Author Archives: Sarah Blackford

“Tell me about yourself”

Four words ….. And such a simple statement ….

Yet is it so simple? This question gives the recruiter a lot of information about you, so it’s essential to get it right. The question seems innocent enough and is often meant to make you feel more comfortable in the interview situation, but at the same time it will provide the recruiter with a lot of information about you, such as: Are you prepared; have you thought about the role and how you fit in; have you assessed your own competencies for the role?

During a recent career workshop on interview technique, I had the pleasure to co-deliver with an experienced recruitment specialist, Christina Storm, at the University of Stavanger. Christina had some great insights into preparing for interviews both within and outside of academia, including a great formula to answer the crucial question “Tell me about yourself”, which I can share with you here.

This blogpost highlights how it can be done to give you a flying start to your interview.

So, why does the prospect of being asked “Tell me about yourself”, at interview, cause apprehension and trepidation in many prospective interviewees?

  • Is it because we don’t like to talk about ourselves – or worse still, ‘boast’ about ourselves?
  • Is it because we don’t know what to talk about (how do we choose what to include from all our life-long experiences?)
  • Perhaps we’re not sure how long to speak for in answer to this open-ended question?
  • Maybe it’s because we don’t think the interviewers will be interested to know about us? That we haven’t done anything particularly outstanding?
  • Or perhaps it’s something else …….

It’s a question that is usually asked relatively early in a job interview, or even at the very start, so it’s important to provide a positive and upbeat reply to set the scene for the rest of the interview. Get this right, impress the interviewer of your abilities at an early stage and the rest should flow easily and naturally.

Researchers aren’t generally used to talking about themselves, especially in positive, self-affirming language. Even during appraisals and other meetings with their supervisors, it’s nearly always the research project that’s at the heart of the discussion, not the researcher. Rarely, during career coaching sessions, do PhD or postdoctoral researchers tell me about times when they have had the opportunity to review their own strengths, capabilities, personal and professional progress, etc. in a positive way. Normally, they tend to take a more circumspect or negative stance when it comes to their own abilities, either playing them down, crediting others or brushing them off as being nothing special.

So, in the midst of all this potential negativity (which may or may not apply to you, to one degree or another), how can researchers ensure that they portray themselves positively when they respond to the question, “Tell me about yourself”?

“Most candidates seem to be caught by surprise with this question. They assume the recruiter has read their resume or application. However, don’t make the mistake of assuming that this is the case”, says Christina.

The key to giving a good response to this question is to structure your answer and make it relevant to the person to whom you are talking, whether it’s in a job interview or during an encounter at a conference. It’s what some people refer to as the ‘elevator pitch’. This means you need to make a good impression in a very short space of time, and in many cases, under the pressure of interview conditions.

By referring to the 3-step model above, devised by Christina, and you should find it easier to bring your most significant experiences, skills and motivations together into a short story to present to your ‘audience’.

1. Who are you?

First, start with factual information about yourself. For example, what you’re doing in your current position (PhD, postdoc, etc.), how you came to be where you are now – maybe linking this in with your early interests and passions, relevant to the post. Personal information can also be woven into this part of your story, including where you are from, why you chose to move where you are now, etc. This will be different for everyone depending on their own situation.

Tip: Don’t start in a chronological order, be specific and rehearse.

2. What skills and capabilities do you have to offer?

Describe your key strengths and achievements, relevant to the job description, etc. These may come from your current or a previous role, research-associated activities or other areas of your life.

Highlight those experiences that are of most interest to your prospective employer, so that they can imagine you working in their organisation.

Tip: Don’t assume that the recruiter remembers this from your CV or application – it is also OK to repeat it later in the interview

3. What do you want in the future?

This is the most important part of your answer, so make sure to leave enough room for it. Express how you want to move forward in your career and professional development. What is your motivation for applying for this role in this particular organisation, research group, department, etc.? This will be of most interest to the employer who is wondering how you will contribute to their organisation. It also means that you conclude your answer talking about what is most relevant to the interviewer, i.e. is this someone I can envisage working with me.

Tip: Make sure to incorporate your motivation for this specific role or company here.

Always communicate your answers using language that is pitched at the right level for the interviewers. For example, the panel may consist of people who are knowledgeable about your specialised area of research through to generalists who understand your research at a more fundamental level.

As Christina advises, “What the recruiter wants to hear is a short summary of you and your competencies according to the role, not the story of your life!”

So, keep in mind that you should aim to spend no longer than 1 – 2 minutes answering this question, and make sure to practice – practice – practice!

Christina Storm and Sarah Blackford pictured during their career workshop, University of Stavanger, January 2023.

Related content:
How to be a STAR performer
Interviews – prepare yourself
Interviews – when coming 2nd is no consolation

Appreciate Your Career

I read a very inspiring post on LinkedIn last week about the significance of not only valuing yourself, but also appreciating the value of others.

This made me think about how important it is, in a generally critical academic world, to balance negative critique with positive appreciation. It’s what prompted me to write this blog on the subject of appreciation, and how it can impact on our careers

As I started to write my blog this afternoon [whilst also half-watching the world ski jumping competition live from Engelberg – Skisprung – on TV], it got me thinking more deeply about what ‘appreciate’ actually means. For example, I was appreciating the talent of the professional skiers, as they launched themselves from the ‘Jump’ and soared up through the air, but that wasn’t the type of ‘appreciate’ I wanted to write about. Nor was I talking about appreciation in terms of stocks and shares (of which I have none and know nothing about).

Let me explain: I left research a very long time ago, first switching to an assistant editorial role in scientific journal publishing. During this time, it could be a bit shocking, occasionally, to witness quite rude and defamatory comments made by some of our reviewers, whilst they hid behind their anonymity. Realising that much of what they said could be couched in more favourable language, I became quite skilled at the diplomacy required to communicate constructively between authors and reviewers.

After five years in the publishing business, I decided to focus more on the empathetic helping side of my character and transfer these skills into the Higher Education careers sector, where I could offer my assistance to early career researchers, rather than to authors. I soon realised that appreciation, rather than criticism, was at the heart of my new role and even written into practice, such as following an ethical code of practice. This meant actively listening, using non-judgemental analysis and taking an ‘unconditional positive regard’ attitude towards my clients.

Moving on, 25 years later, one of my primary aims, when coaching or delivering career workshops to researchers, is to help them to be more appreciative of their talents and how to apply them positively towards their career development. During our discussions, negative self-descriptions such as, I only do this, it’s just that, nothing special, etc… tend to surface. However, on the contrary, the kinds of skills and attributes possessed by researchers are valued by a whole host of employers, who need their ingenuity and high-tech skills.

Working in multi-talented academic environments can sometimes make those ‘at the bottom’ feel they know nothing. They can also take for granted what others would stand in awe of if they had a glimpse at the equipment inside their lab or saw the mind-blowing analytical tools they use – and usually all of it self-taught!

So how can you harness the power of appreciation to boost your own self-esteem, confidence and even career prospects, as well as appreciating others along the way? Here are some of my thoughts and a summary matrix:

Appreciate yourself:

It can sometimes be hard to appreciate your own talents when you’re a PhD or postdoctoral researcher. Being an apprentice or employed on a short-term contract can make you feel inadequate, and sometimes even an outsider, when you compare yourselves with the permanent more senior members of your department. However, on the contrary, you are the power-houses and engine rooms of your university/research institute; you generate the data, solve the problems and innovate the technology.

Many of you reach out to wider audiences, initiate collaborations and even locate funding sources. Teaching is usually taken on a side-job, when it is, in fact, multi-faceted involving careful preparation, creative communication, precise and sensitive assessment and evaluation, as well as pastoral support.

Amongst these more direct capabilities and aptitudes are all the so-called ‘transferable’ skills that you develop to help you to do your research. These include organisation, planning and project management, self-motivation, negotiating, diplomacy and enterprising skills, to name but a few.

Even senior people admit to suffering from Imposter Syndrome, so if you’re finding it difficult to overcome feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy, remember you are not alone. Consider the next time you’re talking about yourself, writing your CV or creating an online profile: try to make sure you’re using positive, appreciative language that demonstrates that you (at least outwardly) value your worth, even if you’re not feeling it inside. You’ll be amazed the effect it has on you and others around you.  

Appreciate others:

And on that note, don’t forget to extend your appreciation to others. An academic once stated (on Twitter, I think) that she has a rule, during her weekly research group meetings, that everyone must say at least one positive thing about each other. She said it had transformed the group, which was now more cohesive, supportive and productive. In other words, their appreciation of each other had led to the appreciation of the group as a whole and had most probably appreciated the value of the researchers’ careers as well.

Going back to my former days of scientific publishing, when it comes to giving feedback [which necessarily needs to include negative as well as positive observations] the key to a constructive and diplomatic evaluation is to sandwich the critical comments between more appreciative ones. For example, congratulating someone on their talk or journal article, before identifying areas for improvement. Remember, even if the result has not been top notch, it’s very likely that the presenter or author has put a lot of time and effort into the preparation.

We all do things differently, so if someone is being seemingly awkward with you, try to understand what lies beneath. Perhaps, their way of looking at things is quite different from yours, perhaps their strengths lie in other areas, or they may be having a hard time personally, which is manifesting itself in strange and unsociable behaviour. See my previous blog about this.  

Collaboration and multidisciplinary interactions help researchers to extend their research and, at the more senior level, to expand their group and international profile. Working coherently with people from other disciplines, institutions and countries can be challenging, but also rewarding if handled well. There’s no reason, as an early career researcher, you can’t be the lynch pin of the collaboration, helping to coordinate the members, whilst enhancing your people skills at the same time. Appreciation of each member’s contribution goes a long way to ensuring that everyone involved, no matter how remote, feels valued and that their work is as worthwhile as everyone else’s.

So, after quite a long blog to end this year, I leave you with a quote and look forward to appreciating your company again next year!

“Just as stocks and shares can rise in value, so can a researcher’s value appreciate through personal and professional investment.”

EG.s for CVs

Don’t get ‘egg on your face’ during job applications*, put EGs on your CV !

The job application process is a strange but necessary activity. In many cases, an employer doesn’t know any of the applicants on a personal or professional basis (and vice versa), which means they will have to select candidates for interview on the basis of their CV and covering letter* alone.

This makes these documents absolutely crucial to the success of an application and can mean the difference between them being allocated to the “Yes” or the “No” pile during selection. Not only should a CV and cover letter set out your experiences and match you to the job requirements, they have to act as a ‘sales pitch’ to persuade the employer of your suitability for their job vacancy.

This is not an easy thing to do in writing….

I’ve written a lot on the subject of job applications (see my blog archive), as well as delivering group workshops in person and online. I also offer 1-2-1 CV consultations. So, what can I add to what I’m already advising on this subject?


Employers want E.G.s to show evidence of an applicant’s skills and experiences.

How can you do this? Let me explain what I did in a recent group workshop during a career development programme, that you can apply to your own CV on an individual basis.

During the workshop, we did an exercise where the participant PhD and postdoctoral researchers brainstormed in small groups all the tasks that they do and wrote each of them on a separate sticky note. The results were very interesting (and colourful) and consisted of a wide range of research and associated activities, such as using or developing particular techniques and methodologies, reading and writing research papers, supervising students, reviewing papers, organising events, data analysis, managing resources, side-interests such as public outreach and working with charities, even socialising with colleagues and, of course the inevitable cake club!

This first stage of the exercise generated a huge number of vibrant sticky notes! It was quite incredible to see how varied the role of a researcher is and to appreciate the talent that exists in the ‘engine rooms’ of universities and research institutes. PhD and early career researchers work hard to generate the data that prove or disprove hypotheses and which are the basis of fundamental discoveries and new innovations. It is these tasks that are sometimes overlooked, taken for granted or even dismissed by researchers themselves as being unremarkable.

This is a fundamental error of judgement!

In fact, these core and research-associated tasks act as vital evidence of key skills that are highly valued by employers. The problem is that many PhD CVs hide these talents when they apply for jobs in industry or business, either by not even including them on their CV, or by submitting an academic CV for a non-academic job.

In my workshops and other trainings, I try to redress the balance and help researchers to discover and promote their skills using relevant and impressive examples in their CV and covering letter. Which brings me onto Step 2 of this workshop exercise:

The next stage involved structuring the sticky notes into some semblance of order and placing them into appropriate Skill categories. After some lively discussion and debate, decisions were made, resulting in a very colourful whiteboard (see photo above). Several interesting conclusions were made from the exercise:

  1. Researchers possess loads of skills, not least of all the skill of learning more skills!
  2. Researchers can use these examples in a CV, covering letter, in their LinkedIn profile and at interview to demonstrate skills and experiences to employers that are impressive, genuine and meaningful.

Using a cut-down version of the STAR technique, the one- or two-word tasks can be converted into short sentences to contextualise a particular skill, when/where it was used and what exactly was done and achieved as a result.

For example:

  • Responsibilities during research and being a leader in scientific committees required management, decision making and execution to meet targets.
  • Collection and analysis of data into deliverable results and seek alternatives and solutions either in scientific projects or in equipment trouble shooting.

So, why not take a look at your own CV and see if you can add examples to demonstrate your wide-ranging skills, especially if you’re looking to move into industry or business. It’s helpful to get it done sooner rather than later. You never know you may be head-hunted next week and asked to send in your CV, so it’ll be good to go!

*Note 1: An English idiom meaning, don’t risk embarrassment.

*Note 2: This is where the art of networking and making contact with potential employers, and others in your career sector of interest, can give you an advantage over other candidates. See the Networking column in my Blog Archive

Related content:

Section and Match your CV

10 quick CV tips

Is your CV working?

Where do you fit in?

How many of the following questions can you answer?

  • What is the subject of your research?
  • Who is funding it?
  • Why are they funding it?
  • Who else is working in this field?
  • What are your neighbouring research groups working on?
  • Who organised the last conference you attended?
  • If you couldn’t continue in academic research, where else could you work?

If you can answer all these questions, congratulations! I say this, not from my own perspective, but having seen a recent Tweet from a professor saying that he was surprised at how little many early career researchers know about the bigger picture associated with their research. This included many of the aspects mentioned in my questions above.

Why should you be interested in the bigger picture? Well, I would say that it helps you to take a more strategic approach to your career and be more aware of how to take advantage of some of the great opportunities available to you.

For example, knowing where funding sources come from is crucial to academics, as this is how they develop and grow their research groups. It’s also how they enhance their profile within their research field and institution. For early career researchers, who can’t access certain funding sources, there are plenty more to be found in the form of small equipment, travel or professional development grants.

Knowing what others are doing in the field, whether it’s in the lab next door or in a far-flung research institution, can help you to put your own research into perspective, spark new ideas and increase the interdisciplinarity of your research. It could form the basis of your own research proposal and help you to secure an independent research fellowship.

Attending conferences, whether in person or online, is always a great opportunity to meet others and form new collaborations, even secure your next position. However, many early career researchers don’t take full advantage of these experiences. Being prepared, knowing who will be speaking and identifying people you want to speak to will help you to make the most of the experience. Many learned societies organise conferences, offering PhD students and researchers preferential discounted registration rates, the opportunity to apply for competitions and even providing specialised events for them. If you join these societies, you will even become eligible for their membership benefits, such as travel grants, outreach internships and executive roles on some of their committees.

During your time as a PhD student or early career researcher you can also take advantage of the many activities that take place in your own institution or within your own doctoral training programme. These can include social events, retreats, journal clubs, seminars, outreach to local schools, career events, sports, etc. Whatever interests you, it’s useful for your own professional and personal development (and sometimes, just for the fun of it!) to get out away from your core research and extend your reach and influence to the wider academic world.

All of these examples, and there are many more, not only give you lots of interesting experiences, they also help you to develop more skills and bring you into contact with a wider range of people. This can lead to ‘happenstance’ events that help you to grow your career and also give you a richer more interesting CV to present to employers, whether within or outside of academia.

Value Added careers

Energy – Passion – Drive – Motivation

This is what you feel when you’re doing something you love. It happens when you’re enjoying your job and when your career makes you feel fulfilled.

Sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint what it is that makes you feel this way.

However, very likely, it’s your VALUES speaking to you.

The majority of my career coaching sessions centre around values, especially when career fulfilment comes up. A recent example that comes to mind was with a research scientist who had taken a promotion into a managerial role, which initially looked like a great prospect. However, as time went along he was finding his job less and less enjoyable and compelling, even though the salary and working conditions were good. Feeling more and more de-motivated and lacking in energy, even to the point of depression, he couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was missing.

During our coaching session, following some lengthy reflection and discussion, we established that he was missing using his specialist research skills and was finding structured administration boring and tedious.

Some months after the coaching session, my client contacted me again to say he’d changed jobs within the same company and rediscovered his core values: he was now working as a senior scientist, with a similar salary and responsibilities, but with a focus on his functional expertise, which made him happy and feeling fulfilled again.

So, what exactly are values?

According to Patton (2000)1, values are “constructs that cannot be observed, but they are recognised through the goals an individual strives to attain in life, such as physical and mental health, security (including financial security), social status, and self-fulfilment…. Because our values represent what is important to us, they are influential in most life decisions, including career decisions.”

Can you identify the values that motivate you in your career?

For example,

  • Are you driven by your research interests and the specialist skills you use in your current role?
  • Do you feel strongly about making a difference to people’s lives and/or contributing to society?
  • Do you value your work:life balance above all else?
  • Are you someone who loves a challenge?
  • Do you prefer to work independently?
  • Are you motivated by the opportunity to take a leadership role?

Whatever your values are, they can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint and articulate. A coaching session with a career professional can help you with this process, as well as self-assessment tests. One test in particular that comes to mind is within a book by Schein (1990)2, which, alongside lots of really interesting insights into how values influence career decisions, includes quite a comprehensive questionnaire that links to eight CAREER ANCHORS:

  • Technical/Functional competence
  • General managerial competence
  • Autonomy/Independence
  • Security/Stability
  • Entrepreneurial Creativity
  • Service/Dedication to a Cause
  • Pure Challenge
  • Lifestyle

Whilst writing my book, ‘Career planning for research bioscientists’ I was lucky to be able to secure permission to use an abridged version of Schein’s questionnaire. You can also access it in Google Docs here.  

Your scores are very likely to reveal more than one career anchor. Mine, for example, is weighted in favour of (1) Autonomy/Independence (AU), not surprising since I am now working freelance and (2) Service/Dedication to a Cause (SV) – again, not surprising, considering the work I have chosen to do.  

Values tend to be anchored and don’t change over time, however, as Schein points out in his book, “Some people who make dramatic mid-life changes in their external careers are trying to actualize what were their anchors all along; they simply never had the chance to do what they really wanted to do.”

Finally, don’t forget that it’s not just your values that determine a happy and fulfilling career. Read my blogs on Skills and Hidden Talents to find out about other ways to discover careers that will give you a sense of meaning and motivation.

  1. Patton W, 2000. Changing career: The role of values. In: The Future of Career, eds. Collin A & Young RA. Cambridge University Press
  2. Schein EH, 1990. Career Anchors: Discovering your real values. Pfeiffer

Tales of the unexpected

“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.”

This quotation, attributed to the mathematician, John Allen Paulos, has never been so poignant. We live in turbulent times, and trying to take control of our lives, plan our careers and instil some surety into our futures is nigh on impossible.

In fact, this has always been the case – ‘permanent’ jobs, even within academia, don’t really exist. Anyone and everyone can be made redundant.

As Peter Hawkins states in his book, The art of building windmills: career tactics for the 21st century,

“To be employed is to be at risk, to be employable is to be secure”.

This concept may be at odds with those doctoral and postdoctoral researchers who are chasing ‘permanent’ positions, looking for stability and security. But don’t be dismayed – in the short term this is certainly achievable and will help to act as an anchor for building foundations on which, for example, to secure a mortgage, plan for a family or invest in the future. However, in the longer term, looking after our employability and planning for the ‘unplannable’ is how, ultimately, we are likely get through the more turbulent times in our lives.  

The good news is that graduate doctoral students have a very low rate of unemployment (almost negligible) and this high employment rate persists due to the personal and professional attributes and skills researchers develop as they progress in their careers. Of course, you need to be aware of these capabilities, value them and be able to articulate them to potential employers, as well as build and utilise networks – and that’s where the planning part comes in.

So, taken together, career planning activities overlaid with career happening behaviours can act as a ‘belt and braces’ approach to ensuring sustainable employability and helping you to combat times of insecurity and unpredictability.

These two contrary approaches to career management and development have been encapsulated in two career theories, as described in a previous blog.

The yellow blocks show the planned part – e.g. knowing yourself, knowing the job market, making decisions, taking action and marketing yourself, for example, online, in a CV or interview. The other ‘happening’ activities scattered around include Curiosity – getting ‘out there’, being more informed and visible, Risk-taking – that is to say, coming out of your comfort zone, learning and growing, as well as being Proactive – taking charge of your career.

And, on a final note, if you want to hear about tales of the unexpected, just tune into career podcasts, turn up at career events or listen to career stories of former doctoral and postdoctoral researchers and you’ll, no doubt, identify many of these factors within their narratives.

Related blogs: Put your skills to work

Section and Match your CV

“Use your own words… don’t copy other people’s work … don’t plagarise!”. These are the golden rules of academia.

However, in the world of job applications and CVs: “Do use their words, match yourself to their specifications, mimic their language!”

This can be a hard task if you’re a PhD or postdoctoral researcher: You need to undo a lifetime of following the rules of academia. You have to force yourself to go against the fundamentals and very essence of the communication guidelines you have been following throughout your career.

Whilst an academic CV can follow a chronological history of your university education, including undergraduate, master’s and PhD qualifications, followed by research achievements, awards, teaching and impact activities, a non-academic CV requires a more targeted approach.

Hiring is a risky business, so anything you can do to instil confidence in the employer will give you an advantage over other candidates. You need to show them that you have the directly and indirectly relevant experience, skills and capabities that meet their requirements in a very obvious and accessible way. This not only shows them that you have the necessary profile for the position they’re offering, but also that you understand their needs and so are more likely to fit into their work culture and environment.

So, if you’re applying for non-academic jobs, whether it’s in research, communications, data analysis, policy, etc., the art of MATCHING and SECTIONING your CV is more likely to yield good results (i.e. an invitation to interview) than a chronological historical record.

Here are some tips and examples to help you to re-write and target your CV to a non-academic post:

  1. Treat the job description and specifications as you would an exam or essay: Underline/highlight the key words that are the most prominent – they are the requirements that are most important to the employer;
  2. Create sections in your CV that reflect these key requirements. You don’t want to create too many sections, so join two or more together, e.g. Communication and teamwork; Management and leadership; Research and analysis, etc., according to the keywords that appear in the job/personal specifications;
  3. Provide evidence of these skills by using bullet points under each of the sections. Write down a very short story of just one or two lines that demonstrate an example of how you have used a particular skill. Use situations, quantities and results to bring your examples to life and make them interesting and realistic for the employer to read.
  4. Under each of the headings, use 3 – 4 examples taken from your current and former employment, volunteer work, research-associated experiences and personal life and bring them together to consolidate evidence of your experience.
  5. You will still need to include sections in your CV about your education, employment history and other experiences to show where you have used and developed these skills. However, it’s sometimes a good idea to place them later in your CV, especially if it’s a job where ‘transferable’ skills and more relevant than directly relevant experience.  

I hope these tips and examples give you a good starting point to re-invent and re-think your academic experiences so you can write a great non-academic CV!

Put your skills to work!

Results of a skills brainstorming exercise during a career development workshop

Hard skills, soft skills, transferable skills, technical skills, interpersonal skills.

Skills are what employers want from their prospective PhD employees. They’re not so interested in the details of your particular disciplinary research area, they want to know how you will apply your knowledge and skills to help them to innovate, create and develop new products, services, ideas and information.

Doctoral and postdoctoral researchers can sometimes find it difficult to recognise and even value the skills they’re developing during the course of their research. It’s easy to get complacent when you’re working in an environment where everyone has these high-level skills.

As part of my career planning workshops, I ask participants to brainstorm what they do and we collect them either on a classroom whiteboard or in a virtual space such as MURAL. The results can be colourful in terms of sticky notes, but also in terms of the wide variety and richness of the skills that emerge from this task, especially if the group consists of multi-disciplinary researchers (as in the image featured above).

Brainstorming your skills in a group exercise offers the advantage of being able to see how others identify and name theirs, as well as contributing into the mix yourself, having some fun discussions (baking is a popular skill amongst biologists), as well as coming away with an armoury of self-knowledge that can now be put to work as follows:

    Knowledge of your skills can help you to identify potential careers – choosing those roles that involve the skills you are good at and enjoy using will lead you into careers that are likely to be more fulfilling than those that consist of your least favourite skills. Of course, many other factors come into play, such as values, work culture, work:life balance, location etc., but if you choose a career area that uses your preferred skills, you can look around to find organisations within that sector that can offer you the work culture that suits these other needs. See my PhD Career Choice Indicator to find out more.
Categorising skills and interests using the PhD Career Choice Indicator

Rather than using job titles or your disciplinary interests, such as physics, linguistics, engineering, to search for potential careers of interest, try using your skills instead (see above). If you plug your favourite skills into the search engine of job sites such as Indeed and Glassdoor, or social media platforms such as LinkedIn, you get a wide-ranging list of potential roles to examine. This strategy can help to broaden your job search horizons, since job titles can sometimes be mis-leading or, in reality, represent a multiplicity of different types of roles.

Job search using skills – in this case ‘qualitative interviewing and analysis’

Employers want evidence of your capabilities, especially in your CV and at interview. Being able to explain how you have applied your skills to different situations, for example, solving a problem, resolving a conflict or creating a new line of thinking, is more valuable during an interview than describing, in depth, the situation itself. Most non-academic employers won’t need to utilise your PhD research knowledge itself, but they will want to be confident that you can apply your knowledge and skills to all sorts of new situations as they arise. If you can create an interesting story about how you have used your skills using the STAR technique, it’s bound to impress your interview panel.

So, why not try brainstorming your own skills and see if you can make them work for you …     

Skills and Thrills – what motivates you?

Planning your career is not easy or straight forward.

If you consider the research project that you’re currently undertaking to discover something new about how the world works (amongst other things), then career planning is about discovering something about you and the kind of work you’d like to do now and in the future. The research skills you use every day in your endeavour to find out more about how something works, what is involved, the mechanism, etc., can be mapped directly onto the career development and skills you need to manage your career. That is to say: you need to reflect and discover more about yourself; you need to investigate your employment opportunities (whether within or outside of academia); you need to perfect your transitional methodology (i.e. your self-presentation in the form of your CV and interview technique); you need to network and connect with other professionals, and so on!

Although it seems like the job market is a minefield – difficult and hazardous to navigate – discovering yourself can be even more challenging. Generally speaking, PhD and early career researchers tend to be quite modest and even unaware of their amazing talents, their high-level skills, their can-do attitude and aptitudes. This means that, not only do they tend to under-estimate their abilities, they sometimes under-sell themselves and aim lower or limit themselves too much in terms of their career ambitions.

This is where career professionals come in: They can offer you support in the form of career guidance and coaching techniques and tools; they can provide understanding, empathy and career counselling, they can raise your confidence and levels of self-belief, review your CV and offer you mock interviews to  assist you in persuading potential employers to believe in you and offer you a job. They can even employ career theories and models that can help you to understand yourself and identify opportunities for career success.

And on that note, I would like to introduce you to the PhD Career Choice Indicator. It’s a career choice ‘tool’ that I’ve adapted from Holland’s theory of career choice and it’s proved to be very helpful (according to feedback from my career workshops). How does it work? Well, there are four stages to consider:

  • First, review all the things you do as a PhD/early career researcher. Brainstorm the tasks – supervising students, designing experiments, analysing data, using specialist tools, techniques and methodologies, communicating your research, teaching, reviewing manuscripts, imagining new ideas and innovations, partnering or collaborating with stakeholders,  managing your projects, resources, people, problem solving, etc. The list is long! Here’s a recent word cloud produced by participants of a career workshop:
  • Next, categorise all of these tasks according to the Holland’s model above – where would you situate these tasks according to the descriptors?

  • What are your 3 favourite categories? What is your least favourite? The other two will come somewhere in between. Of course, it’s not exacting, but you will probably have a clear(ish) idea of those things you look forward to and those that you put off.
Workshop exercise to identify the Top 3 categories, according to a group of >100 PhD and postdoctoral researchers
  • Finally, examine the employment market and the types of jobs being advertised. Consider the types of jobs that include more of what you enjoy doing. This will help you to identify potential careers of interest. After which, you can start to focus in on these types of roles and organisations and plan your career accordingly.

Of course, this is just a snapshot, and there are many other factors involved in choosing your career, e.g. your personality, values, personal situation, work:life balance preferences, etc. However, I hope this gives you a starting point. Here are other blogs and resources to help you to plan and manage your career:

Related content:

Making career choices

The skilled researcher

Employable you!

The why, how and whom of your career


Congratulations! You have been invited to interview.

How does this make you think or feel? Most invitations to attend a job interview evoke an emotional response of some kind: positive, negative, but usually a bit (or a lot) of both. For most people, it’s good news: Their CV has proved to be successful in convincing the employer/research group leader/funder that they have the right level of qualifications, experience, skills and capabilities to be a short-listed candidate. Perhaps they’ve been networking as well and have impressed people about their potential to be successful in this role, or maybe someone has recommended or even head-hunted them directly.

Even so, despite the fact that their application has made a good impression, many people still feel a sense of trepidation towards the interview itself. This is perfectly normal, however your mindset can let you down if you allow your mental and psychological demons to take a hold. This is why, during my interview training workshops, I encourage and teach participants to prepare and practice as much as they can to offset and overcome these negative messages.

For example, researching the organisation and role further, examining your application and reminding yourself of evidence you can use to support your answers, as well as predicting questions and practising your responses should help you to feel more relaxed, much as it would if you were revising for an exam or PhD defense. On top of this, it’s useful to find out details about the interview venue and set-up, who will be interviewing you, and what additional activities you may have to do, such as making a presentation or meeting other team members. There is a lot to be done.

However, for one reason or another, many interview candidates let themselves down, not because they have not prepared, but because of their mindset: They don’t believe in themselves enough or they convince themselves they are not ‘up to the job’. PhD and postdoctoral researchers who are aiming to enter the non-academic job market, for which they have little or no direct experience, may also feel this kind of negativity, which can be an arch enemy when it comes to moving on and out of academia. Even though they have been invited for interview, they are still plagued by ‘imposter syndrome’, which interferes with their interview performance.

The ‘Interview Performance Matrix‘ ignores skills, experience and other elements that influence your likely success at interview. Instead, it concentrates on two key personal influencers that are absolutely fundamental to creating a good impression – your preparedness and your own mindset. The Matrix comprises 4 quadrants that represent:

NEGATIVE – This quadrant represents those who are unprepared and have a negative mindset which means they self-limit their performance. The prospect of a positive outcome is unlikely, even if the candidate has a good set of skills and experience to offer.

HOPEFUL – With little or no preparation, but coupled with a highly positive attitude, some interviewees are able to create a very positive initial impression with their confident body language. However, following further questioning, their lack of preparedness usually shows through leaving the interviewers unimpressed. A lax attitude during the interview may also raise concern to a potential employer, who envisages this type of behaviour transferring itself into the workplace.

DEFEATIST – Here, the candidate is prepared for the interview, but is negative in terms of their belief in themselves, which makes the employer question their ability and unwilling to take the risk of offering them the job. This is such a shame for an interviewee who has invested their time and energy to prepare and practice for the interview, only to be marked down due to their under-performance and nervousness.

CONVINCING – This is the ideal quadrant to be in for the best chance of a good interview result. Combined with knowledge of themselves, the job and the organisation, and coupled with visible and audible positive self-assurance, the candidate is best placed to make the most positive impression. In this situation, the candidate not only answers the interview questions accurately and with plenty of examples, they reassure the employer of their competence by demonstrating body language that shows they have confidence in themselves and their ability.

So, I’ve suggested ways to prepare for the interview (and you can visit my blog archive to find out more information on this subject), but how can you work on your mindset?

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to help you with this, but let me suggest a few potential tactics:
1) Imagine you’re your best friend who’s been invited to this interview. In your role, you would try to support them as much as you could to prepare for their interview, whilst encouraging them with positive compliments, such as pointing out their amazing talents, skills and experiences and telling them how they are bound to succeed. Taking this objective stance, can sometimes help you to overcome imposter syndrome, as you step outside of your subjective self and view yourself more kindly and realistically.
2) Try to relax and reduce your over-thinking tendencies; it’s well known that people are offered jobs that they are not overly excited about, as they are more relaxed and less anxious during the interview, so they tend to perform better than for those interviews that they really care about. Re-framing your thoughts can help you to break the cycle of negativity and minimise some of the symptoms of anxiety and nervousness.
3) Finally, visualise a successful interview and outcome, imagine yourself being offered the job and try to shut out the demons.

I hope these few thoughts have helped you to reflect on the interview process and how you can get through the process – even enjoy it – so that you can transition to your next career adventure. Attending an interview workshop and getting mock interview practice can help you further, as well as having a supportive mentor and/or coach.

Wishing you confidence and success!