Researchers: YOU are responsible for your career but who else can help?

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Academia can leave researchers feeling powerless to control their career, moving from a degree to PhD to post-doc without thinking about it. However, it then gets a lot more difficult to continue on this track. In a recent THE article, a 2010 Royal Society Report is quoted:

“30 per cent of science PhD graduates go on to postdoctoral positions, but only about 12 per cent of those attain permanent research jobs”

There are many career options for someone with a research background both within and outside academia. Most important is that you end up doing something you enjoy and this normally means taking control of your own career but always make sure you make the most of the help around you.

So who are these people and how can they help?

1) Your PI/supervisor

Try to get as much help and useful information from this person as you can but don’t expect them (or let them) take the driving seat.  For them, keeping you on for the next grant means having someone who knows the context and techniques to hit the ground running but it might be better for you to move somewhere else to learn something new or demonstrate you can set up a technique yourself, or even move out of academia altogether. Think about where you want your career to go and be honest with them.

They can give you their perspective on academic careers but they may also have useful contacts they can introduce you to in various careers, including ex-PhD students. Be careful to consider that your supervisor’s 1st hand experience of the wider career market may be limited so make sure you also get information about this from elsewhere too.

Your supervisor knows you in a work context and it can be helpful to ask for their perspective on your strengths, weaknesses and transferable skills to help you with the process of career planning. Always ask them to contextualise their feedback and give examples as this gives you something to work with. It may be helpful to use your Staff Review or Appraisal process to discuss these things with them.

2) Staff Developers and Careers advisers

Make these people work for you! Most will be more than willing to answer questions and help you find useful information, especially if you are proactive and plan ahead.  For example, if there is a training course that you want which isn’t on the programme, ask for it, find some other researchers who are interested and sell it to Staff Development. Even better, organise your own event and ask if Staff Development can provide some support.

These people may also be able to put you in touch with useful contacts, direct you to useful resources and some offer 1:1 coaching.

3) Funding bodies

These days funders are much more interested in transferable skills and some provide training and other opportunities worth taking advantage of. If yours doesn’t, why not contact them and suggest an event, or even better offer to help organise it, helping you to develop transferable skills in the process.

4) Your network

Chat to colleagues, friends and acquaintances about their careers, tell them what you are thinking about and get their opinions. They may have an interesting perspective or useful contacts. They may also be able to help you develop new skills, for example by giving you the opportunity to get involved in teaching, public engagement or University committees.

How about other University departments? Universities employ professionals working in all sorts of different roles which may interest you.  See if you can get some shadowing or work experience.

5) Potential employers

Job adverts are invaluable for giving you a feel for what employers want. Look at the skills and experience they ask for and think about what you can already offer and what you might want to develop. When applying for jobs, don’t be put off if you don’t completely match the spec.  In my experience, there is often room for flexibility around a job description (even the essential criteria)! Employers want people with potential whom they can nuture. Use your writing and selling skills you have learnt in research to tell them why what you’ve got is much more interesting and valuable than what they have asked for.  If you don’t get an interview, don’t be disheartened, you’ll have gained some useful experience making the application.

Always ask for feedback from unsuccessful interviews so that you know what you need to work on.

And finally….

As you can see, there is a wealth of information and opportunities right in front of your face so the task of career planning doesn’t have to seem so daunting! Remember, make sure you g ive yourself plenty of time to make an informed decision about what’s right for you and then get out there and sell yourself! Good luck!

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