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Responsibilities May Include

How benchmarking can help you adjust your career plans

Like personal goals, professional benchmarks can guide self-evaluation and setting targets for improvement.


One of the reasons the quest for professorship is so challenging is that too many postdoctoral fellows have not been strategic in considering whether they are competitive for a faculty position. Many hit a wall before deciding to pursue a different career. Because a fellowship is time-bound, this realization often comes too late.

We use benchmarking in our everyday life: road signs, speedometers, bills, bank statements, etc. They provide important navigational information. Budding academics should also be using benchmarks in their professional life.

Known as a best practice in industry, “benchmarking” is a process for improving by continuously identifying, understanding, and adopting outstanding practices and processes both inside and outside an organization. Plainly put, benchmarking is learning from others. Corporations are always looking for a competitive advantage. They monitor direct and indirect competitors for best practices in customer service, supply chain management, and innovation, using benchmarking to identify places where they can improve.

It’s a cycle that involves four steps:

Monitor. Identify best practices to emulate. For direct competitors, monitor their publications and publication records. For indirect competitors (i.e., postdocs in other faculties), look for novelties that you could adopt and apply to your discipline. For example, a recent protégé netted a faculty position by offering to teach professional development, recognizing it as a skill that gave her an edge.

Compare. Perform a gap analysis to assess where you stand in relation to potential competitors. How many publications and what impact will it take for you to be considered for a faculty position. Are you in a competitive position or is it time to look at Plan B?

Plan. If the gap can be closed, formulate a plan to not only close the gap but to surpass your competitors. If it’s publication numbers, consider contributing to other people’s papers, or try to recruit others to your side projects.

Implement. Put your plan into action. Because benchmarking is a continuous process, it’s important to be constantly monitoring and comparing. Watch your plan to make sure that it is having the desired effect. Consider establishing some key performance indicators (KPIs) to help you monitor your progress.

Because there are so few faculty positions, postdoctoral fellows work in a competitive landscape. Therefore, it is important for them to use benchmarking to identify best practices among other fellows and newly minted assistant professors. Institutions can also be an important resource. Consider serving on a faculty search committee to see the ins and outs of the hiring process. If this is not possible, what about engaging previous hiring committee members for their insights? Ask your institution to host mock search committees. Such an effort would walk fellows through the entire competition process, helping them to understand important benchmarks along the way. Although this can be a resource-intensive effort, there can be institutional advantages to identifying and guiding their talent to success in academia or elsewhere.

Of course, you should also be aware of when to throw in the towel. This, I believe, is what most postdoctoral fellows struggle with. Their obsession with becoming professors prevents them from taking time to self-evaluate against competitors. If the gap is too large or time is too short, then a change in career plans may be warranted. Forget the sunk costs; worry about the opportunity cost. Continuing aimlessly in a fellowship that will not lead to secure employment only delays one’s ability to make the jump to another career path.

If benchmarking tells you that you are unlikely to make it, then it’s time to explore other career options. Apply the benchmarking approach to your new career exploration. Do you have the chops to compete in this new job market? Conduct a job analysis by interviewing professionals about the knowledge, skills and abilities that are important for success in a new role. Consider seeking a mentor, who can help you establish and monitor new KPIs. If there’s a gap, is it fillable in the short time you have while you are still gainfully employed as a postdoc? Can you leverage the university to help fill these gaps? Can you take short courses to gain knowledge quickly? Can you get experience by volunteering? Can you pursue an internship that may be distinct from your previous experience?

Benchmarking is a crucial part of taking ownership of your career development. It helps you to objectively gauge your current situation. It allows you to reflect on your overall level of contentment, the resources you have in place, and what might be in store career-wise.

Derrick Rancourt is a stem cell biologist and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary. He is an entrepreneurial scientist and director of Alberta’s Genome Engineering Centre. He teaches biotechnology business and professional development and serves on the Alberta Council of Technologies.
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