Monthly Archives: April 2020

The why, how and whom of your career

In these turbulent times of ‘Lockdown’ it is becoming clear that the success, and even the very existence, of employers such as small businesses and large organisations, educational establishments and charities is precarious. The interconnectedness of the employment sector is evident, relying as it does on a constant flow of customers, services and money – it’s what makes the world go around.

A sudden and immediate halt to all of this, as happened in March, with no clear ending in sight, has thrown this delicate balance into disarray within a matter of weeks. Similarly, the closure of universities has put staff and students’ work on hold, with additional possible future consequences, such as their very economic viability and financial sustainability1,2,3.

So, where does this leave PhD students and postdoctoral researchers? You will all be in various stages of your PhD and research work and affected in vastly different ways depending on, amongst other things, the nature of your research project and your lockdown circumstances. You may also be concerned about your future career and what opportunities will be available to you in the short- and longer-term. Unlike these issues (and many others), over which you have little or no influence, personal qualities such as self-reliance and self-understanding, are under your own control and can help you to stay positive in the face of adversity. They can empower you to be more resourceful and influence how you manage yourself under various conditions – good and bad, certain and uncertain. In times of great stress and uncertainty, they can be your best friends.

Let me introduce you to the intelligent career. Based on career theories proposed by a well-known figure in the careers field, M.B. Arthur4 and his collaborators, in an intelligent career world “having personal goals and choosing employment that helps us to fulfil them is fundamental to all of us. It is also the key to long-term employability…”. In the context of what Arthur terms the boundaryless career (i.e. not bounded or tied to a single organisation), individuals who pay attention to  the three key ‘ways of knowing’ – knowing-why, knowing-how and knowing-whom – are likely to be more self-reliant and fulfilled in their work.

Knowing-why refers to the personal drivers that are central to our motivation to do the work we do, our values, personality, temperament and preferred work:life balance. So, for example, if you reflect on what it is that excites and enthuses you and that gives meaning to your current work or PhD project, this can help you to understand what types of work will most inspire and motivate you in the future. Think about how you can carry these motivators forward into your next job. Perhaps you prefer to stay within the academic research field, maybe you want a specialised functional role, more contact with people, something more closely associated with helping society or you see yourself managing multiple projects. See related blog.

Knowing-how refers to the skills and expertise (e.g. technical, professional, interpersonal) you have acquired during your current and previous roles, directly related to, or indirectly associated with, your research. The types of skills you enjoy and prefer to use should complement your current career. Which ones you choose to build on will be determined by your career ambitions, so that they contribute towards enhancing your employability for future positions of interest to you. There are many routes into different career sectors, so use your personal development time productively. For example, during this period of self-isolation more on-line courses seem to have become available, so see if you can find one that suits your interests. See related blog.

Knowing whom refers to those with whom you have a relationship. This could be your current and former co-workers, PhD student colleagues, alumni, collaborators, other professionals, friends, family, etc. Building and expanding your ‘social capital’ is not about using people, it’s a two-way process of getting to know new people who are interested and engaged in activities that are of interest to you. Those who show interest in others, and who are well-prepared and professional, are usually well-received by those more established. As an ‘up-and-coming’ enthusiast, you may even be courted as a potential new employee or collaborator. On-line networking can be fruitful, enabling you to move into a community and even to assist with your transition to your next post, especially outside of academia. See related blog.

The intelligent career proposes that ‘knowing why, knowing how and knowing whom’ are inter-related and influence the investment that we put into our careers. Arthur concludes in one of his co-authored papers, “The rewards we look for [in our careers] may well be personal, intrinsic rewards, rather than extrinsic ones like status or money. The important point is to be empowered to have a choice in the kind of work we take, the careers we pursue, and the purposes our careers serve.”

  4. See for example,