Given the current state of the economy and current job
market, it’s predictable that the pressures and stresses on PhDs finishing
their postdocs to find jobs are significant.
It’s also becoming increasingly clear that opportunities in the
traditional academic career path, although available to some, are outstripped
by the number of postdocs looking for work.
The challenge for many postdocs considering non-academic careers is how
to best prepare for these jobs. What are
the additional skills necessary to be competitive in this space?
We often hear about how “business skills” (such as finance,
project management, and negotiation, to name a few) are really valuable, and
that is certainly true. But the real key
to making these additional skills work for you is to be able to apply them in a
social context that meets the needs of the people who are dependent on your
output. For example, it’s fine to take
project management courses, and maybe even become an official Project
Management Institute-certified project manager.
But it’s entirely another thing to be able to use those skills to
prioritize a project and organize activities, requirements and deadlines in the
context of the target audience who will use whatever it is your project team is
building (and the workflows by which they do so).
I can’t tell you how many beautiful Gantt charts I’ve seen
with every minuscule detail laid out on it. The entire project is itemized down
to its every single requirement with start and end dates, and allocated
resources and dependencies. But then the following conversation a few weeks or
months into the project: “Dr. Ribaudo, we’re not going to be able to meet all
these requirements by our delivery date, so I’ve organized them by level of
effort, and would like to know which ones are the most important.” More times than not, prioritizing which
proposed requirements are to be left out is solely based on technical science
and resource considerations. There is usually no consideration given to the
human workflows that were used to define those requirements, and this winds up
preventing the intended customer from being able to effectively use the
Here’s one more example. It’s one thing to learn
communications skills, i.e. how to spend more time listening than talking, how
to communicate with difficult people, how to management conflict, etc. But then
to be able to apply those skills in a social context, to adjust to the
technical, emotional, and social peculiarities of the people you are
interacting with, is operating at a much more sophisticated and effective
What these two examples have in common is the importance of
learning not just the technical skills, but the social context for how to apply
those skills. I wrote earlier in another
blog about the importance of considering the human workflows in order to
be successful. This is more of the same
How does this all relate to what I
wrote at the beginning of the blog, about finding jobs during difficult
times? Think of it like peeling back the
layers of an onion. The first layer is
to clearly understand your skills, both technical and business, and to be able
to map those skills to the kinds of jobs that are available. Use real examples of when you utilized your
core competencies in a social context to help you land that first job. Believe me, this will separate you from the
many others with whom you are competing.
The second layer is to then apply those skills
considering their social context in your job to become a successful and
valued asset to your employer. The third
layer is to have a game plan on how to augment those skills toward fulfilling a
long-term plan to obtain your dream job.
Preparing for your career is about more than just landing that job. It’s about planning how to be successful in
that job and leveraging your early successes as part of a larger career plan.