Developing Your Thought Leadership for Any Career

Nana Lee provides guidance to graduate students on how to answer the common question “Should I consider academe or industry?”

May 17, 2021
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A key part of my work with biomedical graduate students and postdoctoral fellows is helping them navigate the details of their pathways leading up to either an academic or nonacademic career. They often ask, “Should I consider academe or industry?”

As a former research scientist in the biotechnology industry and an assistant professor in the academy, I have experienced the hiring practices and career paths of both worlds. With such a perspective, I encourage young scientists to perhaps reframe this question to “Do I want to develop and lead my own scientific niche?” and those in the humanities disciplines to ask instead, “Do I want to pursue further research within my niche?”

If you are trying to make a similar decision, I recommend you think about what sort of contributions you would like to make as a thought leader throughout your entire career, not just in the first job. Where do you hope to be in the next five to seven years? Do you want to be involved in the research of a new scientific problem or philosophical or arts question? Do you want to run a team to investigate those questions and solve problems? Do you want to help mentor others so they become thought leaders themselves? Do you want to contribute to the education of a future generation of thought leaders? Ultimately, do you want to become a leader of your discipline?

If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, then I suggest you stay on track for research and development in any sector, academe or otherwise.

‘Do I Need to Complete a Postdoctoral Fellowship?’

For humanities and social sciences, a postdoctoral fellowship may not be required for professorial positions. Your thought leadership developed during your Ph.D. would suffice. For most scientific disciplines, a postdoctoral fellowship is a time when the young scientist determines the branch of science they want to pursue and how to grow their scientific thought leadership in the area of their choice. A postdoctoral fellowship should be goal-oriented, with an action plan, so that at the end of three or four years, the candidate is publishing prolifically, ready to apply for a more permanent role.

As a postdoctoral fellow, try to develop your specific area upon the foundations of what you already started during your Ph.D. For example, if you were involved with using a specific research technology to investigate a particular disease model as a Ph.D., then you may want to continue researching that same disease model in your postdoctoral work yet with a different technology -- or, alternatively, to maintain the same area of research technology but change the disease area. Such a strategy allows you to build upon what you already know instead of having to learning a new technology and area altogether.

Some postdoctoral fellows have changed both their technology and research areas and still succeeded in landing research roles in academe and industry. Just keep in mind, however, that if you do want to become the world’s expert in a new field and new technology, your postdoctoral years may take a little longer. You will be starting from scratch without the five or six years of knowledge you gained during your Ph.D. in that research area or technology.

You should design your postdoctoral experience with these key goals in mind:

  • To strengthen your scientific expertise with new techniques, experimental designs, critical analyses, grant and proposal writing, and develop improved skills in people management networking, and collaboration;
  • To publish important research and apply to leadership career positions after four or five years and;
  • To take a part of your research work to your next position with a supportive supervisor.

By the time you finish your postdoctoral fellowship, your colleagues will know you for your specific area of interest. The best time to apply for either a professorship or research and development leadership positions is when “the iron is hot” -- in other words, when you are publishing well, which is usually after four years. That said, it is also possible to apply for a research position in the biotech industry earlier, perhaps after two years.

Venturing Into R&D Directly From Your Ph.D.

I have observed some students jump straight into industry scientist roles when their Ph.D. work and thought leadership aligns well with the vision of the company. For example, a new Ph.D. graduate had developed an enhanced method of a new technology. She found a company working on such technology and wrote a cover letter outlining her expertise and how she could help with their work. The company was not advertising a position, but upon receiving the letter, it reached out to interview her and subsequently hired her for a scientist position.

In another case, a Ph.D. graduate discovered a company also working in a similar field as his research that was advertising for a senior scientist position. Even though he did not have the experience, he applied anyway with a cover letter describing what he could offer. After the interview, the company offered him an industrial postdoctoral position with the ability to be promoted after one year. Both examples demonstrate how the strength of a cover letter and subsequent interview can create opportunities that did not exist before.

When a Postdoctoral Fellowship Isn’t Necessary

If you discover during your Ph.D. that your interests are in areas outside of research and development, such as communications, outreach, policy, management consulting, business development or any of the other careers introduced in myIDP or ImaginePhD, then a postdoctoral fellowship is not particularly necessary. What is necessary, however, is the development of meaningful engagements during your Ph.D. that will contribute to the portfolio of your future career path. Examples would be: 1) video recordings of your presentations and written articles in outreach magazines for a communications role, 2) involvement in student policy groups for a policy advisory role, and 3) a mini-M.B.A. or case competitions for a management consulting job.

Re-Entering Academe After an Industry Experience

Some students ask me if it is possible to pursue industry and come back to the academy. Such a move is possible as long as you continue to produce the currency of academe: publications. If your industry role allows for publications and building your research network through collaborations, then such an experience would be considered your “postdoctoral” experience when you subsequently apply for an academic investigator position.

If you are interested in teaching in higher education, then you can teach a class or two part-time at your local university while you work in industry, if it aligns with your interests and the department. If you want to make the transition into a full-time teaching role, try to attend some higher education conferences where you can present and expand your network. That is, in fact, how I transitioned from industry back to academe. I found some academic mentors, presented at higher education conferences and created opportunities to teach -- collecting feedback and evidence of impact along the way to incorporate into my teaching portfolio.

In conclusion, whether you decide to pursue research within or outside the academy, know that the leadership and critical thinking you learned while pursuing your Ph.D. will help you in any job or career. Also, it is perfectly OK not to know exactly where you are heading during your Ph.D. Keep researching, keep initiating, keep connecting and you’ll create the best path of continual thought leadership, whatever you decide to do.

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Nana Lee is the director of professional development and mentorship and an assistant professor, teaching stream, at the University of Toronto. She is also a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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