“I didn’t know I wanted to be a mathematician until I was one”, said Professor Hannah Fry (University College London) in a recent BBC programme called “The Life Scientific”. Later she admitted that her original dream job had been to work in aerodynamics within Formula One, but this had turned out to be a disappointment because the reality had not matched up to what she had imagined it would be like.
How many of us can say the same thing about our own careers? I started out in research, moving into scientific publishing after a few years: I knew I enjoyed being around science and scientists, but I was unfulfilled in my work, as I didn’t enjoy doing much of the technical or administrative aspects. It wasn’t until eight years post-graduation that I saw a job vacancy for a science careers adviser advertised in the New Scientist that I finally knew I had found my ‘calling’. The job description ticked every box for me and, even though I didn’t get that job, the people I met during the interview and subsequently when I volunteered at the local university career service, convinced me even more of my new career goal. If I hadn’t seen that job advertisement, I would never have considered careers adviser as a potential career for me, imagining the work and the people within the sector to be dull and uncreative; in fact, they turned out to be quite the opposite.
How many of us faced that dreaded question when we were younger: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. Not even, “Who do you want to be?”. And we continue to be asked, and to ask ourselves, this type of question as we move through our lives. However, a better way of approaching our career decisions is really to ask ourselves more useful questions such as, “How do I like to work?”, “What’s important to me?”, “What kind of work environment will suit me?”, “What am I passionate about?”, “What do I enjoy doing?”.
If you’re highly educated and have spent much of your time delving deeper and deeper into your field of interest, it may be harder for you to supplant ‘subject knowledge’ as your key career determinant with other qualities such as skills, values, passions and interests. My PhD Career Choice Indicator tool tries to help with career decision-making by concentrating attention on six different skill sets that make up a typical role: Functional, Investigative, Social, Artistic, Management and Entrepreneurship. In her interview, Fry explained that it was the voyage of discovery, the research process, even the ‘struggle’ that fires her passion for mathematics. For me, moving away from research and into careers meant I could focus my attention on helping people (Social), whilst still retaining my investigative and artistic interests (but this time focussed on people, not biology).
Finding meaning and fulfilment in your work is what makes it truly rewarding. However, knowing what future role will give you the ingredients to make this happen is difficult if you have no experience of that kind of career. Other than actually trying out different jobs and either continuing on or leaving them depending on your experiences (and note that two similar jobs might give two different results according to other factors such as the people, work environment, location, etc.), what can you do to get an insight into possible future careers? I have a few ideas you might like to try out:
- Research job vacancies. Read job descriptions and discover what reaction they create for you – do the tasks, skills required, values of the organisation, structure and flexibility of the role, etc excite you?
- Search for jobs using skill keywords related to those that you enjoy using, e.g. a particular technical skill, professional or personal skills such as, ‘investigative’, ‘research’, ‘problem-solving’, ‘advisory’, ‘management’, ‘analysis’.
- Search for people doing the kind of work you would like to do. Use keyword searches such as ‘Researcher’, ‘Innovator’, ‘Project manager’, ‘Programmer’, ‘Data Analyst’, ‘Equality’, ‘Big Data’, ‘Career consultant’. Look at people’s backgrounds, the types of companies they are working in, start to build up a picture of the particular career sector that interests you.
- Conduct informational interviews with selected people you consider can give you useful insights into their own careers and their current role. Make sure you do your homework before you contact them though so that you don’t ask obvious questions.
- Contact alumni or other people who are in some way connected with you and are more likely to respond to your requests for more information. They may also be amenable to taking up an invitation to meet with you or attend your institution’s careers event.
- Do a short internship/placement/volunteer. Even a few days can be enough to give you an insight into a career sector or role. Try to get a meaningful experience by getting exposure to different aspects of the organisation and meeting a range of employees.
- Attend events. Conferences, meetings, career fairs, seminars, socials, clubs, societies, etc. are full of people, some of whom may directly or indirectly act as a conduit to another career by giving you insights, information, contacts or even a job!
As researchers, you have the power to investigate the career ‘literature’ and to discover hidden worlds that you never even knew existed, that will harness your hidden talents and provide you with the rewards of an exciting and fulfilling career. As Hannah Fry says later in her interview: “I wasn’t born to be a mathematician – I’m a normal person who just happens to like maths”. I could say the same thing about my liking for careers and I’m sure you could also add your own ‘like’ into the mix.