A post-PhD career in research: Jack of all trades, master of some

Our favorite postdoc cartoon: a frail man (or woman) with unkempt hair, hunched over a computer screen, with a half-filled cup of coffee at his side. As the coffee gets colder and time passes, he seems oblivious to his surroundings. He enjoys spending long hours at his desk concocting arcane theories on obscure subjects that don’t concern the real world. He is in a state of eternal “Tapasya” – meditating on his eternal love affair with knowledge… for life is an eternal quest for knowledge! Or so the world thinks.

Once PhDs are completed and new researchers decide that research is what they want to do for the rest of their lives, their friends and family may assume that a PhD is just another armchair intellectual.

The importance of writing as communication

It is indeed true that researchers like us (postdocs, research fellows, senior researchers, etc.) working in academia or in public/private/non-profit institutes spend a lot of time at their desks: writing articles, among other things Things. We may be PhDs in philosophy, but we are actually masters of writing and some other things. Because the requirements of a researcher role require us to be jacks of all trades and some masters.

Writing is inextricably linked to communication. As researchers, we need to be good at communicating our thinking—what we study, why and how, and what we can (and cannot) infer from the results—to diverse audiences. This includes colleagues, policy makers, university administrators and the general public.

We have to be as creative as the advertising professional next door. We need to learn how to frame catchy titles clearly so that articles immediately grab editors’ attention. We are looking for creative answers to questions like: How do we summarize in 200 words a complex research idea that took us six months to design, test and implement? What’s the next big research idea and how will it get us a million citations in a few months?

Development of management skills

In addition, we are also beginning to take on leadership roles. First, we need to improve our human resource management skills. Supervision of students, research assistants, doctoral candidates and post-docs who are starting their careers is part of everyday life.

This raises new challenges: How do we find a good balance between our research interests and the promotion of our young scientists? How do we encourage them to work hard while making sure they don’t burn out? How do we find scientific staff who care about our research as much as we do? How do we motivate master’s students to do their best to implement the research plans they create?

Second, we need to develop good project management skills: for example, we need to ensure that our research staff set realistic deadlines. But even well-planned deadlines can sometimes prove unrealistic. In such cases, contingency measures must be taken to ensure commitments made to external stakeholders are met.

Third, budgeting: we must pay our research assistants at market rates and budget accordingly, while also setting aside funds for travel, laboratory equipment, subcontractor costs, and the organization of workshops and other project events.

However, research funds are never enough for all the fancy research we seek, especially when we hire a research associate who is so good we want to keep him. In such cases, we need answers to an additional list of troubling questions: For example, should we pay them more than market rates by reallocating funds from some of the other research plans?

Research as Entrepreneurship

Ambitious explorers like us will soon encounter our Matrix moment. We quickly realize that everything we have learned during our studies is only partially true. We quickly realize that, we are part researchers and part entrepreneurs. Organizations such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US and the Dutch Research Council (NWO) are our private equity firms.

To get them to give us huge sacks of research funding, we need to tap into our inner entrepreneurial selves, brush up on our managerial skills, hone our creativity, and write grant proposals. If we’re good entrepreneurs, we’ll be blessed with money, resources, talented graduate students, and hopefully a few well-cited scientific articles in influential journals.

However, being entrepreneurial is not enough. We also need to develop organizational skills for planning stakeholder meetings. These stakeholder meetings ensure that our research is sound: that we don’t waste our hard-earned grants proposing arcane theories on obscure subjects. Good research takes into account the costs and benefits for all those involved in or affected by the research.

Planning such events is a difficult task – it requires answering questions like: How do we make stakeholder meetings truly participatory? How do we develop seating arrangements so that imbalances of power between those involved do not impede communication? How do we get them to be more open and tell us what they really think of our research? What kind of catering preparation needs to be done? Are participants’ expectations, both in terms of catering and other organizational aspects, influenced by country-specific cultural customs?

Necessary skills for good researchers

And that brings us to the most important and least discussed role a researcher must play: imparting knowledge, with its delicate balance of advice and advocacy. Good research is necessary to solve societal challenges, be it in the short term (applied sciences) or long term (basic sciences).

Societal challenges can only be solved when researchers try to bridge the gaps that exist between different scientific disciplines, politics and society. This requires us to reflect on our work. It also means that we must represent the impact of our research (and the uncertainties it creates) to policymakers, grassroots activists, private companies, funding agencies, students, and society at large.

In other words, a good researcher is not only a master of research and writing, but also a jack of all trades. A good researcher is a good manager, a self-motivated entrepreneur, an event planner, a creative communicator, and a passionate but reflective advocate for the role of science in solving societal challenges.

A doctoral program teaches a prospective researcher to formulate research questions well, to identify appropriate research methods to answer those questions, and to implement research plans using those methods. Over time, researchers also become good at writing. However, many of the other skills discussed above are less well developed during graduate education. This is a missed opportunity.

Based on our own experiences, we wrote this article to highlight this oversight. Because we believe that PhD students need to be equipped with skills in management, planning, creative communication and knowledge transfer. Only then can they function as effective solvers of societal challenges.

Sanchayan Nath is a postdoctoral researcher at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development (Utrecht University, The Netherlands).


Arjan Wardekker is Senior Researcher at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development and Visiting Researcher at the Center for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (University of Bergen, Norway)