Your PhD - Starting With The End In Mind

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When you start a PhD your priority is to successfully complete your doctoral research, but what about your next career step beyond the PhD? Do you start out with your career goal clear in your mind? This article will consider two sides of the story. On one side we will promote the benefits of having a clear career goal in mind and on the other side the reasons for keeping your options open.

Academic career

If you are doing a PhD with the aim to become a University lecturer or researcher, then have this goal in mind from the start and use the time during your PhD to develop the skills and experience which will help you to get a job in academia. It is an increasingly competitive process to get a first post and for certain research fields the likelihood is that you will need to do part time or temporary work before landing a permanent position.

Getting published is key to putting in successful applications for research posts, so by starting with your end goal in mind you can find opportunities to disseminate your research and build experience to get your work published. Start at a local level, write for a variety of purposes during your research and build up to getting your work published in quality journals.

If you are aiming for a post where your prospective employer is looking for excellence in teaching, then take every opportunity during your PhD to gain teaching experience. You are surrounded in a University by opportunities to teach, and many institutions offer training courses and qualifications to boost your credibility as a lecturer.

Career outside academia

If you see your PhD as a stepping stone to getting a high level job in business, industry or the public sector, or even to starting a business of your own, then use your time as a researcher to gain relevant experience and expertise. Universities offer a range of transferable skills training and if you know the skills and experience needed for your end career goal, you can take advantage of the most relevant opportunities for you, building up a strong CV along the way.

Gain work experience beyond your PhD by taking on short term assignments or getting involved in projects which have an element of engagement with business, industry or the public sector. This will not only give you relevant experience and evidence of your skills to share at interview, it is likely also to help you develop your network and potentially open doors for future job opportunities.

Keeping your options open

Career planning is not always a logical and linear activity, and particularly in a world where new opportunities are constantly emerging, it is worth keeping your options open. Also when you start your PhD the chances are you do not have a definite career goal in mind. So, although I started this article advocating the advantages of having a plan “an end in mind”, alongside this be open to new possibilities.

During your PhD you will grow as a person, you will develop new skills and benefit from the postive experiences and overcoming the challenges of your research. You may be surprised by what you enjoy during your research experience, and you are likely to discover hidden talents and strengths. You will make new contacts who may well introduce you to possibilities you had not considered before. So, embrace all of this, and be aware of what you are experiencing and adapt and flex your plan at each step of the way.

There is even a career theory called “Planned Happenstance” designed to help you adopt the right sort of attitude and planning process to find a career route for you.

The theory encourages you to:

-  Clarify your ideas

-  Focus on the positive, what “I can” rather than “I can’t”

-  Be prepared for unexpected opportunities and be curious

-  Take action and learn from experience

So, yes spend some time at the start of your PhD to clarify your ideas, think about where your PhD might lead and what you are aiming for.  And use the experience and the journey to expand broaden your opportunities and future career possibilities.

Take a look at our Career Planning for PhDs ebook for more activities and advice to help you explore your options and succeed in a competitive job market:

If you would like to find out more about the theory of “Planned Happenstance” take a look at the article:

Planned Happenstance: Constructing Unexpected Career Opportunities, K. Mitchell, A. Levin, J. Krumboltz, Journal of Counseling and Development, Spring 1999, Volume 77

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