Monthly Archives: June 2023

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