Job Market for Postdocs Reflect New Challenges and Opportunities During COVID-19

The life science job market, both in academia and the commercial industry, was fiercely competitive before the coronavirus pandemic devastated the U.S. economy and sent unemployment numbers skyrocketing.

Postdocs seeking faculty positions in academic institutions were competing against hundreds of applicants for just a handful of opportunities. Postdocs seeking employment within Industry have had to pivot to acquire new skills and overcome a general lack of awareness, on both the postdoc and employer sides, about career opportunities and how a postdoc fits best within Industry.

COVID-19 has had an undeniable impact on the job market generally and will have specific ramifications for postdocs seeking academic faculty jobs or positions within Industry.

Many academic institutions have already announced hiring freezes through 2021, which will create a glut of postdocs vying for an even smaller number of these coveted positions. As this hiring freeze continues, the imbalance between postdocs seeking employment and a dearth of opportunity will be compounded.

For life science employers, according to Kate Bradford, Associate Director of Doctoral and Postdoctoral Career Services at Johns Hopkins University, figuring out how the coronavirus pandemic will impact talent acquisition is a work in progress.

“We’re still seeing postdoc candidates completing virtual interviews and accepting offers and they will be starting remotely. Not a whole lot has changed yet other than the interview format. I can’t really predict what will happen in the coming months but I’m hopeful that because the biotech and pharma industry are such an important industry right now that they will continue to hire,” stated Bradford.

It might be startling to receive your company laptop and other materials in the mail. Or it might feel strange for a postdoc to get hired and go through a virtual onboarding process. And it might be unusual for them to get acclimated to a company’s culture via ZOOM meetings and virtual team building events for several months.

There’s definitely enough change and ambiguity in the market now to make a postdoc feel out of control.

It’s not all uncertainty and doom and gloom for postdocs, however. Bradford believes that postdocs can overcome many of these challenges by being proactive and adaptive to change. Bradford believes it’s important to remember every postdoc is in the same boat and focusing on what they control is the best path forward. In many ways, COVID-19 has presented postdocs an opportunity to differentiate themselves by showcasing their ability to adapt and deal with ambiguity; and this is also an opportunity for life science hiring managers to better understand what a postdoc can offer their company.

Bradford had these tips to offer to postdocs seeking jobs and life science employers looking for talent to add to their teams in the COVID-19 market.

Recommendations for Postdocs

CV and Resume

First, it’s critical to understand the difference between the Curriculum Vitae (CV) and a resume. The CV, which is a longer document that lists scholarly achievements, including publications, grants, presented posters and patents, should be used to apply for academic positions. The resume is a shorter marketing document that should focus on professional and technical skills tailored to a specific job and company.

Postdocs should use a CV only when applying to academic positions. It  can also be helpful to enlist a CV or resume reader with experience in academia of the life science industry to provide edits and recommendations.

Keep Networking

Now is a fantastic time to actively network because everyone is home and is eager to talk, according to Bradford. Spend time working on a LinkedIn profile and research alumni databases focused on undergrad, graduate and postdoc program experience and see who is working where.

Start reaching out to your network and set up informational interviews and touch-base conversations.

Practice Interviewing

Many interviews follow a similar format that hits on subjects like technical skills, how you work with teams, how you make decisions and how you’ve led in the past.

“Interviews can be scary, but you can get better at them. It’s important to think through the answers but speak through them as well,” stated Bradford. “With many interviews going virtual, it’s also important to run mock video interviews with career professionals or a friend to get used to the format, test your audio, lighting to put your best face forward,” said Bradford.

Vet Online Job Search Resources

There are many job search resources online but not all are reliable. Many university career centers, societies and associations offer sound information. Bradford recommends looking at  personal blogs about the job search critically while watching out for older posts that could be out of date. Postdocs should apply their ample research skills to identify and utilize only legitimate online job research sources.

Go with the Flow When Transitioning to a New Job

It’s important for postdocs to remember that a virtual onboarding process is not just strange for them but it’s also new and unfamiliar to their new employer.

“Give yourself some grace during the first few months of transitioning. It’s going to be exciting but hard and different. Be a sponge. Be flexible to a new work environment. Get to know the decision-making culture and leadership and how they speak scientifically to each other. It is a time to learn,” said Bradford.

How virtual job onboarding will change the experience is still unknown. Bradford expects to learn more as postdocs report their experiences in the coming weeks and months.

Recommendations for Employer Hiring Postdocs

Employers Need to Adjust How They Measure Productivity and Achievement

Potential postdoc employers have traditionally measured productivity and achievement via grants won, publications and patents acquired.

“For lab-based postdocs who aren’t in a lab right now a lot of their projects have been halted. If you’re delayed at collecting data you will likely be delayed at applying to grants or the applications might not be as strong. And even when you get back in the lab some projects can be picked back up, but other projects will be months or years behind or those once in a lifetime chances to collect data are just completely ruined,” stated Bradford.

“We’re hoping that employers can be more flexible with how they measure productivity for future hires because they can’t compare them to last year’s candidates who could complete and publish their work. There’s just going to be a delay. We’re hoping, in biotech, that there will be a stronger focus on professional and technical skills and maybe not on the number of first-author papers and grants,” she added.

Postdoc Hiring Benefits Your Organization

In Industry, the advantages of hiring a postdoc versus hiring a PhD are not widely known. As mentioned earlier in this story, Industry is not sure where a postdoc best fits in the life science job market.

In academia the hiring cycles tend to be very long, but when you compare hiring a PhD versus a postdoc in an Industry setting, a postdoc can usually start faster. A PhD might require a thesis defense or graduation or signature; if a postdoc is on the market they can usually start within a few months or even a few weeks.

“With postdocs the biggest benefit you get is the professional and personal maturity they’ve gained from working longer. Professionally, a postdoc has transitioned from a graduate lab into another lab where they’ve learned to work with new colleagues and leaders within a new culture. They might have even moved cross country….A postdoc will have a different perspective. They’ve probably had at least three bosses and have experienced and managed different leadership styles,” stated Bradford.

“Postdocs have been able to build their confidence because they’ve had experience learning something new and leading something new,” she added.

COVID-19 has changed so many aspects of our lives, so quickly. The job market continues to be impacted and where the academic and Industry job market heads next is a big unknown. But Bradford sees opportunity for postdocs and employers emerging from this uncertainty.

“For postdocs, a lot of them have had to stay at home and will have to shift and restart their projects once they are back in the lab. During a crisis a lot of creativity can emerge. When these lab-based postdocs return to the lab they’ll do things differently and invent new ways of doing things. And this time away from the bench is an opportunity for postdocs to learn new things like bioinformatics or develop writing skills, for example,” said Bradford.

Bradford believes that after COVID-19 passes, postdocs will be more resilient, more creative and more skilled, making them more attractive to academia when hiring resumes and a stronger option for life science hiring managers moving forward.

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