Tales of the unexpected

“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.”

This quotation, attributed to the mathematician, John Allen Paulos, has never been so poignant. We live in turbulent times, and trying to take control of our lives, plan our careers and instil some surety into our futures is nigh on impossible.

In fact, this has always been the case – ‘permanent’ jobs, even within academia, don’t really exist. Anyone and everyone can be made redundant.

As Peter Hawkins states in his book, The art of building windmills: career tactics for the 21st century,

“To be employed is to be at risk, to be employable is to be secure”.

This concept may be at odds with those doctoral and postdoctoral researchers who are chasing ‘permanent’ positions, looking for stability and security. But don’t be dismayed – in the short term this is certainly achievable and will help to act as an anchor for building foundations on which, for example, to secure a mortgage, plan for a family or invest in the future. However, in the longer term, looking after our employability and planning for the ‘unplannable’ is how, ultimately, we are likely get through the more turbulent times in our lives.  

The good news is that graduate doctoral students have a very low rate of unemployment (almost negligible) and this high employment rate persists due to the personal and professional attributes and skills researchers develop as they progress in their careers. Of course, you need to be aware of these capabilities, value them and be able to articulate them to potential employers, as well as build and utilise networks – and that’s where the planning part comes in.

So, taken together, career planning activities overlaid with career happening behaviours can act as a ‘belt and braces’ approach to ensuring sustainable employability and helping you to combat times of insecurity and unpredictability.

These two contrary approaches to career management and development have been encapsulated in two career theories, as described in a previous blog.

The yellow blocks show the planned part – e.g. knowing yourself, knowing the job market, making decisions, taking action and marketing yourself, for example, online, in a CV or interview. The other ‘happening’ activities scattered around include Curiosity – getting ‘out there’, being more informed and visible, Risk-taking – that is to say, coming out of your comfort zone, learning and growing, as well as being Proactive – taking charge of your career.

And, on a final note, if you want to hear about tales of the unexpected, just tune into career podcasts, turn up at career events or listen to career stories of former doctoral and postdoctoral researchers and you’ll, no doubt, identify many of these factors within their narratives.

Related blogs: Put your skills to work

Section and Match your CV

“Use your own words… don’t copy other people’s work … don’t plagarise!”. These are the golden rules of academia.

However, in the world of job applications and CVs: “Do use their words, match yourself to their specifications, mimic their language!”

This can be a hard task if you’re a PhD or postdoctoral researcher: You need to undo a lifetime of following the rules of academia. You have to force yourself to go against the fundamentals and very essence of the communication guidelines you have been following throughout your career.

Whilst an academic CV can follow a chronological history of your university education, including undergraduate, master’s and PhD qualifications, followed by research achievements, awards, teaching and impact activities, a non-academic CV requires a more targeted approach.

Hiring is a risky business, so anything you can do to instil confidence in the employer will give you an advantage over other candidates. You need to show them that you have the directly and indirectly relevant experience, skills and capabities that meet their requirements in a very obvious and accessible way. This not only shows them that you have the necessary profile for the position they’re offering, but also that you understand their needs and so are more likely to fit into their work culture and environment.

So, if you’re applying for non-academic jobs, whether it’s in research, communications, data analysis, policy, etc., the art of MATCHING and SECTIONING your CV is more likely to yield good results (i.e. an invitation to interview) than a chronological historical record.

Here are some tips and examples to help you to re-write and target your CV to a non-academic post:

  1. Treat the job description and specifications as you would an exam or essay: Underline/highlight the key words that are the most prominent – they are the requirements that are most important to the employer;
  2. Create sections in your CV that reflect these key requirements. You don’t want to create too many sections, so join two or more together, e.g. Communication and teamwork; Management and leadership; Research and analysis, etc., according to the keywords that appear in the job/personal specifications;
  3. Provide evidence of these skills by using bullet points under each of the sections. Write down a very short story of just one or two lines that demonstrate an example of how you have used a particular skill. Use situations, quantities and results to bring your examples to life and make them interesting and realistic for the employer to read.
  4. Under each of the headings, use 3 – 4 examples taken from your current and former employment, volunteer work, research-associated experiences and personal life and bring them together to consolidate evidence of your experience.
  5. You will still need to include sections in your CV about your education, employment history and other experiences to show where you have used and developed these skills. However, it’s sometimes a good idea to place them later in your CV, especially if it’s a job where ‘transferable’ skills and more relevant than directly relevant experience.  

I hope these tips and examples give you a good starting point to re-invent and re-think your academic experiences so you can write a great non-academic CV!

Put your skills to work!

Results of a skills brainstorming exercise during a career development workshop

Hard skills, soft skills, transferable skills, technical skills, interpersonal skills.

Skills are what employers want from their prospective PhD employees. They’re not so interested in the details of your particular disciplinary research area, they want to know how you will apply your knowledge and skills to help them to innovate, create and develop new products, services, ideas and information.

Doctoral and postdoctoral researchers can sometimes find it difficult to recognise and even value the skills they’re developing during the course of their research. It’s easy to get complacent when you’re working in an environment where everyone has these high-level skills.

As part of my career planning workshops, I ask participants to brainstorm what they do and we collect them either on a classroom whiteboard or in a virtual space such as MURAL. The results can be colourful in terms of sticky notes, but also in terms of the wide variety and richness of the skills that emerge from this task, especially if the group consists of multi-disciplinary researchers (as in the image featured above).

Brainstorming your skills in a group exercise offers the advantage of being able to see how others identify and name theirs, as well as contributing into the mix yourself, having some fun discussions (baking is a popular skill amongst biologists), as well as coming away with an armoury of self-knowledge that can now be put to work as follows:

  1. CAREER DECISION-MAKING
    Knowledge of your skills can help you to identify potential careers – choosing those roles that involve the skills you are good at and enjoy using will lead you into careers that are likely to be more fulfilling than those that consist of your least favourite skills. Of course, many other factors come into play, such as values, work culture, work:life balance, location etc., but if you choose a career area that uses your preferred skills, you can look around to find organisations within that sector that can offer you the work culture that suits these other needs. See my PhD Career Choice Indicator to find out more.
Categorising skills and interests using the PhD Career Choice Indicator

2. JOB SEEKING
Rather than using job titles or your disciplinary interests, such as physics, linguistics, engineering, to search for potential careers of interest, try using your skills instead (see above). If you plug your favourite skills into the search engine of job sites such as Indeed and Glassdoor, or social media platforms such as LinkedIn, you get a wide-ranging list of potential roles to examine. This strategy can help to broaden your job search horizons, since job titles can sometimes be mis-leading or, in reality, represent a multiplicity of different types of roles.

Job search using skills – in this case ‘qualitative interviewing and analysis’

3. SELF-PRESENTATION
Employers want evidence of your capabilities, especially in your CV and at interview. Being able to explain how you have applied your skills to different situations, for example, solving a problem, resolving a conflict or creating a new line of thinking, is more valuable during an interview than describing, in depth, the situation itself. Most non-academic employers won’t need to utilise your PhD research knowledge itself, but they will want to be confident that you can apply your knowledge and skills to all sorts of new situations as they arise. If you can create an interesting story about how you have used your skills using the STAR technique, it’s bound to impress your interview panel.

So, why not try brainstorming your own skills and see if you can make them work for you …     

Skills and Thrills – what motivates you?

Planning your career is not easy or straight forward.

If you consider the research project that you’re currently undertaking to discover something new about how the world works (amongst other things), then career planning is about discovering something about you and the kind of work you’d like to do now and in the future. The research skills you use every day in your endeavour to find out more about how something works, what is involved, the mechanism, etc., can be mapped directly onto the career development and skills you need to manage your career. That is to say: you need to reflect and discover more about yourself; you need to investigate your employment opportunities (whether within or outside of academia); you need to perfect your transitional methodology (i.e. your self-presentation in the form of your CV and interview technique); you need to network and connect with other professionals, and so on!

Although it seems like the job market is a minefield – difficult and hazardous to navigate – discovering yourself can be even more challenging. Generally speaking, PhD and early career researchers tend to be quite modest and even unaware of their amazing talents, their high-level skills, their can-do attitude and aptitudes. This means that, not only do they tend to under-estimate their abilities, they sometimes under-sell themselves and aim lower or limit themselves too much in terms of their career ambitions.

This is where career professionals come in: They can offer you support in the form of career guidance and coaching techniques and tools; they can provide understanding, empathy and career counselling, they can raise your confidence and levels of self-belief, review your CV and offer you mock interviews to  assist you in persuading potential employers to believe in you and offer you a job. They can even employ career theories and models that can help you to understand yourself and identify opportunities for career success.

And on that note, I would like to introduce you to the PhD Career Choice Indicator. It’s a career choice ‘tool’ that I’ve adapted from Holland’s theory of career choice and it’s proved to be very helpful (according to feedback from my career workshops). How does it work? Well, there are four stages to consider:

  • First, review all the things you do as a PhD/early career researcher. Brainstorm the tasks – supervising students, designing experiments, analysing data, using specialist tools, techniques and methodologies, communicating your research, teaching, reviewing manuscripts, imagining new ideas and innovations, partnering or collaborating with stakeholders,  managing your projects, resources, people, problem solving, etc. The list is long! Here’s a recent word cloud produced by participants of a career workshop:
  • Next, categorise all of these tasks according to the Holland’s model above – where would you situate these tasks according to the descriptors?

  • What are your 3 favourite categories? What is your least favourite? The other two will come somewhere in between. Of course, it’s not exacting, but you will probably have a clear(ish) idea of those things you look forward to and those that you put off.
Workshop exercise to identify the Top 3 categories, according to a group of >100 PhD and postdoctoral researchers
  • Finally, examine the employment market and the types of jobs being advertised. Consider the types of jobs that include more of what you enjoy doing. This will help you to identify potential careers of interest. After which, you can start to focus in on these types of roles and organisations and plan your career accordingly.

Of course, this is just a snapshot, and there are many other factors involved in choosing your career, e.g. your personality, values, personal situation, work:life balance preferences, etc. However, I hope this gives you a starting point. Here are other blogs and resources to help you to plan and manage your career:

Related content:

Making career choices

The skilled researcher

Employable you!

The why, how and whom of your career

INTERVIEWS – PREPARE YOURSELF

Congratulations! You have been invited to interview.

How does this make you think or feel? Most invitations to attend a job interview evoke an emotional response of some kind: positive, negative, but usually a bit (or a lot) of both. For most people, it’s good news: Their CV has proved to be successful in convincing the employer/research group leader/funder that they have the right level of qualifications, experience, skills and capabilities to be a short-listed candidate. Perhaps they’ve been networking as well and have impressed people about their potential to be successful in this role, or maybe someone has recommended or even head-hunted them directly.

Even so, despite the fact that their application has made a good impression, many people still feel a sense of trepidation towards the interview itself. This is perfectly normal, however your mindset can let you down if you allow your mental and psychological demons to take a hold. This is why, during my interview training workshops, I encourage and teach participants to prepare and practice as much as they can to offset and overcome these negative messages.

For example, researching the organisation and role further, examining your application and reminding yourself of evidence you can use to support your answers, as well as predicting questions and practising your responses should help you to feel more relaxed, much as it would if you were revising for an exam or PhD defense. On top of this, it’s useful to find out details about the interview venue and set-up, who will be interviewing you, and what additional activities you may have to do, such as making a presentation or meeting other team members. There is a lot to be done.

However, for one reason or another, many interview candidates let themselves down, not because they have not prepared, but because of their mindset: They don’t believe in themselves enough or they convince themselves they are not ‘up to the job’. PhD and postdoctoral researchers who are aiming to enter the non-academic job market, for which they have little or no direct experience, may also feel this kind of negativity, which can be an arch enemy when it comes to moving on and out of academia. Even though they have been invited for interview, they are still plagued by ‘imposter syndrome’, which interferes with their interview performance.

The ‘Interview Performance Matrix‘ ignores skills, experience and other elements that influence your likely success at interview. Instead, it concentrates on two key personal influencers that are absolutely fundamental to creating a good impression – your preparedness and your own mindset. The Matrix comprises 4 quadrants that represent:

NEGATIVE – This quadrant represents those who are unprepared and have a negative mindset which means they self-limit their performance. The prospect of a positive outcome is unlikely, even if the candidate has a good set of skills and experience to offer.

HOPEFUL – With little or no preparation, but coupled with a highly positive attitude, some interviewees are able to create a very positive initial impression with their confident body language. However, following further questioning, their lack of preparedness usually shows through leaving the interviewers unimpressed. A lax attitude during the interview may also raise concern to a potential employer, who envisages this type of behaviour transferring itself into the workplace.

DEFEATIST – Here, the candidate is prepared for the interview, but is negative in terms of their belief in themselves, which makes the employer question their ability and unwilling to take the risk of offering them the job. This is such a shame for an interviewee who has invested their time and energy to prepare and practice for the interview, only to be marked down due to their under-performance and nervousness.

CONVINCING – This is the ideal quadrant to be in for the best chance of a good interview result. Combined with knowledge of themselves, the job and the organisation, and coupled with visible and audible positive self-assurance, the candidate is best placed to make the most positive impression. In this situation, the candidate not only answers the interview questions accurately and with plenty of examples, they reassure the employer of their competence by demonstrating body language that shows they have confidence in themselves and their ability.

So, I’ve suggested ways to prepare for the interview (and you can visit my blog archive to find out more information on this subject), but how can you work on your mindset?

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to help you with this, but let me suggest a few potential tactics:
1) Imagine you’re your best friend who’s been invited to this interview. In your role, you would try to support them as much as you could to prepare for their interview, whilst encouraging them with positive compliments, such as pointing out their amazing talents, skills and experiences and telling them how they are bound to succeed. Taking this objective stance, can sometimes help you to overcome imposter syndrome, as you step outside of your subjective self and view yourself more kindly and realistically.
2) Try to relax and reduce your over-thinking tendencies; it’s well known that people are offered jobs that they are not overly excited about, as they are more relaxed and less anxious during the interview, so they tend to perform better than for those interviews that they really care about. Re-framing your thoughts can help you to break the cycle of negativity and minimise some of the symptoms of anxiety and nervousness.
3) Finally, visualise a successful interview and outcome, imagine yourself being offered the job and try to shut out the demons.

I hope these few thoughts have helped you to reflect on the interview process and how you can get through the process – even enjoy it – so that you can transition to your next career adventure. Attending an interview workshop and getting mock interview practice can help you further, as well as having a supportive mentor and/or coach.

Wishing you confidence and success!

The why, how and whom of career success

When you’re planning your next career move, ask yourself:

Why are you interested in this particular job?

How will you access this career sector?

Who works in this role?

Research* has shown that these three key questions underpin the likelihood of achieving career success. So, let’s look at them in a bit more detail and examine what this means in terms of the practicalities concerning your career planning strategy.

Why WHY?

  • It’s important to understand what’s influencing your career choices so that you can make informed career decisions;
  • Knowing why particular careers are attractive to you helps you to take a proactive approach to your career, so that it’s under your control;
  • You can enhance your self-leadership and self-awareness when you know why you want to follow a particular career path;
  • Employers will ask questions at interview about why you want to work in this role, what you know about their organisation and why you are interested in working with them. You will need to have credible and genuine answers to give them, backed up with examples

Why HOW?

  • How can you find out which companies/organisations operate in this sector? Where are they based and what is their core business?
  • How can you get into this industry/business? Where are their vacancies advertised: their company website, social media, other job sites?
  • How are companies communicating their ‘hot news’. Where can you look for their latest developments so that you’re more informed about the organisation and their business?
  • Employers will ask questions at interview about the role for which you are applying and their company, in relation to their operations and outputs, competitors and collaborators, etc.

Why WHOM?

  • With whom can you network to help you to gain access to your career of interest?
  • Do you already know people working in your career of interest? How did they get into this role/company? Would they be willing to act as a mentor?
  • How can you improve your network in relation to your career interests?
  • Employers tend to be risk averse and prefer to employ people that already have some kind of link with their organisation through prior experience, contacts and recommendations.

Sometimes, it’s hard to know how to make a start and on what to focus when considering your career development strategy; hopefully these key questions will help you to make a start and to organise your plan of action.

*Eby LT, Butts M, Lockwood A. 2003. Predictors of success in the era of the boundaryless career. Journal of Organanisational Behaviour, 24:689–708.

Related content: Career Success – what does it look like?

Visible you!

Craning above Zurich, S Blackford

“Put your head above the parapet”; “Stand out from the crowd”; “Put yourself in the spotlight”. You may have heard some of these phrases during personal development or career education training sessions that are focussed on helping you to raise your professional profile, network with employers and create job opportunities.

The advice is good and should be heeded. These behaviours have been shown to work better than simply applying for advertised jobs. However, increasing your visibility goes much further than this. It doesn’t just serve to bring you into contact with potential new career openings, it can also offer advantages in many areas of your professional life (some of which may, incidentally, lead to a new job). Showing interest in what others are doing, engaging in conversations, offering support, getting involved in new initiatives, and generally being curious about the world around you brings you into contact with people and information that could lead on to new areas of interest. It’s the happenstance of life (see a previous blog on this subject).

Your increased visibility makes others aware of you, which places you on their radar so when they’re considering, for example, who to invite to give a talk at a conference, who to nominate for an award, who to collaborate with, or even who to put forward for a new job opening or promotion, your name/face pops into their head.

So how can you work on your visibility and take advantage of these more indirect opportunities? Obviously, it’s important to be present, but make sure you’re presenting ‘Quality You’, not just ‘Quantity You’. What I mean by this is, think about the image you’re presenting of yourself: Do you want to be characterised as an intellectual, an academic, a dynamic innovator, a technical wizard, an empathetic leader, a creative disruptor, a stable reliable pair of hands? This may seem like rather casual and blasé labelling, but it’s what happens when you stand out from the crowd: People judge you, albeit unconsciously or consciously.

Just like celebrities (although, not as extreme), you need to control your image. Let me explain this in the context of the PhD world:

Consider this: What happens when you present a paper at a conference? You stand on a stage, you’re in the spotlight, people are looking and listening to you. But not only this. More importantly, they’re reacting to your presence, looking at your image, forming an opinion about you, weighing you up. Ask yourself: How do they see me? Are they taking me seriously? Are they impressed? Can they see themselves working with me in the future?

If you watch politicians and other public speakers in action, people usually comment afterwards more on what they looked like and how they sounded, than on the details of their message. This is the same for you and everyone else who puts themselves in the spotlight. So, the next time you present a paper at a conference (be it in person or on-line), pay as much attention to your presence as to the content of your talk. Consider your body language, your clothes, your stance, your tone of voice – these will all speak to the audience, as much as, or even more than, your voice. [It also means you need to come out from behind the lectern/switch on your video.]

Making a formal presentation is a more extreme example of how you are perceived by others; consider the more everyday interactions that you have in more informal settings and be aware that similar appraisals will be made about you and, of course, vice versa. Think about the people you work with and the corresponding fleeting images and opinions that form in your head.

And don’t forget about social media. Paying attention to your online visibility also plays a crucial role in honing your professional image. A fully completed profile, including a friendly confident looking you, a succinct and genuine summary of who you are, what you do and what you have achieved in the past will demonstrate your credibility. Contributing to discussions and sharing useful information and commentary will help to consolidate your position in the community as someone who is worth following or linking with. See a previous blog on this subject.

So, I hope I have shown you, to some extent, the value of being visible both in person and on-line. And remember, if a more senior/elderly colleague tells you otherwise, it’s very likely that they have already earned their place in the spotlight by paying attention to their visibility in the past. If you’re at an early stage in your career, you will still need to illuminate yourself 🙂

Stress relief

How stressed do you feel on a scale of 1 to 10?

This is not a straightforward question. There is good stress (eustress*) and there is bad stress (distress). Eustress is the stress that makes us feel motivated, energetic and engaged when doing something challenging. It can feel scarey, exciting and even dangerous sometimes, such as starting a new job, preparing to give a presentation, setting up a new experiment or skydiving. It releases adrenalin and brings us alive to achieve more than we may feel we’re capable of doing. Once the project or event is over and this stressor is removed from the equation, we can relax and go back to the status of feeling stress-free, at least in this particular area of our lives.

A quick search of #stress #PhD on Twitter reveals a plethora of results describing stress that is more aligned with bad stress, or distress. This is where those undertaking a PhD and working within the academic research environment report on negative stressful experiences, such as feeling powerless, being bullied, over-working, and not feeling properly supported to achieve their aims. Examples might include, a lack of funding, having a paper rejected, having to teach oneself new skills for which more formal training is needed, administration overload, or the prospect of a contract coming to an end.

This kind of bad stress can arise directly from being in a stress-free state or morph from eustress into distress due to outside stressors, usually originating from sources and influences beyond our own control. For example, a researcher could have been quite happily running their experiment, when suddenly they find that the equipment they needed has been removed without their knowledge, causing their state of stress to descend into distress. Or perhaps, on a larger scale, their career aim to secure an academic post has not been realised and they’re finding the prospect of leaving academia distressful.

You can most likely list areas of your own life, both professional and personal, where you have toggled between stress-free, eustress and distress states. Can you identify the stressors and the de-stressors? This is important. Ask yourself when, why and how it has happened. What has made your stress situation turn into a distress situation and how have you managed to switch it back into either eustress or stress-free states? It might have been a really drastic measure, such as leaving your job altogether or even seeking medical help. However, most probably your strategy has been less severe and life-changing.

De-stressors that are not helpful or healthy tend to be ‘drug’ related, such as alcohol, smoking, over-eating (sugar) or obsessive compulsive activity such as over-exercising. These serve to mask the distress temporarily, creating a temporary state of eustress, but in the long-run causing the situation to prolong and worsen. On the contrary, healthy de-stressors are more effective and sustainable. Here, I’ve listed some suggestions and you may have others of your own to add:

  1. Recognise – Admitting to yourself that there’s a problem is the most important start to the de-stressing process. Listen to your body and respond to it. If you’re not sleeping, if you have high anxiety levels or other negative symptoms it’s time to act. We’re all different and what distresses one person, may not have the same effect on another. Equally, what acts as an effective de-stressor in one situation may not work in another. Go with your instinct and don’t be afraid to admit that you’re not super-human and indestructible!
  2. Manage – Ask yourself if you’re able to manage your distressful situation. Can you change your own behaviour to help alleviate the stress levels? Perhaps your time management needs to be improved or you could delegate some tasks to others to reduce your own workload. Sometimes it’s hard to say ‘No’ to people when asked to take on more responsibilities, but weigh up whether it’s of value to your career prospects, or whether you could hand over other tasks in order to accommodate a new project.
  3. Communicate – Have you told anyone about your distress or are you keeping it to yourself? You may have confided in your friends and family, but have you told those in positions of influence, such as your supervisor, collaborators, the HR office or a professional careers adviser about your situation? Many people shy away from doing this as they fear it will be seen as a weakness or that it will make no difference, or worse still, will result in even more distress. However, if no-one knows about your state of stress, they won’t be able to do anything about it, when there could be a simple solution. For example, I have helped many researchers out of a state of distress, through offering them advice and information on potential non-academic careers, raising their confidence to transition into industry and other career sectors.
  4. Be good to yourself – Consider what relaxes you into a stress-free state, such as exercise, mindfulness, going to the cinema, socialising, getting outside, etc. For me, walking my dog was my best de-stressor; it took about 20 minutes of watching him sniffing and rolling around to help me to get a perspective on things and to calm down. Everyone is different and the de-stressing methods may only work for a limited amount of time, but it can be enough sometimes to help you to deal with the situation until it runs its course, especially if there’s nothing you can practically do to change things right now.

Finally, from the perspective of someone who has spent many hours offering career guidance and coaching to PhD and postdoctoral researchers, if you’re feeling unsure about your future or even that your career has derailed, if your confidence levels have sunk to a level that is causing you distress, consider seeking support from a careers adviser or coach, attending professional development courses or joining an early career researcher group. Recent research has shown that these types of activity can improve mental health and even have a positive effect on productivity.

*Originally introduced by endocrinologist, Hans Seyle, the term ‘Eustress’ means beneficial stress and derives from the Greek prefix, ‘eu’, meaning good, as in, for example, ‘euphoria’.

Related posts:

Mind your career

Busy doing nothing

Keep calm and career on

Busy doing nothing

Johnny (Courtesy of M Blackford)

“Don’t work too hard!”, “Enjoy some down time – you deserve a good break”, “Switch those gadgets off … be with your loved ones, not your phones”.

These are the words of Professors Paul Nurse and Raj Shekhawat and international educator, Aga Sypniewska, picked randomly from a search of the internet. And they are not alone in their advice: Numerous articles, social media posts and videos advise us that we should relax and allow time for our mental and physical well-being. “That’s easier said than done,”, I hear many of you saying, “when you are overloaded with work and the pressure to meet deadlines.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vI0DyPkz9JI

‘Burn out’ and ‘Academia’ were words that never used to appear in the same sentence a few decades, or even a few years, ago. However, a Google search on these words nowadays throws up dozens of results with headline articles in Nature and THES, such as “Pandemic burnout is rife in Academia”, “How burnout and imposter syndrome blight scientific careers” and “Workaholic academics need to stop taking pride in their burnout”.

Having worked in the academic world myself over the past 30 years, I have witnessed the increasing imposition of targets, goals and league tables. I was working on a scientific journal when the impact factor system was introduced. The effect of these new metrics was not immediately obvious, but over the following years, the number of manuscripts submitted gradually increased around 10-fold, with papers being split into twos and threes, presumably, to demonstrate increased productivity.

The advent of personal computers didn’t help matters, as people started to forego breaks and lunchtime get-togethers to continue working at their desks. I sometimes reminisce about the days when we would all break off at 10.30 and 15.30 to have a half-hour coffee break, or the early career researchers would organise fun events such as themed cocktail parties and Christmas parties. In fact, this culture still does exist to some extent in a few more enlightened institutions, as reported by Vivienne Tam in her Science article.

There is an upside to our latter-day culture: An increasingly bright light is being shone on the academic work environment, scrutiny of bullying behaviour, levelling up of inequalities, the introduction of supportive initiatives such as the Athena and HR excellence in research awards, and, not forgetting, the researcher career management programmes that now exist in many universities and research institutes. In addition, there’s more scope to be involved in research associated activities, such as science communication, organising conferences, collaborating with external partners and applying for internships.

So, returning to the quotes at the start of this post, how can you reconcile your workload with taking a break and being good to yourself? The reality of the here and now very often takes precedence over the creation of ideas and future possibilities and, whilst practical hard graft is the bedrock of investigative research, equally, considering new directions, having ‘light-bulb moments’ and discussing ideas with colleagues forms the inspiration that balances the research equation (and can also be the basis for potential new funding). Of course, we’re all different in terms of our personality, resilience, personal and professional situation and a whole host of other factors, so there’s certainly no one-size-fits-all solution. However, from my own experience, and from hearing other people’s stories, stepping back from time to time to review your situation in order to build a workable work strategy into your life can be a ‘life-saver’.

And on that note, I’ll leave you with some blogs I’ve written on the subject of ‘keeping a perspective’, ‘staying calm‘, and ‘practising mindfulness’ that may help you to start considering the possibility of allowing yourself to spend some time being ‘busy doing nothing’. My intention is to take the advice of Prof Raj Shekhawat and go as much ‘off the radar’ as I can over the next two weeks with a holiday in the sun, where I hear the wifi is very poor. This will help me to ‘practice what I preach’; I aim to replace my internet surfing and email checking with reading, swimming, relaxing and even simply just staring up at the sky dreaming new dreams.

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy year ahead.

10 years of Bioscience Careers

Happy 10th Birthday to BioscienceCareers.org! Yes, the 7th November 2021 is exactly 10 years since I founded my website and wrote my very first blog. Time flies and I can’t quite believe that a whole decade has passed by already. To mark this auspicious occasion☺, I’ve just categorised all the blogs that I’ve published into themes in a Blog Archive as follows: General; Jobs & Careers; Applications & Interviews; Networking and Self.

Reading back through them, I think all the blogs are still relevant to doctoral and postdoctoral researchers, which just goes to show that not much has changed in the world of PhD careers since 2011! In my mind’s eye, I can still remember writing some of them in places near and far – Spain, Portugal, Finland, America, Sri Lanka – and it all feels much more recent and closer than it actually is. It seems so easy for me to scroll back through the months and years, charting my life from 40-something to 50-something, from being two-thirds of the way through my 20 years at the Society for Experimental Biology to running my own business as an independent PhD consultant, from living in the UK to moving to Germany.

It’s quite a revelatory experience to reflect on the last 10 years, especially if you’re younger and at an earlier stage in your career. As you get older, you tend to settle into your career and become more established (although I can think of notable mid-life career-changer exceptions). It can be especially difficult if the career that you were hoping to pursue doesn’t materialise, compelling you to consider other options. This can be the case for professionals such as lawyers, accountants and architects missing out on partnerships, military personnel forced out at landmark birthdays and, of course, many postdoctoral researchers having to consider non-academic career paths, instead of the permanent academic position they’d been aiming for.

Re-setting the clock and taking up perhaps a more junior and less-established role in a new career sector can be difficult to contemplate. As the original Career Rainbow model of Donald Super shows us, most people feel they should keep progressing through their life with the expectation (from themselves and others) that they will attain a certain status as they move towards retirement. The model is still relevant today [although somewhat dated in terms of career progression and has since been updated by Super himself.]

However, don’t worry about this more traditional idea of careers; the ‘squiggly career’ is more usual these days. I changed my career twice before realising that careers work was what I wanted to do (in my 30s). I had to get up to speed by first doing voluntary work, then taking short-term contracts, embarking on a part-time master’s degree and building my career up from scratch. I didn’t want a managerial role and so avoided applying for Career Service leadership roles. Instead, to remain working as a specialist I ended up leaving and set up on my own, a decision many professionals make later in their careers.  

Looking back, my mini-careers and experiences have jigsawed together to make up the big picture career that I have now. According to the Ikagai model, it supports my values and passions, what I enjoy and am good at, as well as being able to make a living from it – so that it feels I may even have achieved my own ‘dream career’. Perhaps.

Much of our career planning turns out to be happenstance (lucky moments), as well as making conscious decisions based on information and logic. In fact, many people cite the turning points in their lives as being chance encounters or happenings. Consider what is important to you in your life, what drives you and what you’re good at, and map this onto the previous 10 years of your career. What do you want to continue to do, what do you want to leave behind? This starts to give you clues as to where you might travel to in the next decade.  

So, in the much nearer future, I invite you to take a browse through my blog archive at your leisure and, excusing the rather basic formatting, with any luck you should find some interesting reads along the way. Here’s to the next 10 years!