Are postdocs beneficial?

Dr. Joseph Barber

Many of you may be considering whether or not to pursue a postdoc after you have received your PhD. The postdoc can serve several purposes:

  1. To give you additional training in your research field that expands the sometimes narrow focus you may have had during your PhD
  2. To allow you to build and practice more technical skills that help you to be a more rounded researcher
  3.  To give you some time as you apply for academic positions in what remains a very challenging job market
  4. To give you some time to figure out what it is you actually want to do next if you realize that pursuing an academic job may not be for you
  5. To gain industry-relevant experience if you seek out some of the postdocs funded by certain research organizations and employers

There are many reasons for taking on a postdoc position, and also many considerations in terms of what you want to do, with whom, where, and how long you should stay in a certain postdoc position. You will need to think carefully about these considerations, but as you do, here are some general thoughts for you to ponder:

Diversity of research experiences:
Depending on the type of career you are seeking, using a postdoc to gain additional experience can help to fill out your skills and research experiences section on your CV/resume. So, choosing a postdoc that is slightly outside of your current sphere of research, or in a different lab, can offer you some new and rewarding challenges. You can also bring your different perspectives into this new research and perhaps contribute effectively to more interdisciplinary research (even within a subject) because of your new ideas and different approaches. Of course, the downside to switching labs or research topics is that you may have some catching up to do before you may be in a position to publish papers – something that is considered important in the selection of candidates for some (but certainly not all) careers.

Diversity of non-research experiences:
If you are thinking about non-academic careers, then it is important that you can focus on a wide diversity of experiences and accomplishments in your resume that are not all focused on research. This will allow you to think about many of the career opportunities that are available to someone with a doctorate. Some of these experiences might include having the opportunity to mentor other students, to lead a committee within a student/postdoc organization, to gain additional editing experience working with other researchers, to serve as an intern/fellow in a tech transfer office, or to join graduate student and postdoc groups that focus on careers such as biotech and consulting. Of course, all of the experiences I have listed here (and others that I have not) are available to postdocs at Penn, and it would be important to think about whether a different institution could offer similar experiences. Indeed, even having access to a Career Services office could be an important factor to consider – not all universities offer their postdocs this resource. If you are transitioning out of academia, then the more you have done, experienced, investigated, achieved, outside of your direct research, the easier it will be to convince an employer that you do have a good track record of using your skills to get things done. It is not easy – a postdoc can take up a lot of your time, but expanding your horizons (and your network) by getting involved in other activities will always be beneficial, even if you choose to continue on in academia.

Where should you look for postdocs, and how long should you stay?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but there is some interesting research out there related to these issues. In the paper: “Postdoctoral training, departmental prestige and scientists’ research productivity”, Su (2011) explores the influence that postdocs can have on ultimate career success (as it relates to academic positions in this case). In brief, some of the findings suggest that researchers are the most productive in the first three years of their postdoc post-graduation, and more so than researchers who continue on within academia but who did not do a postdoc. The prestige of the institution also seems to have a positive effect. Read this paper – you can find it on Web of Science – and I have provided the full reference below. While you are at it, do a literature search for similar papers on the career paths for researchers, whether you are a scientist, social scientist, or a humanities researcher. There are always interesting papers out there that might help you make an informed career decision. For example, here is another one: “Onto, Up, Off the Academic Faculty Ladder: The Gendered Effects of Family on Career Transitions for a Cohort of Social Science Ph.D.s” (full reference below).

These are just some general thoughts about postdocs. Chat with your colleagues, your advisors, your thesis committee, and with someone at Career Services – we can all offer different perspectives that might help you in your decision-making if you are thinking about postdocs.


Morrison E, Rudd E, & Nerad M. (2011). Onto, Up, Off the Academic Faculty Ladder: The Gendered Effects of Family on Career Transitions for a Cohort of Social Science Ph.D.s. The Review of Higher Education 34(4): 525-553.

Su, XH. (2011). Postdoctoral training, departmental prestige and scientists’ research productivity. Journal of Technology Transfer 36(3): 275-291.

Welcome to Career Services: we’ve missed you!

By Dr. Joseph Barber

Congratulations! You are reading this blog, and so you are probably aware of Career Services and some of the many resources we have to help you with the job search and application process. All the posts within this blog compliment the links, tools, and archived workshops and videos available on the Career Services website. You’ve probably been there already, and hopefully you’ll be back soon. And when you come back, stay for a while – and poke around to see what information you can find to answer your questions.

In return for all this information, I would like to ask for a small favour! Really, it is just a small one. All I would like you to do is to ask your friends, colleagues, and peers if they have visited the Career Services website, or popped in to see us in the McNeil building recently. That’s it – simple. Now, some of the people you ask may look at you kind of funny – especially if you bring this topic up during dinner, in the middle of an episode of Glee, or whilst pipetting something mutagenic…, but they will eventually thank you for doing so, particularly if they have never heard about the resources we offer. In the hustle and bustle of daily academic life, things like thinking strategically about preparing yourself for future careers can sometimes fall by the wayside. However, your time at Penn provides you with a wealth of opportunities to gain knowledge, meet people, and gain practical, applied experiences that together will maximize your chances of successfully obtaining a job in the your career field of choice – whatever that may be. The sooner you start to do this, the better!

We certainly don’t want your friends, colleagues, and peers to wait until the last minute to think about this, or never to visit us at all – and you probably don’t want that either. We are here all summer, all semester, and our role is to serve you – to help you think about your career options, and to understand all the steps involved in making career decisions. Here are just some of the key services we offer:

  1. Resume, CV, cover letter, and other miscellaneous job application material reviews.
  2. Workshops on topics such as networking and interviewing; discussion panels with speakers from academic and non-academic careers; career fairs full of interesting employers seeking good candidates.
  3. Mock interviews, where we record you answering questions, and then discuss your answer whilst watching your video (many people don’t like the sound of their voice – but once you get over that, you’ll see how beneficial this experience can be).
  4. Career exploration, which can be very handy if you don’t quite know what you want to do or be, or can’t decide between different options.
  5. Advice from you peers. Just as you can advise your friends, colleagues, and peers to check out this blog and visit our website, so can you gain from the advice from those who have gone before you. Whether looking at the results of the Career Plans Survey, or reaching out to Penn Alumni who are doing what you might like to do one day as well, you’ll find plenty of helpful information through our website.

Share this list with your friends, colleagues, and peers, and encourage them to make an appointment to see an advisor. You could be helping them to get started on their pathway to success. It is very satisfying to be helpful, which is why we are also looking forward to seeing you again! So remember, spread the word that Career Services is open for business, and hopefully we will get to see many more of you soon.

5 Job Hunting Tips You Can Get From Dr. Who

Dr. Joseph Barber

1)      Your resume is actually bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. What? Well…, ok, all I mean is that the way you describe your experiences and knowledge by using specific illustrations of your skills in action achieving tangible outcomes will make even a 1-page resume feel like it is chock-full of relevant information. Your resume won’t contain any swimming pools, though.

2)      You can’t actually regenerate – and so don’t try, but you can and should talk about your experiences in a different way when applying to different positions. There is no one-size-fits-all resume that will work for two different jobs, even if they are in the same industry (e.g., pharmaceutical industry jobs, consulting). The more time you can take tailoring your resume and cover letter (and even your academic CV to a certain extent), the better you will be able to convince an employer that your experiences are a good fit for their requirements.

3)      If you spend too much time by yourself, you will end up talking to yourself. If you spend too much time looking at your own resume, your brain will begin to tune out, and you will start to miss those small errors that can creep in. Additionally, sometimes we can find it hard to think about the range of different skills we have used in different experiences – we get so used to talking about ourselves in one way that we can forget that we do actually have a bunch of transferable skills that are applicable to many jobs. Come to Career Services to get a critique of your resume, and you’ll find this fresh perspective to be helpful.

4)      Time travel is actually quite hard, and rarely goes exactly according to plan. This means that you can’t go back and change your past – that really never works out well in the future anyway. For example, back in the past you may have started a PhD thinking you wanted to be a professor, but in the present you may have decided not to take the academic career path. Make use of your time at Penn to gain a wide range of different experiences to explore your options, take some courses outside of your subject, join and actively participate in some student/postdoc groups. Make sure you also have a convincing narrative as to why you are seeking the jobs you are applying to. Note: no employer wants to hear: “I realized I didn’t want to be a professor, and so I decided to apply for this job”. This isn’t a convincing reason why someone should hire you. Talk about what you gained from your academic and non-academic experiences, and how you can use your skills and abilities in a way that would make you an ideal candidate for the jobs you are interested in.

5)      For someone with an identity problem, the Doctor has a rather extensive network of contacts. True, it is easier to make contacts when you own a small blue box that is bigger on the inside than the outside, and travels across time and space…, and when you are 900 or so years old/young. However, with a bit of courageous outreach to your own list contacts, and good use of social networking platforms like LinkedIn and, you’ll find that you can soon generate a comparable network – relatively speaking (which when talking about relativity can get very confusing). Don’t leave it up to chance, though. Set aside some time each week or month to connect with new people who might be doing jobs you are interested in, or to get back in contact with former colleagues, supervisors, and advisors. Networking is about building and maintaining meaningful connections with people over time…, wherever or whenever that time is!

The Emotional World of Job Seeking

Dr. Joseph Barber

I teach an “Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare” course up at Hunter College (CUNY) in New York, and one of the lectures in this course focuses on the question of whether or not other species have emotions. This is a very important question from an animal welfare perspective, because negative subjective emotional states (like fear, pain, frustration, boredom, loneliness, etc.) can be a potential source of suffering if they result directly from the way that we house or manage these animals in captivity. There are no easy answers to these questions, because emotions by their very nature are subjective states that are unique to the individuals experiencing them. I assume that other humans feel emotional states in a similar way that I do, but it is almost impossible to show that in any objective fashion. We cannot measure the experiences that we feel, even if we can measure changes in blood flow or nerves firing in parts of the brain. What we are left with, then, are some general questions we must ponder. Here are two examples:

  • Do other species have the same range of emotional states that we do – and do they have some that we don’t experience?
  • How can we try to perceive the environment from the perspectives of these other species when they see, smell, hear, and experience the world in such different ways from us?

Now, I bring up the issue of differing perspectives because in many cases these types of questions are also important when thinking about employers – especially those who have the types of jobs you are looking to apply to. Yes…, I know that employers are humans too, and so they should experience the world in the same way that you do. However, their environment is very different from yours, and environmental factors play a significant role in affecting behavioural responses and emotional reactions.

The idea of trying to figure how employers perceive their environment, and how they respond to the application materials you send to them in their environments, is actually quite a crucial step in the job application and interview process. So, let’s look at the questions I listed above from a job perspective.

1) Do employers have the same range of emotional states that you do – and do they have some that you don’t experience?

In general terms, the same things that would annoy you will annoy employers. If they ask for a resume, and you send them a 10-page CV instead, they will find that annoying. If they ask for a writing sample and you don’t send one, then that too will cause irritation. I don’t think there are studies that look at this, but I feel sure that chronic irritation will inhibit open-mindedness about your potential as a candidate.

While employers probably don’t experience employer-specific emotions that you don’t have, they will generally not feel the same extremes of fear, desperation, or worry in the same way that some job candidates may. After all, they are not the ones being judged, and the people at these institutions and organizations already have jobs. It is important not to let the “smell of fear” permeate into your application materials or your interview answers. It can happen quite subtly, with an innocent-enough sounding “although I don’t have all the experience you are asking for, I do have…” statement in a cover letter. Don’t dwell on the negatives. Let the spring-filled scent of optimism waft from your letter instead. One easy way to do this is to simply remove the first part of the sentence I used as an example above, and start with what you can do, and what you will offer that will be make you an ideal candidate. Focus on the positives, and ignore (as much as possible) the negatives so that you present a confident aura.

2) How can you try to perceive the environment from the perspectives of employers when they see, smell, hear, and experience the world in such different ways from you?

The first thing to realize is that employers do see the world differently than you do. Your priorities might be to find a job for some of the following reasons: to have enough money to eat and stay warm, to get good health insurance, to be able to work with an interesting group of colleagues, to continued being paid to do the research you love doing, and so on. There are many reasons out there, and each of us will have some unique ones. Employers may be much less interested in your reasons, and much more focused on their reasons for advertizing the job – and the main one usually always boils down to the fact that they need someone to get the job done effectively, whether that is teaching courses, working with clients, developing new protein sequencing pathways, or managing programs. They don’t care what you will spend your salary on, but they do care about whether you are going to be a good investment.

To be convincing to an employer, you need to have a good answer to the question “why do you want this position?” that puts less priority on what you might get out of it, and more on what you can offer them. Focus on their needs first, and it should become obvious to them that you want the job because a) you have the abilities to do it; and b) something from your past experiences has shown you doing something similar, doing it effectively, and enjoying doing it.

If you spend too much time telling an employer how excited you are by the possibility of working for such an impressive an organization as they obviously are, then you are missing out on the chance to highlight the skills you bring to actually get the job done effectively. The senses of employers are keyed into abilities, experiences, and knowledge that will help them build capacity within their organizations. Academic experiences are important, but can often represent passive experiences (a lot of sitting in a room being talked at), and so you will need to talk about your academic credentials and relevant non-academic experiences in as active terms as possible. So rather than, “My academic experiences have given me…”, which is passive, consider something like “I actively sought out opportunities to study X subject with X professor so that I could connect X concept with X reality, and I have used this knowledge in X situation to help me X” (where the concepts and realities mentioned in this case were in some way relevant to the job, and where the outcome highlights how effective your knowledge and skills truly are). Employers are looking for patterns: if you have used a skill successfully in the past, then you will be likely to do so again in the future. You need to find a way to show them how effective you have been – and this will always be more interesting than just telling them that you have been effective.

But the real question is “how” do you see the world from the employer’s perspective. The easiest way is to read the job advert really, really, carefully. This is where employers layout what they need to get done, and the type of skills they believe are necessary to do so. If your cover letter, resume, or interview answers are not addressing these points, then you need to spend some more time figuring out how to see the world from the employer’s perspective. Remember, try to talk about your experiences in the language that the employer uses. Another approach is to speak with people from the types of organizations you want to work at (and Alumni are often a good starting point for this type of outreach) to learn about what are important trends you should be aware of, what skills are valued on a day-to-day basis, and what experiences you have had that might be good to focus on as illustrations of your effectiveness. Ultimately, you should be able to put yourself in the shoes of the person who will be reading your cover letter and CV/resume, and who will be listening to your answers in the interview, because this will help you to tailor what you say and speak most effectively to their needs and interests.

When you make it easy for employers to see how your experiences make you an ideal candidate to get the job done that they need to be done, then you will make them happy. It is probable that happy employers will more likely see you as their preferred candidate. So yes, employers do have emotions, and you will need to make sure that you give some thought to how you can keep their subjective states as positive as possible.

Schedule an appointment with us at Career Services and bring your questions about how to tailor what you say to the needs of the employers you want to connect with. We’ll be happy to help you. I can also tell you a thing or two about the emotional world of primates, elephants, sheep, cows, and chickens…, if you think that will help!

A dog is for life…, but a job doesn’t have to be

Dr. Joseph Barber

Many of you have probably heard of the saying: “a dog is for life, not just for Christmas”. It is a reminder to parents that while their children may really want a puppy for Christmas, they have to realize that they can’t just throw the puppy into the cupboard (or leave it lying around on the bedroom floor, more likely) when they get bored of it, or no longer want to play with it. Owning a dog is a life-long commitment. Although people do, one should certainly try to avoid taking a dog back, especially to a shelter, like it is some ill-fitting pair of trousers that someone bought you. The same advice about thinking carefully about the commitment involved holds true for bunnies and chicks (often purchased for children around Easter), for parrots (perhaps bought for International Talk like a Pirate Day – yes, there is one), and guinea pigs (bought for…, ok, well, there is no holiday I’m aware of that is strongly associated with the buying of guinea pigs, but you get my point). On the other hand, most turkeys purchased for Thanksgiving are just for Thanksgiving, and perhaps one or two more days beyond – but this is a special situation.

If you are a little unsure of what type of job you want, or afraid to commit to a certain type of job in case it turns out to be the wrong path for you, then it is helpful to know that a job doesn’t have to be for life. Any job you accept can be a stepping stone to a different type of job in the same career field, or a completely different type of career altogether. Of course, you might be completely surprised and find that you really like the first job you get, and continue on happily down that career path – you won’t know for sure unless you give it a go.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you should just apply for any old job, in the vague hope that you will figure things out along the way. For starters, it will be much harder to be offered a job if you cannot provide a convincing answer as to why you are applying to it. Here are some answers to the “why do you want this job?” question that may not do you any favours:

  • “I don’t really know what I want to do with my life, but I saw the job advert and it looked interesting, something I might apply to, and so here I am”
  • “I have discovered that I really don’t like working in a lab environment, and I have had some bad experiences within academia, and so I am looking for a new direction where I can be happier”

Put yourselves in the shoes of the employers listening to these types of answers, and you’ll see why they are not so great. Would you hire someone who didn’t show honest interest in your company or in the day-to-day elements of the job? Even if you a little unsure why you are applying for a job, you can still come up with a convincing and honest statement that will speak more directly both to the needs of the employers, and to what you can offer them. For example:

  • “I see this opportunity for me to apply the skills I have gained through my experiences at Penn, and to be able to use my effective writing and editing skills to complement the other staff in this department, and to maximize productivity. For example… [and an illustration of skills mentioned should follow]”
  • “I think I bring with me a unique perspective that would enhance this organization’s ability to interact with international clients, and I am looking forward to the opportunity to work with the program experts you have here to quickly and efficiently learn the new skills I need to take on the project requirements listed in the job advert. I have always been good at learning new skills. For example… [and an illustration of skills mentioned should follow]”

These statements are overly broad, as I don’t have particular job in mind. The key point is that you don’t have to convince an employer that you only want to do this one job at this one company. However, you do have to convince them that you know what their needs are, and convince them that you have some combination of experiences, skills, or technical abilities to offer something that other candidates don’t have.

It may be that you apply for a job, accept an offer, but find out over time that the career field you are in may not be for you. Make sure that you have invested enough time at the job to make an objective decision about this. All jobs are challenging when you first start. Make sure that you have also looked at whether there are any opportunities to change the nature of the position to better meet your needs – perhaps moving laterally within a company to another position, department, division, rather than considering leaving altogether. However, if you feel as if you need to leave, make sure that think about what skills you might need when applying for jobs in different career fields, and seek out as many opportunities as possible to put those skills into action in your current position. Focus on the key transferable skills that are valuable in any profession, such as communication, leadership, management, problem-solving, and taking the initiative.

Having specific illustrations of your skills in action being actively used to achieve tangible outcomes will be the best way to convince future employers that you are a viable candidate. Any job that you take on, even if it turns out not to be what you want, will give you a chance to put these skills into action, and so will further enhance what you can say in your cover letters and resumes when applying for future positions.

So…, dogs, bunnies, chicks, parrots, perhaps guinea pigs (but not roasted turkeys) may be for life, but the jobs you take on can be stepping stones on a straight or more convoluted path towards your ideal career. Sometimes you just need to take that first step.