… 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