“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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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”