Desiderata: “Things desired”

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann

Desiderata, published in 1927 by American poet, Max Erhmann, was sent to me via a friend/colleague this week as part of an uplifting poetry exchange through Women Leaders. I hope you found it as enjoyable as I did. Perhaps you have something positive and inspirational to share with your friends and colleagues to give them a boost during these times of separation and isolation. Wishing you good spirits and contentment.

The heart of the matter

On this Valentine’s Day spare a thought (or feeling) for your heart when making decisions. Otherwise known as your intuition or ‘gut feeling’, the sense of right or wrong and yes or no that you experience when making important decisions can sometimes better inform you than the logical process associated with ‘thinking with your head’. Whilst weighing up the advantages and disadvantages, referring to facts and data, and taking advice from others should definitely be a consideration, your heart can tell you what you really feel about a situation, helping you to feel more confident and self-assured about tackling your more difficult decisions.

For example, many years ago I was considering getting a dog. I spent many months mulling over the practical implications, worrying about what could go wrong. However, once my heart and instincts took over, I decided to take a leap of faith and it ended up being one of the best decisions I ever made, culminating in 10 years shared with the most wonderful companion. Another time I was offered a job and, although instinctively I felt it wasn’t right for me, having weighed up the pros and cons and the reality of needing a salary, I took it. However, after just over a year I had given it up! It had served me well in terms of new experiences, but it was not for me – my heart had been correct. Following that landmark decision, scarey as it was at the time, my career took a turn for the better and I have never looked back 😊

When making career decisions, it can sometimes be overwhelming and even frightening to consider new types of careers about which you know very little, apart from what you have read and heard about. If it’s a career that’s quite different from what you are already familiar and the job itself is in a far-flung location, removed from your colleagues, friends and family, the apprehension can be even greater. Most PhD students and researchers will end up in careers outside of academia, so it’s important to consider what kinds of jobs might suit you in the future in preparation for your transition. Many universities and external organisations offer support for this purpose, such as providing information, statistics, career stories, events and counselling, but ultimately it is you who must make the final decision.

Using your knowledge of the present and past can help to inform your future, so an important component of making career decisions is to consider what has given you pleasure and a sense of satisfaction in the past and, now, in the present. For example, when I was young, I wanted to be a vet. At the time, I thought my interest was fuelled by an interest in Biology and Physiology, but in fact it was my desire to help animals. As my career progressed, I realised that ‘helping’ was core to my career satisfaction and ultimately culminated in my current profession as a careers adviser.

So, with your heart, gut feeling and intuition in mind, try considering what you are enjoying now and what has inspired you in the past. Reflect on the tasks, people, work environment and things you do in your everyday personal life and dig deep to discover those aspects that you know make you feel good about yourself and give you a sense of fulfilment. Then, using this information, let it guide you towards potential careers of interest. My PhD Career Choice Indicator can assist you in identifying and investigating different types of careers, with the aim of finding a job you love.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

2020 Vision

Here’s a question: How’s your eyesight? Many of us wear glasses or contact lenses because we don’t have 2020 vision, i.e. perfect vision. We need help to bring into focus objects that are either far away or close up, so that we can see clearly to manage and navigate our lives effectively.

Here’s another question: How’s your ‘i-sight’? In other words, how well focused are you on yourself? Do you have a clear vision for 2020 and the decade ahead? What plans do you have for your near and future career?

To maintain good eyesight, you need regular visits to an optician who can use their special skills and equipment to keep you focused. In the case of your career, the situation is more complicated: The type of help you need to improve your ‘i-sight’, and from whom, depends on the circumstances you find yourself in and the network of support on which you can call upon. Perhaps it’s a short-term problem that requires some instant specialist advice (e.g. analysing some data, writing a paper), a medium-range goal such as learning new skills and techniques or maybe it’s a long-term plan for your career for, which you need to prepare and research before you take action. See Table below for examples:

Help needed Examples of possible support
Planning and managing
your career
Career consultant, mentor, supervisor  
Analysing your data Specialist data analyst, supervisor,
courses, peers, collaborators
Writing a paper or
applying for funding
Supervisor, peers, collaborators,
professional consultant, self-help books
and courses.
Making career choices   Career consultant, case studies, alumni,
information, tools and techniques
Writing a CV & covering letter / Interview
Career consultant, professional in your field of interest, HR, examples and guides
Self-presentation and
Career consultant, media/marketing/brand
specialist, science communicator, mentor
Innovating your
Enterprising, tech transfer or innovative
specialist, supervisor, courses, books
Finding out about
specific professions
Professionals in careers of interest, alumni,
career consultant, career stories
Enhancing your
Career consultant, professionals in careers of
interest, company/business contacts, alumni

For the majority of examples listed, apart from the more specialist academic activities, you’ll notice that I’ve included ‘career consultant’ as a source of support. Career consultants are a very useful starting point for most of your career needs, especially helping you to make career decisions. Working to an ethical code of practice, we use specialist skills, knowledge and techniques to listen and guide you initially, helping you to reflect and review your situation, ideas and plans. This can be done in individual interviews (face to face or on-line) or as educational workshops where you learn techniques, engage in discussions and take part in self-reflective exercises to help you to gain a clearer vision of what you need to do in the short and longer term, in order to achieve your immediate and future career goals. We may also signpost information and resources, assist you in practical aspects such as perfecting your CV and interview technique, or refer you to other professionals who can give you further expert assistance. You may have noticed we like to use metaphors too 😊

Wishing you a forward-looking and visionary year ahead !

To find out more about my career services including talks, career workshops and 1-2-1 career interviews visit:

New year, new career ?

What a difference a year can make: Looking back at PhD students and postdocs who made changes to their careers in 2019, there seems to be no end to the variety of jobs and locations to which they have moved1. Some have left academia to take up jobs in sectors such as science communication, medical science liaison, data science, policy and research, whilst others have remained in academia but moved countries. Some PhD graduates have even gone back to study for a business master’s or diploma degree.

As we enter a new decade (or leave one, depending on your perspective), what are your plans for your next career move? Where will you be this time next year? Maybe you are in the midst of your PhD right now, or still have a few more years before your postdoctoral contract comes to an end, so you feel it’s not the right time to be thinking about your career. For others, the time frame may be rather more urgent. In any case, it is never too early to be thinking about your career and wondering where you want to go next. Even if you find yourself in a permanent position in the future, there will still be decisions to be made about the direction, flexibility, focus and seniority of your role as you progress. For example, one junior academic may prefer to build up a large research group, whilst another may decide to focus on teaching and pedagogy; those who enter industry in a research role may ultimately decide to redirect their career trajectory into regulatory, marketing or executive functions, depending on their interests.

It can be difficult to make choices about what types of career might be a good fit for you in the future, especially when research takes up the great majority of your attention. However, you’d be surprised how many different things you do within your PhD or postdoctoral role that are driven by your interests and provide clues to potential careers of interest. These interests can be broken down into six career categories, as shown in the figure2 above, and can help you to start homing in on possible future roles. Which three categories do you think you would choose as your favourite? Reflect on the activities you enjoy doing most, what you look forward to or even voluntary work you engage with to help satisfy these interests. For me, I enjoyed investigative work, helping people and the creativity of data presentation, rather than lab work (plus I was always quite bad at organisation). This led my career into scientific publishing first and then careers work. For you, perhaps functional technical work is your number one interest followed by investigative and entrepreneurship. Maybe you like the managerial side of your research and would like to make this a greater part of your role in the future? These clues can be helpful not only to guide you towards your next career transition, but also to signpost skill gaps and areas for personal career development that will enhance your chances of securing your next job, whether it’s within or outside of academia.  

More information and ideas for careers are available on my “Making career choices” page, where you will be able to link your interests with types of careers.

  1. You can find out about career destinations of PhD students and postdocs by reading blogs such as NatureCareers and PhD Career Stories, looking at posts on LinkedIn and Twitter as well as annual surveys such as those conducted by Nature and AdvanceHE.
  2. This figure is adapted from Holland’s Theory of Vocational Choice to be more relevant for careers requiring a PhD.

Join the Club!

“I refuse to belong to a club that would have me as a member”, so said legendary comedian Groucho Marx in one of his many famous quotes. He wrote it in a fake resignation letter which he sent as a joke to the Friars Club of Beverly Hills, the private show business club of which he was a member. Other members included Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Hope, Judy Garland and Dean Martin so he was in good company.

In actual fact, the value of being a member of a professional club is no joke and should be considered very seriously. Having worked for a learned society for over 20 years, I probably know more than most the benefits of membership for those in the academic community, especially students and early career researchers. For a relatively small fee, these charitable organisations offer services such as discounted conference registration fees, awards, travel grants, a newsletter, mentoring, career support, opportunities to get involved in activities such as blogging, committee membership, outreach, event organisation and much more. These experiences add value and bring advantages to those who get involved, giving them access to personal and professional development as well as a privileged network.

Dozens of learned societies exist, especially those associated with the biosciences: the Microbiology Society, Biochemical Society, Physiological Society, British Ecological Society, American Physiological Society, American Society of Plant Biologists to name but a few. International in their membership, the big ones are usually funded by their journals, which generate very large annual incomes used to fund staff, act as a communication platform for science dissemination and provide benefits to members. To read more about these societies visit my webpage.

Learned societies are particularly valuable for those wishing to pursue academic careers. However, if you’re looking to move into a non-academic career joining professional bodies and networks associated with a particular career sector can be more fruitful and rewarding. For example, as a career professional I am a member of several organisations associated with my professional interests, including the Career Development Institute (CDI), the Higher Education Academy and the Association of Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS).

Students and researchers interested in a career in science communication might benefit from membership of Euroscience, as well as other organisations such as the Association of British Science Writers, the Science Entrepreneur Club and networks like BIG and STEMPRA. Meanwhile, those considering a research career in industry might consider joining organisations such as the European Federation of Biotechnology, Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries (ABPI) or the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (ASPS).

For some organisations such as the Royal Society of Biology and Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM), there are different grades of membership depending on the seniority of your current role and your competency level, whilst others such as the Medical Science Liaison Society and TOPRA welcome complete newcomers aiming to break into MSL and regulatory affairs roles, respectively.

The International Society for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics (ISCB) has student and postdoctoral membership categories and membership of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) includes an early career and a limited-access networking and engagement category. For those associations that are closed to non-professionals or who only offer organisational or partner membership, such as Europbio, BioDeutschland and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EPFIA), it can still be worth visiting their websites to learn about their work and latest news to enhance your knowledge of the industry.

So, if you’re not currently a member of a professional club think about joining one or two relevant to your present and future career ambitions. For any profession you can think of you’re likely to find an associated organisation by simply plugging it into a Google search (I looked up ‘Oil Pipe Association’ on a whim to prove this to myself and sure enough one exists!). Why not give it a go yourself? Once a member, make use of the information and networks and even see if you can play a more active role – who knows where it could lead and who you might meet along the way?

Related content:
Five PhD networking strategies
Learned societies – a party worth joining?
Social media – so shall I?

Fear for your career

Courtesy of Dr Anne Osterrieder

Halloween is here again celebrating all that is scarey, frightening and spooky. Horror movies are showing, children are ‘trick or treating’ and things are going ‘bump in the night’. It’s all just a bit of fun and a great excuse for us Westerners to dress up, eat sweets and have parties. Like rollercoasters and other funfair attractions, many people seek the thrill of fear from time to time, it heightens the senses and reminds us we’re alive.

Putting fear to positive good use can be empowering and even enjoyable. On a rather less dramatic note, recently I accepted an invitation to present a talk at a conference aimed at management academics. I hesitated before I said yes, fearing that I would be away from my normal area of expertise and out of my comfort zone. However, having researched the field a little and thought things through I decided to accept, as I figured that with plenty of preparation I could deliver something useful to the audience, plus the experience would bring me into contact with a new community from which I could also learn more. Turns out I was right! The outcomes far outweighed the feelings of fear and trepidation.

Another example I happened to see today is even more poignant from science reporter, Vic Gill, who tweeted the following ….

…. the more fearful the greater the sense of achievement!

This is true when it comes to signing up to present a paper at a conference as opposed to a poster, when deciding whether to put yourself forward for a public engagement event, deciding on whether to sign up for a course on programming which may feel difficult and challenging, etc. On the downside, fear can manifest itself in a negative way, such as fear of failure, fear of change or fearing a lack of career progression. However, embracing fear and doing things that seem hard can help you to grow in your career. Here are three things that can help you to overcome your fears:

Proactivity – Looking for ways to improve your current career can help you to grow and progress. Do you need to sign up for a course, write a proposal, apply for some work experience, make new contacts, etc.? You may have been putting this off as it feels difficult or uncomfortable. Overcoming these feelings can be liberating!

Preparation – To offset feelings of trepidation, make sure you research and prepare for your challenging situation to ensure the best possible result.

Philosophy – As a D.Phil – doctor of philosophy – you’ll be familiar with the concept of being logical and theoretical about things – the fear of failure can be a barrier to trying out something new, but as many people are currently espousing, failure helps us to learn and fear of failure is nothing to be ashamed of. One PhD student even defended her PhD dressed in a skirt made up of rejection letters:

For my part, I set myself the goal of writing this blog each and every month of the year, which is quite scarey as I need to make sure it’s done by the end of each month. It’s been touch and go for October but with just 4.5 hours to go I made the deadline!

Academic mobility: The long and the short of it

Is it essential to move research groups, institutions and even countries in order to achieve an academic career? This is a question sometimes posed to me by PhD students and postdocs whose career plans are to secure a permanent academic position. In particular, it comes up during my academic mobility courses in which participants ponder their career aims vs their personal situation, weighing up what kinds of compromises they’re prepared to make in the short and longer term. Even those without family or partner obligations can sometimes struggle with the prospect of uprooting themselves for the sake of their career, with the accompanying challenges of having to find new accommodation, adapt to a different culture and foster new relationships.

So, my answer to the question, “Is it essential to move?”, generally speaking, is: “No, it’s not essential, but If you look at the evidence, it sure does help!” Consider this: When you read or hear the career histories of current academics, the majority will chart a career path from their PhD full of stories of travelling from one lab to another, working alongside well-known figures in their field, either via postdoctoral positions or, more favourably, having secured competitive funding for one or more research fellowships. These ‘mentoring’ encounters serve many purposes – experiencing a new research environment, being exposed to new perspectives and ideas, as well as demonstrating genuine curiosity for discovering novel mechanisms. Applied to scientific research, ‘mobility’ serves as a metaphor for open-mindedness, novelty and exploration, and confirms your ambitions for independence and the possibility to lead your own research group.

However, for many researchers awareness of these advantages comes too late, as explained by Ioannis Legouras (Vice Head, Department Strategic Cooperations and Research Funding; Head of International Programs, Max Delbrück Centre) in a recent EMBL Careers Blog (22 August 2019), “In my experience as a grants manager there are many limitations in the eligibility for postdocs applying for fellowships. So there is a very favourable period 1-4 years after the PhD; when this is combined with field change or international mobility, a postdoc has a multitude of opportunities. Without international mobility, without change of field and after a few years after PhD completion, the fellowship opportunities for postdocs are virtually zero. Perhaps it will change at some point in future, but at the moment that is the reality. In my experience, postdocs are not always aware of this at the right time. Quite often postdocs are then in the position that they are too old in terms of years after PhD for the postdoc funding but too young in terms of papers for PI positions. This is a very uncomfortable situation for postdocs.”

Research is an international endeavour so it’s not so much a case of “Should I be mobile?”, rather “Which research groups, departments and institutions are doing the kind of research that complements my interests (and will employ me as a postdoc or be a host for my fellowship)?” In the main, it’s very likely they will not be in your own department, institution or even your country, hence the need to move to be exposed to, and stimulated by, those who share your interests. Research and surveys on academic mobility demonstrate the positive impact of mobility to researcher’s careers and long-term academic prospects, including the likelihood of securing an academic post, number of citations and improved networking opportunities. And, of course, for many people they also represent an exciting scientific and life adventure!

So, what if you want an academic career, but long-term periods spent living away from your current location/country, family etc are not attractive or even feasible? In these cases, I suggest that you try to build a strong and focussed network of leaders/future leaders in your field and actively participate in short-term research experiences. Whilst this may not supplant the advantages experienced by those who commit to more ‘full-on’ mobility, it may be enough to help you to gain the research independence you need to realise your academic career ambitions. Here are six tips to get you started:

  1. Choose your postdoctoral position carefully ensuring that your supervisor will be supportive of your career aims, i.e. giving you a level of autonomy to pursue your own research interests through side projects; allowing you to actively engage with other researchers through collaborations, conference attendance (ideally as a speaker), lab visits and making funding applications.
  2. Seek out and apply for smaller grants, e.g. for equipment, travel, conference attendance, etc. This will help to enhance your research and academic profile and show evidence of a proactive and independent attitude.
  3. Join learned societies that reflect your research interests – they are full of academics and researchers with whom you can network at their conferences and symposia. There are usually opportunities to get more involved by applying to organise a session or join a committee, with the prospect of other advantages such as patronage, mentoring and sponsorship.
  4. Network and connect with research group leaders or senior postdocs in potential ‘host’ labs to ask if you can spend time in their lab to learn from them and to offer the benefit of your expertise.
  5. Apply to take part in professional and personal development activities such as Summer schools or field trips – these events represent very useful networking opportunities where you spend a limited but intensive period of time with like-minded and possibly influential researchers in your field. Courses in your own institution that help you to improve your academic skills, such as writing, leadership, teaching and mentoring are also a bonus.
  6. For those looking for academic posts in more student-centred institutions, mobility may not be as important as evidence of teaching, in which case getting involved in undergraduate teaching programmes, ideally including curriculum design, delivery and assessment, as well as gaining formalised qualifications or enhancing your professional status through fellowship of bodies such as the Higher Education Academy will be an advantage.

Finally, bear in mind that academic mobility in the early part of your research career can be advantageous when you apply for academic positions or research fellowships, giving you a greater breadth of choice later on when you are targeting posts in your preferred location. Some fellowship schemes, such as the Human Frontier Science Program, even build in a return element in the final year to bring you back to your home country.

For more information on research and resources, pros and cons of academic mobility go to my blog page.

Career success. What does it look like?

Do you consider yourself to be successful? Is your career a success?

During my career workshops and 1-2-1 coaching sessions, students and researchers sometimes ask the question or reflect on what they can to do to achieve career success. Leaving academia is considered by some to be a failure. In other instances, people feel they have failed to succeed because of a lack of progression and seniority or because they’re not earning as much as they think they should be. But what is career success? And how do we know when we’ve achieved it?

In a review paper I published last year (Blackford 2018), I included a definition of career success derived from the work of Gattiker and Larwood (1989), who distinguished between different perceptions of career success: ‘Objective career success refers to observable career accomplishments that can be reliably judged by others, such as pay and ascendancy. Subjective career success is more concerned with individual appraisals of one’s career success. This subjective judgement is not only influenced by objective criteria, but also by individual aspiration levels, social comparisons to relevant others and situational constraints such as opportunities for advancements in the profession.’

We all tend to measure ourselves against each other, weighing up our own comparative successes. Some of those who have left academia to pursue careers in areas such as industry, management, communication and enterprise may have thought their careers were unsuccessful at some point along the way (perhaps assessing themselves in terms of publications). However, research studies, surveys and personal career stories tell us that the vast majority don’t feel that way once they have experienced life on the ‘outside’. However, very likely, in their new non-academic careers, they start to measure their success against new criteria within that organisation and alongside a new group of peers. And not only that, the weight of expectation from family, friends and society can also add further pressure to ‘succeed’.

This is where the “should” word comes in. It’s the burden we place on ourselves to reach for goals that we feel will prove our success, giving rise to anguished statements such as : “I did a PhD so I should aim for professor, otherwise it was all a waste of time”; “Now that I’m over 35 I should strive for a top management position”; “I should be mobile and change countries to be successful, even though I will have to live away from my family”; and so on. You get the picture. You probably have your own “should” conversation going on.

These are all ‘objective’ perceptions of career success, where we aspire to reach for aspirations such as advancement and status. However, taking a ‘subjective’ perspective of career success can help to release us from this burden and bring us back to a more genuine and honest appreciation of our achievements. In my career workshops and coaching sessions, students and researchers reflect on what they enjoy doing in their work and in other associated activities. This helps them to determine what is most important in their everyday lives. Underpinned by values and what matters most to them, they usually discover a deeper sense of what career success means to them. Examples have included: having variety, a good work:life balance, helping others, working independently, the opportunity for personal advancement, having security, being able to use specialist skills and being appreciated. Even pragmatic factors have figured, such as being able to cycle to work or wear casual clothes.

Factoring in these more subjective views when making career choices shifts the focus from simply assessing jobs in terms of their job title, status and salary to consideration of more in-depth aspects of the role linked to personal values and motivations. It may be that an academic career is a perfect fit for some, where generation of research ideas, publications, awards and funding are considered as the primary measures of success (Bowden 2012). For others, career success may mean building on current skills towards becoming a technology specialist, being able to apply science for practical solutions, expressing science creatively as a science communicator, organising and supporting the scientific community through science management and administration roles or teaching and inspiring students to become the next generation of scientists. Some might turn down a job or promotion because it doesn’t align, for example, with their wish to remain a specialist, their desire for autonomy or because it would mean less time spent with their family.

In reality of course, both objective and subjective career success criteria determine our career decisions and sense of achievement. What’s important is to get the balance right.
So, what does career success look like to you?

Blackford S. 2018. Harnessing the power of communities: career networking strategies for bioscience PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. FEMS Microbiology Letters, 365(8):1-8.  
Bowden R. 2012. How Would You Define a Successful Career in Science? 2012. Naturejobs blog.
Gattiker UE, Larwood L. 1989. Career success, mobility and extrinsic satisfaction of corporate managers. The Social Science Journal 26:75–92.

Related blogs:
Flying High

Unpaid work – does it pay?

Is your PhD value-added? Will you be able to sell your ‘assets’ to potential employers in a competitive job market? Whilst your PhD will certainly give you an advantage in particular career areas, are you paying enough attention to improving your employment ‘capital’. The majority of PhD-qualified scientists leave academia sooner or later to take up non-academic careers, with only a small percentage continuing to a permanent faculty position (ref blog). Either way, it’s vital to consider your personal and professional career development strategy along the way to boost your employability and ‘future-proof’ your career.

Many PhD students and postdocs keep themselves up-to-date and employable by learning fast-evolving methodologies and technologies necessary for their research. Training might be through Summer schools, lab visits or on-line courses. You may have access to career development classes at your university or institute or there may even be opportunities to take part in training during conferences. However, as well as formal learning and certificated courses, there can be much to be gained through unpaid work, where you get hands-on real-life experiences, whilst incidentally developing your interpersonal skills. These voluntary posts, in the employ of others or initiated and driven by yourself, can be invaluable, and even necessary, to upskilling and networking your way into your next career (ref blog). 

In my former life as Head of Education and Public Affairs at a scientific charity, I took on a PhD student intern every year for a period of four weeks to assist me in communicating our delegates’ research, which was being presented at our annual scientific conference. Over the years, I employed over 15 ‘press assistants’ who would write press stories for three weeks ahead of the meeting, and then attend it for the whole week to manage media interest. None of the students were paid for this work, which was often the subject of controversy when I advertised the position each year on discussion groups and websites. However, my defence for this was always unapologetic: the students received mentoring and training in a real-life setting; they could work remotely, and all their expenses were covered including accommodation, travel, meeting registration and meals during the week-long conference. In addition, they gained access to a new network of journalists, science communicators and other professionals, received a reference from me when applying for paid jobs and, without exception, realised a very successful transition into a non-academic career following their PhD graduation.

I have known many PhD students and postdocs who have relished their unpaid work, enabling them to get involved in activities for which they have a passion: “I had the luxury of being able to do unpaid work when I was studying for my PhD”, says one student. She had approached a parliamentary advisory group to ask to be involved in their work, giving her the experience, insights and contacts that she needed to make an immediate transition into a policy-related career at the end of her PhD. Another student describes how the knowledge he gained about the drug development process during a short research internship in a pharma company, as well as the reference he received from his line manager, helped to propel him into his first medical science liaison post. Other doctoral students and postdocs have chosen more local initiatives, joining or starting up entrepreneurship clubs, organising events, setting up journal clubs, launching their own departmental magazines, sitting on advisory panels and getting involved in local community projects, depending on their interests. You can get more ideas by looking at the profiles of PhD students, researchers and young professionals on LinkedIn to see the types of extra-curricular activities others are involved in.  In fact, the opportunities are boundless if you don’t ask for payment; it affords you the advantage of choosing to do more-or-less exactly what you want to do and is a great enabler to transition into your next career.

So does it pay to do unpaid work? Overall, I would say yes, but you need to be careful and do your research so that you make the most of your limited available time. It can be tempting to get involved in too many volunteering opportunities, distracting you from your PhD, so ask yourself:

  1. What kind of unpaid/voluntary work will be most valuable to help me to build on my current skills towards my desired career?
  2. Who will I be working with and what kind of role will I have?
  3. Will this experience give me access to a new network or extend my current network of contacts?
  4. Does this work complement my career goals and add value to my CV?
  5. Will this company provide me with meaningful work experience and introduce me to a new network of professionals that will help me to gain access to this career sector?
  6. Should I inform/ask permission from my supervisor (in cases of a more lengthy commitment) and, if so, how can I make a convincing and positive argument to offset any fears he/she may have regarding my temporary absence?
  7. As a postdoc with limited flexibility and time, is it worth using my holiday time or weekends to develop the skills and gain the experience I need for my career?

Overall, think ‘quality’ not ‘quantity’ – a one-week internship, one-day’s work-shadowing, organising a seminar series or being involved in an outreach event can sometimes be enough to convince yourself and employers of your aptitude and enthusiasm for a particular career (or not, as the case may be). From my own perspective, volunteering at the university career service many years ago made me realise that helping students with their careers was more rewarding to me than doing research – the rest is history!

Keep your perspective

What’s going on with work right now ? What are you doing today and what are your plans for the week ahead ? Are you working through your to-do to list ? Maybe you’re doing data analysis or preparing for a talk or poster presentation. Perhaps you have a large experiment lined up. For me, I’m currently writing this blog, working on a proposal and preparing for a workshop, as well as doing less compelling but necessary jobs such as sorting out my admin and re-organising my office.

However, amongst the clutter of everyday tasks, in the back of my mind there lingers a small but significant voice telling me to remember to keep in mind the bigger picture. Last week, this voice was given some unexpected air time when I met with a colleague and we got into a discussion about the career development landscape as a whole and the context for doctoral and postdoctoral training. It was a really energising conversation, resulting in some creative ideas and reminding me to consider the ‘long game’, rather than spending all of my time in the ‘here and now’.  

In English we have the expression, “Can’t see the wood for the trees”, meaning that someone is so focussed on the details of what they are doing, they are not paying attention to the context and bigger picture. I’m sure there are plenty of similar expressions in other languages which mean the same thing because this is a very common state of affairs for people in all walks of life.

So what are the disadvantages of missing out on the bigger picture for doctoral and postdoctoral researchers ? How can you avoid the pitfalls of getting too focussed on the detail and ignoring the wider context of what you are doing in terms of your research, career and personal life? Here are five ideas to help you to keep your perspective (I’m sure you will have some of your own too):

  1. Read and listen: At this level, you are expected to be a knowledge professional who gathers, assimilates, adapts and uses learning in a sophisticated way. If you focus only on your lab work, without engaging with the research strategy as a whole, you are not operating at the PhD level and may miss out on future opportunities. For example, as a PhD-qualified professional you can apply many high-level skills, such as investigative, problem-solving and analysis to a wide range of jobs, where you will be expected to use your investigative thinking and understand the broader research context. Make space for reading and hearing about other’s work and thoughts. For example, reading journal papers and reviews (within and outside of your area of interest), attending seminars, conferences or public engagement events, even listening to general science programmes and reading popular science books – many are really fascinating. In other words, don’t work in isolation, both physically and mentally. Placing your own very detailed and focused project into a wider more interdisciplinary context is likely to reap rewards and even result in unexpected advantages.
  2. Talk and discuss: If you don’t communicate it, it hasn’t happened! As well as hearing about other’s news, you need to tell people about what you’re doing too. Publishing your work in academic journals and presenting it at scientific meetings is integral to most researchers’ work, however widening the scope and reach of your communication will help to expand your impact. More than ever, science is a participatory collective activity. Nowadays scientists have the opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary, industry and cross-border collaborations, disseminate everyday and more significant news on social media platforms and are even getting involved in citizen science projects involving the public. Communicating with a wider range of people who have differing opinions and views helps you to gain a wider, more global perspective in relation to your own research and also to the wider world, making for more interesting and informed conversations.
  3. Learn about higher policy issues: Your science and the future of research and education are in the hands of policymakers and senior decision makers, so it’s important that you are aware of the political landscape at the local, national and international levels. For example, policies affecting science funding, academic freedom, Higher Education developments and even researcher career development, such as the Concordat are highly relevant to you and your research future. There are few PhD-qualified scientists working in government, so if scientists aren’t aware of, or don’t engage with, these high-level decision-makers, unfavourable rulings might be put into place which affect your own future and the wider research sector. For example, what areas of research receive government funding, how educational success is measured and even public regard for scientists. There are some excellent organisations for this purpose, e.g. CASE, Euroscience and AAAS, and the internet, newspapers and specialist publications provide a rich source of everyday news and developments.
  4. Pay attention to your career: A classic example of not seeing the wood for the trees is when doctoral students and postdocs only start to think about their next career move after they’ve written their thesis or during the final three months of their contract. As a career adviser, I always recommend getting career support early so that you can prepare yourself in good time. For example, when you are starting your PhD, there may be ways to enhance your employment prospects: engaging with your university’s career development programme; joining a learned society; getting involved in science communication or policy activities; volunteering or joining social media platforms (see 10 simple rules for finishing your PhD). Postdoctorals looking for a career in academia will benefit from learning about funding opportunities and building collaborations to help them secure an independent research fellowship and academic position. Meanwhile, for those aiming at a non-academic career, widening your knowledge of careers in industry, business and not-for-profit organisations will help you to be more informed about job opportunities of interest so that you can prepare well ahead of your leaving date. Read my own blog for more ideas on how to take care of your career, as well as others such as NatureCareers.
  5. Keep a healthy life:work balance: Mental health is a major concern in academic institutions, with staff and students reporting depression, anxiety, stress and other issues. Many of these problems are brought about by the work environment itself and the pressure placed on individuals who, more often than not, have no powers of delegation or are working within a limited time-frame. The work environment is hard to change (although you can try to influence policies – refer to point 3), but you can help yourself by changing your behaviour and attitude. Whilst acknowledging that we all have times when we must put in a 24/7 effort, this type of intensive workload should not be the norm. Working ‘smart’ rather than hard is recommended in one of my previous blogs, and taking a step back to review and change your work schedule will pay dividends in the long run. The exhausted body and mind work inefficiently and even small breaks can revitalise them. It’s useful to talk with others if you’re feeling that your life:work balance needs fine-tuning. Turn to your colleagues, supervisor, friends, careers advisers or other professionals, who you feel may be able to help you to get things into perspective.

And on that note, having completed my June blog and taking heed of my own advice, I’m off for to the pool for a swim!