Breaking good

“If you work too hard you’ll keep going in the same direction. When you take off the pressure, you start to imagine new things”: These are the words of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and head of the Francis Crick Institute. But taking a break from work isn’t just about quantity, it’s about quality too.

With examples of burn out, work:life imbalance, 24/7 working, mental health issues and stress featuring more and more frequently in articles describing the experiences of PhD students, researchers and academics, I was interested to hear about how taking breaks from work, especially short breaks, can help to alleviate some of these pressures. Founded on wide ranging research, the advice is remarkably similar in terms of the nature and frequency of breaks needed to refresh and de-stress you and your brain. Interestingly, the key factors appear to lie with two polar opposites: physical activity and sleep (more precisely, napping).

Here are three examples:

  1. In his webinar, hosted by BrightTALK, Daniel Pink, author of “WHEN: The scientific secrets of perfect timing”, explains the power of breaks and summarises what he sees as the most effective and restorative kinds of 10- 15 minute breaks as follows:
  • Something beats nothing – even a micro-break is better than continual work;
  • Moving beats stationary – this means any kind of physical activity from vigorous exercise and sports to a relaxing stroll;
  • Social beats solo – better to spend time with someone having a non work-related conversation [or, as I used to do, walking your dog];
  • Outside beats inside – seeing nature is restorative, even if it’s just looking up at the sky or trees and grass in an urban environment;
  • Fully detached beats semi-detached – leave your phone behind!

Pink also recommends the ‘nappuccino’ – drinking a strong coffee before taking a 10 – 15 minute nap*. He proposes that the combination of a short nap and caffeine injection is just enough to refresh and restore energy levels and avoids ‘sleep inertia’. However, finding a peaceful environment required for this kind of (in)activity is probably quite challenging for most PhD students and researchers.

2. In their paper entitled “Embracing work breaks, recovering from work stress”, Fritz et al (2013) review different types of breaks ranging from long vacations, weekends and work breaks. They looked at the relationship between work-break activities and employee health, well-being and performance outcomes. Their conclusions are similar to those of Pink: activities such as walking and reading, physical exercise, psychological detachment from work and social activities all resulted, to a greater or lesser extent, in an increased positive mood, sense of vitality and vigour, overall well-being, decreased burnout, as well as increased performance. Furthermore, sleeping and napping resulted in decreased fatigue and increased work motivation.

3. My final piece of evidence for the ‘breaking good’ protocol is drawn from Patience Schell (THES, August 7, 2014). In her article, “Work less, do more, live better” she cites the behaviours of historical figures to back up the case for short breaks and physical activity: “fuelled by strong coffee, Ludwig van Beethoven worked from first light until mid-afternoon, breaking up this working time with walks. Afterwards, he walked again, taking pencil and paper to note down ideas. … Walking and thinking seem to go together so naturally that perhaps it’s walking that made us thinkers. Aristotle famously taught while walking along the colonnade connecting the temple of Apollo and the shrine of the Muses.” On the subject of napping Schell goes on to say: “Albert Einstein, Bill Clinton and Winston Churchill all joined the nap-taking fraternity. Some companies actively encourage their workers to nap: Nike offers employees spaces for napping or meditation, while Google offers napping “pods”. Again, this is not something that’s likely to happen in universities, although finding a quiet spot in the library might serve just as well.

With an autonomous and relatively independent work culture within the academic community, it’s even more important to factor in your own system of breaks. Granted there will be times when work pressures demand hard graft, but try not to let ‘academic freedom’ mean the freedom to work 24/7 the whole time.

*I’m not sure this translates for tea drinkers like me, but I find that a short nap without coffee serves just as well.

Reference:
Fritz C, Ellis AM, Demsky, CA, Lin, BC and Guros, M. 2013. Embracing work breaks, recovering from work stress. Organizational dynamics, 42, 274 – 280.

Related content:

Communication and salvation – a route to PhD salvation?
How past times help you to score in science

Communication and Socialisation – a route to PhD salvation?

“The present review paper aims to offer deep insight into the issues affecting doctoral students by reviewing and critically analyzing recent literature on the doctoral experience. An extensive review of recent literature uncovered factors that can be readily categorized as external and internal to the doctoral student; external factors include supervision, personal/social lives, the department and socialization, and financial support opportunities, while internal factors motivation, writing skills, self-regulatory strategies, and academic identity.”  Sverdlik et al. https://doi.org/10.28945/4113

I came across this review paper recently on my favourite social media platform, Twitter. It’s published in a journal I wasn’t aware of, so thank you to @AcademicsSay for sharing! The research effort associated with this literature review is extensive and intense with the lead author sifting through and selecting huge numbers of empirical research publications associated with the PhD experience. It is openly available for those wishing to read it in full.

For the purposes of this blog and in my role as a career practitioner, I’ve selected key factors from the paper associated with communication and socialisation, which influence the satisfaction, psychological well-being and motivation (or not) of PhD students. This is then followed by suggestions to enhance or counter them (I’m sure you can think of many other ideas too):

  • “Departmental structures play a major role in facilitating student agency; this is mainly through student socialization and the opportunities that departments make available.”

Suggestion: If there are no social areas or gatherings in your department, why not set up your own with the help of fellow students and postdocs. It could be a career seminar series, journal club, or even a more structured association with a budget (negotiated with your head of department). Many departments support PhD students and postdocs in this way and there’s even an international organisation, iCORSA.

  • “Open, supportive, and frequent communication with supervisor was found to be essential for student success and satisfaction.”

Suggestion: This is more tricky, depending on your supervisor’s management style, personality and a variety of other issues. Ideally, agree expectations with your supervisor at the start of your PhD. Otherwise aim to formalise your interactions by agreeing a convenient time to meet, emailing a short agenda of what you want to discuss and including a precis of your data or ideas to get his/her attention and interest. Try to influence lab meetings to be more engaging and interactive with scope for balanced discussion. One academic told me recently he has factored in an occasional ‘appreciation session’, in which only positive comments are given air time to help lift and maintain morale. Depending on your relationship, suggest social get-togethers such as a weekly lunch, coffee break or an after-work drink along with other members of the research group. [I realise the latter two suggestions may seem quite radical!].

  • “Collaborative writing is associated with more optimal self-regulation, higher motivation, more positive emotions, better writing quality, and higher completion rates.”

Suggestion: Some people find writing easier than others but, even so, it’s still useful to spend time writing or giving feedback with your peers on aspects such as structure and flow of an argument, even if you don’t understand the exact content. Writing is a lonely business and can be exhausting, so factoring in these kinds of regular get-togethers will keep you motivated (and if you include coffee and cake, can be even more compelling!).

  • “Academic identity develops through engagement in academic activities (e.g., writing, conferences, research, etc.). Informal activities (e.g., peer interaction) were found to contribute more to identity formation than formal ones.”

Suggestion: You could combine these two types of activities (formal and informal) during conferences, by setting yourself the goal of connecting with at least one or two delegates who have similar interests to you. Side-programmes aimed at PhD students and early career researchers are usually more conducive to networking and can help to increase your circle of peers. Joining one or two learned societies will open up new networks associated with your discipline, with opportunities to meet new peers and even to apply for funding and awards. Asking a question on Researchgate can also increase your interaction with international peers.

  • “Work/life imbalance was found to be the strongest predictor of psychological distress in PhD students.”

Suggestion: “If you work too hard you’ll keep going in the same direction. When you take off the pressure, you start to imagine new things”: These are the words of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and head of the Crick Institute. To ensure you follow his advice, write social and personal activities into your diary or calendar and treat them as an appointment with yourself and your well-being (make sure to honour the arrangement!). You could attend a time management course (universities put on many of these types of courses, which are open to staff and students) and ithinkwell provides some great planning aids for you to use.

For more accounts of the PhD and postdoc experience, see NatureCareers which covers a variety of topics on the subject.

Keep learning to keep earning

Your PhD graduation marks the end of a long educational journey; the pinnacle of an intellectual adventure built upon previous master’s and bachelor degree qualifications, diplomas and school certificates. But far from signalling the end of learning, your PhD badges you as a person of learning, someone who is highly skilled in using research to find answers to questions, reveal new ways of doing things and to discover novel innovations. For those who continually embrace new learning – or “personal and professional development” as we in the careers advisory sector call it – an interesting and rewarding career with sustainable employment prospects is likely to lie ahead.

Here, I provide examples of personal and professional development strategies applicable to four career areas of interest to many PhD students and researchers. The Venn diagram indicates the learning zones A, B, C and D that apply to the transition between your current academic research role and each new career area. If you are considering other careers, use this information to help you to formulate your own career learning plan.

 A – Research scientist in industry

Learn by networking – Use LinkedIn to find people who are working in research and companies that are hiring PhD-qualified scientists into research posts. Consider small and large companies and think about the pros and cons in terms of aspects such as management structure, your role, stability and flexibility.
Learn by doing – Try to gain some business/industry experience through internships and placements or by selecting a more applied postdoctoral position based in or collaborating with industry.
Learn new skills – Attend courses to improve and widen your technical and research skills. Join in activities to improve your interpersonal skills such as team working, organisation and leadership.

B – Academic post

Learn by networking – Join relevant learned societies and attend conferences to gain access to more specialised networks, including research groups within your field of interest. Offer to give a talk or poster and approach people within your own sessions and others of interest to discuss your research and potential opportunities. Take business cards with you and make sure to follow up any new contacts and potential collaborators and mentors afterwards. Use Researchgate and Twitter to post information and to ask/answer questions to increase your visibility and enhance your impact. Tweeting about your publications can also increase their citations.
Learn by doing – Apply for fellowships, grants and other funding to help you to discover your niche area of research and to start to gain independence. Keep publishing and try to increase your output through collaboration, side projects and co-authored reviews and articles. Take an active role in one or two learned societies, e.g. committees, session organisation, contributing to their newsletter.
Learn new skills – Negotiate with your supervisor to give you more responsibility, i.e. writing and reviewing papers, assisting with funding applications, contributing your ideas to the research project, supervising students and/or getting teaching experience.

C – Project manager

Learn by networking – Project managers are employed in a wide variety of businesses and industries so use LinkedIn to find people and companies who are working in or offering project management positions in the kinds of sectors of interest to you; for example, the research/education sector including universities and institutes, scientific companies, large corporate or smaller businesses. Identify any alumni you could approach for advice and contacts. Attend career events and visit your career service to find out about forthcoming career fairs and company visits. Note: Make sure your LinkedIn profile is looking professional and up to date, reflecting your career ambitions.
Learn by doing – All PhD students and postdoctoral researchers are project managers, but some embrace this side of their work, whilst others just see it as a means to an end. If you fall into the first category, look for other ways to improve your project management skills by getting involved in relevant activities within your institute or university to increase your experience of organising other projects. Take on responsibility and leadership roles, such as supervision and committee representation or even go further by setting up your own PhD or postdoctoral association. Some such organisations are given a budget by their departments to invite in professionals or to enable company visits.
As with other careers in business and industry, an internship or short placement can give you insights into the role, as well as access to a new community with contacts and even references to put on your CV. You can organise your own internship by making contacts via networks such as alumni, LinkedIn or through your friends and family. Some companies offer an initial 3 – 6 month internship that turns into a permanent position, so don’t be put off by short-term vacancies when you see them.  
Learn new skills – Project management courses are offered by universities as a master’s degree or postgraduate diploma, or you may see shorter professional courses delivered as a workshop or on-line. If you are considering registering for one of these courses be careful to ensure that it is money well spent – see my recent blog for further information.

D – Scientific writer

Learn by networking – Use Twitter and other networks such as the psci-com jiscmail discussion list, the Association of British Science Writers, Euroscience, British Science Association and AAAS to network with, get support from and find out about opportunities within a highly active and creative community of science communicators.
Learn by doing – Write! Build up a portfolio of articles through your own self-motivation and compulsion to write, as well as volunteering with other organisations. Your own institution, scientific conferences, learned societies and journals all offer fantastic opportunities to convert academic science into more accessible articles aimed at broader and more public audiences. Offer to write articles for their publications or blog on their websites. You could even start your own blog. The press office at your university or research institute may agree for you to work shadow and learn more about their science writing and media work.
Learn new skills – Writing practice is the best way to improve your skills but it’s important to try to find a mentor or to ask editors for whom you are writing to give you feedback and advice on how to improve. Writing courses can also help you, from the relatively informal, through to master’s qualifications (see ABSW for information).

I hope this has given you some useful learning strategies to apply to your own career and wish you a fruitful, and not too steep, learning curve!

Related content: Think ‘Skill’ not D.Phil

Beating the wintertime blues

View across Morecambe Bay

Who better to advise on how to shake off the wintertime blues than the good people of Sweden! When I visited the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm last year, I wasn’t surprised to see that they put in a lot of effort into helping students and staff to offset SAD (Seasonally Affected Disorder) syndrome and general feelings of lethargy and tiredness during the cold dark winter days. The Light Room was a surprise though. I have friends who have a Light box for this purpose, but I’d never heard of a whole room dedicated to warding off SAD. This specialised remedy for beating the wintertime blues is not available to most of us, but other physical and nutritional remedies, including getting exercise, spending time in the sunshine, doing yoga, taking Vitamin D and generally eating a good diet are also listed on Karolinska’s website. 

Our Biological clock can affect our energy levels throughout the year and even throughout the day – I’m sure those of you working on circadian rhythms would have lots to say on this subject. But without the help of a Light Box, what else can we do to remain functional and effective? Since writing my January blog post on reflection, I’ve been reflecting on previous postings I’ve written since setting up my website and one that seems especially relevant is “Carpe PM!”, published in 2011. It was during winter and I was talking about the lethargy and lack of motivation I was feeling about writing my careers book. It made me smile as nothing has changed over the past seven years (although the book is published!); I still suffer from despondency and low energy levels from time to time, even in the Summer. So I’m sharing some tips with those of you who feel the same way and perhaps you can suggest some of your own on my Twitter hashtag #wintertimeblues

  1. Work out which is your most productive time of the day (mine used to be from 8pm until around 2am when I was young, but it’s shifted to 8am until 2pm) and try to use this time to do things that require the most effort and motivation.
  2. Make a list or a mind map of all the things you need to do. Prioritise them in whatever ways will help to get you moving – it could be a mix of difficult tasks and relatively easy tasks so that you can tick off the substantial work along with quick wins.
  3. Break up your time between doing practical, administrative, creative and thinking tasks to help to ring the changes. We all have our favoured tasks so try not to focus too much on these, whilst neglecting those which you find boring or repetitive.
  4. Work with others, even remotely, to discuss what you’re doing and agree a time to ‘meet up’. This creates a deadline which can act as a motivator for you to work towards.
  5. Set yourself a time slot for a particular task of say one or two hours. Aim to focus solely on this task during that time with a suitable reward at the end of it, such as favourite food, a walk, film, sports etc.
  6. Give yourself breaks that are timetabled into your schedule so that you structure your day into manageable chunks of work and ‘play’ times. I make dates to meet up for a cuppa,  lunch or even a Skype with friends at least once a day, but you may find that something else acts as an enjoyable respite from rigorous brain activity or concentration.

Addendum: For those of you in other parts of the world, whose winter is actually hot and sunny, who are wondering how this blog can be relevant for them: Well, you never know, your next post may take you to a more northerly country so you’ll be well-prepared! And, of course, don’t forget to bring a big coat and sturdy umbrella with you 😊

Reflections …

As each year comes to an end, we are all encouraged to look back over the past 12 months and reflect on what we’ve done: To recall highlights and achievements, challenges and accomplishments, to review our current situation and to envisage a successful year ahead. Some people are even known to write this out in a ‘round robin’ letter that they send out to family and friends in their Christmas and greetings cards. I see this to be an achievement in itself as, for me, it’s a challenge to recall what I’ve done during the previous week, let alone the last year, not in detail anyway.

This may not seem too important from a personal and social perspective: like me, very probably you have images of your most happy and interesting moments captured on digital media or posted on Facebook and Instagram. However, from a career perspective, it’s unlikely that you have photos to remind you of key moments related to your professional and semi-professional work, although there are always exceptions; I recently spoke to a PhD student who is recording her scientific life and posting it on Instagram to illustrate what she does for the benefit of her family and friends.

Completing a reflective learning log is not everyone’s cup of tea and is usually unpopular with student and researcher communities – and many others. But it’s easy to forget what you’ve done as the months and years go by. This means that when, for example, you find yourself being asked in a job interview to highlight a recent achievement, you may struggle to find an impressive answer. Interviewers, especially those in non-academic companies, regularly interrogate candidates with questions requiring a specific example of an occasion in which they felt a sense of accomplishment, overcame a challenge, solved a problem or worked with others to complete a goal. Furthermore, you can forget other important happenings such as people you have met, ideas you have had or even projects you have completed. Adding achievements and latest developments to your on-line profile(s) can also enhance your reputation, improve your employability and help you to move on to your next job.

For me, recalling the last 12 months of my professional life is causing a bit of a dilemma at the moment: I need to complete a reflective learning log as part of my continuing membership of the Career Development Institute for which I’m a registered careers adviser. Luckily, however, I have my trusty A5 week-to-view diary to hand in which, turning back the pages, I can see some of my more significant activities scribbled in amongst the regular career workshop entries. For example, I can see that in January a joint proposal I submitted with other European careers adviser colleagues was accepted, which meant we were able to meet up in Toulouse in July to deliver some excellent career sessions to PhD students and researchers at ESOF 2018, as well as have some fun networking and watching the World Cup. In March I published a review paper on networking for Microbiology Letters, which had taken me a full year to write and revise, but the feedback I received and my sense of achievement made it worth the effort. In July I started learning German (although I have only achieved beginner level so far) and in October I delivered a CV workshop at the Naturejobs career conference in just 30 minutes! Finally in December, only a few weeks ago, I managed to sell my car and officially become a pedestrian and user of public transport.

So whether it’s your diary (digital or otherwise), an official learning log, your CV or on-line profile that serves as a reminder of your latest successes and achievements, try to record them somewhere so you can capitalise on them one day. And if you think you don’t have enough or the right kind of experiences to match your career aspirations, this exercise will also help to guide your continuing professional development.

Related links: Flying high
How to be a STAR performer

SOCIAL MEDIA … SO SHALL I ?

To use social media or not, that is the question. And if you use it, which platform should you choose? Researchgate, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook … ? How much time should you spend on social media? How will it benefit your career? In this month’s blog I’ve listed some positive reasons to encourage you to take part in these colourful worldwide networks:

Social media helps you to get better connected and even to find your next job
I posted this graph on LinkedIn last week and, so far, it’s had over 20,000 views and more than 250 ‘like’s.

That means that I’ve managed to disseminate this information to a huge international community who otherwise would not have known about it. Furthermore, everyone who viewed and commented on the post is now more closely connected, even if it is from a distance. Scientists post news, infographics and links to their publications on LinkedIn, highlighting their work as well as sharing news to those interested in their research discipline and a more wide-ranging community – I hear about really fascinating information I would never have come across outside of the usual more inaccessible research networks.

That’s me. I like to keep in touch with the wider world. Not only for my own sake, but also to help me to support PhD students and researchers. LinkedIn is the most amazing database in the world – a google search tells me that it has over 500 million users. It’s searchable so you can find and connect with people doing the same kind of work as you. You can look for people doing jobs and working in sectors you want to work in when you finish your PhD or leave academia. You can search for jobs and companies, filter according to region and even number of employees.

Sometimes I wonder how we ever managed to search for jobs and create new networks in the past, before this amazing tool was invented. I know it’s not comfortable for everyone, but you can always opt for quality over quantity by linking with just a few targeted people. Recently, a postdoc aiming to change careers into medical science liaison searched LinkedIn for possible contacts, only to find that a former fellow PhD student was already working in this area. She intends to ask him for tips on how he managed to transition into this new career, and who knows what other information and contacts she may find out in the process.

Social Media creates happenstance moments
I remember when I first heard about Twitter – it was a colleague who told me about it. He had 100s of followers, which I thought was a bit weird – how can you engage with that many people I thought? That was 7 years ago to the day and now I have over 3000 followers myself. During that time, Twitter has opened up a whole world of interesting people, facts, photos, humour and loads of useful information which I can pass on to students and researchers to help them with their careers – even job vacancies. Twitter is quirky and fun. It’s essential for attending conferences and if you’re not able to be there in person you can follow the # and watch from a distance. There are facts, photos, citations (helping to promote largely hidden journal papers), videos and all sorts of fun and games to cheer up your day. You don’t have to read for detail. You can search it if you’re looking for something specific, otherwise treat it like the radio – it’s playing in the background and from time to time you hear something that catches your attention.

Social media serves different purposes
I always recommend Researchgate for those planning an academic career. Here, academics, researchers and students can share their papers and other research publications with each other. Even careers advisers like me have a page and a rating on Researchgate (mine is 17.85 but I have no idea what this means!). You can find out about research news, ask questions, respond to others and generally engage with those in your own research community.

At the other end of the spectrum, Facebook is more relevant for personal connections and, for this reason, most people like to hide their FB content. However, bear in mind that FB is used by many organisations such as charities, associations, learned societies and companies. Conferences usually set up a Facebook page to provide information to delegates and companies post jobs and other news about themselves. If you feel uncomfortable linking to professional FB sites with your personal page, why not set up an alternative account for professional purposes.

Social media is not the only fruit ….
Remember, whatever you’re doing, people will Google you. Whether you’re trying to connect, applying for a job, setting up a new collaboration, giving a talk at a conference, or just minding your own business. Make sure you’re presenting yourself professionally on line according to your particular career interests: think about promoting your creativity, conventionality, innovation, analytical or problem solving capabilities and so on and make sure you have a good photo and profile.
Related information: Doing more with LinkedIn

 

Is your CV working?

If not, then neither are you! No matter that you have excellent skills and experience, no matter that you are convinced this is the job for you. If you are not communicating your suitability and enthusiasm through the medium of your CV, you are likely to be de-selected from the application process at an early stage and will never even make it to the interview. Selling yourself in writing is much harder than in person, where you can use body language, explain more fully your talents and expertise, smile and be convincing.

So let’s look at 10 of the most important rules to follow to help you to promote yourself at your best in a CV and covering letter. You can refer to the two CVs below targeted for academia (left) and industry (right) while you read my advice:

    

  1. Choose your CV format: There are different styles of CV. Most people use a reverse chronological style where you list your employment and experiences in reverse order, which is fine if you are staying within the same field (your supervisor may use such a style of CV). However, you can emphasise your experiences more clearly if you consolidate them into sections within a CV which is targeted to the role. For example, you may have taken responsibility for some technical facilities, worked on a specific model system or done some science communication in your past three research positions. If you list them in chronological order and describe your experiences under each of these job titles, you will most likely be repeating yourself and scattering similar examples in different areas of your CV. Instead, by using a targeted CV you can bring similar activities together under one heading.
  2. Know yourself and what you have to offer: A useful way to ensure you include all aspects of your experiences, skills and abilities, is to list or mind-map everything you do. For example, within RESEARCH, write down all your techniques, the experiments you have designed, developed and undertaken, successes, results, problems solved etc; within COMMUNICATION, list the conference papers and posters delivered, outreach, supervision and mentoring; within ENTERPRISING AND INNOVATION list new collaborations forged, proposals for funding you have written, new ideas and ways of thinking you have employed to solve problems, and so on….
  3. Divide your CV into sections: Writing a CV is much like writing an exam. Look at the employer specifications, underline the most important requirements, create sections in your CV to match these key words and use bullet marks below them to list evidence to demonstrate your capabilities. Prioritise examples from your current work/education and use personal examples only if you don’t have enough professional evidence. For example, to demonstrate your teamwork ability you may be able to draw upon times when you’ve collaborated with others in a research project, been part of an organising committee to host an event in your department or a session at a conference, as well as being involved in sports or other outside interests. You can draw upon your mind-mapping exercise as explained above to find examples to use – these can be moved around into different sections to show evidence of different skills and competencies.
  4. Don’t be too personal: Place your name at the top of your CV as the title and add in contact details below. Don’t confuse the employer – only use one email address and one phone number. Add in appropriate social media links such as Researchgate, LinkedIn and Twitter depending on their relevance to the job for which you’re applying [make sure your profiles are up to date, complete and consistent with the profile you are portraying in your CV]. You don’t need to add in any other personal information such as your marital status, children, date of birth, nationality unless you think it’s relevant to the post. Think carefully about adding in a ‘Personal Profile’. Is it a strong statement? Is it adding anything to the CV which won’t be covered in your cover letter? If not, then leave it out as it’s taking up valuable space! For more information on personal profiles see a previous blog on this subject.
  5. Less is more: Generally speaking, the core of your CV should only be two pages long. If you wish you can add on appendices to list your publications, conferences attended, teaching experiences, funding etc: this may be how your supervisor has formatted their CV. If you are applying for a non-academic job, two pages will be enough and you can always add in hyperlinks to your social media profile in case more detail is required. A long list of publications in a CV being used to apply for a non-academic job might confuse the employer or make them think you’re not suited to their company, where publications are not an important output. Having said that you can always refer to them as a measure of your successes and achievements by saying, for example: “Ran a successful research project investigating ….., which resulted in some key international publications and an invitation to speak at an international conference.”
  6. Use the STAR technique: I’ve already mentioned this technique for use in job interviews (see my previous blog for more detail), but you can use it in your CV and other applications to record your experiences in a succinct and structured way. For example, to evidence your leadership skills, instead of saying, “Excellent leadership skills”, you might say something like: “During my PhD, I was responsible for supervising two vacation students. I mentored them closely and challenged them to think critically which increased their research confidence.” This only represents two lines on your CV, but by telling a short story with realistic information, it’s brought your experience to life and made it more interesting and believable for the employer*.
  7. Be conservative: People ask me how creative they can be with the presentation of their CVs, for example using colour and infographics. My answer to this is to err on the side of caution. The employer is looking for evidence of your suitability for the job and although layout and formatting can help to draw attention to important information and lead the eye down the page, too much colour and too many distracting images may divert attention from the message of your CV. The exception would be for jobs where creative visualisation of data or artistic imagery is part of the role, but I would still use colour sparingly especially since many CVs are printed out in black and white anyway.
  8. Cover letter: The cover letter introduces your CV, provoking interest in the employer, so you need to pick out three or four key aspects of your experiences to highlight your suitability for each particular post. You also need to show interest and enthusiasm for the company/research group by saying something about them and what you have to contribute to their operations. I have already written 12 tips on cover letters so I’ll leave you to refer to my blog on this subject.
  9. One rule does not fit all: As with all rules, there are always exceptions. For example, some countries like you to add in a photo at the top of your CV, others prefer a one page resumé rather than a longer CV. If the job advert is in a particular language then the likelihood is you will need to write your CV and cover letter in the same language (you can always contact the employer for clarification, but they may require applicants to speak the native language as part of the job). Not all employers or even people on the same selection panel feel the same way about CV layout and structure. Some prefer the traditional reverse chronological CV, whilst others appreciate targeted applications. This might be where your covering letter is crucial to identify key areas of your CV to signpost which are most relevant to the employer’s requirements for the post.
  10. If at first you don’t succeed: When I hear somone saying they’ve sent out dozens or 100s of CVs with no results, I don’t wonder whether they are unemployable, I wonder how they’re presenting themselves in their CV and covering letter. It’s likely they are using the same documents for every job application and not targeting each one specifically to each and every position. Even posts which are very similar require tiny changes, bringing the most important information to the fore. Quality is always better than quantity, so I suggest that you spend time and effort on a few applications and if you find they are not returning an invitation to interview you need to review and revise your strategy. Is your CV targeted? Are there gaps in your experience you need to fill to be eligible for these types of jobs? Are you trying too hard and over-writing your CV and cover letter, bombarding the employer with too much information? Seek advice from a professional careers adviser or professional colleague if you can, show them your CV and ask them what stands out to them.
    S. Never be tempted to remove your PhD from your CV.

For more CV examples and information on writing a CV and cover letter take a look at my blog page and slideshare.

Wishing you CV success!!

Change Talk

Recently a postdoc told me he was concerned about his mental state. Stressed about changing jobs and moving countries, he was finding it hard emotionally and psychologically to cope with the upheaval. We had a long discussion, after which I sent him this transition graph to help him to understand some of what he was going through, that his feelings were a normal reaction to the process of change. I thought it was rather a trivial thing to do but, actually, the graph turned out to be a revelation: “I feel better knowing this is something we all go through and it’s just a normal reaction”, he told me. “I can see which stage I’m at right now and it’s motivated me to be more positive about my situation as I know I will get through and out the other side”.Reflecting on this exchange made me think about some tactics which might be helpful for those currently experiencing stress or anxiety due to their personal or work situation:

Get real
Admitting to yourself and others that you’re scared, anxious or stressed shows strength of character. It’s not possible to be happy and confident all of the time, so don’t feel intimidated to hide your more negative persona sometimes. You’ll be surprised how much it liberates others to be more open with their feelings too. You don’t need to broadcast this to the whole department or world (if you’re on Twitter) if you don’t want to, however just opening up to one or two trusted friends or colleagues can really help to release some of the inner tension, as well as receiving support, reassurance and a different perspective on your situation. .

Get advice
Having experienced depression myself, I know how debilitating it can be, affecting energy levels, motivation and outlook. If your feelings of depression are being caused by your current situation, you may decide to get help from counsellors and the medical profession, however I found it equally valuable to seek support from work-related professionals who helped me to improve my situation. Mentoring and coaching has been introduced into many universities nowadays, facilitating people to find a pragmatic, realistic way forward. For example, mentors can assist you in gaining access to information and networks enabling you to find ways to resolve issues associated with your research and related activities. Qualified careers advisers and coaches give you the opportunity to reflect on your position, suggesting tools and approaches to help you to realise your ambitions and consider realistic options for your next career transition.

Get support
Knowing that others are in the same situation and getting access to peer support makes you realise you are not alone and that you don’t have to face difficult times on your own. The internet provides many opportunities to interact with people on line through social media which can be helpful for those working remotely. Within your faculty or wider professional sphere there is capacity to join or create common interest groups or PhD and postdoctoral associations to bring people together for mutual support and social interaction. Attending career related events in your university or at conferences brings together early career researchers and students who can also share stories and form alliances.

Get going
Referring back to the transition graph, one thing is clear – life comes with its ups and downs so that when we’re ecstatically happy we know it won’t last for too long and vice versa. For example, having a paper published is a joyous moment, but soon afterwards it’s time to get on with working towards the next one. Equally, when things are going badly and experiments aren’t working, this is a temporary situation which will not last forever. Either you will find a way to resolve it (speeded up by asking others their opinion) or realise it will never work and move on. Faced with stress and anxiety related to other situations, such as the prospect of writing up your PhD thesis or moving to another job and country also presents you with choices to make: give in to your negative feelings or do something positive, even if it’s just making a small change.

It is clear from many surveys and reports that evidence of mental illness within academia is increasing due to reasons such as pressures of the work environment, temporary contracts, isolation and competition. Changing policy or influencing decision-makers is usually out of your control. However, changing your own behaviour can help you to avoid being paralysed into inaction: recognise the temporary nature of your situation, look for strategies to resolve whatever is causing your negative feelings and take positive steps towards changing things for the better.

Related post: Mind your career

Knowledge is power …

… so they say, and if true, PhD students, researchers and academics must be very powerful people indeed! As ‘knowledge professionals’, thinking about, generating, analysing and communicating knowledge is the focus of their everyday lives and their very raison d’etre, so shouldn’t they be the ‘masters of the universe’? Hmm….. What do you think? Do you feel powerful? Well, I guess that depends on how you define ‘power’, but, in my view, it’s not just knowledge per se that determines its power, it’s the type of knowledge and the way it’s used that’s the real game-changer. People who understand its strategic value and apply it in creative and innovative ways are the truly powerful members of our society.

So how can PhD students, early career researchers and other members of the academic community empower themselves and benefit from knowledge? In terms of your career, knowledge of the wider world beyond your current horizons will help you to take the lead and get an advantage. However, self-knowledge, as Shreefal Mehta (Nature Biotech, 2004) advises, is the key to being a successful entrepreneur and, I would argue, applies to most other careers.

Self-knowledge: I have written about self-awareness on several occasions and incorporate exercises around personal recognition into all of my career workshops. I believe it’s fundamental to personal empowerment and the equivalent of walking around with your eyes open, as opposed to being blind to yours and other’s strengths and motivations. If we understand our personality, values, talents, skills, competencies, weaknesses, areas for growth and other aspects which underpin who we are and how we interact with others it gives us the power to better understand ourselves and those around us. For example, if you know yourself, what interests you most in your current job and your preferred way of working, you can use this information to make informed decisions about your next career move or to inform your professional development. Knowing where your strengths and weaknesses lie can help you to form strategic alliances with others and, even at interview, self-awareness enables you to answer questions and talk about yourself in a more open and incisive way.

Business knowledge: Currently, you are probably most knowledgeable about the business of academic research, but how much do you really know about your business beyond your own specific sub-discipline? Do you know where your funding is coming from, who else is working in your field, the wider global context in which your research sits and its potential for application? This knowledge could help you to be more strategic in your academic career and help you to achieve a leadership position. For example, if you’re a plant scientist don’t just read plant science papers, if you have a go-to list of keywords look beyond these to find unexpected knowledge. Attend conference sessions and talks outside of your own field, read popular science news and engage with social media to hear about and view quirky scientific facts.

For those considering leaving academia, use your well-developed research skills to investigate other options, look at global labour market trends (what’s on the up, what’s going out of fashion?), which are the industries of interest to you and what kinds of skills will be needed in the future? Knowledge of other career sectors and the types of jobs and roles on offer gives you the power to investigate them, network and position yourself to make a successful transition out of academia. Speak to people within your current network and develop new ones to form a matrix of connections and potential collaborations. In this way, you’ll become more knowledgeable about which types of careers will motivate you in terms of the role, work environment culture and people within it.

Translating knowledge: Accumulating knowledge is one thing, doing something useful and productive with it is quite another. When I deliver my workshops, I always ask participants to write themselves an action plan at the end of the day; changing your behaviour, even if it’s just doing something small, will mean that you are applying your learning with the aim of making some kind of change/improvement to your current circumstances. Whether it’s investigating a potential new career area of interest, applying for funding, getting more involved in your department’s activities, approaching a research group about possible collaboration, joining a new network, revising your CV or looking for personal development opportunities, it will mean you’re applying your knowledge and taking a proactive approach to your career.

Related blogs: Subjective careers choices

The right way?

Don’t plead for your career, take the lead

Super investigator or super technician?

I once heard a professor say that some postdocs become highly skilled super-technicians during the course of their research contract(s). Much valued by their PI, group members and even other research groups, these postdocs are experts in specific technical areas such as scientific techniques, specialised equipment, methodologies, programming, troubleshooting and other activities associated with functional aspects of the research process. Whether through their own volition or unintentionally, they spend a great deal of their time working on the more practical aspects of the research project, and may even lend a hand to other groups who value their specialist advice.

QUESTIONS

If you recognise yourself as being such a postdoc then you may want to take some time to review your role in the context of your career plans. Ask yourself:

  • Did I proactively choose to go down this route or has it happened in a more passive/happenstance way?
  • Do I enjoy this more technical role? Does it give me satisfaction?
  • Am I developing useful skills and competencies which will increase my employability in terms of my career plans and aspirations?

This final question is very important: What are your career plans? For example, are you aiming for a permanent academic or group leader position, or would you prefer a specialised functional post such as a facilities manager, senior technical scientist or lab manager? Permanency in academia requires high-impact papers, evidence of funding success and a fast-growing international profile, accompanied by high level research skills and an enterprising disposition. Technical careers generally require knowledge and expertise in particular scientific/technical areas including lab techniques, informatics and programming, accompanied by analytical and problem-solving skills and a willingness to engage with a range of projects and people offering your insights and expertise to their research.

OPPORTUNITY

As a ‘super-technican’ you may consider yourself disadvantaged within the academic work environment in terms of your career progression possibilities and, in most cases, your assessment of the situation is correct: There are few opportunities to apply for a permanent specialist technical position within universities and research institutes and so it is likely you will need to consider other work environments such as industry and the commercial sector to find a suitable place for you and your specialist skills. This is not such bad news: the academic role generally involves leading a research group, writing grant proposals, recruiting and managing personnel, writing papers, preparing lectures and teaching, doing administration, assessing essays and exams, attending committees, etc. This may not appeal to your skill-set and personal interests. Instead, in industry you can put your skills to good use and develop your career along a path more suited to you – the divergent range of jobs within private sector companies means you could start off in a technical role and move into other areas such as regulation, quality assurance, advisory or communications as well as progressing to senior levels. Imagine. You may even find yourself with a job title that says ‘scientist’ rather than ‘postdoc’!

ACTION

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Review your skills and interests against potential careers using my PhD Career Choice Indicator: Follow the instructions and if ‘Functional’ is your Number 1 choice, consider your 2nd preference as well: Is it ‘Social’, ‘Research’, ‘Enterprising’, ‘Artistic’, ‘Administrative’? Combinations of your interests influence the role you might prefer such as something more people-orientated, innovative, creative or managerial.
  2. Research the job market by getting to know the careers and vacancies on offer: My resources page provides some jobsites but there are many more.
  3. Review your current network. Do you know anyone who could help you with your job search, give you insights or put you in contact with others who can help you?
  4. Use Social Media such as LinkedIn and Twitter to search for jobs and people in career areas of interest. This is a good way of finding smaller companies.
  5. Refer to some of my previous blogs about postdocing:

http://biosciencecareers.org/2013/11/whats-the-point-of-a-postdoc.html
http://biosciencecareers.org/2014/10/postdocs-be-careful-what-you-wish-for.html

  1. Refer to other information and blogs:

http://jobsontoast.com/phd-careers-have-your-cake-and-eat-it/

http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/tag/david-bogle/

https://www.linkedin.com/groups/1844342/1844342-6422806582941278208