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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!

All present and correct

“You never get a second chance to make a good first impression”, so the saying goes. In other words, it’s crucial to get your initial ‘presence’ correct first time and present the best version of yourself, otherwise you will have to work hard to undo any negativities you might inadvertently have created the first time around.

More and more, doctoral and postdoctoral researchers are being encouraged to network by career professionals (including myself) to help raise their profile and employment opportunities. However, before even starting this process of engagement, it’s vital to ensure that you’re presenting yourself at your very best.

For example, if you go looking to connect with people on LinkedIn, or if you’re researching the profiles of professionals whose jobs are of interest to you, the likelihood is that they will look back at you. They may Google you, click on your LinkedIn profile or look you up on your university website. Whatever means they use to view you, the questions you need to ask yourself are: What will they see? Will I look professionally ‘attractive’ to them? Am I creating the right impression?

Things have changed over the past decade or so. Gone are the days of in-person only networking opportunities where conferences and invitations were the main avenue available to meeting people of interest. The internet has made networking much more democratic, with influential people being more accessible at the global level and at the click of a button. However, it’s all too easy to become frivolous and blasé when working in virtual reality, and even those who are intending to participate in a real physical conference can be complacent and miss the opportunity to present themselves at their best (I’m thinking of scruffy T-shirts and flipflops :)).

Every time you meet someone new, whether it’s in-person or on-line, you are showcasing your ‘brand’. That may sound a bit ‘markety’ and not relevant to your average researcher going about their everyday business. However, we all create impressions of ourselves wherever we are, so ask yourself: Am I being professional when it matters? Do I come across as being confident within my area of expertise? Am I approachable and friendly? Do I take myself seriously in relation to my career ambitions?

So, to avoid the pitfalls of a mis-managed personal brand, both on-line and in-person, here are some tips to help you to get it right first time:

Take control: Don’t rely on your institutional profile to promote your ‘brand’ as this is sometimes limiting in terms of showcasing your experiences and skills. Many PhD and postdoctoral researchers are only listed on their university websites, with no detailed accompanying profile, so creating your own profile elsewhere can ensure you are showcasing yourself more fully.

Be consistent: Consider your ‘brand’. Are you interested in a functional/practical/technological type career, or are you looking to move into communications, policy, enterprise, management, etc? Whatever your personal and professional career goals, your brand should reflect this. Therefore, make sure that all your on-line profiles are consistent with the CV you are building, as you move on to your next position.

Include a photo: When creating your online presence, ideally, try to include a professional looking photo (some universities offer a free photography service to staff and postgraduates). It can be more or less formal according to the type of platform you’re using (e.g. Twitter tends to be more informal than LinkedIn). You may also have the opportunity to create a background image too, reflecting your work environment or interests. If you’re uncomfortable with using a real photo, consider exchanging it with a graphic instead.

Title yourself: The title you give yourself online doesn’t have to match exactly with your real job title. For example, you may be a postdoctoral researcher looking to move into industry (where this job title is rare). You can re-title yourself, for example: Research scientist | Data Analyst | Bioinformatician | Project manager to fit more with the relevant roles within your companies of interest.

Write a profile with impact: It’s great to see so many early career researchers on-line, but without a profile their impact is limited. Identify some keywords that reflect your career interests, skills, passions, values, etc. and develop your profile around them. I recommend that you look at other people’s profiles and use them to help you build your own. My profile has altered over the years to reflect my changing and evolving interests and yours will too. Don’t think of it as a static entity and revisit it regularly to make sure it’s reflecting your ‘brand’.

Engage with people: As described in my blog ‘Get engaged’, it’s important to be active on social media. It’s not just about linking with people and trying to leverage your network. Consider contributing content, reacting to others’ posts and learning new information and skills. In this way you start to establish yourself within particular communities, especially those who are looking at entering non-academic careers.  

Badge yourself: Sometimes conference organisers can make networking more difficult for its delegates. For example, name badges attached to long lanyards can make it impossible to read the name of the person to whom you’re speaking. Trying to dart your eye down to their waistline seems rude and, when conversing over lunch with the name badge tucked under the table – impossible! You can get around this very easily by tying a knot in your lanyard to make it shorter and elevate your name badge so that it’s readily readable by all. Equally, if names have been printed formally and in tiny lettering, take a marker pen and re-write your name to your liking.

Dress to impress: Different occasions call for different dress codes. You wouldn’t wear a scruffy T-shirt to a wedding and, equally, you should aim to dress professionally for conferences or other in-person events. I’m not saying you should wear a suit and tie, but if you look at what the more senior academics or staff are wearing during the event (usually smart-casual), aim to reflect their level of professional attire as you are more likely to be taken seriously.

Level up: One of the barriers to successful networking at conferences can simply be people’s height. It’s hard to look someone in the eye, or even be able to hear them properly, if they are towering above you or vice versa. You can’t change your height, but you can level things up by inviting your conversation partner(s) to take a seat. Most conferences provide plenty of seating in the social areas or you can even stroll over to a nearby café.  

Leave your card: It may seem inappropriate for academic circles, but taking business cards to conferences is fast becoming the norm. You can get them printed relatively cheaply nowadays and some institutions will even offer to do this for you free of charge. They are useful to exchange with delegates, exhibitors and other people you meet in person. You can also write a small note on those you receive to remind yourself of what it was you were discussing, in case you forget when you get back home. Use them to follow up with an email or connect on LinkedIn so that you don’t lose a potentially valuable addition to your network.

Sign off: We all use email to communicate with each other on more-or-less daily basis. However, quite regularly, I receive emails from PhD and postdoctoral researcher without a full signature sign off at the end of the message. This is not only frustrating – not really knowing who this person is – but it also looks less professional. Make sure you create a signature for yourself with your title, university department/address, contact information and links to social media.

And on that note, I’ll sign off and wish you all the best with your networking adventures. Feel free to connect with me on social media and add any additional ideas to my LinkedIn post on the subject (2nd November 2021).

Hidden Talents

“I didn’t know I wanted to be a mathematician until I was one”, said Professor Hannah Fry (University College London) in a recent BBC programme called “The Life Scientific”. Later she admitted that her original dream job had been to work in aerodynamics within Formula One, but this had turned out to be a disappointment because the reality had not matched up to what she had imagined it would be like.

How many of us can say the same thing about our own careers? I started out in research, moving into scientific publishing after a few years: I knew I enjoyed being around science and scientists, but I was unfulfilled in my work, as I didn’t enjoy doing much of the technical or administrative aspects. It wasn’t until eight years post-graduation that I saw a job vacancy for a science careers adviser advertised in the New Scientist that I finally knew I had found my ‘calling’. The job description ticked every box for me and, even though I didn’t get that job, the people I met during the interview and subsequently when I volunteered at the local university career service, convinced me even more of my new career goal. If I hadn’t seen that job advertisement, I would never have considered careers adviser as a potential career for me, imagining the work and the people within the sector to be dull and uncreative; in fact, they turned out to be quite the opposite.

How many of us faced that dreaded question when we were younger: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. Not even, “Who do you want to be?”. And we continue to be asked, and to ask ourselves, this type of question as we move through our lives. However, a better way of approaching our career decisions is really to ask ourselves more useful questions such as, “How do I like to work?”, “What’s important to me?”, “What kind of work environment will suit me?”, “What am I passionate about?”, “What do I enjoy doing?”.

If you’re highly educated and have spent much of your time delving deeper and deeper into your field of interest, it may be harder for you to supplant ‘subject knowledge’ as your key career determinant with other qualities such as skills, values, passions and interests. My PhD Career Choice Indicator tool tries to help with career decision-making by concentrating attention on six different skill sets that make up a typical role: Functional, Investigative, Social, Artistic, Management and Entrepreneurship. In her interview, Fry explained that it was the voyage of discovery, the research process, even the ‘struggle’ that fires her passion for mathematics. For me, moving away from research and into careers meant I could focus my attention on helping people (Social), whilst still retaining my investigative and artistic interests (but this time focussed on people, not biology).

Finding meaning and fulfilment in your work is what makes it truly rewarding. However, knowing what future role will give you the ingredients to make this happen is difficult if you have no experience of that kind of career. Other than actually trying out different jobs and either continuing on or leaving them depending on your experiences (and note that two similar jobs might give two different results according to other factors such as the people, work environment, location, etc.), what can you do to get an insight into possible future careers? I have a few ideas you might like to try out:

  1. Research job vacancies. Read job descriptions and discover what reaction they create for you – do the tasks, skills required, values of the organisation, structure and flexibility of the role, etc excite you?
  2. Search for jobs using skill keywords related to those that you enjoy using, e.g. a particular technical skill, professional or personal skills such as, ‘investigative’, ‘research’, ‘problem-solving’, ‘advisory’, ‘management’, ‘analysis’.
  3. Search for people doing the kind of work you would like to do. Use keyword searches such as ‘Researcher’, ‘Innovator’, ‘Project manager’, ‘Programmer’, ‘Data Analyst’, ‘Equality’, ‘Big Data’, ‘Career consultant’. Look at people’s backgrounds, the types of companies they are working in, start to build up a picture of the particular career sector that interests you.
  4. Conduct informational interviews with selected people you consider can give you useful insights into their own careers and their current role. Make sure you do your homework before you contact them though so that you don’t ask obvious questions.
  5. Contact alumni or other people who are in some way connected with you and are more likely to respond to your requests for more information. They may also be amenable to taking up an invitation to meet with you or attend your institution’s careers event.
  6. Do a short internship/placement/volunteer. Even a few days can be enough to give you an insight into a career sector or role. Try to get a meaningful experience by getting exposure to different aspects of the organisation and meeting a range of employees.
  7. Attend events. Conferences, meetings, career fairs, seminars, socials, clubs, societies, etc. are full of people, some of whom may directly or indirectly act as a conduit to another career by giving you insights, information, contacts or even a job!

As researchers, you have the power to investigate the career ‘literature’ and to discover hidden worlds that you never even knew existed, that will harness your hidden talents and provide you with the rewards of an exciting and fulfilling career. As Hannah Fry says later in her interview: “I wasn’t born to be a mathematician – I’m a normal person who just happens to like maths”. I could say the same thing about my liking for careers and I’m sure you could also add your own ‘like’ into the mix.

GROUP WORK

On a scale of 1 – 10, how easily do you feel you can turn to others for meaningful support when you need it? Expressions such as “Birds of a feather flock together” and “Safety in numbers” tell us that it’s advantageous to associate yourself with people with shared interests and that, as humans, we tend to gravitate towards those who have things in common with ourselves. This is probably why there are so many clubs, societies and associations in the world! No matter how specialised or rare the interest, it’s likely to be represented in one or more groups at the local, national or international levels.

Everyone’s support network is diverse, consisting of close family and friends, work colleagues, mentors, acquaintances, loose associates and beyond. Networks are not static entities; people move in and out, get closer and move further away. For example, how many people are as close to their school friends as they were when in their teenage years? You’ll need help from different people at different times and for different reasons as you progress through your life (and note that this isn’t ‘using’ people; it’s a mutual association, since you will also be part of other people’s support networks).

With regard to your career, you are more likely to need support from a work associate or mentor than a close family member, depending on their background and experience. This type of professional support can be really crucial, especially for PhD and postdoctoral researchers, who are subject to relatively precarious working conditions and contracts. Professional networks can sometimes help you to get through the more difficult times in your life, to offset negative experiences such as losing funding, being rejected for a job, having to relocate to another country, or experiencing a personal crisis. On the other more positive side of the coin, being part of a like-minded community can also expose you to new experiences and ideas, allowing you to follow your passions and enhance your career opportunities.  

Maybe you are already part of one or more professional groups. PhD and postdoctoral researchers can benefit from joining groups that reflect their interests and that can also offer them support. However, as I said before, your support network is dynamic and so there’s always room for refinement. Groups that you joined a while ago may not be as relevant to you now, whilst other groups may exist that are more closely aligned with your current career interests. Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at the types of groups you’d like to be part of.

Here, I have listed a few ideas for groups which may be worth investigating further in terms of supporting you with your career:

PhD and postdoctoral researcher groups
Over the past decades, due to increasing pressures on researchers, many mutual peer support associations have been set up at the institutional, national and international levels. Usually coordinated and run by PhD and postdoctoral researchers themselves, their activities range from informal social get-togethers through to the organisation of more formal career conferences and scientific meetings. Find out if there are any organisations in your own institution or associated with your funding body (e.g. Marie Curie Alumni Association), or consider joining a national or international association, e.g. ANDES, National Postdoctoral Association, iCORSA

Research specialist groups
Many researchers take a particular interest in specific aspects at the core of their research. For example, it may be the research discipline itself about which you are passionate, or it may be the techniques and tools you are using that are more aligned with your interests. In this case, you would benefit from joining groups allied to your disciplinary interests, such as specialist discussion groups or learned societies, or more technical groups such as those associated with techniques, data analysis and programming, e.g. Github. This is the ideal arena in which to discuss your work with fellow researchers and academics within your field, as well as hearing about relevant conferences, funding and job opportunities. It’s particularly valuable to those aiming for an academic career. 

Research associated groups
During the course of a PhD or postdoctoral contract, many researchers get involved in extra-curricular activities, such as science communication, teaching and policy. In many cases, researchers can become more passionate about these activities than they do about the research project itself, and even decide to place them at the centre of their next career role. If you’re in this position, you can get support in progressing your career by joining associated organisations or participating in discussion groups, that are now well-established and recognised within and outside of academia. For example, teaching organisations include the European Association of International Education and AdvanceHE (which also has a fellowship scheme). Science communication is well represented at the national level in most countries, such as the British Science Association, as well as internationally, e.g. Euroscience. A catch-all discussion group for science communicators is psci-com, hosted by the Wellcome Trust and the most well-known policy organisations are Eurodoc and Sense about Science. Alternatively, or in addition to being a member of a more formal group, there may be more localised groups within your institution that you can join, including innovation and entrepreneurship, management and leadership.

‘Researchers without borders’ groups
Academia compels many researchers to be mobile and to travel the world in order to experience different research groups and to progress their careers. It can feel isolating when moving to and residing in another country and many groups have been created to help displaced researchers to keep in touch with their native countries. These groups can be very localised within the institution itself, or they may be organised at the national level. There are some great examples of diaspora groups, such as the Portuguese Native Scientist, the German Ukrainian Researchers Network, Polish Researchers Network and the Society of Spanish Researchers.

I hope this has given you a taste of the kinds of groups that might suit your career needs and help you to keep your personal and professional scaffolding robust and resilient. However, if you can’t see anything of interest, why not set up your own group?

Related content: Join the club
Career development – it’s personal

Get Engaged!

‘Social Engagement’ model, re-presented from an original model for networked career development, proposed by Tom Staunton, University of Derby, UK

Let me ask you a question: Are you engaging with social media? I mean, really, are you actually engaging with it?

The point I’m trying to make is that engaging with social media is more than just connecting with people. Imagine you’re at a conference, you don’t just walk up to a delegate and ask for their contact details. Rather, you get involved in the conference programme and social events, attending talks, visiting posters, asking questions, making presentations yourself, taking part in casual conversations or arranging more formal interactions. Some of the outcomes from these meetings are intended and part of your networking strategy, whilst other outcomes are the result of chance encounters. Either way, a successful outcome will see you leaving with a few new contacts to follow up when you get back to your home institution.

This is exactly how social media works – you need to do more than simply follow and connect with others. The ‘Social Engagement’ model (a re-presented version of an original model for networked career development, proposed by Tom Staunton, University of Derby) sets out four key activities that can help you to engage successfully with social media, especially LinkedIn and Twitter:

CONTRIBUTE
Many researchers post news about their research, such as recent data and findings, or they might highlight a publication or viva success. Posting up a slide from a recent presentation or showing a key figure from a paper will draw interest, which can be further enhanced with a link to more detailed information.

Many have outside or associated interests such as public engagement, project management and entrepreneurship that influence the types of postings they share on social media. Not only this, some PhD and postdoctoral researchers, who are involved in support or policy organisations regularly inform social media about latest developments, whilst empathising with those who might be struggling with their current situation. Twitter, especially, provides this type of personal support, as well as acting as a humorous and light-hearted medium to engage with others during the pandemic, whist we have all been isolated physically from one another. Even if you’re not confident to publish your own news on social media, commenting or liking others’ posts also makes you more visible and demonstrates your own interests, which can result in potential opportunities.

CURATE
Of course, you only have so much of your own information to share with others, which limits the number of posts you can contribute. However, you can overcome this limitation by posting up information or news that you hear about from others. Again, it could be a publication you’ve come across, an upcoming conference people in your network would be interested to hear about, it could simply be some news item you’ve heard about or a video, etc.

If you’re planning for a career outside of academia, sharing posts from professionals and organisations in sectors of interest will help you to identify and associate yourself with these new industry/business communities. Always make sure to acknowledge and copy in the original author and any other people or organisations associated with the information. For example, for a recently published paper, you could copy in the key authors, their institution and the journal. You might also use hastags # to help people who are searching for particular keywords. This is likely to attract the attention of those with similar interests to yourself, leading to requests to join your network.

LEARN
Once you start to build your network by engaging with social media in this way, you are more likely to start seeing posts from others who share your interests, helping to increase your knowledge base. This is especially useful if you are planning a non-academic career; by following the posts of those already working in your career areas of interest you’ll hear about their latest news and find out what’s important to them, as well as understanding the culture and language of the organisation. Furthermore, you’ll be more exposed to posts recommending learning opportunities relevant to your sphere of interests, with links to webinars, YouTube videos, TED talks, training events, articles and micro-credential courses.

LinkedIn itself has a subsidiary LinkedIn Learning website offering courses delivered by industry professionals to help improve skills. These days, I receive much of my news via social media and, as well as keeping up to date and informed about my own careers profession, I also pass on a lot of opportunities I hear about relevant to my PhD and postdoctoral researcher connections.

LINK
Last but not least, we come to the linking part of the Social Engagement model. Speaking with PhD and postdoctoral researchers, I sometimes witness a real reticence to approaching people to ask to connect with them. I understand the sense of intrusion or the feelings of awkwardness associated with this reticence. However, I see it differently. In these days of globalisation and remote working, it’s so liberating and efficient to be able to harness social media to bring us together into common networks, such as those associated with our disciplinary, personal, professional and cultural interests.

By contributing, curating and learning, we make ourselves more visible so that others are more likely to link with us. There are many like-minded researchers actively engaging in social media communities, so if you’re not quite sure how to get started, do your research and learn from what others are doing.

Your social engagement strategy will differ according to your career intentions and associated career development needs. Don’t feel compelled to build a huge network; it’s more about quality than quantity. Take your time to develop your social media presence and once you have established yourself and made some connections, you’ll feel more confident to start to convert and leverage your new network contacts to help you to transition to your next role, or to grow within your own academic field.

It’s 10 years since I myself took the plunge and joined social media. I had just published my book, Career planning for research bioscientists, and was advised to start writing a blog and engaging with social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn by my then ‘supervisor’, the former editor of the New Scientist, Alun Anderson. Since then, I’ve not only accumulated nearly 4000 connections/followers, but, more importantly, I’ve also been posting articles, sharing my monthly blog posts and those of others, as well as tweeting, linking, following and building a productive on-line network.

Please feel free to engage with me 🙂

Related content: Social Media – so shall I?
Doing more with LinkedIn