Postdoc – what next?  

A doctorate is a key milestone for everyone who wants to embark on an academic career. Numerous postdoctoral researchers such as Tobias Opialla, who is still unsure about his next steps, or Marina Kolesnichenko, who wants to develop a career in science – are also working in the MDC laboratories. Both are taking up the opportunities provided by the MDC to guide their decision-making. 

Sanum Bashir knows exactly what postdocs are going through – she herself did her PhD at the MDC in 2014. “We are so attached to our pipettes and our cell cultures that we have a very hard time letting go of the lab,” said the scientist at the kick-off meeting of the 8th MDC Mentoring Program. Attendees were nodding in agreement. A total of eleven postdocs are participating in the program, which began in May 2017.

Only 4.4 percent will become professors

Bashir was a mentee in last year’s program. The young scientist has not yet decided what her next step should be. Many of the 170-odd postdocs being supervised at the MDC right now are likely to be in a similar situation. For those who want to stay in science, the immediate goal is an independent academic position – the classic post is that of principal investigator, or PI for short, with one’s own (junior) research group. However, this is a difficult step. Only 4.4 percent of all postdocs in Germany ultimately gain the coveted title of professor.

Postdocs who want to conduct research independently can find support at the MDC – they can apply for different Helmholtz programs and for internal and external fellowships. The MDC is a partner in the LIBRA project – an EU-wide network that aims to help women to achieve leadership positions in the life sciences. Two MDC researchers were recently selected for LIBRA’s mentoring program, Career Development Compass.

Young researcher Marina Kolesnichenko is one of them. “The MDC is a postdoc-friendly place, there is plenty of support, and most PIs are open and happy to help,” she says. It has been four years since she earned her doctorate – or actually doctorates, one from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, and one from the University of Oxford. The young scientist had already worked in eleven laboratories when she joined Claus Scheidereit’s research group at the MDC in 2013.

She wants to stay in science. Now she has her sights on an independent position as a researcher. “I hope that the LIBRA program will push me to network effectively,” she says. Learning from the experience of role models, women who have made it, is also important to her. “There are female PIs, but there are still very few of them.”

Excellent job prospects in industry

Jobs outside academia are also an attractive option. Christiane Alexander, former MDC research scientist and now director of business development at an international contract research organization, says: “Many people think they’ve failed if they leave academia. But that’s not true! Industry jobs are also a source of influence, prestige, and creative possibilities. Plus they often provide better salaries and working hours. And highly trained life scientists are in great demand.” Sharing this perspective was one of the reasons why Alexander got involved in last year’s MDC mentoring program as a mentor; in 2001 she was one of the first mentees herself. The exchange with her mentor made it clear to her that a senior position in science was not what she wanted.

Tobias Opialla, a molecular biologist working at the BIH Core Facility Metabolomics, is looking for just such a mentor who is able to think out of the box. Since completing his doctorate in the fall of 2016, he has been considering founding a company alongside his scientific career. To make the appropriate contacts, he applied for this year’s MDC Mentoring Program, which was open to male scientists for the first time (see box for more information). “It’s always good to interact with people who’ve had similar experiences,” says Opialla. With his mentor, he wants to find out how to manage pursuing a scientific career and establishing a company at the same time – and whether now is the right time to do it.

Even without participating in programs like this, you can find inspiration for your future at the MDC: at, for example, career workshops or seminars that are specifically geared to the needs of postdocs or at the annual MDC Career Day. This year’s event is on October 17. On that day, PhD students and postdocs from Berlin can find out about career paths outside academia and make initial contact with companies such as Bayer.

Well represented by the MDC Postdoctoral Association

The postdocs have also organized themselves and offer networking opportunities. The Postdoctoral Association meets regularly with the MDC Board of Directors and is committed to ensuring that it deals with real issues facing postdoctoral researchers. With postdocs from the FMP, Charité and BIH, the association also organized the annual PostDoc Day for young researchers in Berlin. At this one-day conference, the participants present and discuss their work. Since 2016, the networking lunchtime seminar has also been a regular event. “At this rather informal and very interactive meeting, young group leaders, but also former postdocs who now work in industry, tell us about their career paths,” says Sebastiaan van Heesch of the Postdoctoral Association. “This is a very interesting and inspiring subject for our listeners.”

Sanum Bashir, the mentee from the 2016 MDC Mentoring Program, is now a mother of two. She particularly chose Christiane Alexander as her mentor, because she wanted to learn from the experience of someone who also has children. The scientist is still working at the MDC, but can certainly imagine a position in industry as her next career move. After all, great minds are needed everywhere.

The MDC Mentoring Program

The in-house MDC Mentoring Program offers a total of twelve spots – eight of which are reserved for female postdocs. Starting this year, male scientists are also eligible to apply for the other four spots. The 8th MDC Mentoring Program was launched in May. It will run for twelve months, with a new call for applications scheduled for the coming year. The Mentoring Program targets postdoctoral researchers. Mentees receive support and guidance aimed at identifying and developing their individual career goals and their personal strengths and competencies, as well as at systematically incorporating these into their own career development. The program provides experienced mentors from research, teaching or industry while also offering professional coaching and career development workshops. The Mentoring Program is organized and overseen by Dr. Christiane Nolte, MDC’s women’s representative, and Gabriele Kollinger, MDC’s personnel developer.

Featured Image: The MDC Career Day 2016. Harry Schnitger/MDC