Career planning for postdocs

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ETH is home to more than 1,500 postdocs. Their work and dedication play an impor
ETH is home to more than 1,500 postdocs. Their work and dedication play an important part in role in the success and scientific achievements of ETH. (Jürg Waldmeier / ETH Zurich)

There are more than 1,500 postdocs researching and teaching at ETH. Only a small portion of them will later become professors. In early February, ETH held a career week with numerous talks and workshops to provide even more support to its postdoc community.

Becoming a professor isn’t easy. High-quality publications in highly ranked journals, gobs of third-party research funding from domestic and international sources, and a vast network of professional connections are the building blocks of a successful career in academia. Early-career researchers typically have only a few years after receiving their doctorate to get on the right track. The period between successfully completing a doctoral degree and receiving a permanent position as a professor or senior scientist is usually referred to as the postdoctorate, or postdoc for short.

"For many scientists, the postdoc period is one of the most challenging - and most exciting - phases in their research career," says the Office of Research’s Robert Schikowski, who helps organise the recurring Postdocs welcome! orientation event. According to Schikowski, junior academics have to build up a distinct research reputation while also defining the career path that they want to take. The road to an academic career usually involves taking on several temporary positions at different universities - something that requires a high level of mobility and independence. And even after many challenging years of research work and personal development, there is still no guarantee of being appointed to a professorship. Only a select few postdocs manage to make the leap to a professor position or permanent job inside the academy.

Start planning your career early on

ETH is currently home to more than 1,500 postdocs with teaching and research duties. They hail from over 100 different countries and stay an average of two-and-a-half years before moving on to a new challenge inside or outside academia. One of these postdocs is Evgeniya Vorobyeva, a native of Russia. She is part of the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering, where she works on electrochemical methods for reducing CO2. In her spare time, she coordinates the Postdoc + network, part of the Academic Association of Scientific Staff at ETH Zurich (AVETH). The organisation is dedicated to representing the interests of postdocs at ETH and providing them with support and networking opportunities.

Vorobyeva wants to encourage her colleagues to start proactively planning their careers as early as possible. "As a postdoc, it’s my own responsibility to set career goals and identify the skills and contacts I need to achieve them," she says. Alongside her postdoc duties, she is completing training in leadership, communication and project management in order to be optimally prepared for the next steps in her career.

How ETH supports its postdocs

Thanks to their work and dedication, postdocs play an important role in the scientific achievements and stellar reputation of ETH. In return, ETH is greatly interested in ensuring that postdocs can make the most of their skills over the course of their careers. ETH provides its early-career researchers with a range of events, courses and training workshops that are relevant to both academic and non-academic careers. The university also offers ETH Fellowships and Career Seed Grants to its postdocs. Furthermore, there are numerous Swiss and international scholarships, fellowships and grants specifically aimed at postdocs and senior scientists further along in their careers.

For those students and researchers who would like more individual support during the job search and application process, the ETH Career Center offers a range of options. "When talking to students and researchers, we always emphasise how important soft skills are when it comes to careers, regardless of whether you’re working inside or outside of academia," says Evelyne Kappel, who heads the centre.

A career week tailored to postdocs

In order to provide postdocs with even more extensive career planning support, ETH hosted its first-ever Postdoc Career Week in early February. The event was jointly coordinated by the HR department, the Office of Research, the ETH Career Center and AVETH. The four-day event saw over 370 participants take part in 10 virtual talks and workshops that revolved around the question of career opportunities for postdocs inside and outside the academy. Discussions centred on the often long and rocky road to becoming a professor, alternative career ideas outside of academia, and the future of the postdoc.

"We wanted to hold a varied information session that was relevant to researchers who want to stay in academia as well as to those about to switch to the private or public sector," says Peter Dorthe, a project co-lead from the HR department. Postdocs planning to leave academia often face the challenge of conveying their expertise and specific skills to potential employers. A simulated job interview gave Postdoc Career Week participants insight into typical questions asked during the recruitment process.

A clear statement from the Executive Board

By holding Postdoc Career Week, ETH aims to demonstrate the university’s commitment to its postdoctoral community. This was further evidenced by the participation of two Executive Board members - Julia Dannath, the new Vice President for Personnel Development and Leadership, and Detlef Günther, the Vice President for Research - in the event’s closing panel discussion. "We consider postdocs to be an important demographic with a lot of potential, and we’re happy to see that they’re also so strongly involved and committed," remarked Günther. Numerous positive reactions from participants showed that the event was indeed appreciated.

Christoph Elhardt