By Katrina Gardner, Careers Adviser for Researchers
The University of Glasgow organises regular online and face-to-face networking activities to offer our researchers support and inspiration in assessing career choices and making progression. We want our colleagues to gain comprehensive insight into the many sectors that they can make linear career progression into, after their PhD or postdoc. With this in mind, we recently ventured onto LinkedIn and Twitter to run informal live chats – open to all. Our first LinkedIn chat was on Practical Steps to finding your new Career and was hosted by an amazing panel with staff from Glasgow and colleagues from other UK universities:
- Rachel Herries, Researcher Developer at the University of Glasgow
- Holly Prescott, PhD Careers Specialist at the University of Birmingham and editor of The PhD Careers Blog
- Ines P. Perpetuo, Researcher Development Consultant, Imperial College London
- Naomi Tyrell, Social Research Consultant, University of Plymouth and founder of Alt-Ac Careers UK on Facebook
To be honest, we were initially unsure if researchers would be comfortable openly chatting about career plans on public platforms. However, lots of people joined the chat to ask questions and share their thoughts and concerns about transitioning into a new career. The outcome was a very insightful and thought-provoking discussion covering a range of pertinent issues. Access the full discussion here.
This post summarises the discussions. It’s a long post, but stick with us, there’s a lot of help out there for career decision making!
We asked participants to submit answers to the 3 following questions:
- What stage you are at in your career journey?
- What practical steps you have taken so far to investigate good options for you?
- What questions you still have?
In our discussion we were joined by university researchers from across the UK. Many of the questions and issues raised by participants in the chat were very familiar to us as we have been asked these many times before in workshops and 1-to-1s. Bear this in mind, as it shows how many of our colleagues have similar feelings and concerns about career change and career progression.
Our recommendation to researchers is therefore to start chatting with your research colleagues about your ideas, ambitions, and concerns. It can be immensely reassuring to know that we are not alone in our concerns, and colleagues may share some helpful thoughts or advice that they have picked up along their career journey. As you will read below, some fantastic tips came from other researchers as well as from our panel of experts.
Opportunities, and constraints
Participants, in the main, asked for help in narrowing down their career options. Our panel of experts and some of our participants offered suggestions including resources and reflective tools (detailed below) that you may find helpful to use for yourself, or with the researchers you supervise, manage or support. Our panel and guests also shared aspects of their own career story including reflections on how they moved on, from PhD on to where they are now.
Many also raised issues that could be a barrier to progressing with their career plans. There are lots of personal and external issues that can interfere with career decision making and can make career progression more challenging. Our panel and other participants offered excellent advice on dealing with such issues.
Ideas to support your thinking
Our expert panel stressed the value of reflective self-evaluation in your career planning activities. This can increase (and maintain) your self-confidence and allow researchers to fully recognise the range of options that suit their skills, interests, values and life priorities. People can too easily dismiss well-fitting careers due to a lack of self-confidence, but this can be remedied with regular reflective practice. Later, at the recruitment stage, a strong understanding of how well matched you are to a particular role means applicants will more clearly articulate their suitability and enthusiasm to the recruiter.
A PhD researcher from UWS recommended the FutureLearn course ‘Career Management for Early Career Academic Researchers’ which can be accessed for free for 4 weeks. This course is run by the University of Glasgow alongside Edinburgh and Sheffield. The course offers activities to help researchers reflect on their values, skills, and interests and which jobs are the best fit. It also looks at opportunities in academia and other options as well as giving advice on applications and interviews. The course is open from October to July.
Consider Naomi’s question ‘What is it about your current role (or maybe previous ones too) that you want to keep and lose, and then what would you like to add that you don’t currently have?’ Holly also suggested a helpful technique called ‘Keep/Lose/Add’ which she used herself to assess her post-PhD options. Holly expands on this in her post ‘The ‘bits’ of academia you REALLY enjoy… and how to find work based on these’. This is a very useful exercise to help researchers identify meaningful and fulfilling careers rather than end up in a role that is unsatisfying and unstimulating. Researchers are qualified for a wide range of jobs that suits the skills they’ve developed through academic research and therefore can afford to be picky!
Another way of thinking about this, as Rachel suggested, is creating a ‘dream job wish list’ by mapping out what aspects of previous roles you liked and didn’t like. Naomi added to this by asking an enlightening question: ‘What would make you love getting up on a Monday morning?’ And conversely, avoid any roles in which you can picture yourself feeling a sense of dread every Sunday night at the prospect of another working week!
Ines encouraged thinking about ‘your skill set and your values: do you want to use your technical skills/transferable skills/area knowledge?’. She also mentioned the issue of constraints such as location/salary/family. These issues are important to consider and may help you identify priorities as well as determine criteria you are willing and able to compromise on. Try making these lists for yourself. Ines also shared some excellent resources produced by Imperial to help people transition out of academia.
Transferable skills / translatable skills
Employers in a huge range of sectors highly value the transferable nature of the skills developed conducting academic research, teaching, and related duties.
A colleague from Strathclyde initially found it hard to see how her skills and experiences could be transferred to another field. She acted on a colleague’s suggestion to ‘keep a diary of what you do on a daily basis, and think about those transferable skills. It really helps to see what value you have – not just as a ‘good’ researcher’. We wholeheartedly agree with this. Logging our daily activities can remind us later on of the full range of skills we have used in our varied activities – without recording this we would most likely forget many of them and therefore not have evidence to convince both ourselves and recruiters that we are suited to particular jobs.
The key is to be able not just to transfer, but to translate your skills for a new work context. How? By talking to others in those roles…
The value of career stories and expanding your networks
It can be very difficult and overwhelming to make sense of the career options and so Rachel recommended attending any available careers talks, as hearing ‘first hand from a researcher who has moved into another sector can give you ideas on how they approached the transition, what they consider the pros and cons and just give you comfort that other researchers are maybe having similar feelings or experiences’. The worst that can happen is that an option gets crossed of the list!
But researchers don’t have to wait for the next careers event, as lots of people will happily chat about their career journeys. Often this is surprisingly quick and easy to arrange by connecting and chatting with people online on platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter. It is definitely true in our experience, as Naomi says, that ‘people with PhDs who are working beyond academia (and that is actually most people with PhDs!) are often happy to connect and give advice and support’. People who enjoy their job tend to enjoy talking about it!
Holly advised that networking will ‘help you understand what is valued in that industry and how professionals in that industry talk about themselves’. Connecting with professionals in other sectors gives you the opportunity to learn the language used in those sectors. This is often very different to academia, in particular how they describe recruitment criteria, so it is very useful to grasp this early and gain confidence that we match the skills-sets required and then can articulate this to employers in the applications and interview process.
A professional identity crisis?
Many researchers fear an identity crisis when considering moving away from academic research and teaching roles. If this sounds familiar then consider the very wise words of one of our Glasgow Research Associates: ‘Give yourself permission to redefine who you are and untangle yourself from your academic identity’.
Holly agreed, adding to this that ‘’sometimes I think people reach a point where they conflate their self and their identity with their research so if they contemplate moving on from that they are left asking ‘but then … who will I be’’ and reiterated that ‘you have the agency to define that for yourself, even if this feels like a struggle to begin with’.
Developing your sense of agency and building on your identity outside of your job can prevent you from becoming one of the, as Naomi described ‘amazingly talented people with so many options who are left feeling like failures if they don’t secure academic employment/academia doesn’t work out for them’.
The PhD and postdoc periods are of course steps towards a longer academic career but they are also spaces in which to receive excellent training, enriching experiences, and mentorship that bring success in many professional careers. Researchers don’t need to limit their identity to just ‘an academic’. All of us can view ourselves and our profession with different lenses. In addition to ‘researcher’, how about project manager, skilled communicator, mentor, people manager or team leader. Or a title related to a specialist area such as a photonics expert, historian, social researcher, bioinformatician, engineer, economist etc.
Or even another identity related to personal interests such as a cyclist, community organiser, artist or an environmental activist? This could open the door to a transition into a professional level role related to these passions, very possibly combined with the skills from a research career.
Do you make good decisions when you are tired?
Our panel of experts all empathized with a researcher who had concerns on whether the general burn-out they experienced at the end of their PhD would continue to affect their decision making about ‘what next?’.
Rachel made a very important point that your first post-PhD job is not ‘make or break’ it does not have to be our next ‘big thing’ and certainly not our ‘forever job’. She shared her experience at the end of her PhD of working in a clothes shop and then in a data management role. This gave her the break she needed from academic life and helped her develop new skills that enabled her to move into her new career in Researcher Development.
Naomi stressed the importance of getting rest as ‘academia and the PhD process can feel like a never-ending to-do list. Just a little bit of pure rest time can be really helpful when we come to thinking ‘what next?’.
Going back to where we started, LinkedIn was the platform for our event, and it is a key tool for career changes. LinkedIn plays a big part in giving researchers visibility and building a wider network. Ines has produced a useful short video with key tips on producing an effective LinkedIn profile. Let us know how you get on!