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

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