New year, new career ?

What a difference a year can make: Looking back at PhD students and postdocs who made changes to their careers in 2019, there seems to be no end to the variety of jobs and locations to which they have moved1. Some have left academia to take up jobs in sectors such as science communication, medical science liaison, data science, policy and research, whilst others have remained in academia but moved countries. Some PhD graduates have even gone back to study for a business master’s or diploma degree.

As we enter a new decade (or leave one, depending on your perspective), what are your plans for your next career move? Where will you be this time next year? Maybe you are in the midst of your PhD right now, or still have a few more years before your postdoctoral contract comes to an end, so you feel it’s not the right time to be thinking about your career. For others, the time frame may be rather more urgent. In any case, it is never too early to be thinking about your career and wondering where you want to go next. Even if you find yourself in a permanent position in the future, there will still be decisions to be made about the direction, flexibility, focus and seniority of your role as you progress. For example, one junior academic may prefer to build up a large research group, whilst another may decide to focus on teaching and pedagogy; those who enter industry in a research role may ultimately decide to redirect their career trajectory into regulatory, marketing or executive functions, depending on their interests.

It can be difficult to make choices about what types of career might be a good fit for you in the future, especially when research takes up the great majority of your attention. However, you’d be surprised how many different things you do within your PhD or postdoctoral role that are driven by your interests and provide clues to potential careers of interest. These interests can be broken down into six career categories, as shown in the figure2 above, and can help you to start homing in on possible future roles. Which three categories do you think you would choose as your favourite? Reflect on the activities you enjoy doing most, what you look forward to or even voluntary work you engage with to help satisfy these interests. For me, I enjoyed investigative work, helping people and the creativity of data presentation, rather than lab work (plus I was always quite bad at organisation). This led my career into scientific publishing first and then careers work. For you, perhaps functional technical work is your number one interest followed by investigative and entrepreneurship. Maybe you like the managerial side of your research and would like to make this a greater part of your role in the future? These clues can be helpful not only to guide you towards your next career transition, but also to signpost skill gaps and areas for personal career development that will enhance your chances of securing your next job, whether it’s within or outside of academia.  

More information and ideas for careers are available on my “Making career choices” page, where you will be able to link your interests with types of careers.

  1. You can find out about career destinations of PhD students and postdocs by reading blogs such as NatureCareers and PhD Career Stories, looking at posts on LinkedIn and Twitter as well as annual surveys such as those conducted by Nature and AdvanceHE.
  2. This figure is adapted from Holland’s Theory of Vocational Choice to be more relevant for careers requiring a PhD.

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