Karen Kaplan reached out to share thoughts on the academic job market. We had a great conversation and I learned a lot about STEM career paths which I am already bringing to clients and audiences. Then, she kindly allowed me to persuade her to do this interview for TPII. Read and enjoy.
Tell us about yourself–what is your current position and what do you do there?
I’m senior Careers editor at Nature. As such, I produce the weekly three-page print (-to-online) issue of Careers, which includes a feature story and another article or two, depending on available space in the print edition.
The feature might be about managing fieldwork with your infant or child, how to write a first-class paper, how to launch a startup business, how to balance a hobby with your research programme (and still publish and not get thrown out of your lab). The secondary articles might be a news story, a Q&A with a scientist or a how-to column by a scientist who has navigated whatever quandary or obstacle s/he’s writing about.
I also produce up to three additional online-first (or -only) articles weekly, usually a newser or column, sometimes a Q&A. I commission and edit all of this, write headlines, subheads and photo captions for each article (separate for print and online), and write social-media blurbs (for Twitter and other platforms) for each.
Careers’ mission is to provide advice, counsel and support mainly to early-career scientists (in a PhD program, a postdoc or a non-permanent or otherwise unstable position). So everything in the section (nature.com/careers) is extremely service-based.
How did you come to this position?
I came to Nature in 2008 as associate Careers editor in our Washington, D.C., office, and ascended to then-sole editor of the section in 2014 (I have a team lead and two colleagues now, although none of our work overlaps).
I’ve been a journalist since 1987, launching my career at a daily newspaper in Connecticut, where I covered municipal and tribal government, business and big pharma. I also spent several years there as an editor, honing my editing, layout/design and headline- and caption-writing skills.
From there I moved to editing business publications in Maryland and South Carolina, and later to a national physics magazine, where I was an editor and covered the US physics community.
In your capacity as Careers editor, what is the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone considering doing a STEM Ph.D.?
Don’t expect to land a tenure-track position in academia – they’re unicorns.
During your PhD program, hone and refine your skills in teamwork and collaboration; project and budget management; discussing your research with non-scientists; and writing in a non-academic style. And do at least one internship outside academia, preferably in the last year of your program. You’ll be a far more attractive candidate to non-academic employers if you have some of the specific skills they seek.
What advice would you give to someone completing a STEM Ph.D. in terms of career choices and options?
Understand, as mentioned above, that academic tenure-track positions are are not a realistic option. So plan the time in your PhD program accordingly:
Look for a lab with a PI who understands that the career landscape has shifted dramatically from 20 years ago and will support your need to seek external career training and experience (meaning less time in the lab).
Consult with the careers advisers at your institution. (And read Nature Careers. ?) Find out what your potential career options are outside academia for your discipline/specialty and match those with what you really like to do. Governments in most nations – federal / state / municipal (depending on the nation) – do have research positions, as do non-profits and industry. You may wind up pursuing a different (non-research) track altogether. But you need to learn what’s out there for you.
Get external training and experience through internships, even for three to six months.
Form a network within your discipline’s scientific society and other related organisations, such as a campus-based or regional PhD group. Or form a group yourself. These peer groups are invaluable for exchanges of info and for support.
Reach out to scientists in your discipline who work for non-academic organizations that pique your interest. Ask to meet for coffee or lunch if they’re local. Talk by phone or whatever digital platform is mutually available if they’re not.
Ask them about their job — what they do, how they got it, how they like it; about their employer and workplace – do they have autonomy, are they part of a team, if they have appropriate work-life balance, are they amply compensated and other benefits, is there room for advancement. (This is called an informational interview – you’re not asking them for a job.)
What do you wish STEM Ph.Ds understood better than they do?
With a little tweaking of appropriate skills, they’re a slam-dunk for for many positions and careers that have a STEM base. Don’t pine for an academic post when the world is your oyster.
Talk to me about postdocs: the good, the bad, the ugly.
Unless you have guaranteed information that you will land a tenure-track academic post, think twice about doing a postdoc if you’re in STEM. Industrial employers, for one, often don’t look kindly upon candidates who have done postdocs (unless the postdoc was at that same company) because it tends to signal to them (validly or not) that the candidate wasn’t serious about working in industry and had really wanted an academic position.
It’s not quite so heinous if you’re aiming for a government research position (for example, with one of the US federal agencies), or perhaps a non-profit, but those aren’t necessarily easy to land either because there simply aren’t huge numbers of them.
There is also, of course, the reality of being a postdoc. The compensation is dismal for science postdocs (I can’t speak to those in humanitarian disciplines). Science postdocs might get a lead authorship on a paper or three, but they are so often the “hired hands” of the lab, doing most of the work while the PI is writing grants and seeing to other obligations.
People routinely do two and even three postdocs in hopes of eventually landing that academic post, and by the time they’re done with the third postdoc, they’re in their 40s and (in the US) have accrued no retirement funds, no Social Security quarters, no employer-matched contributions. They may not have health insurance either because they usually are not a direct employee of the university. And they’re probably working up to or in excess of 80 hours a week.
Then, if they decide to switch gears and look for a non-academic position, they have no experience except in academia, so they are less qualified to compete against scientists who have bolstered their CV with plenty of stints outside the university.
What surprises you in the work you currently do?
Though it’s beginning to change, most principal investigators and university administrators still do not actively steer PhD students (and postdocs) away from aiming for an academic research career. The employment landscape has shifted dramatically from the time most PIs and administrators were PhD students and postdocs, but many still expect today’s doctoral students and postdocs to pursue an academic research post.
It could be argued that it isn’t their job to give career advice to their supervisees, but the fact remains that in many cases, the PI is a primary adviser by default. I’m hoping that stakeholders in academia worldwide can start to encourage junior researchers to explore other career options beyond this path, and institutionalize their ability to do so by building in time away from the lab for internships, traineeships and other such experiences.
Any last words?
Form a peer network. Now. You need the support.
David Schaich says
While I can only offer anecdotal evidence, the statements about postdoc positions in this interview bear almost no resemblance to my personal experiences (of three STEM postdocs during 2011–2018 leading to a TT position), or to the postdoc positions I’ve seen from the outside. Even though I’m not in a hot well-funded field, the compensation I got was far from “dismal” (min $45k per year in an inexpensive rust-belt city, max $105k per year where the cost of living was higher), and I got full benefits in all three positions, including retirement accounts with employer contributions and (for the two in the US) health insurance. At the R1s where I worked in the US, the idea that a full-time postdoc in any field might not have university health insurance would have caused spit-takes. While postdocs in their 40s might not be impossible, especially in the US that would be unusual—I was 34 when I got the TT position, which already put me solidly on the older side of the postdoc population.
I do agree about the 80+ hours per week, though, and I would also agree that industry tends to prefer fresh PhD’s to older candidates. (As one mentor put it: “If you plan to leave academia, it’s best to do so sooner rather than later.”) That said, I know plenty of folks who have had no trouble going into industry after postdocs (or from TT positions that they didn’t enjoy).
I can’t be sure what the cause of the disconnect might be; perhaps Karen Kaplan has heard enough horror stories in her role that they have come to seem like the norm rather than extreme cases.
Karen Kelsky says
Thanks for your comments. It may be field-specific. But given that Nature and Science both continually publish on the perils of the perma-doc and the disaster of hiring in STEM fields, I’d say it’s probably safer to go with this advice than not.
Karen Kaplan says
Thanks for your comment, David (and Karen). David, I’d say you’re quite fortunate in terms of your postdoc and nabbing a TT position. One’s experience as a postdoc does depend on the institution, but I can say with great certainty that many US postdocs do not have access to benefits and in fact receive dismal compensation. Those who are funded on NIH NRSA fellowships, for example, usually fare somewhat better, but of course those fellowships are a tiny proportion of the whole.
I’ve been covering the global scientific workforce at Nature for more than a decade, so I am not at all sure that what I say here is the result of hearing horror stories. Rather, it’s what I hear almost daily in the course of my own interviews, through Careers’ annual surveys and in the content I commission and edit, among other sources. Glad you’ve had a better pathway, and best wishes to you. 🙂