By Kristene Henne, Postdoctoral Program Lead, Leadership Institute, Argonne National Laboratory


The Illinois Innovation Index STEM Talent report released earlier this month highlighted the growth of Illinois’ production of degrees in STEM fields and specifically called out the state’s concentration of postdoctoral researchers as a key strength for the innovation economy. Indeed, postdocs represent some of the state’s most expert scientific and engineering talent and with shifting trends of these researchers from academia towards the private sector, we are primed to better harness this supply of talent to drive innovations in key areas such as biotechnology, advanced materials, and big data/high performance computing.

What is a Postdoc?

As defined by the National Postdoctoral Association, postdoctoral researchers are doctoral degree earners “engaged in a temporary period of mentored research” designed to build the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of the postdoc’s choosing.

Traditionally considered the default step between graduate school and attaining a tenure-track faculty position, it is now widely known that only a small fraction of postdoctoral researchers will enter the ranks of academic faculty. Science and Engineering indicators show that as few as 15-20% of postdoctoral researchers segue into tenure-track faculty positions 5 years after attaining their doctorate degrees. A recent survey of doctoral students indicated that career interests shifted towards the private sector over time, further illustrating that the postdoctoral period is a critical time in determining career pathways for STEM PhDs.

Postdocs as a Vital Component of the STEM Talent Pool

With an estimated 60,00080,000 postdoctoral researchers in the US, postdocs make up a significant, but often overlooked, portion of the STEM talent pool. Illinois universities employ approximately 2,100 postdocs in STEM, not including the National Labs. The number of postdocs at Argonne National Laboratory has averaged approximately 300 since 2011. Our postdoctoral community is quite diverse, drawing STEM graduates to Illinois from 298 Universities, 60 STEM disciplines and 60 countries from 2009 to 2014. During this same period, over 13% of Argonne’s postdocs came from Illinois universities; making Argonne the next destination for many of Illinois’ top STEM graduates.

As the career interests of postdocs grow beyond academia, it is increasingly important for institutions employing postdocs to engage with the private and nonprofit sectors, and for industry and business leaders to recognize the National Labs and universities as “talent factories”. As noted in the Illinois Innovation Index, most of Argonne’s postdocs transitioned to careers outside of academia from 2009–2014. Of those transitioning to industry, 23% secured employment in companies that are located or have a presence in Illinois. The retention of postdoctoral STEM talent in Illinois could be strengthened through greater awareness among postdocs of existing opportunities in Illinois.

How to Support STEM Postdoc Career Development?

National Postdoctoral Association Executive Director Dr. Belinda Huang notes, “Given the diminishing number of tenure track positions in academe, postdocs need to be expansive in thinking and preparing for careers in industry, government, non profits and entrepreneurial ventures.” But how do we foster a broad approach to career preparation?

The simplest—yet most effective way— is to form partnerships across components of the innovation ecosystem to bring postdocs together with professionals from various sectors to network. Beyond recruiting, these events offer a platform for companies to educate postdocs—who may be most familiar with an academic environment—on what it takes to be successful in the next career phase. A number of Illinois’ research institutions have developed programs based on this model. Argonne hosts an Annual Research and Career Symposium to highlight postdoctoral research and introduce postdocs to different career paths and potential future employers. The 2015 symposium included a career panel with representatives from industry, academia and the national labs. Likewise, the upcoming University of Chicago GradFAIR will provide a forum for potential employers to learn about graduate and postdoc researchers interested in non-academic careers. The 2014 NPA Annual Meeting held a similar event, Career Connections, to bring postdocs together with industry representatives. Associates from the Chicago Innovation Exchange and Energy Foundry have also been integral to developing programs that enable Argonne postdocs to hone communication skills through “making a pitch” and learning the key challenges of commercializing research.

Looking Forward

An appealing feature for graduate students seeking postdoctoral appointments at places like Argonne National Laboratory is the fact that we are embedded in the Illinois Innovation Ecosystem. The potential to engage entrepreneurial drivers in the Chicago metropolitan area will continue to attract top graduate talent to Illinois institutions to pursue postdoctoral training. Building relationships between postdoctoral advisory offices and the private sector will allow us to build programming to foster more local talent and develop the next generation of innovators.

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Rethinking postgraduate education



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uchicagograd_logoThe University of Chicago, UChicagoGRAD office, invites employers from across industries to register for the first annual GRADFair, which takes place on November 6, 2015. The event is the first ever graduate and postdoctoral career fair at the University of Chicago. GRADFair is an opportunity for employers to discuss the landscape of graduate education with faculty and staff, as well as with graduate students and postdocs. You’ll have the opportunity to meet and recruit graduate students and postdocs interested in employment in industry, nonprofits, and government.