The Backup Plan

Every new Ph.D. needs a plan B, writes Thomas Magaldi.

June 29, 2015

When writing a grant or fellowship application, prudent researchers prepare for unexpected challenges by outlining alternative means to address their research questions. Ph.D.s would never invest precious grant money and time in a project whose success is tied to the implementation of a single research method. Nor should they invest in a job search that is too narrow. Although there are a plethora of career options for Ph.D.s, landing the first job after graduate school or postdoc training is still difficult.

Considering multiple options is simply pragmatic since a narrow job search can lead to unfortunate consequences including training that drags on indefinitely, reactionary career decisions and even a period of unemployment. If you find that your job search does not have a serious backup plan, there are several easy steps that you can take to create one. Having a backup plan will increase your chances of finding a fulfilling job after graduate school or postdoc training.

Understanding the Job Market

The biggest obstacle preventing Ph.D.s from creating contingency plans is unrealistic expectations of the job market. Many Ph.D.s fail to conduct research not only on the skills and experiences needed to land a job in a particular field, but on the overall competitiveness of the job market. If they do set contingency plans, they are often selected blindly. For instance, I often hear scientists claim that if they don’t land a faculty position they will find something in “industry," as if industry is an all-encompassing employment sector that absorbs Ph.D.s who are not qualified for academic jobs.

You should spend time understanding hiring trends. This can be done through informational interviews, which are conversations with professionals working in careers that interest you. During these conversations, ask questions that will help you understand the hiring landscape including: How long did it take the professional to find her current position? Is the industry growing or shrinking? What are the skills and experiences that entry-level employees need to be competitive? You could also use virtual resources such as the job trends function on Indeed or the Employment Projections Program at the Bureau of Labor Statistics to understand macro trends. The more competitive your field of choice, the more you need a realistic backup plan.

Understanding Your Priorities

After assessing how competitive you will be in your desired career path, you should define your priorities. You will not only need to make decisions on what you want to do but also where you want to live, how much money you need to make and what type of work/life balance you desire. I once worked with a postdoc who wanted to find a career in biotech. After further discussion, he revealed that it was essential that his next job be in the Midwest. He realized that he might have to compromise on his functional role in order to accommodate his geographic limitation. We created a plan that would help him focus on applying to the small number of biotech companies in the area while simultaneously considering opportunities outside of biotech. If certain priorities will interfere with your ability to pursue your preferred career choice, you must be flexible in your job search.

Time, a Ph.D.’s Greatest Resource

Preaching about leaving sufficient time for the job search is to career coaches as a boulder is to Sisyphus. Professionals working in career development constantly remind students to designate at least 12 to 18 months for the job search. And yet career consultants continue to encounter postdocs and students who start thinking about the job search two months before graduation or before their fellowship expires. Time is everything when searching for jobs. It buys you the ability to make proactive rather than reactive career decisions. When planning the job search, ask yourself the following questions:

  • When would you like to have a job?
  • When do you absolutely need a job?
  • What are your options if you don’t find a job by the specified time?
  • At what point will you start considering options away from your preferred career path?

I encourage you to post the answers to these questions in a visible location. This will hopefully serve as a reminder to leave adequate time for the job search and will prevent you from frantically searching for positions at the end of your training.

Exploring Your Options

If you have already identified your preferred career path, how do you consider other options? Hopefully you have conducted a self-assessment to help guide the career exploration process. A self-assessment is an honest introspection to help identify your skills, interests and values. You then match these skills, interests and values with compatible careers.

One Ph.D. with whom I spoke identified teaching science as her primary career choice. While she initially envisioned working in a traditional science education career, after investigating options she eventually pursued a career in technology development and transfer. She now teaches entrepreneurship and business skills to scientists and physicians, allowing her to continue her passion for teaching.

Ideally, career backups should not be linked with your primary career option. For instance, many Ph.D.s who aim for faculty positions at top research institutions often assume that if they cannot secure a position, they will be able to land a job at a small liberal arts college. These individuals are often disappointed to find that positions at undergraduate institutions are equally competitive, and are rarely filled by Ph.D.s who are not passionate about undergraduate education.

During a process of exploration, you may identify deficient skill sets that will be needed for your backup plan. Where possible, focus on acquiring skills and experiences that will increase your competitiveness for both your primary and secondary career choices. For instance, taking courses in finance would be useful for careers in consulting, equity research and technology transfer. Moreover, teaching experience is relevant not only to careers at undergraduate colleges but also can be used to demonstrate your communication skills, which are valued by all employers.

A Step Sideways Before a Step Forward

Even with adequate planning, landing a job does not always occur on a convenient schedule. Before you approach the deadline by which you absolutely need a position, try to ensure that your last-resort option will permit you to continue to develop the skills, experiences and professional relationships necessary for your desired career path.

At the end of graduate school, I was set on pursuing a career away from academic research. However, I realized that I did not have the necessary skills and experiences needed for transitioning away from the bench. Therefore, I conducted a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health. I strategically selected this postdoc because I knew that the NIH provided resources and opportunities for postdocs to pursue nonacademic positions. One postdoc I met used her first position at a small consulting company to transition into a medical science liaison position. Another left his postdoc to gain teaching and writing experience via volunteer opportunities before transitioning into a career in marketing. A career should be viewed as a series of stepping-stones rather than large leaps. Sometimes you must step laterally before you can step vertically.

When Plan B Really Should Have Been Plan A All Along

Some might feel that considering contingency career plans is settling for something less than their dream. Unfortunately, this belief is not only unrealistic but shortsighted. Most people gravitate towards a particular career path not because they reflected on how the career will fit with their interests, values and skills but because the career is familiar. This explains why so many Ph.D.s initially consider careers in academe.

When thinking about your career, focus on the paths that will make you fulfilled, and don’t be afraid to explore new areas. Most Ph.D.s I have encountered wind up in careers that they never would have imagined when they entered graduate school. I find that these Ph.D.s have only one regret: failing to explore and implement their contingency plans sooner.


Thomas Magaldi is administrator for career services at Memorial Sloan Kettering.


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