intensive faculty career were positive self-worth and high research self-efficacy. Similarly, the best predictor for women indicating an intention of pursuing an academic research position was positive self-worth.
Research self-efficacy is associated with higher rates of first author publications, particularly for female and underrepresented postdocs. Thus, programs that increase research self-efficacy could have positive impacts on supporting postdocs and their overall research productivity.
Underrepresented postdocs were more likely to indicate a desire for more specialized training to assist them in pursuing a faculty career including:
- A transitioning to research independence course
- A scientific teaching course
- Fellowships and grants to support investigators like them
- Training in the application of basic science principles to community-based settings
These results, just released in PLOS One, focused on investigating advice postdocs would give others pursuing academic research careers.
Specifically, the authors investigated text responses to the question:
"What advice would you give someone thinking about an academic research career?”
Data from 994 postdocs were analyzed for common themes and sentiments among a diverse sample (56% US Citizens; 62% female; 13% underrepresented minorities).
A theme that continued to emerge in the qualitative data was the role "passion" plays in pursuing an academic research career. In fact, the authors organized many of the postdocs' responses about academic research into the concept of it being a lifestyle where one's research work and life are often one in the same.
With that in mind, other common advice centered around the need for those considering an academic career to engage in self reflection to determine if an academic research lifestyle was congruent with their values, life priorities, and personal and professional needs. Are they willing to commit long hours and much effort into academic training with no guarantee they will land a faculty position that this training traditionally prepares them for?
Pros and Cons of Postdoctoral Work
Other concepts that emerged from the postdocs' responses were that while the challenges of working as a postdoc are many (low pay, demanding workload, unanticipated setbacks, & a competitive funding and research climate), the positives in a postdoc position are scientific creativity, academic freedom, the ability to travel, and building problem solving skills.
Luck Plays a Part in "Success"
Many of the postdoc respondents mentioned that luck can play a significant role in the success of experiments, publications, funding, and job opportunities. Thus, ensuring your self-worth is not defined by "success" in your research work is essential to maintaining your mental health and wellbeing. You only have so much control of the various outcomes that are traditionally associated with academic success but you can control how central academic success is to your life.
On a side note, I routinely encourage graduate students and postdocs to get involved in things outside the lab/work as you need other outlets to feel accomplished and successful, which can help guard against allowing research or academic success to fully define you as a person.
Need for More Postdoc Support & Resources
Several responses to the advice for prospective academic researchers prompt emphasized the importance of strong mentorship and support while conducting postdoctoral training. Many recommended those interested in pursuing an academic research career to be proactive in researching and choosing the best work environment to complete postdoctoral training. In addition, the importance of finding multiple mentors, beyond your primary faculty supervisor, building a community of support, and asking for help are critical to success in your postdoc and beyond.
Realizing there are multiple career paths available to those with Ph.D.s and postdoctoral training and being proactive in researching your post-postdoc career options can also bolster postdocs' confidence in their futures and lessen the feeling that they must "win" the faculty lottery to be considered a "success".
One postdoc response Lambert shared sticks out as excellent advice:
Being a successful academic researcher is somewhat akin to pursuing a career in music performance or professional sports. Science and research must be your real passion for which you are willing to work extremely hard and sacrifice. And even with hard work and sacrifice, and of course the requisite level of talent, you may not make it to the big leagues. Be sure you are willing to take this risk and that you can enjoy the journey no matter what happens.
- Self-worth, career mentorship, and financial security were all strong predictors of intending to pursue an academic research career (or not)
- The likelihood of underrepresented postdocs persisting in academia increases most with self-worth
- Female postdocs are slightly discouraged by lifestyle when deciding whether to pursue an academic research career
- Those postdocs most comfortable with choosing an academic research career cited the following as important factors:
- adequate support with family and childcare
- financial stability
- geographical flexibility
- adequate support with family and childcare
To make the most of your postdoc, Dr. Lambert recommends:
- Be strategic about your mentorship team
- Recognize that a career in academic research is a lifestyle which may or may not be suitable for you
- Thus, reflect on you motivation to pursue a faculty career
- Prepare for multiple career paths
- Assess your readiness & preparedness at each stage
- Strengthen your research & writing skills
Explore more posts related to the academic career search in the Academic Packways section of the NC State Graduate School's ImPACKful blog.