Renovating Research: Adding a business certificate to the postdoc toolkit

Photo Credit: Thomas Lentz

Winter 2017 | Greer Arthur

Despite being at the forefront of pioneering research, academia is, at times, conspicuously old-fashioned, and one division that is ripe for an update is postdoctoral research.

Once a profitable step towards a faculty appointment, the postdoctoral position is now challenged by poor employment prospects. In the US, while more than 60% of PhD graduates become postdocs, fewer than 20% of these researchers continue into tenure-track positions. Problems such as funding competition and job shortages play their part in this crisis, but an outdated mentality is also to blame. Aiming for permanent tenured positions is no longer a realistic target for many researchers, yet this approach is considered the norm and pursued by the majority.

To counteract this complacency, NC State is among a handful of universities that intend to renovate the postdoctoral experience. Their proposal? To equip junior researchers with practical interdisciplinary skills relevant to a wide range of disciplines, beginning with a qualification in business.

Among many potentially useful interdisciplinary skills, business is arguably one of the more transferable and broadly applicable. Like any other field, business appears uninspiringly vague at first but becomes more specialized once the basics are learned.

As an umbrella subject, business encompasses various disciplines including accounting, finance, sociology, law, strategic management, data analytics, economics and business policy, to name a few. Teamwork, leadership and networking are also useful lessons, but the discipline itself also goes deeper, teaching the underlying operations of organizations and the effects of external influences such as economic fluctuations.

To allow postdocs at NC State to study business alongside their research training a certificate program has been proposed, spearheaded by Professor David Baumer and Dr. Laura Demarse of NC State and their collaborator Dr. Wade Chumney of California State University. If implemented, the program would become an optional resource for all NC State postdocs.

Importantly, the program would be recognized as a core feature of postdoc training by both postdocs and faculty advisors, rather than a dispensable extracurricular activity. To fulfill this, program activities would be legitimately incorporated into normal working hours if the postdoc chose to enlist. A modernized academic mentality requires not only that interdisciplinary skills be taught, but also the acknowledgement that such skills are crucial for postdoc training. In the multifaceted non- academic world careers are fluid, sectors are interchangeable and a rigid career ladder is no longer beneficial; postdocs who now face a greater chance of continuing their careers outside academia must be allowed to prepare for this.

However, to compete with the hours demanded by the research, this supplementary program must be worth its weight in time. If the end goal is to secure a desirable non-academic job in a related area, the business program must provide postdocs with more than just another certificate with which to decorate their CV.

Ideally, the business skills learned should complement the research and analytical expertise that postdocs already possess. A component of the proposed program that could provide this lesson is a business-based scenario, during which postdocs would work with experienced executives and a target business to tackle “real-world” projects. Presentations delivered to business executives would also form a central part of this project to ensure each postdoc understood how science and research fit within the momentum of a corporation.

Expectedly, however, the program requires an investment of not only time, but money too; the fees of the proposed program may act as a deterrent to skeptical researchers. For those able and willing to pay the tuition costs, the program must also contend with equivalent master’s degree courses and temporary internships offered by potential employers.

Likely strengths of the program are its integration into postdoc training and that postdocs rather than graduate students are the target scholars. Importantly, NC State postdocs work in social sciences and humanities, not just science and engineering, and the business program should consider this. If designed well, the program would allow postdocs to gain relevant business skills while still pursuing research, rather than the alternative option of pausing the research to complete a master’s degree.

Provisionally, two main subjects of the program would be strategic management and data analytics. Given that postdocs analyze data daily, the modification of data analytics to suit specific business-related jobs and scientific fields would lend the program a competitive edge. The remainder of the program could be tailored to the career goals of each postdoc by allowing them to choose from a list of modules such as finance, ethics, marketing and law, among others.

If the personalized selection of modules was preceded by an in-depth review of potential non-academic job opportunities, this program could be particularly profitable for postdocs. Options such as launching a startup company have more obvious associations with business, but a great variety of other non-academic jobs such as technical support scientist, consultant, science liaison, recruiter, technical writer, project coordinator and product specialist have less palpable ties.

Additionally, positions vary between companies and sectors: government divisions, such as the Department of Health, differ substantially from private companies. Likewise, the skillsets sought by employers from non-profit organizations and hospitals vary to those required by industrial companies and contract research organizations. Understanding the spectrum of the job market will allow postdocs to make informed decisions about the business program and their training choices.

Convincing postdocs to sign up for yet more training is no straightforward task, and for good reason. Progress in academia requires data, publications and grant proposals, all of which devour precious time. The low probability of reaching a tenure-track position raises the stakes of taking time out of research even further. Leaving academia is a necessary rather than favorable choice for many, so the benefits of the business certificate program must be realistic. If the program can become a training resource specifically useful for postdocs, this could be a positive step towards renovating the academic mentality and improving postdoctoral research.