Kerstin Fritsches is a former research fellow who spent the majority of her 12-year research career on soft money at the University of Queensland, Australia.
She learned more than she would like about the challenges facing early career researchers (ECRs). While her research focused on what fish and other marine animals can see (taking her to some wonderful locations), she has been passionate about improving the situation for ECRs, and involved in postdoc policy and career development training for many years.
An apparently universal need for accessible and effective career development training motivated Kerstin to leave academia and found PostdocTraining to offer career development training tailored specifically to postdocs and their institutions.
The Research Whisperers met Kerstin at the 2012 ARMS conference, and were impressed by her passion for her work and savvy approach to alt-ac careers (‘alt-ac’ = ‘alternative to academia’). We invited her to tell us the story of moving from fixed-term researcher to company founder. Her ORCID is 0000-0001-5703-8876.
A life in research looks like an incredibly rewarding prospect. It’s a ‘sky’s-the-limit’ kind of career, a chance to change the way the world thinks and works, and to make a fair living while doing so.
But how many researchers do you know across the academic spectrum who aren’t ‘living the dream’?
We decided we knew too many, and established PostdocTraining to offer support. The program is aimed at new postdocs who are isolated, dependent and worried about surviving the next grant round. They include ECRs unsure of how to start carving their niche and making headway down their own research path. We also wanted to help lab heads and directors who wanted to make their research teams more effective, efficient and productive, and researchers keen to transition to positions in and outside academia, but not knowing how to make a start.
PostdocTraining is rooted in the need to tackle these issues head-on in research. We started it to offer the kind of program I wish I’d had when I started my career as a researcher on ‘soft money’.
I adored my early years in academia after finishing my PhD in 1999. I was steeped in research, running projects, managing relationships with industry sponsors, setting up my own lab, competing for funding and establishing international research collaborations. At the same time, I received next-to-no training in how to actually do any of these things, which were well beyond the skills I had learned during my PhD.
On paper, the task was simple: work hard, publish well and plentifully, and I’d ‘make it’. The reality was harder: conceiving, planning and budgeting projects; attracting funding, building networks and supervising students; not to mention muddling my way through managing people, time and resources while juggling research leads, fieldwork and writing!
A set of ‘how to‘ instructions and a little targeted support for developing my skills would have saved me – and my long-suffering supervisors and collaborators – a lot of precious time, worry and lost opportunity. I did have helpful advisors and mentors but, like many, I was largely expected to learn ‘on the job’. I found out the hard way about failing to plan, to think through risks, or to plot career moves. How much better could I have done with some training? How much more productive could I have been if I’d known about working smarter (rather than harder), in managing projects, people and my time?
I became a real convert to career development training and ran training workshops for ECRs at my faculty. I met so many postdocs who were passionate about their work, but also very nervous about their prospects and unsure of their career options. Through career training, I also discovered a passion for being an entrepreneur and the realisation that the skills I had developed the hard way by running my own research program had actually prepared me very well for starting a business.
In late 2011, my business partner Steve and I started PostdocTraining to help fill the training void that exists for a great many postdocs worldwide.
Our idea was to enable ECRs to hit the ground running in the crucial first years of their career; to know the questions to ask when planning career moves, develop and deliver strategies for working smarter, and make informed decisions. We specialise in the early years post-PhD, a time which sets postdocs up for independence, for producing the science, networks and skills that will be the foundation of every successful career, within or outside academia (dark side or not, there is life outside academia!).
Career training makes sense for postdocs and institutions alike:
- Institutions recognise that postdocs do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to research output. Research in the sector confirms that postdocs who receive formal training and structured oversight are happier, produce more papers and report less conflict with their supervisors (Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey, 2005). Investing in increased productivity and fostering the independence of ECRs makes clear economic sense for institutions.
- Academic research as a career is exceptionally competitive. Wrong turns and even one-off mistakes can severely affect chances of success. Learning by trial and error is definitely not an effective strategy for success in this high-pressure environment. Targeted career training ensures ECRs can position themselves more effectively for success.
- Conservative figures internationally estimate that only 2-3 out of every 10 postdocs will remain in an academic career. The majority of those trained in research move into industry, government and non-academic university-based careers. However, most postdocs we speak to feel their research experience on its own leaves them ill-prepared for careers other than in academia. Their work environment typically does not provide many insights into other career options. Teaching transferable skills and giving insight into career options outside academia are vital functions for good career training for postdocs.
Most postdocs, supervisors and research managers agree that career training would be highly beneficial for all involved. So, why are these programs not standard?
- Traditionally, research training has been similar to an apprenticeship, with the understanding that postdocs will learn ‘on the job’. With more postdocs and graduate students per supervisor and a tightening bottleneck affecting career prospects, this model simply is not working any more. The benefits of investing in postdoc training to enhance research capacity are starting to be recognised, but academic cultures change slowly. There are many postdocs who would like more direction and support now, but are missing out because training focussed specifically on their requirements is not available at their institution.
- Postdocs are notoriously hard to train in formal programs. Having run seminar-based programs myself, I know how hard it is to fill a room as postdocs don’t have the time or feel comfortable about leaving work for several hours to attend training sessions. For this reason, it’s important for career training programs to be flexible and understand the postdoc day-to-day context, which ours does.
A research career is tough and exciting at the same time, and attracts people who are dedicated and determined. I believe my mission in founding PostdocTraining is to help postdocs achieve their full career potential, wherever they decide they want to end up.