Changing Places

31st July 2023.

Today marks two anniversaries for me: On this day in 2017, after 30 years of full-time employment at five different universities, I decided to set up independently as a PhD career consultant. Then, one year later, on 31st July 2018, after living in the UK for the whole of my adult life, I moved with my partner to Germany and have been here for five years.

Looking back now after 5 – 6 years, I feel very positive about the changes I’ve made. But change is never easy, even if you’re excited about the prospect and are very motivated to move. Working independently and living in another country were two very big firsts for me and they weren’t without their challenges.

For example, I panicked a bit when I first set up my business, thinking I might not get enough work to support myself. So, in the first few months, I never said “No” to any opportunities, with the consequence that I overloaded myself with too many jobs, to the point where I almost had a breakdown!

When we first moved to Germany, I thought it was so exciting and different. The people were really friendly, the countryside was there to be explored and the festivals were in full swing. However, after a short time, I started to feel depressed and disconnected from my family and friends. I knew I needed to sell my car and house in the UK, which made me feel even more that I was losing my ‘anchor’. Despite the support and encouragement of my partner, I had a bit of a meltdown and was seriously contemplating moving back.

I never did act on those impulses and, after a few months, I started to feel more positive about the changes I had made. Developing more confidence in my business and taking a more strategic approach helped me to build my ‘Unternehmen’ (small business) here in Germany, whilst the kindness and friendship of our new-found friends here helped me finally to settle down to the Bavarian way of life.

More than that though, I always kept in mind a very important and enlightening model of change that I use in my PhD career workshops. First proposed in the 1970s, it illustrates the rollercoaster of emotions such as anxiety, depression, elation and denial that people experience during change. After a time (note, no scale shown, so this can happen over a very short or a very long period of time), the model shows how a person starts to come to terms with the change and move forward.

Because science is such a global and international endeavour, it means that ‘academic mobility’ is a necessary part of many researchers’ careers, so that they get to work with the people and facilities that are most relevant to their field of interest. However, moving to a different research group or institution, moving to different countries, or changing careers represent major disruptions to the lives of PhD and postdoctoral researchers.

So, from my own and other’s experiences, I would recommend some of the following advice to increase your resilience regarding change:

  1. Contact people ahead of moving to find out how they have coped and get advice from them, e.g. research group or university colleagues, alumni and social media;
  2. Get support – join groups in person and online, e.g. Facebook groups;
  3. Use the university international office and other institutional administration support;
  4. Try to learn the local language and immerse yourself in the culture of the region;
  5. Be open about your concerns and anxieties – it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

After 5 – 6 years, I have plenty of clients (enough, but not too many) and my business has been thriving, even through Covid. I now work with a great partner, Virginie Siret, who provides me with excellent professional digital assistance whenever I deliver my workshops online. On a more personal level, I’ve had lots of great experiences since I moved to Germany – we have a lovely apartment in a small village in Franconia with lots of friendly neighbours. We’ve been to beer and wine festivals galore, experienced the Christmas markets and rather bizarre ‘Fasching’ extravaganzas and have eaten many a bratwurst!

Change is not easy, but it’s inevitable for most of us, especially when you’re a working professional. So, if you’re ever feeling emotional about the prospect of changes in your life, don’t feel embarrassed as it’s a perfectly natural reaction. Consider how best to navigate changes in your life and to keep a positive, if not, philosophical, mindset. Most of all communicate with others!

And on that note, I can very happily tell you that I just received an email whilst writing this blog to say that I have passed my B1 German exam 🙂

Related posts:

Change talk
Academic mobility
Academic mobility: the long and the short of it

Career Development: Intentional vs Incidental

Originally posted on the University of Glasgow’s ‘Expert Voices‘ as part of their Pathfinder initiative, my June blog is about how you can intentionally direct your career, rather than leaving it to chance. I hope it’s useful for you to find your own career path.

Intentional or Incidental ?

“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time”, “I was lucky”, “I happened to find out about this opportunity by complete accident”. When people tell their career stories, these types of statements come up a lot, and can even represent a major positive turning point in someone’s career. Perhaps you can think of one or two examples from your own career journey.

Powerful as they can be, however, these incidental experiences are usually the result of intentional actions. For example, in order to find yourself in a situation where an opportunity comes your way, you also need to be ‘out there’ networking, stepping outside of your comfort zone, getting involved and being proactive.

What’s the ‘right’ career development for me?

For postgraduate researchers and research staff, time is very limited during the 3-4 year period of your doctorate or short-term research contract. With the pressure to design and conduct studies, generate and interpret data, publish papers, teach, supervise, etc., there is little opportunity to consider other activities that may play a vital role in a researcher’s career progression and success.

Whether aiming for an academic position or a role in other career sectors, such as industry or business, it is important for researchers to be able to demonstrate specific skills and experiences required by the employer. For example, whilst you may have acquired high-level technical or programming skills needed to conduct your research project, you may not have had the opportunity to develop other capabilities important to progress to your next role, such as working in a team, thinking innovatively, communicating to non-specialists or taking a leadership role. Intentional career development weaved into a researcher’s role can make the difference between a researcher being a strong candidate for their next job application or being overlooked.

With this in mind, whilst investigating researcher career development programmes during my master’s degree a few years ago, I created a useful framework to address, in part, this dilemma. Taking a well-known (at least, to careers advisers) career decision model that was first proposed in the 1950s (Holland, 1959), I adapted the six key areas of Hollands’ RIASEC model to suit a researcher’s core role, so that it could be used as a basic guide for their career development (see Table below).

The ‘PhD Career Choice Indicator’, as I’ve called it, is made up of the following categories:

  1. Functional (the practical stuff)
  2. Investigative (curiosity and discovery)
  3. Artistic (creative communication)
  4. Social (people engagement)
  5. Enterprise (innovating ideas)
  6. Management (organising people/things)

Of course, many of these skills and interests overlap with each other and many other factors are involved in the process of career decision-making. However, this simple model can help researchers to structure their experiences and use the information in whichever way they prefer (for example, to discover personal motivators). The model is used in this blog to identify potential career development opportunities.

Six skill/interest categories associated with a researcher’s role translated into potential career development activities

Taking intentional steps to prepare for “chance” events

Depending on your own preferred skills and interests, particularly those you enjoy using, you can start to distil out those you would like to take forward in your future career and those you want to minimize. This can help you to start thinking about types of careers that may be of interest to you (you can also use these skills as keywords to find jobs and to connect with professionals), as well as to identify potential intentional experiences/opportunities that can contribute to your career development. Depending on what motivates individual researchers, this can help to make good use of the limited time and resources available for the purposes of personal and professional development, as well as creating potential happenstance opportunities along the way.

For example, I was coaching a postgraduate researcher, who was interested in a teaching-focussed academic post, recently. After some discussion, she decided to apply for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy to add weight to her (social) teaching experience. In addition, she identified two learned societies that would help her to engage more fully with researchers working in her field of interest, with the goal to network and create collaborative opportunities. Compare this with another early career researcher, who had recently been appointed as a junior professor. Newly exposed to the constant competition and pressure associated with academia, he understood the need to continue to grow his, less developed, enterprising and management skills by finding a supportive mentor, attending a leadership course, and nurturing collaborative relationships.

With the majority of researchers exploring careers beyond academia after completing their PhDs, spending time on their career development is vital to help them to make a successful transition. Getting involved in activities related to your preferred skills and interests, such as upskilling your functional expertise, taking on managerial responsibilities or work-shadowing can be the difference between you being called for interview or being constantly turned down due to insufficient relevant experience. For example, a recently graduated PhD researcher told me she had succeeded in securing a position as a Medical Writer due to her engagement with outreach activities during her PhD, which demonstrated she could communicate with a wide range of audiences.

Universities are a rich source of intentional career development opportunities, with scope for researchers to get involved in outreach, policy, executive committees, sports and a wide range of social and student-related activities on their own doorstep, as well as looking further afield. By associating yourself with a range of communities, you will start to find yourself in incidental situations that may turn out to be the ‘lucky’ turning point in your career that you can relate to the next generation of researchers, if you’re invited to tell your own career story.

Related posts: Career development – it’s personal

It’s all academic

MURAL Board* capturing the results of a recent academic career workshop

To do a postdoc or not to do a postdoc ….

…. That is a question I am asked by many PhD students, whilst postdocs ask me whether they should do another postdoc or leave academia altogether.

The answer, as with many career questions, is not straightforward. The facts show that only a very small percentage of PhD-qualified researchers will eventually go on to secure an academic post. And, even if they do, many of these positions are not permanent in the first instance, and some that are teaching oriented can even come with a zero-hour contract. This is why I spend much of my time helping researchers to transition out of academia into other careers in industry, business and not-for-profit sectors.

However, for the purposes of this blog, let’s take a look at the situation for those researchers who are considering academia as a career option.

If you’re thinking seriously about a career in academia and have aspirations to be a professor, principal investigator or research group leader, don’t just think twice about it, think about it, find out more about it, mull it over and formulate a career strategy. Otherwise, in terms of your career plans, it may well be ‘all academic’ – in other words, nothing you do will change your current situation – it is out of your hands.

I, along with many other career consultants, academics and commentators, have written about careers in academia before and there is a plethora of surveys and research that shows that getting in and getting on in academia is a tough challenge nowadays. This is, in part, due to the burgeoning number of contract researchers ‘on the market’ vs the limited number of available institutional academic posts, as well as the pressures placed on academics to be able to juggle publishing, secure funding, develop an international reputation, manage a research group, teach (including design, delivery, assessment, pastoral care, etc.), review research papers, take on administrative duties, etc. In fact, Susan Wardell (@UnlazySusan on Twitter) created a fantastic infographic that sums up the activities of a university academic very nicely).

Courtesy of Susan Wardle (@UnlazySusan)

Of course, you can avoid some of these responsibilities by joining a research institute instead of a university, where teaching and collegiate duties aren’t part of the job description. Or, alternatively, you can negotiate for a primarily research-focussed role – it all depends on the type of academic position you’re looking for – and you may not get your preferred position to begin with. A recent survey by Nature revealed that the chances of a securing your first academic post can involve at least 15 applications. A now well-established professor I know sent out 60 applications for his first academic position.

This type of resilience is needed for a career that will be challenging in many ways: taking on a leadership role with no prior management or leadership training; being responsible for recruiting and training your own staff and students; the likelihood of being rejected or receiving criticism from your peers, even when you have produced really excellent work.

Due to the high competition to win funding and the pressure to publish in respected international journals, academics are constantly competing with each other to get into the ‘final cut’, which can be a high bar to attain with limitations on available research funds and journal page numbers. So, even if you work 24/7 and produce excellent research, you may not be appreciated by your community, as you might be if you were working in another career sector.

Having said this, many researchers still aspire towards academia as their first career of choice – and, of course, even though the numbers don’t look good, many new academics are employed each year across the world. There is plenty of advice and information to help you to achieve this goal, for example on the Vitae website, but as I pointed out in a recent career workshop, many extra factors and qualities lie under the surface of an academic job vacancy to help you to be successful.

Academic vacancies usually feature particular requirements as shown here above the surface of the iceberg. However, many other important hidden factors lie under the surface.

Many of these factors can’t be achieved at the last minute and need to be built up over time, such as networking and forming collaborations, developing a reputation in the field, having research ideas and being able to secure a fellowship or funding, building a record of publications, being resilient and self-motivated. And so on. One thing’s for sure, you will need to move away from promoting your functional and practical expertise that are highly valued as a PhD or early career researcher, and supplant these skills with those related to an academic.

Doing a postdoc can be a smart career move after your PhD, depending on your motivations, but don’t stay too long if you’re not impressed by the future life you see for yourself reflected in the academics around you. And, as soon as you realise you’re unlikely eventually to secure a permanent post, it may be time to think about moving on.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Purple-board-1024x608.png
MURAL Board* capturing the results of a recent academic career workshop

On the other hand, if you like what you see and want to improve your chances of achieving your goal to secure an academic position, take a look at the actions that were identified by researchers of my recent academic career workshop to give you ideas for your career strategy, as well as adding in some of your own.

Wishing you success in whatever you decide to do !

* MURAL Boards created and managed by my workshop digital learning co-partner, Virginie Siret

Related blogs:  

What’s the point of a postdoc?
Getting to professor  
Many other blogs can be found in my Blog Archive

Action packed career planning

Actions posted at the end of a recent career development workshop

Actions speak louder than words, so the saying goes. In other words, saying that you’re going to do something is one thing, but then actually doing it is quite another. Spend too long thinking about what you want to do and it could be called procrastination.

Sometimes, when you have too much to do, you can feel completely overwhelmed and ‘paralysed into inaction’. And of course, there’s always those ‘displacement activities’, such as cleaning the house, that keep you busy when you know you should be getting on with more important things.  

So how can you help yourself to stick to your plans and take action to realise your goals? Well, according to several studies, if you write down your goals, it’s more likely that you’ll act on them. For example, Professor Gail Matthews found that those people who wrote down their goals were 42% more likely to achieve them.

Being conscious of the fact that many PhD and postdoctoral researchers are time poor and have a lot to do (to say the least), it’s clear that those who sign up for my career workshops, or individual coaching sessions, need to make the most of these out-of-the-lab trainings, so that they can justify their attendance to themselves, as well as to their supervisor. They will also need to feel that the coaching and trainings will be of value to them, with plenty of insights and information to help them with their career development and planning.

With this in mind, I always ask participants of my career workshops and coaching sessions to write down some short- or longer-term actions, or what I call, ‘Good Intentions’, that will help them with their career planning. Sometimes, I even ask them to place their action(s) into a self-addressed envelope that I post back to them after a few weeks to remind them of these intentions.

So what kinds of action do PhD and postdoctoral researchers identify as being productive towards their career development and planning at the end of my sessions? The above infographic picks out some of the recent actions identified at the end of one of my workshops and, of course, there are many more.

  • Update my CV [many PhD and postdoctoral researchers still have the CV that they used to apply for their current position];
  • Investigate the job market and look for opportunities beyond academia;
  • Contact people associated with careers of interest;
  • Update or set up a LinkedIn profile to assist in visibility and networking;
  • Consider the kinds of questions that may be asked at interview and how to answer them.

Following on from these ‘Good Intentions’, I also use evaluation forms to assess the efficacy of my trainings, which I send out a few weeks later, including the important question, “What action have you taken since attending the workshop?”. The results are always very interesting and satisfying, when I see that participants have been taking action, sometimes with some really positive results.

So, I leave you with the question: What actions will you write down to ensure that you’ll carry them through and achieve your career goals? Over to you …..

BlogSB vs ChatGPT

This could make me lazy …..

I recently discovered ChatGPT, the new AI tool that is set to revolutionise the world as we know it. Whatever you think about it – good, bad, indifferent – it can’t be ignored.

As you can imagine, it’s not often that a new technology comes along that quite radically and fundamentally affects my work as a career consultant. Obviously, Zoom and various online learning tools helped me to adapt to online delivery during lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, and I still continue to use this teaching method with great results (and with expert assistance from a digital learning designer, Virginie Siret).

But now, here’s this new ChatGPT assistant at my disposal to help me in all sorts of ways I had never imagined. It seems it is highly adept at writing articles, essays, reports and many other documents, including CVs and covering letters.

Of course, you need to plug in the right questions and supply it with quite concise information to get anything of value back, but I have to say it’s quite impressive without too much prompting. I’ve already asked it to adapt an academic CV to suit an industry job description and, I have to say, the result wasn’t too bad (although it’s still a work in progress).

Then I thought, why not see if it can write my monthly blog, so here’s what I did:

My prompt:

I’m a careers adviser who supports bioscience PhD students and postdoctoral researchers with their career planning and development to help them to succeed in their careers. Can you write me a blog post of 500 words in a chatty and personable style on the subject of how to translate academic skills into skills that are valued by industry?

ChatGPT result:

Hey there! Are you a PhD student or postdoc struggling to articulate how your academic skills and experience can be applied in an industry setting? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s a common challenge, but there are some strategies you can use to help you translate your academic skills into skills that are valued by industry.

First, it’s important to analyze your transferable skills. These are skills that you’ve developed through your academic work that can be applied in different contexts and are valued by employers. Examples of transferable skills for bioscience PhD students and postdocs include problem-solving, data analysis, communication, and project management. Once you’ve identified your transferable skills, you can start thinking about how you can apply them in an industry setting.

Next, when you’re communicating with employers, it’s important to use industry language. This means avoiding technical terms and jargon that are specific to your field, and instead using language that is relevant to the industry you’re targeting. For example, instead of talking about gene editing techniques, you could talk about your expertise in using cutting-edge technology to solve complex problems.

Another important strategy is to focus on outcomes. In academia, the focus is often on the process of research, but in industry, employers are interested in results. They want to know what you can do for them and how you can contribute to their organization. When you’re talking about your academic experience, focus on the outcomes of your research and how they could be applied in an industry setting. For example, if you have experience developing new drugs, highlight the potential impact that your work could have on patients and the healthcare industry.

Gaining industry experience is also key. One of the best ways to translate academic skills into industry skills is to gain experience in an industry setting through internships, work placements, or volunteering opportunities. By working in an industry setting, you’ll gain an understanding of the skills and experience that are valued by employers, and you’ll have the opportunity to build a network of industry contacts that could help you find a job.

Lastly, seeking advice and guidance from professional careers advisers, alumni from your university who have gone on to work in industry, or professionals working in the industry you’re interested in, can be invaluable. These people can provide you with insights into what employers are looking for and how to make yourself stand out in a competitive job market.

In conclusion, translating academic skills into industry skills can be challenging, but it’s definitely doable. By analyzing your transferable skills, using industry language, focusing on outcomes, gaining industry experience, and seeking advice and guidance, you can position yourself as a strong candidate for jobs in industry. So go out there and show them what you’ve got!

So, what do you think? Not bad as an initial starting point, and I like the assertion in paragraph 6 that it’s important to seek professional advice and guidance.

Will I continue to use ChatGPT? Yes, most definitely – it will be an invaluable tool to assist in tasks such CV writing, locating employers and professionals, as well as other career-related activities. I also plan to show researchers how they can use it to help with their career planning, once I get the hang of it!

Will I use it to write future blogs? The answer to that question is a resounding “No”. I enjoy writing my blogs and draw upon my own experiences and perspective to make them as relevant to my readers as possible.

So, BlogSB 1 – 0 ChatGPT

Career Wordle

New York Times Wordle – My results (605, 607 and 609)

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Ten words that perhaps make you shudder when you recall them from your childhood. Or, maybe you think about this question quite favourably as you remember your innocent younger self responding with answers such as, “an astronaut”, “a TV star”, “a princess”, “footballer”, etc.

In my day (1960/70s), our knowledge of the job market was more limited and conventional, so we were more likely to reply with jobs such as nurse, doctor, teacher or train driver. In fact, my brother’s friend did exactly that and realised his dream to become a train driver. And, of course, many kids grew up to become doctors, nurses, teachers and careers advisers …..

Ha ha, no, only kidding! I didn’t know anyone who aspired to be a careers adviser, and I still don’t! Did you reply to say you wanted to be a postdoctoral researcher? Not likely. But perhaps you replied with “I want to be a scientist”. Careers like careers adviser, science programme coordinator, bioinformatician, data analyst, academic, etc., are jobs that you hear about and grow into later in life, after you’ve tried other things.

And that brings me to my Career Wordle analogy for this month’s blog: If you’ve not played the rather addictive New York Times Wordle word game, I warn you, it may take over your life, as you strive to guess a 5-letter word in six guesses. Let me explain its relevance to careers:

The first guess in Wordle is just that – you have no information to go on, you just pick a 5-letter word and try it out to see how many of the letters are correct – some in the right place (green), some correct but in the wrong place (yellow) and the rest that are just wrong and don’t appear in the word at all (grey).

As depicted in the infographic above, the first Wordle result (on the left-hand side) means that I got it in one! My first attempt in something like over 300 tries [the word was ‘sound’ in case you’re interested]. I was so proud, even though it wasn’t a great achievement. It was just a great guess.

And perhaps that’s what your first guess at a career was too – just that, a sound guess, a shot in the dark. Perhaps you wanted to be a scientist and here you are now, a scientist…. Although many researchers label themselves on LinkedIn as a PhD student or postdoc (not a good idea).

Dimitri

Or maybe you started out aspiring to careers such as “astronomer”, “farmer”, “pop star” or “vet”? That last one was me – I wanted to be a vet, so that I could help animals to get better. However, as I grew up and had more information at my disposal, I realised that I wasn’t clever enough to get the grades to go to vet school and, in any case, I don’t think I had the stomach for surgery or euthanasia. So, instead, I got a pet, did Biology at university, after which I did research, then journal management, followed by education and public affairs, finally ending up where I am now – a careers adviser specialising in supporting academic researchers.

And this brings me to the middle Wordle infographic analogy – I tried out a few letters, saw what fitted, ignored the ones that didn’t and finally got to the ‘right answer’. This was not a guess anymore. Vet was my initial guess, but it didn’t fit with my own skills and values. It was ‘helping’ that I took with me, as well as realising my creativity and intuition along the way and placing myself in the world of science, but working with researchers, not in research.

So, what about you? Where are you now? How did you get here? And where are you headed?

Did you get your Career Wordle in one? Did you guess correctly and end up doing what you said you’d be doing when you replied to the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question. If so, are you where you want to be, or would you prefer to be doing something else? What new letters would you like to add to your career to make it ‘perfect’?

Or perhaps, you’re a ‘work in progress’? This is more likely, especially at your career stage. Perhaps, you’re refining your career right now, looking for the last letter to complete your career story? Conceivably, you’re still at Line 3 and working your way towards Line 6, as depicted in the final infographic on the right-hand side.

What information do you need to help you to complete your Career Wordle journey? Having tried things out during your career so far, you know what you don’t like doing, and what you don’t want to feature in your future jobs. So, what do you want to include – consider the skills, interests, values and other factors that are important to you, that you enjoy and are good at. Perhaps you are doing some of these things on a voluntary basis right now, like teaching or outreach and you want to incorporate them into the heart of your next job (and get paid for them too!). Maybe you are a technical expert, who wants to add more of this into the mix in the future. Or perhaps you’re more interested in your work:life balance and are looking at ways to stabilise your current career rollercoaster life style.

Whatever your ‘Career Wordle’ stage, my advice is to keep learning, keep researching and keep growing. Not your research (but that’s important). You. Focus on the researcher for a change and see how you can investigate, discover, develop and enhance yourself. What are your talents? What’s important to you? Where do you want to go in the future? Make use of information and advice and, on that note, hopefully this and some of my other Biosciencecareers blogs will help you to answer some of these questions.

Happy Career Wordling!

“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.

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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?

Examples!

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

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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.