Feel the fear and do it anyway

I did something for the very first time at the weekend. I went kayaking! Not that amazing, I hear you say. But it was exciting for me, as I’d never done it before. I had to learn a lot of new skills, such as how to launch the boat into the water, getting in and out of it (stylishly), as well as mastering the art of synchronised paddle technique. It’s not often that I do something new and it did feel a bit scary, but that’s what happens when you move out of your comfort zone. As Susan Jeffers says in her famous book: “Feel the fear and do it anyway”.

In terms of career development, we all need to keep growing and learning new skills to sustain our employability. Even during and after a PhD, there’s a constant need to keep updating knowledge and capabilities, especially in these times of constantly evolving technologies, globalisation and unanticipated calamitous events, such as the pandemic. In this blog, I will set out three ideas that illustrate the concept of career growth:

Figure from https://positivepsychology.com/comfort-zone/
  • ‘Leaving the comfort zone model’. This model illustrates how, in order to grow, we must first leave the safety of our ‘comfort zone’, overcome our fears and then submit ourselves to the zone of learning. Stepping into the fear zone is the first and most scary step and can involve feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability. However with learning and practice comes confidence and a new purpose as we grow and develop.

Recently, I ran a career development workshop, in which I introduced postdoctoral researchers to activities and skills associated with effective networking. Some of the participants were hesitant and wary to start with – they were venturing from their zone of fear into the learning zone. However, by the end of the workshop, armed with new knowledge and resources and having had the chance to do some interactive rehearsals, they were more confident to put their learning into practice for real. Post-workshop feedback showed that many had already entered the growth zone, saying they had identified new networking opportunities, refreshed their LinkedIn profile and were already making new contacts!

  • Planned Happenstance. This is a career planning model that sets out how to harness chance events to our career advantage. Proposed by a well-renowed career academic, John Krumboltz, the key behaviours associated with harnessing chance and creating ‘luck’ moments include, being positive and proactive, being flexible and adaptable and being willing to take a risk. By ‘risk’, what the authors of the Planned Happenstance theory mean is doing something that is uncertain and potentially unsafe, i.e. stepping into the unknown. It’s this more risky area that can yield great results.

When I was trying to break into the careers advisory sector, I was unexpectedly offered a 3-month position as a university careers adviser. Even though I already had a very secure permanent role in publishing at the time, I chose to step out of my comfort zone and take the risk to grab this chance opportunity. I believed (rightly as it turned out) that even if it didn’t extend to a permanent position, the experiences gained would help me to apply for similar career posts in the future. These happenstance moments, which are usually referred to as ‘luck’, are often the turning point in people’s careers – it certainly proved to be so in my case and the rest is history as they say …..

  • Be a lobster! In this video, Rabbi Dr Abraham Twerski uses the metaphor of a lobster shedding its shell to demonstrate the feeling of needing to change one’s situation as it becomes unbearably comfortable. During the lead up to a career transition, the prospect of change can be very daunting, especially if there’s a sense of being pushed out. However as the stresses and strains increase, this fear is overridden by a very real need to move on, as demonstrated in the transition figure above. The so-called ‘shedding’ process makes one vulnerable at first, but as the hard shell forms a new life begins, with a new sense of expansion and growth.

Transition can be a difficult process, especially for long-term researchers who have been in the academic system for many years, and who are now aiming to move into industry or business. It can seem a daunting prospect, with associated feelings of denial or even depression. However, as the situation becomes more uncomfortable and untenable it acts as an incentive to make the move. Career guidance and support can assist researchers moving out of academia, offering help with aspects such as self-presentation, job seeking strategies, information about employers and interview technique. The good news is that the vast majority of researchers who leave academia report that they are enjoying their new and rewarding non-academic careers (e.g. see PhD Career Stories).

As for me, I hear that our kayak can cope with grade 4 white water rafting, but that may a bit too far away from my comfort zone for the time being!

Related post: Do you feel lucky?

Careers – the planned and the downright unplanned

Keep learning to keep earning

The Business of Knowledge

Translating ‘knowledge’ into careers

How would you sum up the central purpose of academia in one word? As a doctoral or postdoctoral researcher, what is your core business? The answer, I would venture, is KNOWLEDGE.

Academic researchers are knowledge professionals whose fundamental role is to answer a question, or to discover something new that no-one knew about before. To achieve this, you design research protocols, employ or devise new technology, interpret your findings, reach conclusions and disseminate them to others. As a knowledge professional, publications are the mark of your productivity and success*.

In addition to these core activities, there are many other responsibilities that support the knowledge process, such as: learning about others’ research, collaborating, teaching, supervising, managing, problem-solving, outreach, creativity, finding funding, being collegiate, considering the bigger societal perspective, and many more!

In my infographic above, I’ve split these academic ‘knowledge activities’ into three major categories to demonstrate the range of skills associated with each of them and how they can translate into a variety of careers:


CREATE: Creating knowledge is at the heart of a PhD or postdoc project and includes the processes connected with research, such as generating a hypothesis, devising methods and designing experiments to test it, using ethical and objective approaches. The data generated must be analysed and interpreted in relation to the knowledge landscape associated with this discipline, and then translated into communications, such as journal papers, conference presentations, general interest articles and even as the subject of media stories. The skills developed from these experiences lend themselves to a variety of research and analytical roles, both within and outside of academia.

For example, if you love doing research, and have lots of new research ideas, you might prefer to continue within academia to secure a fellowship or permanent position, ultimately establishing your own research group. Depending on the research institute or university, you may have a teaching obligation, be expected to conduct multi-disciplinary projects, or apply for international research grants. All of these complementary activities will count towards your application success to one degree or another, according to the institution’s priorities.

Depending on the areas of research you prefer, you may decide to develop further your enjoyment of technology and apply it to research and technical careers within industry, or even combine it with a love of teaching into emerging roles, such as digital learning and educational technology. On the other hand, you may prefer to direct your career to the multitude of other career sectors that welcome experienced professional researchers, for example, working in sectors such as policy and think tank governmental or private organisations, the media and finance.

COMMUNICATE: Many PhD researchers enjoy communicating their science in more creative ways, beyond the prescribed academic journal format. During the last few decades, more and more opportunities have arisen for researchers with a penchant for creative communication to get involved in all sorts of initiatives alongside their core research. This can range from helping out at local school visit days, through to external activities such as volunteering in a science centre or museum, creating interactive displays at Summer science festivals or producing on-line videos for the world to see. I have witnessed some amazing creations by PhD students who find these more creative endeavours a welcome release from some of the more routine tasks associated with their research.

Relatively recent, more formal initiatives, have enabled researchers to learn how to communicate science in an engaging way, such as ‘Falling Walls’ and the 3-Minute Thesis (3MT). Organisations such as Euroscience, the British Science Association and Pint of Science provide a platform for researchers to disseminate their science, and there are even initiatives to allow researchers to do outreach in their own native language. For some (many, even), this experience ignites a desire to pursue science communication as a career – and there are a multitude of options to choose from: presenting, writing, interviewing, blogging, creating videos, infographics and podcasts, to name but a few.

CONVERT: The majority of big research funders, nowadays, require academic researchers to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of their research beyond the academic community, such as its wider communication and also as technology transfer in the form of products, materials, mechanisms, services, biotechnology and methodologies. Many PhD researchers are interested in the more enterprising side of science and are stimulated by the idea of producing something tangible from research beyond a journal paper. They are inspired to move out of academia and into business and industry to put their entrepreneurial aspirations into action.

However, the transition can be quite challenging, since many researchers do not get the opportunity to actually demonstrate their enterprising skills during the course of their PhD. Having said that though, there are ways and means for researchers to engage in associated research activities that will add value to their CV. For example, connecting with their university management school, attending in-house and external courses/events and getting real-life experience through an internship, networking with alumni, or by applying for structured business-academic partnership projects, such as Code-Switch Consultants and YESBiotechnology. In this way, researchers can really test out their research innovation potential, with a view to forging a new career path for themselves.  

I hope this (rather longer than I had intended) blog has given you some useful ideas about how to put your professional KNOWLEDGE skills and experience to good use, whether it’s to remain in academia or to move into business and industry.

Footnote: *although indicators, such as the H-index, are coming under scrutiny as a limited measure of a researcher’s quality and potential.

Related blog: Knowledge is Power

Micro-Awards : Macro-Rewards

Image credit: Unsplash

“One of my favourite hobbies is to learn new skills”, a PhD student told me recently, during an individual careers interview. She was impressive: very proactive and positive about her career, with the clear aim of finding a role that would combine both her science and her interest in business. To this end, she’d been getting involved in lots of side-projects during her PhD, for example, working in teams and organising activities, done two short internships, and had taken some on-line courses related to business. Now, at the end of her PhD, she had positioned herself well to be able to transition out of the lab and into a commercial role; her CV demonstrated well her scientific expertise, relevant interpersonal skills and a commitment to business, evidenced by credentials she had acquired as a result of short on-line courses she had attended.

‘Micro-credentials’, ‘mini-qualifications’ and ‘nanodegrees’ are a new type of vocational training course designed to upskill a person so that they can demonstrate a level of knowledge or skill in a niche subject or capability. They’re not necessarily accredited and you don’t always get a certificate at the end of the course, however they are gaining traction across many areas of society, allowing people to upskill themselves in line with the requirements of their current job, or to break into a new career or role. According to the European Commission: “A micro-credential is a qualification , evidencing learning outcomes acquired through a short, transparently-assessed course or module. They may be completed on-site, online or in a blended format.” With increasing numbers of these short courses emerging onto the education market, and with a surge in on-line provision, the EU recently launched a public consultation on 20th April to seek a common definition for ‘micro-credentials’ to ensure quality and cross-border parity.

As a PhD or postdoctoral researcher, you can also benefit from these types of short courses to help enhance your PhD qualification and experiences. Your career aims will determine your choice of course, for example:

Career aim Relevant micro-credential courses *
Academic career EMBO Lab leadership course
Grant writing – various courses offered on-line
Teaching recognition
Science specialist Summer schools, e.g. Lab skills
GOBLET – Bioinformatics training
Clinical Research Associate
Enterprise/entrepreneurship Entrepreneurship (DKFZ)
YES Biotechnology
Business/Management Summer schools (e.g. EIT Health)
SoSMSE – scientists into business
Science communication Nature Masterclass
University courses in Europe, e.g. UWE, Potsdam

*Note that I have no vested interest in any of these courses, which I have chosen at random to illustrate the subject of my blog.

You will most probably have heard of MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Courses). These are free on-line courses that cover a wide range of topics. For example, I searched for ‘Bioinformatics’ and came up with seven courses including, “Introduction to genomic data science”, “How to analyze a microbiome” and “Essentials of genomics and biomedical informatics”. Coursera is a well-known MOOC provider, partnering with universities and other organisations to offer courses such as “University teaching”, “3D data visualization for science communication” and “Clinical data science”.

So, whatever your career plans, in addition to engaging with extra-PhD activities that will enhance your employability, why not consider the opportunity to gain ‘micro-credentials’ to help professionalise these experiences, with the reward of being able to convince a prospective employer of your commitment to this new role.

Related blogs:

Keep learning to keep earning
Think ‘Skill’ not DPhil

Reflections on a virtual year

This time last year, on the 31st March 2020, I delivered my very first interactive virtual career workshop. Using Zoom and other on-line learning tools that, only a few weeks before, I had never even heard of, and together with an education technology co-host, whom I had only met ‘virtually’ during the same period, I engaged PhD and postdoctoral researchers in a series of presentations, breakout discussions, exercises, reflection and even peer coaching.

With positive and encouraging post-workshop feedback from the participants, and with a spring in my step (well, in the hands on my keyboard), I took a leap of faith and ‘pivoted’ all my subsequent workshops to online. So, here I am 12 months later with what feels like a lifetime of virtual experience and exponential learning that I have gleaned through webinars, trial and error and informal discussions with career and education development professionals. Having formerly considered myself to be settled in my routine of in-person workshop delivery, I am now a fully-fledged e-career development adviser and coach!

And what about you? What’s your story? What changes did you have to make to enable you to adapt to the sudden and life-changing pandemic? How have you coped? I heard today that one of the UK’s major funding councils has issued the following statement for those applying for grants in the near future: CVs can be used to describe personal COVID impacts; peer reviewers will be encouraged to consider the impacts of COVID on researchers and their careers.

It’s likely that other funders will act similarly, inviting researchers to justify their alternative activities during periods of restricted lab access. I would not be surprised to see employers doing the same, both within and outside of academia.

For every downside of a situation (and we’re talking about a very big downside in the case of Covid-19), there are also positives to be gained. Our collective experience of the pandemic perhaps enabled us to more readily empathise and understand the difficulties that we’ve had to endure during the past year, with people differentially affected in terms of work, finances, emotional support, caring duties, mental health and more. For PhD and postdoctoral researchers, this has meant a combination of interrupted (and sometimes ruined) experiments, delayed research progress, reduced communication and contact with peers, lower levels of supervision and support from PIs – who have had to switch to on-line lectures or turn their attention to safeguarding their department or institution – coupled with increased personal commitments, that have all taken their toll to some degree (reported by, for example, in a survey conducted by Vitae, 2020; in primary papers, Myers et al, 2020; Weiner et al, 2020 and a mix of personal accounts from PhD students Khan 2020, some of whom included some positive experiences).

Are you able to identify any upsides in the past year? Have there been changes for the better that you’d like to see remain in place in the future? Here are some of my thoughts on this matter, derived from my own professional and personal experiences. You are very welcome to add yours:

  • One major upside for me is to have been able to take part in, and contribute to, conferences I would never normally have been able to attend as they were too far away, too awkward to get to, or didn’t fit in with my working schedule. In previous times, I have exhausted myself trying to juggle meetings, organise transport logistics and book hotels. Now it’s all done on the computer in my home office. Not very exciting, it’s true, but much more convenient.
  • Many conference registration fees have been drastically reduced or even offered free of charge, making these meetings far more accessible to those operating on limited budgets. What with this and the virtual accessibility of meetings, I have witnessed a much-enhanced diversity of participants. Having been involved in many equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives in a former role, our new way of operating has certainly opened up opportunities and welcomed the world into a new virtual space, beyond previous expectations.
  • Networking in person has virtually disappeared (quite literally) in the past 12 months, however e-networking has gone some way to replace it. And whilst physical interaction has always been considered to be the preferred type of engagement, e-networking has allowed for other types of communication to come to the fore. For example, interacting in small virtual breakout rooms, sharing publications, new ideas and other information on platforms such as LinkedIn, Researchgate and specialist discussion groups, or contacting people more directly by email or phone.
  • On-line job interviews via Skype, Zoom and other media has increased the accessibility of new job opportunities, and the on-line interview has its benefits: the interviewee is often in a more comfortable and familiar environment, with the possibility to feel more relaxed and even to create advantages such as having access to prompt cards, out of view of the interviewers during questioning.
  • Work:life balance for some has been a positive experience, reducing stresses such as commuting long distances, exposure to pollution and the vagaries of public transport. Furthermore, for some, spending more time with family has been an unexpected bonus.
  • Social media such as LinkedIn and Twitter have, from what I have seen, acted as havens for some members of the academic community to share experiences, offer support to each other and even include lighter and more humorous moments to help get through the bad times. Those of us who have helped to provide support in whatever way we can, have also benefited from sharing information and advice with our own communities.
  • More miscellaneous social media posts have acted as interesting distractions, with people posting pictures of their pets, scenic evening walks and also random questions, such as how do you sign off your emails? Responses to this particular enquiry included “Best wishes”, “Kind regards”, “Cheers” and “Sincerely yours”, depending on the familiarity of the communication. Nowadays, perhaps a more appropriate example would be “Virtually yours”.

And on that note, I will sign off and wish you all good physical and mental health.

Picking a postdoc

Not all postdocs are the same

Choosing the ‘right’ postdoctoral position can be critical to career success and even to the mental health and well-being of early career researchers. I remember at the start of a career counselling interview, a postdoc once telling me that she felt less confident as a postdoc than she had as a PhD student. During the hour-long session it emerged that the work environment, research topic and location of her postdoc were all contributing factors to her current state of mind. If she could have her time again, my client said she would have chosen differently.

Research from surveys of doctoral destinations (e.g. European Science Foundation 2017; Vitae 2008/10) show that a high proportion of PhD students in the Life Sciences (and other disciplines) continue their careers within the academic research sector as postdoctoral researchers. The reasons for this are many and varied but, fundamentally, graduates say they have enjoyed their PhD research and are keen to extend this experience as a postdoctoral researcher and, of course, for many, to go on to secure a permanent academic position. Perhaps this applies to you too.

Postdoctoral research positions are relatively easy to secure compared to moving into industry, due to the familiarity of the work culture, network connections and specific research knowledge, as well as being able to demonstrate directly relevant experience and skills in applications and interviews. Most non-academic employers welcome applicants with postdoctoral experience, especially into research-related posts, if the applicant can demonstrate associated interpersonal skills alongside their research and technical abilities.

Doing a postdoc after a PhD can be a very good career decision for doctoral graduates. The issue isn’t whether or not to do one, it’s making sure to pick the ‘right’ postdoc to suit you and your career aspirations. Here, I list four key questions to consider when making your decision:


Consider first your motivation for continuing on to do a postdoctoral post. What do you want to achieve from it and how will it contribute to your continuing professional development? What will it add to your current skills and experience and how will this contribute to your securing your next job, whether within or outside of academia? If you’re aiming for a permanent academic position in a University, you might look for a postdoctoral position that allows you to develop new avenues of research to gain your independence or that involves a student focus to help you to build up your teaching and pastoral portfolio. If, however, you intend to move into industry after your postdoc, you might benefit from a research project that is more applied, that helps you to build and develop the skills you will need in your future industry-based career. Perhaps the research group is collaborating with a company, a hospital or start-up enterprise or maybe the research programme offers the opportunity to get entrepreneurial training or to do an internship.

Of course, a research career outside of academia is not wholly reliant on postdoctoral experience so, on reflection, you may decide to bypass this option and move directly to investigating and applying for industry/business research opportunities. And, if it transpires that research is not at the heart of your career ambitions, you may want to reconsider your motivation to take up a postdoctoral position when you could be moving ahead and gaining experience within your chosen career of interest.


Some PhD graduates continue to pursue their current research interests within another research group in a similar field, or even within the same group. It’s important to be motivated, and even passionate, about your research topic, but bear in mind what new learning and experiences you’ll develop in your new post that will take your career forward. Using the same techniques and working with the same people will not extend your horizons in terms of your research profile, network and employability. Moving outside of your current field of interest may be a challenging prospect, but consider how your skills will be of value to another research field, as well as networking with them to gain their confidence.  

You may wish to continue to develop your research-associated experiences such as outreach, enterprise or organisational activities with which you’ve been engaging during your PhD. Some postdoctoral positions offer these types of opportunities and may even be partnering with, for example, a charity, non-governmental or policy organisation as part of the research project. If your long-term career goal is to transition into these kinds of organisations, this type of postdoctoral experience will help you develop your skills, expertise and network relevant to the sector.  


I advise and deliver career workshops on academic mobility – should I stay or should I go? It’s a dilemma for many PhD students and postdoctoral researchers as they progress in their careers. The key question to ask yourself is not whether or not you should move, it’s why you should move. Is it to gain experience, access to particular research facilities or insights from another leader in the field and their research group? Is it because there are more opportunities to undertake your research in another country? Do you really need to move far away for a long time, or could you stay locally and do short visits and build collaborations remotely instead? Applying for your own postdoctoral fellowship, where you can choose your host research group, can give you more control over this decision, so that you are not reliant on the availability of advertised posts. In many cases, academic mobility involves compromises to work:life balance, personal and professional relationships. It’s a decision that is peculiar to each person’s own situation and can be influenced according to their life/career stage.


  • Do your research. Adapt your research project skills towards researching your next postdoctoral position.
  • Start early and familiarise yourself with types of postdoctoral posts, research groups/institutions of interest.
  • Get advice from your current supervisor, postdoctorals and/or collaborators.
  • Do your homework in detail – academic research groups are very visible on the internet via their own webpages, Researchgate, LinkedIn and Twitter. Find out what they are doing, read about their research, investigate who’s in the group now and the destinations of former group members.
  • Consider what you could add to their research that complements or extends their capabilities with potential to create new data and new avenues of research, leading to publications.
  • Network with relevant people during conferences, on social media or even via a direct email to a research group leader (recent research from EMBL shows that the majority of postdocs secured their first post by writing speculatively).
  • Focus on your own current research expertise and figure out how you could improve your profile, e.g. by learning or building on research skills, extending your network, filling gaps in your experience and perfecting your CV and interview technique to present yourself at your best.

If you know the ‘why, what, where and how’ of your career decision to do a particular postdoctoral position (or any job), you will likely be more successful in your applications, more genuine and knowledgeable about your motivations to take up the post, as well as more confident and happy in your new-found role.

Wishing you success!

Career development – it’s personal

As we enter a new year (after a seemingly never-ending January), many of us will be reflecting on our progress so far in 2021. If, like me, you’re poised to renew your yet-to-start New Year Resolutions, maybe it’s a good time to reflect on your intended goals in terms of what’s possible and what’s realistic.

It’s easy to overload ourselves with a long list of aspirations, trying to make up for end-of-year December lethargy and distractions. However, if you look back at your achievements in the previous year, do you really feel disappointed with your accomplishments? These days, just getting through the month can be a success in itself, let alone expecting high-level productivity, whatever that may mean for you personally.

So, how can you set out a realistic personal development plan over the coming months so that you don’t overload yourself? How can you improve on your employability to help you to transition to your next role, even if that’s months or years in the future? We all have gaps in our experience and skills that need to be filled to increase our chances to secure our next job or to win promotion, but we need to balance that with the everyday activities in our current role.

As a careers adviser and educator, I help PhD students and researchers, individually and in groups, to consider the kinds of activities they can do to help increase their employability depending on their career ambitions. Due to research obligations and time limitations, it’s important that personal development is targeted to the right kinds of actions so that they’re fruitful and improve employment prospects.

With this in mind, I recently adapted my PhD Career Choice Indicator (PhDCCI), replacing current skills and interests with future activities that link with career objectives. At its heart, the framework includes the more generic career planning and management essentials, such as self and labour market knowledge, networking and interview technique that are fundamental to making a successful career transition. On the periphery, the six categories distil out the individualised personal development needs targeted to different types of careers.

Based on the original theory of John Holland, the six categories of the PHDCCI – Functional, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising and Management – are described in my blog: “Decisions, decisions”, and demonstrate how enjoyment of particular skills and interests can provide clues to careers in which many of them are employed. By mapping this concept onto personal career development instead, PhD students and researchers can easily identify for themselves possible actions to assist them in enhancing their employability relevant to their career intentions.

For example, for those who are interested in a career in academia, activities associated with ‘Investigative’ and ‘Enterprising’ are important to assist them to develop their intellectual, collaborative and curiosity-driven capabilities and associated networks, helping them to build productive networks and relationships. On the other hand, those interested in more teaching-orientated academic positions might want to enhance their ‘Social’ teaching/support experiences and seek recognition or further professional qualifications.

Personal development activities such as those associated with ‘Functional’ and ‘Management’, will be of value to those considering a move into industry as a specialist scientist or researcher, where technical/programming skills coupled with proven management/teamworking experiences will be an asset. Furthermore, for those of an ‘Artistic’ disposition, who enjoy science communication, visuals and infographics, building up a portfolio of outreach or writing experiences will afford entry into associated professions such as public engagement and policy careers.

In addition to these types of activities, targeting particular social media and professional organisations helps to focus attention on just a limited number of communication outlets so as to avoid overload. LinkedIn tends to be a catch-all these days, although how you present yourself will differ according to your intentions. More specialist networks exist for most professions and it can be advantageous to connect with them to reach out to current professionals and hear about latest news, policies and even training opportunities and vacancies.

I hope you find the PhDCCI a useful additional tool to help with your career development. For my own part, I have a few training webinars lined up this year to refresh my coaching skills and tomorrow marks the first day of my “Dry February” (moved back from the originally intended Dry January). 😊

Job Entitlement

What is the difference between a researcher, a research analyst, a data analyst, a research engineer, a research scientist and a research associate? This was a question posed by one of the PhD participants of a career workshop I ran this year. It’s a good question, and not an easy one to answer! Recently, a survey conducted on the destinations of postdoctoral researchers was particularly frustrated by the variety of job titles bestowed on this role – I think they identified over 20!

In my former days as a university careers adviser, we had to track the career destinations of our graduates using a standardised list of job titles. This had been a logical strategy up until around the 1990s when new and more elaborate job titles began to emerge, including a wide range of ‘manager’ posts. This made our tracking system more and more obsolete until it was eventually updated with more modern job titles replacing the old ones (such as radio operator and bank clerk). I imagine this operation is still a difficult undertaking, especially when you consider new roles that now exist such as quant analyst, MSL, medical affairs, blogger and influencer. A favourite job title of mine that I came across a few years ago is “Maker” – someone who designs and builds exhibitions for museums and science centres. I also know someone who had a colon in her job title (Programme manager: researchers). If you try out a quick ‘people search’ yourself on LinkedIn, for example, you’ll find a cacophony of roles* yourself.

So how do you distil out the key activities and job requirements of these roles so that you can make sense of them and decide whether they are potential career opportunities suited to your interests and skills? Going back to the original question posed in my workshop, how can you decipher between the role of a research engineer and that of a research analyst, data analyst or researcher? Well, I would say that the answer lies in the question: research – research – research ! Just as you need to be creative in your literature searches during the course  of your scientific research to identify papers of interest and relevance to your own research, so you need to do the same for your job search. A limited keyword search limits the breadth of results you obtain in any research exercise, and it will also stifle your job search strategy.

Returning to the original question concerning job titles, my first quick internet search has revealed the following:

*Interestingly, if you do a search for ‘Scientist’ on LinkedIn, the majority of people who identify as a scientist work in business and industry, whilst those working in academia tend to identify as postdoctoral researchers, postdocs, research fellows, assistant and associate professors. Remember that question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As children, we were almost all faced with this question at some time or other. But how many current PhD researchers answered “Postdoc” or “Academic”? I’m guessing none. So, when you title yourself on LinkedIn and other social media, why not consider returning to those childhood dreams and use job titles such as Scientist, Research Scientist, Biomedical Scientist, Ecologist, Plant Scientist, etc. With a good profile, this may help companies, head-hunters and recruitment agencies to find you and who knows where that may lead …

Certainly, I never answered “Careers Adviser” when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up (I don’t know of anyone who did). I wanted to be a vet, but only much later did it occur to me that the underlying impetus for this career aspiration was to help, do good and improve quality of life. Many years later and after an initial Bioscience-related career, I started my transition to where I am now … but that’s another story and job title 😊

Related blog: https://biosciencecareers.org/2019/12/new-year-new-career.html

Steer your career

Is your PhD driving you crazy? Does it sometimes drive you up the wall and round the bend? Well, don’t worry. Just like learning to drive, you are behind the steering wheel of your PhD driving towards that day when you graduate and receive your certificate. Once that day comes, as with your driving licence, your doctorate will be yours for the rest of your life – no one can take it away from you!

So, when the going gets tough, such as your experiments aren’t working or you’re having a difference of opinion with your supervisor, imagine it’s a difficult driving manoeuvre such as a three-point turn or parallel parking. Keep your eye on the prize and remember these three analogies:     

  1. When you start your driving lessons, it’s hard to manage all the controls, look at the signs, check your speed and watch out for pedestrians. As you progress you get more adept at managing all of these tasks, so that by the time your driving test comes you are ready to go solo. Equally, your PhD is a learning process in which you are progressing over a 3-4-year period to gain enough knowledge, skills and expertise ultimately to go out on the big roads, whether it’s in the direction of an academic or non-academic career. So, don’t be hard on yourself when you’re going through difficult times and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your PhD is an apprenticeship during which time you can take advantage of all sorts of opportunities to help you build up skills and experiences to navigate your way to becoming a professional researcher.
  2. Like your PhD supervisor, your driving instructor is in overall control of your training and whether you get on with them or not, it’s up to them to help steer you to attain your ultimate goal – to pass your test. I remember my quite elderly and rather bad-tempered driving instructor being hard of hearing, so that any retorts I made to his remonstrations when I made an error fell, quite literally, on deaf ears. It meant I had to endure his criticisms knowing that anything I said in my defence would go unheard. It was a lesson in patience and endurance! On the upside, both my two brothers and I passed first time under his instruction. Whatever your relationship with your supervisor, good or bad, remember we all have our own personalities, strengths and weaknesses and the secret is to find a way to compromise, find common ground and to come to a resolution.
  3. Whatever driving school people choose, it’s likely they have had no prior experience of the company, just as you may not have had any experience of the department, university or research institute in which you are studying your PhD. Every institution has its own culture and work environment, some aspects of which you may enjoy and relish, whilst others may not be so fulfilling. For example, if you’re at a research institute and would prefer to be doing more student teaching and supervision, consider postdoc-ing at a university after your PhD. On the other hand, transfer into business or industry for a more applied, goal-oriented role or, choose something in communications if you’re a more people-centred person.

With your driving licence in hand, you can throw away your L-plate; the world of motorways, highways and autobahns is yours for the taking! Equally, your doctoral certificate will open up a whole variety of career routes to you. So, if your PhD is currently driving you to distraction, bear in mind that once it is completed you will be free to choose your own road to drive down. You can take a map, turn on the satellite navigation and plan your route, or just sit back and let your car(eer) take you wherever you want to go.

Related content: Making career choices

Speculate to Accumulate

Survey conducted by EMBL, posted on Twitter by Dr Rachel Coulthard-Graf

A recent survey of postdoctoral researchers by the EMBL careers department shows that the majority had secured their first postdoc position by writing speculatively to the principal investigator (PI). Writing directly in this way is a career strategy that I and other professionals recommend to PhD students and researchers, rather than waiting for a vacancy to arise. Not only is it flattering for the PI to be targeted, your letter will demonstrate proactivity and self-motivation, as well as your interest in and commitment to this work. It will definitely give you an advantage ….. or will it?

Beware! Speculation is a notoriously risky business. It can reap rewards, but equally it can leave you empty-handed or, worse still, it could go against you. In this blog I’ve listed six tips to help you to ensure your speculative letter accumulates interest rather than being damaging to your career capital.

Academic research is very specialised and is well known to postdoctoral researchers, who are aiming to become more established in the academic community. This makes the process of writing speculatively relatively straightforward because (presumably) they are knowledgeable, have the relevant experience and skills and can easily demonstrate their value to the PI and how they can contribute to the research programme. This is also true for those applying for research fellowships, where approaching a prospective host lab is a necessary part of the application. Even so, as this Nobel Laureate points out, applicants still get it wrong.

For those considering non-academic careers with employers unknown to them, or for which they have no prior experience, writing speculatively is more difficult. Without directly relevant experience, a network or patronage from those within the sector, speculators will have to work harder to formulate their strategy.

So, how can you make sure your speculative letter will work for you. Here are six tips to help you:

1. Make it personal. When writing speculatively, one thing’s for sure, the recipient will not be expecting your letter/message so you will have to work hard to get their attention and interest. First and foremost, this means you must write to a named person – never “Dear Sir/Madam” and definitely not to the Human Resources department. Imagine PIs and other senior managers receive dozens of unsolicited emails every day – if untargeted, unresearched and bland, they will delete them by default. To find potential people to write to on a speculative basis, research the research group, institute, university department or company website. Investigate social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Researchgate and use any contacts you have that will help you to find relevant people to whom you can direct your speculative letter.

2. Do your research. You never get a second chance to make a first impression so get it right first time! You have great research skills so put them to good use by investigating the researcher group/ professor/ company/ line manager/their products/publication etc – anything and everything that is relevant to this prospective employer/partner/collaborator. Incorporate the key information into your letter and match it to your experience and expertise. This will ensure that your speculative letter is ‘on message’ and will demonstrate your enthusiasm and commitment to them.

3. Use/build your network. If you’re applying speculatively for a postdoctoral or academic post, you have the advantage of already being in this academic network. Even so, you can still build and develop your network by, for example, identifying mentors who are willing to help and support you such as your current or previous supervisor or collaborators. To build a non-academic network start to make approaches to people in the career sector of interest to you. Find ‘connectors’; graduates/alumni of your current or previous universities who are doing these types of jobs; follow and connect with other employees of these sectors; make comments, re-tweet or share posts of interest; attend meetings and webinars to find speakers or other delegates to connect with. In this way, you will start to transition your way out of academia and into your career sector of interest.

4. Put yourself in their shoes.  The recipient of your speculative letter is not looking out for, or expecting, a communication from you so you need to grab their attention. This means keeping your letter short and on message. No long lead in, no detailed explanations. Get to the point immediately. Spell out the relevance of your experience and expertise to their work. Why you are interested in this role/company/career and what are you bringing that will add value to their organisation to take it forward and even give it an advantage over its competitors. Showing in your letter that you’ve done your ‘homework’ will demonstrate direction and commitment.

5. Be positive and compelling. All of these tips are relevant to writing a standard cover letter for an advertised job, for a speculative letter you just need to exaggerate the normal guidelines: Paragraph 1: Introduce yourself in the context of the aims of the research group/organisation; Paragraph 2: Focus on your experience, skills and expertise and how it matches with those of the research group/organisation; Paragraph 3: Add additional information and refer to key evidence on your CV/on-line profile (with url link); Paragraph 4: Finish on a positive note: For example, “I hope I have convinced you about my potential value to your research aims/service provision/product innovation etc and look forward to hearing your response. If you’d like to discuss this further, I am available for a call/skype at your convenience.” See my example below.

Example speculative letter compiled with Dr Jacopo Marino for a career workshop we co-presented in Zurich in 2016, since edited and updated.

6. Ensure your CV is in tip-top shape! In addition to your excellent speculative letter you should send your CV, which must also be on message and compelling. Going back almost 10 years, I have been blogging intermittently about CVs and covering letters. The information is still applicable today, so I hope you’ll find it useful for your own applications. I’ll continue to add more on the subject of applications in future posts, so watch out for new information and advice coming your way!

Is your CV working?
10 quick CV tips
Strike your PhD from your CV?
When and how to use personal profiles on your CV
CV identity crisis
Top 10 CV mistakes
Have you got your CV covered?

Doctorate vs Corporate

Top tip no. 6: Finding a work:life balance

With the majority of PhD students taking up careers outside of academia, how does life change when you move out of the university environment and into the corporate world? In this month’s blog I’m pleased to be hosting a guest blog by Caroline Wood, who secured her science policy post after graduating from the University of Sheffield just under a year ago. Here, she describes some observations she’s made during her first role on how the corporate world compares to life as a PhD student, including lessons learned and some useful top tips.   

Sorry – what is it that you do?

Within Academia, the roles are fairly straightforward: PhD student, post-doc, technician, lecturer and professor covers most people. However, in the corporate world I struggled to make sense of how the various teams fitted together and what everybody actually did. Even when I tried looking up people’s profiles on LinkedIn, their job titles were often meaningless to me. I wish now that I had asked my new colleagues to explain what they did on a day-to-day basis when we were first introduced, before it became too embarrassing to ask.

Top tip 1: When meeting new colleagues for the first time, it can be more informative to ask what their key activities and responsibilities are, rather than their job title.


I lost count of the number of ‘policy documents’ I read during my induction. There was an official document for everything: claiming expenses, responsible travel, GDPR, not to mention continuous cybersecurity and health & safety training. Of course, my PhD also involved training modules, but these were always directly relevant to my research: how to dispense liquid nitrogen safely for tissue sampling; the correct bin for radioactive waste, and so on. Although I could understand the necessity for corporate transparency and accountability, I knew that most of them would never be relevant to my work.

Top tip 2: Induction can seem like a never-ending marathon at times! If your organisation doesn’t provide an induction checklist, draw one up with your line manager so you can be sure that everything gets done as efficiently as possible.

Meetings galore

Throughout my PhD, I constantly struggled to pin down my super-busy supervisors for meetings to discuss my research. In stark contrast, the corporate world fills your calendar with meetings: team meetings, directorate meetings, all-staff updates, catch-ups with my line manager, etc. Once the coronavirus lockdown started and remote working became the norm, I really began to feel the effects of ‘Zoom fatigue’. When these on-line meetings lasted 90 minutes+ I, like many others, would struggle to focus, especially when issues of no relevance to my work were being discussed, meaning that I had nothing to contribute.

Top tip 3: Always go into a meeting with a clear aim of what you want to achieve, even if it is simply staying awake 😊 If the meeting isn’t directly relevant to your role, you can still use it to look out for colleagues with similar interests or overlapping responsibilities.

Creating creative opportunities

I’ve always loved coming up with new ideas and trying new approaches. During my PhD all I needed to do was get the go-ahead from my supervisor. This freedom to make decisions is more inhibited in the corporate world, where everything in the company is connected and so requires a more structured decision-making process. It felt as though all my suggestions had to be escalated through a chain of people until they reached someone with the power to make a decision. Consequently, many of my ideas simply disappeared into a void.

Top tip 4: Try to find out who are the key gatekeepers – the people who have the ability to introduce change – and approach them with your ideas. If your creative suggestions meet hesitation, aim to channel your enthusiasm into areas outside work instead, such as voluntary and freelance work.

Finding friends

It can be more challenging to meet people without the organised societies, interest groups and journal clubs that the academic world typically provides. Nevertheless, with a little detective work and initiative, I soon found people with common interests. Through the staff intranet, I found groups for arts & crafts, sustainability issues, climate change activism and a host of sports societies. Keen to improve my foreign language skills, I put up posters inviting people to an informal French meet-up and soon a group of us were convening every Wednesday to chat in French during our lunch break.

Top tip 5: Make the most of the intranet, staff forums and even coffee-break chat to find groups to join. But don’t be afraid to start something new if something doesn’t already exist!

Finding a work:life balance

One aspect that did improve hugely in my corporate role was my work-life balance. During my PhD, most of my fellow students frequently worked past 7pm, and I often had to go in at weekends to water my plants or use equipment that was usually booked and unavailable during the week. Now, my colleagues were actually ‘clocking off’ at sensible times and I discovered the joy of bank holidays and paid leave! What’s more, I could relax and enjoy this time, rather than spending it reading a backlog of new papers or planning my next experiments. Even if I wanted to work at weekends, it was seen as a sign that I was struggling to fulfil my core duties, rather than a show of dedication. This gave me more time to recharge my batteries, and I gradually lost that ‘burn-out’ feeling that was so prevalent during my research days.

Top tip 6: Find out in advance when public holidays and privilege days are so you can make the most of your leave and plan some extended weekends away. I always seemed to find out at the last minute when it was too late to organise anything!

Since writing this blog, Caroline has taken up a new role in Science Communication at the University of Oxford.