Working Friends

“Today, I was able to spend time with Sarah Blackford – an early start train trip was definitely worth the journey 🙂 LinkedIn and online professional development webinars might have connected us professionally during the pandemic, but they have also helped us to keep in touch and become friends.” Jenn Barfield  

And what a great day out in Würzburg we had! It was a chance conversation over LinkedIn that made us realise that we live close enough to actually meet up in person, rather than just messaging online.

This is one example of a formerly remote and unknown contact who’s now become a friend. I have many more examples! Some are people that I’ve worked with, some are delegates of conferences I’ve attended and some, like Jenn, are people that I’ve only known through social media. Obviously, it’s not something that happens with everyone in your network – nor should it be, otherwise you’d never get any work done! – but it’s a really nice experience when you not only connect with someone professionally, but socially too.

And, of course, it can also be very rewarding in terms of setting up, developing and maintaining collaborations. I recently ran a career workshop for young academics, where we were discussing how to create and make the most of collaborative opportunities. One of the academics had been considering inviting an expert data scientist to collaborate with them, however on reflection she decided to approach a research group with which she’d already built up a good relationship, following a research visit. She had concluded that working with people you like and with whom you have a good rapport is more likely to be successful than taking a chance on a stranger – and it would be more fun too!

Maybe she was right, we will never know. However, when you’re at a conference and you see your professor and other senior ‘more seasoned’ academics shaking hands, hugging, smiling and inviting each other out for dinner, etc., you’ll appreciate that having collaborators that are friends is a definite bonus. And remember, they started where you are now as an early career researcher, with no network of any consequence – these things take time to build so it’s never too late to get started.

Research is an international endeavour, with researchers in the same field based all over the world, which is why it’s important to reach out and make contact. Whether it’s remotely, with in-person visits or meet-ups at conferences, these connections are vital towards you developing your own academic profile. If you read the biographies of academics, you’ll see them referring to various people with whom they’ve worked over their career and I’m sure if you asked them, they would probably count many of them as friends. This is why academic mobility is so important to research – sharing ideas, discussing data, mulling over problems with experiments and, yes, forging, sometimes life-long, friendships.

I recently delivered my ‘Power of Networking’ career workshop, in which I identified the wide range of people with whom you can build relationships throughout your career. Using a spider’s web to illustrate this, I put family and friends at the centre, with acquaintances, peers, mentors and work colleagues, former work colleagues and alumni further away and, at the very edge, those on social media. Depending on your career aims, you’ll want to create connections and build your network accordingly. For example, for me, as an international career consultant, I have many contacts, acquaintances and friends in my professional network. People I’ve met online, include my digital co-partner, Virginie Siret, who manages all my online career workshops – We have never met in person (although I am hoping to one day, as she lives in a very nice part of France), but, having worked together now for over 2 years, I would definitely count her as a friend. Similarly, many members of a LinkedIn group I co-created for PhD career coaches with Barbara Janssens have become firm friends over the years.

One of the questions at the end of my recent networking workshop was around how to build relationships with the contacts in your network. I replied that for most of your career you’ll only build close relationships with a few people, but that you can stay in loose contact with people more easily nowadays using social media, simply by liking or commenting on their posts and showing a virtual presence. If, like Jenn, you see an opportunity to get closer, then it’s up to you both to agree to set up a meeting (virtual or in-person) to have a quick chat or something longer like we did – spending a day out including coffee and cake followed by a walk and talk and a shop till you drop, as well as agreeing to find ways to work together in the future 🙂

For related content go to my blog archive and search in the Networking column:

The hidden keys to academic success

Guest Blog alert! 

We don’t hear much from professors when advising on careers, so it’s with great excitement that I introduce my guest writer for this month’s blog – Professor Dale Sanders (former director of a major UK research institute).

Much has been written about securing a permanent academic position, not to mention surveys, statistics, podcasts and career stories, for example this blog from The Node. So, if you’re very talented and/or lucky enough to land one such post for yourself, how do you make a success of your new academic career?

Last week, I ran a session for junior academics in which we discussed the challenges of pivoting from a largely autonomous and hands-on role as a postdoctoral researcher, into a leadership position in which you are responsible for activities of which, generally speaking, you have no experience. In addition to the challenges of managing your time so that you can accommodate a variety of new collegiate responsibilities, such as recruitment, administration and committee representation, you remain under pressure to demonstrate your productivity in the form of publications and funding (for which, in many cases, you will be ‘measured and judged’).  

In my workshop session, the junior academic leaders identified a whole host of personal and professional ‘hidden extras’ that are key to academic positions. They are never advertised, but they are vital if you’re to succeed – without having some kind of meltdown! Having coached many junior leaders and witnessed the stresses and strains of the academic world, I feel I have a good objective sense of what these hidden extras are – as portrayed as an iceberg above.

However, on the basis that it’s always really valuable to receive mentoring and advice from experienced academics, who have witnessed the changes and challenges of academic life first-hand, I hope you will find the following guest blog a very useful guide to some of the ‘hidden extras’ that are not articulated in job advertisements, but that will be helpful in your achieving and maintaining a successful academic career.


GUEST BLOG: Professor Dale Sanders
(former Director, John Innes Centre, UK)
10 Key Skills and Personal Qualities that can help you to be Successful as an Academic in Science

I have listed 10 of these key skills below. Ability to write great research manuscripts and grant applications is essential, of course, and is subsumed at various places in the list below that relates more generally to inter-personal attributes. 

This list is not prioritised in any sense – all are important and indeed are inter-related.  And, of course, the list is not intended to be exclusive: many other skills and qualities could be addressed.

Collegiality. The days of a one-person lab-leader and their little group are long gone; thinking big about research nearly always involves collaborating with others to address the issue you are investigating. This applies within your own research field nationally and internationally. For those with whom you do not collaborate, you need to keep in touch with what they are doing, so keep them as friends even if you disagree at an intellectual level. And at home, it is just as important to be collegial with the many other academics in your department who work in different fields. Remember this is in your own interests: support others within your department to achieve collective excellence to make your department world-renowned. Departments don’t run by themselves, and good ones require democratic participation of their academics. Perhaps think about how you can help by improving standards in teaching and more generally the way your department is run.

Tolerance. We are all social animals, and it is inevitable that colleagues (whether within your research group, your institution, or wider in your national or international communities) will occasionally irritate you – or worse, offend. When this happens (it will!), you can take a step back to ask where they are coming from and to try to understand, even if you do not agree with their position. You might find that if you open up a discussion you will find common ground and they will not irritate you so much after all!

Inclusivity. The best academic activity – whether this is teaching or research – gets done by seeking wide opinion for decision-making. Our inherent biases will sometimes prevent diverse input. We need to recognise that each of us has those biases and enable that recognition to accommodate new thinking that might appear a first sight to be contrary to your instincts.

Resilience. You will have periods of low self-esteem. Perhaps a grant application or a paper get negative reviews or students feed back with negative comments on some lectures you have given? There is not an academic this hasn’t happened to. But coping with external negativity is part of your job. Try to de-personalise this and then question objectively where this negativity comes from. If you then feel comments are justified, you can act. If you still feel that comments are unfair, you can discuss with colleagues to get advice.

Big Picture Thinking. You were hired in a competitive environment because of your amazing achievements. Don’t lose sight of that in the day-to-day of running a lab and interacting with the rest of your department. Ask yourself: what are the major research problems I can solve? Can I develop a testable hypothesis? Who will I involve? And, if appropriate, how can I improve human health of the environment we live in?

Recruitment. You will want to recruit the very best and most committed grad students, research assistants, and post-docs to your lab. Ensure that you have your vision right when you recruit: it’s not just about the science the interviewee has done, but about their interpersonal skills. At this stage it is always useful to get second, informal opinions with respect to recruitment.

Mentoring. This will become part of your job. You owe it to those that you recruit, almost all of whom will be either students of researchers on fixed-term contracts, to help them develop their careers, whether this be inside or outside of science. Remind them when appropriate that there is a world outside of research science, and that the analytical skills that they learn as part of their role are transferrable to so many other areas of society where they can contribute to their careers as well as more general contributions.

Communication. You will need to communicate with your students, your lab, your departmental peers and externally to your institution even less frequently.  The key to good communication is to remember your audience: where are they coming from and what is their baseline knowledge? What are their expectations of you? This doesn’t mean telling people what they want to hear of course: you can, as a scientist challenge, beliefs. But be respectful and clear. Know exactly what you want to say before you say it.

Willingness to learn. You will make mistakes: all of us do. This can be at the level of appointing an inappropriate graduate student or saying something you later regretted.  Temporarily, apologies can retrieve a situation. But in the context of wider thinking, it is never too late to self-question: did I get that one right? 

Motivation. It’s OK to question every now and then why you ever thought to get into academia in the first place. “Was this just something I fell into given some excellent scientific results?” After all, positions in government, the commercial and charitable sectors might be similarly attractive.  It helps sometimes to look around at what else is on offer – and then perhaps re-invigorate yourself that you have one of the best jobs in the world: inspiring young minds and pushing back the boundaries of discovery.

Related blogs: It’s all academic
Principle ways to become a Principal Investigator

Post-postdoc: What’s next?

A selection of previous career workshops and events

If you hadn’t noticed, it was National Postdoc Appreciation Week (#NPAW) last week. Held each year during the third week in September, all kinds of initiatives and activities are organised to highlight and celebrate the invaluable contributions made by postdoctoral researchers and to support them in their careers.

You only need to do a Google search or enter the hashtag into social media platforms, such as LinkedIn to find a whole cacophony of events taking place in recognition of the crucial role played by postdocs the world over. Perhaps you’ve been involved in such an event.

As we enter this new week, post-NPAW 2023, it’s clear that the plight of the postdoc is still very much an issue in terms of the career challenges faced by contract researchers. So, for my September blog, to acknowledge this fact, I’ve decided to focus my blog on postdocs, who will at some point in their careers be facing a future ‘post-postdoc’.

Your post-postdoc ambitions

Whether you’re a postdoc considering your career trajectory towards a permanent academic career or you’re a postdoc thinking of moving into business or industry, one thing’s for certain: You can’t postdoc forever.

There will have to be a crossing point in your career when you move into other roles. I say roles because it’s likely that you will not remain in your first post-postdoc role for the duration of your career. You’ll get promoted or you’ll move sideways or along and across and into other positions, as you find your ideal career path.

Try not to grieve too much for the postdoc that you leave behind when you finally move on. Did you grow up wanting to be a postdoc? Did you aspire at school or even university to be one? I doubt it very much. Perhaps you were curious, inquisitive about the world, you wanted to make a difference, were inspired by scientists on TV. You most probably wanted to be a scientist.

Whenever I look up ‘Scientist’ on LinkedIn with the ‘People’ search, the results I get hardly ever include scientists working in academia, only those working in industry. Scientists in academia call themselves postdocs or research associates, lecturers or associate professors.

You don’t have to badge yourself in the outside world as a postdoc – you can title yourself something more meaningful such as Bioscientist, Evolutionary Biologist, Astrobiologist, Developmental Biologist, Biomedical Scientist, Bioinformatician, etc. You can even add in other descriptors of yourself such as creative, solutions-oriented, technology-focussed, resourceful problem-solver, etc.

Think about a more suitable title and then add it to your LinkedIn profile.

Your post-postdoc transition

I see a lot of postdoc CVs and many of them are not fit for purpose. Don’t get me wrong, they usually contain loads of great experiences, technical skills and achievements. The problem is that when you are applying for a new position, you need to present yourself not as you are in your current role – a postdoc – but as the person you’re aiming to be next.

For example, if you’re aspiring to be an independent researcher – include information about your research ideas, where you see yourself creating a new research niche as an emerging researcher in the field of XXX, focus on funding successes and collaborations, rather than listing your technical skills. For permanent academic posts, do the same but include collegiate activities, such as resource management, committee representation or reviewer responsibilities.

On the other hand, you may be looking to become a senior scientist in a biotechnology company. In this case, change your language to match the industry, tell them about your experiences relevant to their job requirements, leave out long lists of publications and teaching (or just add in a link). Make sure to mirror their job requirements, especially including examples of your interpersonal skills, personal qualities and experiences.

If you’re moving to an entirely different type of role, such as science administrator – you will need to re-organise your CV quite dramatically. Your scientific knowledge and skills need only be mentioned briefly and more broadly to show that you are an experienced scientist. More central to the application will be managerial, communication and organisational skills. Perhaps your attention to detail, ability to meet deadlines and write reports.  

If your CV is successful and you are called for interview, continue to present yourself in terms of your future role so that you’re taken seriously by your prospective employers.

Imagine yourself already being a post-postdoc.

Your post-postdoc addition

Looking at post-postdoc roles can be a bit daunting when you see that perhaps you don’t ‘tick all the boxes’. Don’t be put off by this though. Employers don’t expect you to be able to satisfy more than perhaps 50 – 60% of their criteria. What they’re looking for is someone with the right attitude who will fit into and contribute to their work culture and community.

For some jobs, however, you may need to up-skill and get some career development in areas that are central to the position. In this case, look for opportunities to bolster your CV with whatever outstanding experiences or expertise is required. And if you can’t manage this, then look for jobs that interest you and make use of the skills that you most enjoy using and want to develop further.

Whatever you do, you can look forward to a bright post-postdoc future by considering getting support from a qualified career coach or adviser. Beware of paying too much – if the fee seems to be too high look elsewhere; there are plenty of reasonably priced or even free services and courses for you to make use of. Better still, contact the research support centre at your own institution, which may host career development workshops (such as my own) or offer funding to support researchers with their professional development.

Related blogs:

My Archive contains many useful blogs, including the following:

It’s all academic

Appreciate your career

Keep learning to keep earning

Think Skill not DPhil

Learned Friends

Some memorabilia from the recent Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) centenary meeting kindly sent to me by Dr Teresa Valencak (SEB President’s Medallist 2009).

Are you a member of a learned* society or academic organisation?

Maybe you are, maybe you’re not. Or maybe you are, and you don’t know it!

When I ask this question in my career workshops, usually only one or two hands go up. However, on further questioning, it turns out quite a lot of researchers belong to some kind of learned society, even though they don’t immediately realise they do!

Why is this?

Learned societies are academic ‘clubs’ that have memberships ranging from a few hundred to many thousands. They are associated with particular academic subjects of interest, for example, the Biochemical Society, the American Society of Cell Biology, the Genetics Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry. Some of them are very old and have even recently been celebrating their 100th birthdays.

Depending on your own academic research field(s), there is bound to be one or more learned societies that match with your interests. In fact, you’ve probably attended one of their conferences and were offered a reduced registration fee if you joined as a member. The membership then usually lasts for a year, after which you can continue to pay your subscription fee or not.

This is how many researchers become learned society members, but soon forget that they are ‘in the club’.

Advantage Club membership!

My advice is: Keep your membership going, especially if you plan to stay in academia. In fact, look around and see if there are other learned societies that you could join.

Why? Because learned society membership is usually very good value, both financially and, more importantly, professionally. Your outlay is more than compensated for by the following advantages:

  • Access to funding
    Many learned societies offer PhD and postdoctoral researchers the opportunity to apply for travel grants (e.g. 500 euros or more) to research conferences and lab visits. This can help to expand your networks and horizons. It also gives you a degree of independence, as well as practice at writing for competitive funding.
  • Awards
    Poster and talk presentation prizes, best young scientist, writing, photo and other media competitions give you opportunities to showcase yourself and your research and to highlight your achievements;
  • Networking
    A learned society generally comprises students and early career researchers through to distinguished professors, as well as research stakeholders such as industry, NGOs and publishers. Unlike in your own academic research institution or university, where there are few researchers working in your particular field, a learned society brings together all manner of people who have an interest in your research field. It’s a prime opportunity to connect, engage, network, share ideas, create collaborations and even find your next position.
  • Communication
    This is a BIG one! Many large learned societies get their funding from the journals that they own. Because they are charities, they re-invest the profits from their journal subscriptions back into the organisation. This means that they have the means to organise subsidised conferences, where their members and other researchers can present and discuss their research. Many of them also run education, policy and career programmes, offer academic mobility opportunities and invite members to join their committees.
  • Mentoring and patronage
    Having worked for a learned society myself, as the head of education and public affairs (for nearly 20 years), I have witnessed many early career scientists benefit from interactions with other more senior members. Because learned societies are so specialised, members have lots to talk about and it’s inevitable that useful discussions take place, such as suggestions about your research, being exposed to role models and even being offered a position.

And if this hasn’t yet convinced you of the benefits of being a member of a learned society (and, better still, getting involved in some way), the new narrative CV** includes a section about your contribution to the wider research community; guidance suggests that you provide evidence of, for example, being involved in a learned society, organising a meeting, being a member of a committee or initiating a collaborative project.

So, think about learned societies as your learned friends. Whether you’re aiming for a career within or outside of academia, the benefits are there for the taking. I took on one early career researcher science communication intern per year whilst working for the Society for Experimental Biology, all of whom went on to forge amazing careers. Equally, I know of other researchers who have benefitted from internships in policy, conference organisation, journal editing and publishing, to name but a few!

*Note that ‘learned’ is pronounced as if it has an accent on the second ‘e’ – ‘learnèd’. Or imagine that it as a hyphenated word: Learn-Ed.

** If you want to find out more about narrative CVs contact me to discuss my trainings

Related blogs:

Learned societies
Learned societies – a party worth joining

Changing Places

31st July 2023.

Today marks two anniversaries for me: On this day in 2017, after 30 years of full-time employment at five different universities, I decided to set up independently as a PhD career consultant. Then, one year later, on 31st July 2018, after living in the UK for the whole of my adult life, I moved with my partner to Germany and have been here for five years.

Looking back now after 5 – 6 years, I feel very positive about the changes I’ve made. But change is never easy, even if you’re excited about the prospect and are very motivated to move. Working independently and living in another country were two very big firsts for me and they weren’t without their challenges.

For example, I panicked a bit when I first set up my business, thinking I might not get enough work to support myself. So, in the first few months, I never said “No” to any opportunities, with the consequence that I overloaded myself with too many jobs, to the point where I almost had a breakdown!

When we first moved to Germany, I thought it was so exciting and different. The people were really friendly, the countryside was there to be explored and the festivals were in full swing. However, after a short time, I started to feel depressed and disconnected from my family and friends. I knew I needed to sell my car and house in the UK, which made me feel even more that I was losing my ‘anchor’. Despite the support and encouragement of my partner, I had a bit of a meltdown and was seriously contemplating moving back.

I never did act on those impulses and, after a few months, I started to feel more positive about the changes I had made. Developing more confidence in my business and taking a more strategic approach helped me to build my ‘Unternehmen’ (small business) here in Germany, whilst the kindness and friendship of our new-found friends here helped me finally to settle down to the Bavarian way of life.

More than that though, I always kept in mind a very important and enlightening model of change that I use in my PhD career workshops. First proposed in the 1970s, it illustrates the rollercoaster of emotions such as anxiety, depression, elation and denial that people experience during change. After a time (note, no scale shown, so this can happen over a very short or a very long period of time), the model shows how a person starts to come to terms with the change and move forward.

Because science is such a global and international endeavour, it means that ‘academic mobility’ is a necessary part of many researchers’ careers, so that they get to work with the people and facilities that are most relevant to their field of interest. However, moving to a different research group or institution, moving to different countries, or changing careers represent major disruptions to the lives of PhD and postdoctoral researchers.

So, from my own and other’s experiences, I would recommend some of the following advice to increase your resilience regarding change:

  1. Contact people ahead of moving to find out how they have coped and get advice from them, e.g. research group or university colleagues, alumni and social media;
  2. Get support – join groups in person and online, e.g. Facebook groups;
  3. Use the university international office and other institutional administration support;
  4. Try to learn the local language and immerse yourself in the culture of the region;
  5. Be open about your concerns and anxieties – it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

After 5 – 6 years, I have plenty of clients (enough, but not too many) and my business has been thriving, even through Covid. I now work with a great partner, Virginie Siret, who provides me with excellent professional digital assistance whenever I deliver my workshops online. On a more personal level, I’ve had lots of great experiences since I moved to Germany – we have a lovely apartment in a small village in Franconia with lots of friendly neighbours. We’ve been to beer and wine festivals galore, experienced the Christmas markets and rather bizarre ‘Fasching’ extravaganzas and have eaten many a bratwurst!

Change is not easy, but it’s inevitable for most of us, especially when you’re a working professional. So, if you’re ever feeling emotional about the prospect of changes in your life, don’t feel embarrassed as it’s a perfectly natural reaction. Consider how best to navigate changes in your life and to keep a positive, if not, philosophical, mindset. Most of all communicate with others!

And on that note, I can very happily tell you that I just received an email whilst writing this blog to say that I have passed my B1 German exam 🙂

Related posts:

Change talk
Academic mobility
Academic mobility: the long and the short of it

Career Development: Intentional vs Incidental

Originally posted on the University of Glasgow’s ‘Expert Voices‘ as part of their Pathfinder initiative, my June blog is about how you can intentionally direct your career, rather than leaving it to chance. I hope it’s useful for you to find your own career path.

Intentional or Incidental ?

“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time”, “I was lucky”, “I happened to find out about this opportunity by complete accident”. When people tell their career stories, these types of statements come up a lot, and can even represent a major positive turning point in someone’s career. Perhaps you can think of one or two examples from your own career journey.

Powerful as they can be, however, these incidental experiences are usually the result of intentional actions. For example, in order to find yourself in a situation where an opportunity comes your way, you also need to be ‘out there’ networking, stepping outside of your comfort zone, getting involved and being proactive.

What’s the ‘right’ career development for me?

For postgraduate researchers and research staff, time is very limited during the 3-4 year period of your doctorate or short-term research contract. With the pressure to design and conduct studies, generate and interpret data, publish papers, teach, supervise, etc., there is little opportunity to consider other activities that may play a vital role in a researcher’s career progression and success.

Whether aiming for an academic position or a role in other career sectors, such as industry or business, it is important for researchers to be able to demonstrate specific skills and experiences required by the employer. For example, whilst you may have acquired high-level technical or programming skills needed to conduct your research project, you may not have had the opportunity to develop other capabilities important to progress to your next role, such as working in a team, thinking innovatively, communicating to non-specialists or taking a leadership role. Intentional career development weaved into a researcher’s role can make the difference between a researcher being a strong candidate for their next job application or being overlooked.

With this in mind, whilst investigating researcher career development programmes during my master’s degree a few years ago, I created a useful framework to address, in part, this dilemma. Taking a well-known (at least, to careers advisers) career decision model that was first proposed in the 1950s (Holland, 1959), I adapted the six key areas of Hollands’ RIASEC model to suit a researcher’s core role, so that it could be used as a basic guide for their career development (see Table below).

The ‘PhD Career Choice Indicator’, as I’ve called it, is made up of the following categories:

  1. Functional (the practical stuff)
  2. Investigative (curiosity and discovery)
  3. Artistic (creative communication)
  4. Social (people engagement)
  5. Enterprise (innovating ideas)
  6. Management (organising people/things)

Of course, many of these skills and interests overlap with each other and many other factors are involved in the process of career decision-making. However, this simple model can help researchers to structure their experiences and use the information in whichever way they prefer (for example, to discover personal motivators). The model is used in this blog to identify potential career development opportunities.

Six skill/interest categories associated with a researcher’s role translated into potential career development activities

Taking intentional steps to prepare for “chance” events

Depending on your own preferred skills and interests, particularly those you enjoy using, you can start to distil out those you would like to take forward in your future career and those you want to minimize. This can help you to start thinking about types of careers that may be of interest to you (you can also use these skills as keywords to find jobs and to connect with professionals), as well as to identify potential intentional experiences/opportunities that can contribute to your career development. Depending on what motivates individual researchers, this can help to make good use of the limited time and resources available for the purposes of personal and professional development, as well as creating potential happenstance opportunities along the way.

For example, I was coaching a postgraduate researcher, who was interested in a teaching-focussed academic post, recently. After some discussion, she decided to apply for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy to add weight to her (social) teaching experience. In addition, she identified two learned societies that would help her to engage more fully with researchers working in her field of interest, with the goal to network and create collaborative opportunities. Compare this with another early career researcher, who had recently been appointed as a junior professor. Newly exposed to the constant competition and pressure associated with academia, he understood the need to continue to grow his, less developed, enterprising and management skills by finding a supportive mentor, attending a leadership course, and nurturing collaborative relationships.

With the majority of researchers exploring careers beyond academia after completing their PhDs, spending time on their career development is vital to help them to make a successful transition. Getting involved in activities related to your preferred skills and interests, such as upskilling your functional expertise, taking on managerial responsibilities or work-shadowing can be the difference between you being called for interview or being constantly turned down due to insufficient relevant experience. For example, a recently graduated PhD researcher told me she had succeeded in securing a position as a Medical Writer due to her engagement with outreach activities during her PhD, which demonstrated she could communicate with a wide range of audiences.

Universities are a rich source of intentional career development opportunities, with scope for researchers to get involved in outreach, policy, executive committees, sports and a wide range of social and student-related activities on their own doorstep, as well as looking further afield. By associating yourself with a range of communities, you will start to find yourself in incidental situations that may turn out to be the ‘lucky’ turning point in your career that you can relate to the next generation of researchers, if you’re invited to tell your own career story.

Related posts: Career development – it’s personal

It’s all academic

MURAL Board* capturing the results of a recent academic career workshop

To do a postdoc or not to do a postdoc ….

…. That is a question I am asked by many PhD students, whilst postdocs ask me whether they should do another postdoc or leave academia altogether.

The answer, as with many career questions, is not straightforward. The facts show that only a very small percentage of PhD-qualified researchers will eventually go on to secure an academic post. And, even if they do, many of these positions are not permanent in the first instance, and some that are teaching oriented can even come with a zero-hour contract. This is why I spend much of my time helping researchers to transition out of academia into other careers in industry, business and not-for-profit sectors.

However, for the purposes of this blog, let’s take a look at the situation for those researchers who are considering academia as a career option.

If you’re thinking seriously about a career in academia and have aspirations to be a professor, principal investigator or research group leader, don’t just think twice about it, think about it, find out more about it, mull it over and formulate a career strategy. Otherwise, in terms of your career plans, it may well be ‘all academic’ – in other words, nothing you do will change your current situation – it is out of your hands.

I, along with many other career consultants, academics and commentators, have written about careers in academia before and there is a plethora of surveys and research that shows that getting in and getting on in academia is a tough challenge nowadays. This is, in part, due to the burgeoning number of contract researchers ‘on the market’ vs the limited number of available institutional academic posts, as well as the pressures placed on academics to be able to juggle publishing, secure funding, develop an international reputation, manage a research group, teach (including design, delivery, assessment, pastoral care, etc.), review research papers, take on administrative duties, etc. In fact, Susan Wardell (@UnlazySusan on Twitter) created a fantastic infographic that sums up the activities of a university academic very nicely).

Courtesy of Susan Wardle (@UnlazySusan)

Of course, you can avoid some of these responsibilities by joining a research institute instead of a university, where teaching and collegiate duties aren’t part of the job description. Or, alternatively, you can negotiate for a primarily research-focussed role – it all depends on the type of academic position you’re looking for – and you may not get your preferred position to begin with. A recent survey by Nature revealed that the chances of a securing your first academic post can involve at least 15 applications. A now well-established professor I know sent out 60 applications for his first academic position.

This type of resilience is needed for a career that will be challenging in many ways: taking on a leadership role with no prior management or leadership training; being responsible for recruiting and training your own staff and students; the likelihood of being rejected or receiving criticism from your peers, even when you have produced really excellent work.

Due to the high competition to win funding and the pressure to publish in respected international journals, academics are constantly competing with each other to get into the ‘final cut’, which can be a high bar to attain with limitations on available research funds and journal page numbers. So, even if you work 24/7 and produce excellent research, you may not be appreciated by your community, as you might be if you were working in another career sector.

Having said this, many researchers still aspire towards academia as their first career of choice – and, of course, even though the numbers don’t look good, many new academics are employed each year across the world. There is plenty of advice and information to help you to achieve this goal, for example on the Vitae website, but as I pointed out in a recent career workshop, many extra factors and qualities lie under the surface of an academic job vacancy to help you to be successful.

Academic vacancies usually feature particular requirements as shown here above the surface of the iceberg. However, many other important hidden factors lie under the surface.

Many of these factors can’t be achieved at the last minute and need to be built up over time, such as networking and forming collaborations, developing a reputation in the field, having research ideas and being able to secure a fellowship or funding, building a record of publications, being resilient and self-motivated. And so on. One thing’s for sure, you will need to move away from promoting your functional and practical expertise that are highly valued as a PhD or early career researcher, and supplant these skills with those related to an academic.

Doing a postdoc can be a smart career move after your PhD, depending on your motivations, but don’t stay too long if you’re not impressed by the future life you see for yourself reflected in the academics around you. And, as soon as you realise you’re unlikely eventually to secure a permanent post, it may be time to think about moving on.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Purple-board-1024x608.png
MURAL Board* capturing the results of a recent academic career workshop

On the other hand, if you like what you see and want to improve your chances of achieving your goal to secure an academic position, take a look at the actions that were identified by researchers of my recent academic career workshop to give you ideas for your career strategy, as well as adding in some of your own.

Wishing you success in whatever you decide to do !

* MURAL Boards created and managed by my workshop digital learning co-partner, Virginie Siret

Related blogs:  

What’s the point of a postdoc?
Getting to professor  
Many other blogs can be found in my Blog Archive

Action packed career planning

Actions posted at the end of a recent career development workshop

Actions speak louder than words, so the saying goes. In other words, saying that you’re going to do something is one thing, but then actually doing it is quite another. Spend too long thinking about what you want to do and it could be called procrastination.

Sometimes, when you have too much to do, you can feel completely overwhelmed and ‘paralysed into inaction’. And of course, there’s always those ‘displacement activities’, such as cleaning the house, that keep you busy when you know you should be getting on with more important things.  

So how can you help yourself to stick to your plans and take action to realise your goals? Well, according to several studies, if you write down your goals, it’s more likely that you’ll act on them. For example, Professor Gail Matthews found that those people who wrote down their goals were 42% more likely to achieve them.

Being conscious of the fact that many PhD and postdoctoral researchers are time poor and have a lot to do (to say the least), it’s clear that those who sign up for my career workshops, or individual coaching sessions, need to make the most of these out-of-the-lab trainings, so that they can justify their attendance to themselves, as well as to their supervisor. They will also need to feel that the coaching and trainings will be of value to them, with plenty of insights and information to help them with their career development and planning.

With this in mind, I always ask participants of my career workshops and coaching sessions to write down some short- or longer-term actions, or what I call, ‘Good Intentions’, that will help them with their career planning. Sometimes, I even ask them to place their action(s) into a self-addressed envelope that I post back to them after a few weeks to remind them of these intentions.

So what kinds of action do PhD and postdoctoral researchers identify as being productive towards their career development and planning at the end of my sessions? The above infographic picks out some of the recent actions identified at the end of one of my workshops and, of course, there are many more.

  • Update my CV [many PhD and postdoctoral researchers still have the CV that they used to apply for their current position];
  • Investigate the job market and look for opportunities beyond academia;
  • Contact people associated with careers of interest;
  • Update or set up a LinkedIn profile to assist in visibility and networking;
  • Consider the kinds of questions that may be asked at interview and how to answer them.

Following on from these ‘Good Intentions’, I also use evaluation forms to assess the efficacy of my trainings, which I send out a few weeks later, including the important question, “What action have you taken since attending the workshop?”. The results are always very interesting and satisfying, when I see that participants have been taking action, sometimes with some really positive results.

So, I leave you with the question: What actions will you write down to ensure that you’ll carry them through and achieve your career goals? Over to you …..

BlogSB vs ChatGPT

This could make me lazy …..

I recently discovered ChatGPT, the new AI tool that is set to revolutionise the world as we know it. Whatever you think about it – good, bad, indifferent – it can’t be ignored.

As you can imagine, it’s not often that a new technology comes along that quite radically and fundamentally affects my work as a career consultant. Obviously, Zoom and various online learning tools helped me to adapt to online delivery during lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, and I still continue to use this teaching method with great results (and with expert assistance from a digital learning designer, Virginie Siret).

But now, here’s this new ChatGPT assistant at my disposal to help me in all sorts of ways I had never imagined. It seems it is highly adept at writing articles, essays, reports and many other documents, including CVs and covering letters.

Of course, you need to plug in the right questions and supply it with quite concise information to get anything of value back, but I have to say it’s quite impressive without too much prompting. I’ve already asked it to adapt an academic CV to suit an industry job description and, I have to say, the result wasn’t too bad (although it’s still a work in progress).

Then I thought, why not see if it can write my monthly blog, so here’s what I did:

My prompt:

I’m a careers adviser who supports bioscience PhD students and postdoctoral researchers with their career planning and development to help them to succeed in their careers. Can you write me a blog post of 500 words in a chatty and personable style on the subject of how to translate academic skills into skills that are valued by industry?

ChatGPT result:

Hey there! Are you a PhD student or postdoc struggling to articulate how your academic skills and experience can be applied in an industry setting? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s a common challenge, but there are some strategies you can use to help you translate your academic skills into skills that are valued by industry.

First, it’s important to analyze your transferable skills. These are skills that you’ve developed through your academic work that can be applied in different contexts and are valued by employers. Examples of transferable skills for bioscience PhD students and postdocs include problem-solving, data analysis, communication, and project management. Once you’ve identified your transferable skills, you can start thinking about how you can apply them in an industry setting.

Next, when you’re communicating with employers, it’s important to use industry language. This means avoiding technical terms and jargon that are specific to your field, and instead using language that is relevant to the industry you’re targeting. For example, instead of talking about gene editing techniques, you could talk about your expertise in using cutting-edge technology to solve complex problems.

Another important strategy is to focus on outcomes. In academia, the focus is often on the process of research, but in industry, employers are interested in results. They want to know what you can do for them and how you can contribute to their organization. When you’re talking about your academic experience, focus on the outcomes of your research and how they could be applied in an industry setting. For example, if you have experience developing new drugs, highlight the potential impact that your work could have on patients and the healthcare industry.

Gaining industry experience is also key. One of the best ways to translate academic skills into industry skills is to gain experience in an industry setting through internships, work placements, or volunteering opportunities. By working in an industry setting, you’ll gain an understanding of the skills and experience that are valued by employers, and you’ll have the opportunity to build a network of industry contacts that could help you find a job.

Lastly, seeking advice and guidance from professional careers advisers, alumni from your university who have gone on to work in industry, or professionals working in the industry you’re interested in, can be invaluable. These people can provide you with insights into what employers are looking for and how to make yourself stand out in a competitive job market.

In conclusion, translating academic skills into industry skills can be challenging, but it’s definitely doable. By analyzing your transferable skills, using industry language, focusing on outcomes, gaining industry experience, and seeking advice and guidance, you can position yourself as a strong candidate for jobs in industry. So go out there and show them what you’ve got!

So, what do you think? Not bad as an initial starting point, and I like the assertion in paragraph 6 that it’s important to seek professional advice and guidance.

Will I continue to use ChatGPT? Yes, most definitely – it will be an invaluable tool to assist in tasks such CV writing, locating employers and professionals, as well as other career-related activities. I also plan to show researchers how they can use it to help with their career planning, once I get the hang of it!

Will I use it to write future blogs? The answer to that question is a resounding “No”. I enjoy writing my blogs and draw upon my own experiences and perspective to make them as relevant to my readers as possible.

So, BlogSB 1 – 0 ChatGPT

Career Wordle

New York Times Wordle – My results (605, 607 and 609)

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Ten words that perhaps make you shudder when you recall them from your childhood. Or, maybe you think about this question quite favourably as you remember your innocent younger self responding with answers such as, “an astronaut”, “a TV star”, “a princess”, “footballer”, etc.

In my day (1960/70s), our knowledge of the job market was more limited and conventional, so we were more likely to reply with jobs such as nurse, doctor, teacher or train driver. In fact, my brother’s friend did exactly that and realised his dream to become a train driver. And, of course, many kids grew up to become doctors, nurses, teachers and careers advisers …..

Ha ha, no, only kidding! I didn’t know anyone who aspired to be a careers adviser, and I still don’t! Did you reply to say you wanted to be a postdoctoral researcher? Not likely. But perhaps you replied with “I want to be a scientist”. Careers like careers adviser, science programme coordinator, bioinformatician, data analyst, academic, etc., are jobs that you hear about and grow into later in life, after you’ve tried other things.

And that brings me to my Career Wordle analogy for this month’s blog: If you’ve not played the rather addictive New York Times Wordle word game, I warn you, it may take over your life, as you strive to guess a 5-letter word in six guesses. Let me explain its relevance to careers:

The first guess in Wordle is just that – you have no information to go on, you just pick a 5-letter word and try it out to see how many of the letters are correct – some in the right place (green), some correct but in the wrong place (yellow) and the rest that are just wrong and don’t appear in the word at all (grey).

As depicted in the infographic above, the first Wordle result (on the left-hand side) means that I got it in one! My first attempt in something like over 300 tries [the word was ‘sound’ in case you’re interested]. I was so proud, even though it wasn’t a great achievement. It was just a great guess.

And perhaps that’s what your first guess at a career was too – just that, a sound guess, a shot in the dark. Perhaps you wanted to be a scientist and here you are now, a scientist…. Although many researchers label themselves on LinkedIn as a PhD student or postdoc (not a good idea).


Or maybe you started out aspiring to careers such as “astronomer”, “farmer”, “pop star” or “vet”? That last one was me – I wanted to be a vet, so that I could help animals to get better. However, as I grew up and had more information at my disposal, I realised that I wasn’t clever enough to get the grades to go to vet school and, in any case, I don’t think I had the stomach for surgery or euthanasia. So, instead, I got a pet, did Biology at university, after which I did research, then journal management, followed by education and public affairs, finally ending up where I am now – a careers adviser specialising in supporting academic researchers.

And this brings me to the middle Wordle infographic analogy – I tried out a few letters, saw what fitted, ignored the ones that didn’t and finally got to the ‘right answer’. This was not a guess anymore. Vet was my initial guess, but it didn’t fit with my own skills and values. It was ‘helping’ that I took with me, as well as realising my creativity and intuition along the way and placing myself in the world of science, but working with researchers, not in research.

So, what about you? Where are you now? How did you get here? And where are you headed?

Did you get your Career Wordle in one? Did you guess correctly and end up doing what you said you’d be doing when you replied to the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question. If so, are you where you want to be, or would you prefer to be doing something else? What new letters would you like to add to your career to make it ‘perfect’?

Or perhaps, you’re a ‘work in progress’? This is more likely, especially at your career stage. Perhaps, you’re refining your career right now, looking for the last letter to complete your career story? Conceivably, you’re still at Line 3 and working your way towards Line 6, as depicted in the final infographic on the right-hand side.

What information do you need to help you to complete your Career Wordle journey? Having tried things out during your career so far, you know what you don’t like doing, and what you don’t want to feature in your future jobs. So, what do you want to include – consider the skills, interests, values and other factors that are important to you, that you enjoy and are good at. Perhaps you are doing some of these things on a voluntary basis right now, like teaching or outreach and you want to incorporate them into the heart of your next job (and get paid for them too!). Maybe you are a technical expert, who wants to add more of this into the mix in the future. Or perhaps you’re more interested in your work:life balance and are looking at ways to stabilise your current career rollercoaster life style.

Whatever your ‘Career Wordle’ stage, my advice is to keep learning, keep researching and keep growing. Not your research (but that’s important). You. Focus on the researcher for a change and see how you can investigate, discover, develop and enhance yourself. What are your talents? What’s important to you? Where do you want to go in the future? Make use of information and advice and, on that note, hopefully this and some of my other Biosciencecareers blogs will help you to answer some of these questions.

Happy Career Wordling!