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How to be a STAR performer

How good are you at answering interview questions? Are you confident that you’re performing at your best? How well do you express yourself? Are you able to convince interviewers how well suited you are to the job over and above other interview candidates?

It’s always excellent news to find out you’ve been called for interview, but your next challenge is to make sure you perform well to get the job offer you’re looking for. Nowadays, employers use a number of different interview formats including phone ‘screener’ interviews, on-line video interviews and more conventional panel interviews. Whichever type of interview it is, you will need to use coherent and convincing language to engage and interest the interviewer. Humans respond well to stories (the derivation of the word “history” is “his story”); it is your story-telling skills which will help you to bring your content to life and capture the attention of your interviewer listeners.

This is where the STAR technique comes in. An abbreviation of SITUATION – TASK – ACTIVITY – RESULT, this handy acronym can help to guide you to tell mini-stories during your interview, adding colour and life to your experiences. The idea is to set the scene for a situation when you had to put into practice a certain skill or strength to achieve a particular outcome.

For example, if you are asked a question about your problem-solving skills, think of a project you have been involved with (SITUATION). What problem were you trying to solve? (It could be technically, people, ideas, etc. orientated) (TASK). What exactly did you do, which skills and experiences did you draw upon in order to solve the problem? (ACTION). What was the result of your action, what impact did it have – you can use quantities to make it even more interesting (RESULT).

Another example to demonstrate working in a team: You may have taken part in organising a departmental event (SITUATION). What were you organising? (TASK). What was your role? What part did you play? (ACTION). What was the outcome? (RESULT).

The interviewer(s) may then go on to ask you questions around your STAR story such as what kinds of difficulties did you encounter, how could you have done things differently, what did you learn from the experience, etc. If you can predict from the job description/role, the types of skills and competencies the interviewers are likely to be interested in hearing about to help convince themselves of your suitability, you can prepare the examples ahead of your interview so you can talk about them succinctly and coherently. Beware of spending too much time on describing the situation; this is usually the least important part of the STAR story. Your actions form the most important part of the story, demonstrating the way you think things through, tackle tasks and interact with others.

Bear in mind that even when you are asked questions about how you envisage yourself carrying out certain duties in the future as part of your potential new role, e.g. setting up a lab, applying for grants, thinking innovatively or communicating to different audiences, you can still refer to past experiences and examples using the STAR technique. Refer to a past or current situation to demonstrate how you have already done these types of activities in a different setting and how your skills can be transferred into future responsibilities. Whatever gaps you have in your skill-set can form the basis of continuing professional development opportunities in your new role.


Gifts Differing

18th December 2017: Christmas is coming and, at times like this, many of us are looking forward to exchanging gifts. We will have been out shopping for suitable presents for our loved ones and angsting over what will suit them in terms of the perfect gift – something practical, maybe an ‘experience’, perhaps something quirky, edible or perfumed.

As much as we differ in our preferences for gifts, so we differ in our personal gifts; that is, our talents and what we are good at. Qualifications such as a PhD are both an asset and an obstacle when it comes to career decisions. Whilst you want to feel that your PhD is giving you an advantage, it can also act as a disadvantage and even an obstacle to free-thinking about your career possibilities. It can get in the way of considering your gifts, talents and skills, the essence of ‘you’ and what you feel passionate about. Sure, you may be someone for whom research is your ‘calling’, but for others it may be science communication, science policy, science business or perhaps a non-science career that “floats your boat”.

For me, it became clear very early on in my scientific career that practical, functional science was the antithesis of my ‘gift’ and that communication and empathy, intuition and people were where my talents lay. Hence, I’m now a PhD careers adviser with a penchant for science communication!  So what about you? What are your gifts? Cast your mind back and remember what your career ambitions were when you were younger. Weave this into your career decision making, think more widely about your essential skills, interests, personality and values. The Science Council identified 10 types of scientist which will guide you in your reflection and my PhD Career Choice Indicator may also help you to think beyond your qualification, not forgetting other resources such as personality assessment tools and books such as ‘Gifts Differing’.  

Have a great Christmas break and all best wishes for 2018!

10 blogs to help you on your way

“Be careful what you wish for”, so the saying goes, but sometimes “Be careful what you don’t wish for” is more wistful advice. Recently, Nature published the results of their survey of PhD students and it wasn’t surprising to see that the no. 1 wish was to have a career in ‘Academia’ (52%), with ‘Industry’ coming in second at 22% and other sectors figuring very marginally.

A career in academia has long been the favoured career of PhD students, despite the diminished chances of securing a permanent position, let alone a professorship. Many of those who sense that they may not achieve academic success opt for ‘industry’ instead – in whatever sense that may be. In the Nature survey, ‘Industry’ in this instance is defined as ‘research in industry’, but there are many other roles requiring a PhD in this sector of small, large and wide-ranging employers, e.g. pharamacovigilence, medicine and medical affairs, clinical operations, production operations, quality assurance, regulatory affairs, licensing, publications management, medical science liaison, data science management, marketing and sales, market access, consultancy.

Closer examination of the survey’s raw data reveals how well the participating PhD students were familiar with the career landscape, what was their knowledge of non-academic employers who would appreciate their skills, as well as being able to recognise their strengths and what they have to offer the non-academic world: all scored low in the survey. This may be a classic ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ situation – with no knowledge or experience of external opportunities, graduate students may be more inclined to choose ‘research in industry’ as it’s the most closely aligned to what they are currently doing.

It’s possible that you took part in this survey, or that this may be the kind of situation you find yourself in. The survey indicated that most of the students chose to do a PhD because of the intellectual challenge, stimulating work environment and creativity. It’s questionable whether over 50% make the initial decision because they hanker after a career as an academic, rather their career aspirations may become more allied to doing research and remaining in a stimulating work environment as they progress in their early career; the work focus of a PI is very different to that of a PhD student or postdoc, with the majority spending much of their time writing grants and papers, teaching and doing administration, not to mention dealing with intense competition. Of course, there are plenty of positive aspects, but you need to be passionate and strategic – as well as lucky – to attain tenure and to have the stamina to forge a life-long career in academia these days.

Moving out of academia into the wider world of work offers a cacophony of career options, maybe too many! PhD graduates and postdoctoral researchers can be overwhelmed with choice, but don’t know anything about these jobs or where to look for them, let alone whether they would be suited to them and vice versa. In the survey, having access to information about the job market and career guidance were both cited as being lacking along with other barriers to transitioning out of academia.

The majority of those surveyed use the internet to locate opportunities and research careers so with that in mind, here are ten of my career-related blogs to help you to wish for something else other than academia:

  1. Get to know the job market
  2. Use specialised job sites
  3. Increase your self awareness
  4. Recognise your skills
  5. Link your skills and interests with possible types of careers
  6. Get LinkedIn
  7. Adapt your CV to the job
  8. Make your own luck
  9. Investigate non-academic careers in more detail (e.g. career stories)
  10. Get career support





Academic mobility

Here I am, on the road (in the air) again, delivering two workshops in Barcelona before flying off to Nice to do the same. Being mobile is a necessary part of my work, since it’s easier for me to run courses for PhD students and postdocs in their own institutes and universities than for them to have to come to me. Two weeks ago I was in Switzerland and in two weeks’ time I shall be in Vienna. My type of mobility is temporary with an anchor in the UK, but for many budding academics longer-term mobility is a necessity if you are to secure a permanent position. That’s not to say that you should move countries for the sheer sake of it, rather that academic research is an international endeavour and the likelihood is that research groups in your field of interest will be situated in another country or on a far-off continent. Developing relevant skills and experience, receiving valuable mentoring and training as well as networking with potential future collaborators and colleagues inevitably means some degree of commitment to mobility.

To help those who are contemplating the prospect of ‘academic mobility’, I have compiled a list of resources below to help you to research and prepare for your next move, whether it’s a short-term local transition or something more international. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it contains links to articles, videos, blogs and books that may help you to feel more confident about making your next career move:


Foreign-born scientists: mobility patterns for 16 countries

Study on mobility patterns and career paths of EU researchers

Motivations of international academic mobility: the perspective of university students and professors

Time to go? (Inter) national mobility and appointment success of young academics

Global mobility: science on the move


Mobility: A strategic move

Away from home: Why the postdoc phase is crucial

How to break cultural and language barriers down in the lab

Crossing continents for your research career: A personal journey

International academic mobility: Towards a concentration of the minds in Europe

Moving to the US (podcast)

Fewer invited talks by women in evolutionary biology symposia


An American postdoc abroad

Sacrifices for science (podcast)

Putting down roots (personal story – Natasha Reikhel)


Negotiating the dual academic career deal (video)

Dual career academic couples

Dual-career couples (list of resources – USA)

Dual-career academics: the right start

Dual career academic couples: What universities need to know


Juggling the balls, having it all? Tips from a mother and part-time professor

The price you will pay for work-life balance

The life career rainbow (Super)


Euraxess: Researchers in Motion

The European Charter for researchers. The code of conduct for the recruitment of researchers

Flexible working: Solo scientist

Why building a start-up is probably your most sensible career path

The hidden costs of a career in scientific research

Retirement: Dollars and sense

Funding sources (scroll down list to find relevant information)

Academic career paths worldwide

Academic career maps in Europe


Academic mobility, in Nina Maadad , Malcolm Tight (ed.) Academic Mobility (International Perspectives on Higher Education Research, Volume 11) Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.i

Lean In, 2015, Sheryl Sandberg

Women Don’t Ask, 2007, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever

Professor Mommy – finding work-family balance in academia, 2014, Kristen Ghodsee.

Bon Voyage!

Subjective career choices

“I was thinking of applying for this postdoctoral post”, a PhD graduate recently informed me, referring to the job description he had brought with him to our careers interview. “The research involves working with fish and I worked on fish during my PhD”. It turns out the fish in question was zebrafish, a model organism for studying gene function and development. Many PhD graduates and postdocs limit their career choices as they search with familiar keywords for their next post, looking to replicate their previous experience. This can be a precarious career strategy with many researchers ending up in technician type roles.

It’s what I call ‘subjective’ career choice behaviour; that is, becoming fixated on the subject of study, rather than considering one’s research interests more broadly. It’s an easy trap to get into: as you move through the education system you can become more and more polarised: First, you choose your specialist subjects at 18 (although some curricula are less exacting than others), then you specialise further in your university degree, graduating with an in depth knowledge of your subjects of study, especially those from your final year and practical thesis. Following on from this, you may spend a year or two on a master’s degree, which then spurs you on to go even further down the proverbial ‘rabbit hole’ into a PhD, where you focus your attention on some minutiae of biology.

Broadening your horizons and extending your experience is vital if you are to succeed not only in research but in your career. Research group leaders and non-academic employers look for evidence of adaptability, creative problem solving, the ability to apply knowledge to new projects and systems. PhD students and postdoctoral researchers have the personal capacity to learn a wealth of these skills, not only due to their high level intellect and experiences, but also because the academic environment and culture encourages this kind of independent thinking. Your job is to recognise and take advantage of these attributes, test and extend yourself, learn new knowledge and skills, work on different systems and grow within your chosen area of interest and beyond. In this way, you’ll not only find your work more interesting and challenging, you’re more likely to increase your employability both within and outside of the academic career sectors.

Here is a list of actions you could consider taking:

  1. Look for research posts which are close to what you have done previously, but which extend your skills and lead to new knowledge and experiences.
  2. If you want to move away from your current field completely or test your ability to try out your own ideas, you could apply for a research fellowship, such as the Human Frontier Science Program, or look for postdoctoral posts where you will be able to learn new skills from the project and expertise within the lab with a view, ultimately, of leading your own research group.
  3. Join one or two learned society communities. Take advantage of benefits such as travel grants (to attend conferences or visit another lab), networking opportunities, awards and career support.
  4. Look for training opportunities, such as Summer schools, specialised initiatives (such as YES Biotechnology), workshops during scientific conferences, university courses, on-line learning or you could even undertake a master’s course (e.g. bioinformatics, data science, management).
  5. Get involved in extra-research activities such as outreach, committees, social activities, research associations, sports – this will help to enhance your personal transferable skills and may also provide unexpected opportunities.

Remember, life-long learning is exactly that!

Related post: Think “skill” not “DPhil”

Do you feel lucky?

According to the personal career stories of most people, including those with a PhD, luck and chance play a major role in career success.

Books have been written about the value of luck, such as the ‘Luck Factor’ and ‘Build your own Rainbow’, in which so-called ‘accidents’ (events over which we have no control) can determine our career paths.

In his TEDx talk, Bruce Walker talks about creating your own luck: “There’s no-one stopping you but you”, he concludes. On the other hand, Ritchie Etawu professes that you can bring bad luck upon yourself by taking the easy route, which requires minimum or no effort. He believes that to encourage good luck into your life, you need to put in some hard work!

So, how does ‘luck’ figure in your life and how can you enhance its effect on your own career? According to the theory of ‘Planned Happenstance’ proposed by Mitchell, Levin and Krumboltz, chance (otherwise known as unexpected career opportunities) can be harnessed via the following behaviours:

  1. Flexibility – if you’re able to adapt to technological developments, changing work cultures, helping others with their challenges, and generally flexing your own working practices to ever-changing global priorities, then you’re likely to remain employable in a range of disciplines, roles and industries.
  2. Curiosity – being interested in areas beyond your own sphere of interests can lead you into new environments and cultures, exposing you to new people, ideas and opportunities. This aids collaboration and cooperation, novel and innovative thinking, resulting in new perspectives.
  3. Taking a risk – not necessarily in the sense of ‘jumping into the unknown’, but a calculated risk which takes you out of your comfort zone and into the realms of new possibilities. It can feel scarey, but this is good as it means you’re learning new things and experiencing opportunities, which may take you along a new course or career path leading towards ‘success’.
  4. Being proactive – that is, not being passive. It’s easy to let others make decisions on your behalf or to wait for something to happen to you. Being proactive means taking a leadership role in your own life. Set yourself goals, even if they are everyday small achievements, make things happen for you, put in effort and energy – it all helps to make you more self-motivated and driven.
  5. Networking – taking advantage of the network of people you already know, as well as getting to know new people, who could assist you in your research or career is not cynical or opportunistic. Rather, it is a two-way mutually beneficial relationship between people who wish to build a relationship and cooperate with each other. Networking can be done face-to-face, for example at conferences, via email, phone or social media. Operating on your own is not encouraged by funding bodies or businesses nowadays, as they perceive that ‘two (or more) heads are better than one’.

If this makes sense to you, why not give it a try by putting one or more of these suggestions into action.

Science communication – telling it how it is!

What are the alternatives to an academic career? Perhaps a job where you are still using your scientific knowledge and skills, but not working in the lab? Somewhere that has a similar culture to the academic research environment? A job where you get to communicate science to a wider audience?

Many PhD students and early career researchers aspire to a career in science communication, as they seek more flexible and creative careers outside of the confines of academic research and the laboratory set up. Probably they have already embarked on this career path, testing out their skills and likely enjoyment of the job by volunteering to get involved in internal and external activities, such as University Open Days, schools visits and on-line writing opportunities during their PhD or postdoc.

However, when people tell me they want a career in science communication, my first question to them is always, “Which area of this career sector interests you most?” For example, do you want to stand in front of school children and wow them with exciting and inspiring demonstrations (e.g. as you would do working in a Science centre or museum, or teaching in a school?). If you’re someone who wants to stay very close to academia, science publishing careers may be most suited to you, but beware that there is little opportunity to write yourself in these jobs. Rather, you will be editing and evaluating the writing of others.

Would you prefer to take a back seat behind the scenes, blogging about scientific events and issues? Or how about being a science journalist or press officer, bridging the gap between academia and the media? Perhaps you are good with your hands and would be surprised to hear that the job of ‘Maker’ exists, whereby you create colourful and educative exhibits for the general public and school children. Those interested in science policy can take a more influential role by collating opinion, formulating consultations and writing position papers aimed at governmental ministers.

For all of these very varied roles, there are particular criteria which will be more appealing to some than to others, depending on personal preferences, such as personality, skills, values and other criteria, such as a preference about where to live. Many science policy jobs are based in capital cities, as are other science communication roles, so this could be a restriction to some people. Extraverts may relish face to face encounters, whilst more introverted types might prefer a behind-the-scenes-role. Creative types might wish to express their artistic and imaginative talents through more free-form media, whilst those of a more conservative nature may feel fulfilled through a more administrative role. Remote working is more amenable in many communication roles, which may be a draw for those who wish to work from home.

Opportunities to gain experience in science communication during your PhD or postdoc is relatively easy compared with industry experience. A really excellent community to tap into the science communication world is the PSCI-COM Discussion list. Hosted by the Wellcome Trust, it has over 2000 members who are always eager to advise and help newcomers. You can find voluntary jobs, internships and employment opportunities, as well as hearing about the latest hot news and developments. Euroscience is an excellent Europe-wide forum and hosts the ESOF meeting every two years with the opportunity to present science to the public. If you’re particularly keen on press work and journalism then STEMPRA is the organisation to join and, finally, look at my blog (under science communication) to see all the other links to relevant information, e.g. medical communications.

Good luck to those aiming for a career in science communication – just remember that your most likely key to success is being able to show you’ve already been doing it during your research or PhD!

Abstract Thinking

Conference season is upon us once again – a chance to showcase your work, listen to others and meet up with fellow scientists in far flung places (some more exotic than others). Giving a talk or presenting a poster makes the trip all the more worthwhile and productive, putting you in the spotlight and opening up opportunities for helpful comments and suggestions, potential collaborations or even a new research job. But how can you maximise the chances that your research receives the attention it deserves during the meeting?

Obviously you need some interesting results to disseminate to your fellow delegates, but you can make them more noticeable by submitting an eye-catching abstract ahead of the meeting. Not only will this improve your chances of being chosen to give a talk, it will also mean people notice your research when they scan through the (sometimes hundreds of) summaries, before and during the meeting. Try out this formula to help you stand out from the crowd:


Step 1: Set the scene – WHAT’s the question/current knowledge? This is your opportunity to draw in the reader and tease their curiosity so that they want to read on. The aim is to entice them to come to your talk or your poster.

Step 2: Write WHY you have done it. What is the main aim of your research? What are you trying to add to the current knowledge and why are you doing it?

Step 3: Write HOW you have done it. Only give general details about the methodology. All too often PhD students and early career researchers tend to get bogged down in the detail of the methods. Although this might represent about 70% of what you, don’t be tempted to make it 70% of your abstract.

Step 4: Write only your MAIN results. Again, don’t get distracted with small details. Cut to the main findings and retain your reader’s interest. They will probably have scanned quickly through the abstract to locate this information so don’t disappoint them.

Step 5: What is the SIGNIFICANCE of the results? So you’ve done these experiments and got these results – so what? Don’t assume your reader will be able to interpret them – you need to highlight the significance of them in relation to Steps 1 and 2. This then creates a complete story – one worth hearing about.

Step 6: Think up a catchy (but accurate) title. It’s probably best to wait until you’ve written your abstract before you think up a title so that it reflects the content. Pull out a key phrase or ‘soundbite’ from the text or think of a play on words, but make sure that it’s not misleading or inaccurate.

Happy conferencing and if you can’t be there in person, try the meeting’s Twitter hashtag to see what’s going on. For example, I’ve been to Hawaii recently on #plantbio17 🙂

Keep calm and career on

“The future of universities” – this UK event was sold out within hours of being publicised. Not surprising, given the uncertainty of Brexit and its impact on funding, students, researchers and the very nature of what a university is for. Change is the only unchanging certainty in life, but no one could have predicted how much the world would alter in just one year, and we haven’t even started yet; elections are coming up in many influential European countries and who knows what will happen in America?


“Keep calm and carry on” is a famous motivational slogan from WWII and it’s a good mantra to hang on to right now. In situations where the political “powers that be” are playing a game over which you have little or no control, carry on doing what you’re doing, and be prepared to stand firm on your beliefs and principles. At the personal level, you are talented individuals who still have influence over key aspects of your life: For example, what’s your USP? Knowing your own “Unique Selling Point” and how to promote yourself as the “go-to person” for your area of expertise is a skill in itself nowadays, especially in this era of social media networking. It could be your specific bioscience knowledge, technical or teaching talents, personal attributes or even your connections which make you a valuable commodity in a particular employment sector. Unlike socio-economic and political influences, these are factors that are under your control, so why not think about focussing on them and developing yourself further. It will make you stronger and wiser.

For my part, I consider my strengths to be advising and writing – usually around career related issues. It’s a far cry from my early days of doing research in the lab, where I was well away from my comfort zone, but where I learned that I really enjoy the company of scientists. They (generally) manage to combine mindful intelligence with having fun and I feel privileged to have spent the most-part of my career working amongst them.

And on that note, I leave you with these words, which have been disseminated widely since they were first written by Kent M. Keith in 1968.

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centred;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

What’s guiding your career?

What’s the secret of career success? Is it down to luck or just hard work? Is it about who you know rather than what you know? Is there a ‘career success’ formula?

These are questions that can run through people’s heads when they are thinking about their careers and what path or decisions they should take. It can make them procrastinate and over-think their career decisions, making them feel confused and diminishing their confidence levels. They come to me asking for direction, saying, “Tell me what I should do”. My answer? “Do something!”

That’s after a full guidance interview of course, where we journey together through the present and the past, before thinking about the future and the question of what action to take. I act as a mirror, reflecting back to my client, questioning their thoughts, their assertions, challenging their long-held beliefs and helping them to find connections and, ultimately, a way forward into the future.

This is what professional career guidance is all about – career professionals are not going to tell you what to do, but we can help you to find your own answers using recognised career theory and documented practitioner experience. It’s not rocket science and there is no magic formula. Compare your career decision with buying or renting a house. On what do you base your decision? Price, location, reputation of the area, how many rooms, position etc. – it may not be perfect but the one you choose is the one that is available at the time and ticks most of the boxes and you can always change it a bit to suit your needs. Alternatively, you can choose to build your own house, design it to your particular specifications and project-manage the whole process. Compare this with being employed and being a self-employed entrepreneur: the former is dependent on what the market is currently offering and your own career situation at that particular time; the latter is more likely to get the design that suits you best, but there is a greater risk involved.

So, what am I getting at here? Your career is in your hands. I can’t tell you what to do as you know yourself much better than I do. However, what I can help you with is sorting out and managing all those thoughts whizzing around in your head and possibly driving you mad:  the number of options you have; your hopes and fears; your family’s hopes and fears; your supervisor’s opinion; your need for success but your sense of failure; your feeling of powerlessness in the face of political pressures; your frustrations; your personal potential and the over-riding optimism you have to push ahead and fulfil your career ambitions. I can also help you to find helpful networks, sources of information and connections.

So, in conclusion, if I had to give one piece of careers advice, I would encourage everyone to be proactive and positive. If you listen to most people’s career stories they will mention a ‘happenstance’ moment when an unexpected event or meeting put their career on a new and exciting footing. If you do stuff, get out and about, engage with social media, network, find a mentor, go to meetings, sign up for courses, volunteer for things, get yourself known and recognised, you will be surprised by the number of career opportunities that come your way.

Bon chance!