Reflections …

As each year comes to an end, we are all encouraged to look back over the past 12 months and reflect on what we’ve done: To recall highlights and achievements, challenges and accomplishments, to review our current situation and to envisage a successful year ahead. Some people are even known to write this out in a ‘round robin’ letter that they send out to family and friends in their Christmas and greetings cards. I see this to be an achievement in itself as, for me, it’s a challenge to recall what I’ve done during the previous week, let alone the last year, not in detail anyway.

This may not seem too important from a personal and social perspective: like me, very probably you have images of your most happy and interesting moments captured on digital media or posted on Facebook and Instagram. However, from a career perspective, it’s unlikely that you have photos to remind you of key moments related to your professional and semi-professional work, although there are always exceptions; I recently spoke to a PhD student who is recording her scientific life and posting it on Instagram to illustrate what she does for the benefit of her family and friends.

Completing a reflective learning log is not everyone’s cup of tea and is usually unpopular with student and researcher communities – and many others. But it’s easy to forget what you’ve done as the months and years go by. This means that when, for example, you find yourself being asked in a job interview to highlight a recent achievement, you may struggle to find an impressive answer. Interviewers, especially those in non-academic companies, regularly interrogate candidates with questions requiring a specific example of an occasion in which they felt a sense of accomplishment, overcame a challenge, solved a problem or worked with others to complete a goal. Furthermore, you can forget other important happenings such as people you have met, ideas you have had or even projects you have completed. Adding achievements and latest developments to your on-line profile(s) can also enhance your reputation, improve your employability and help you to move on to your next job.

For me, recalling the last 12 months of my professional life is causing a bit of a dilemma at the moment: I need to complete a reflective learning log as part of my continuing membership of the Career Development Institute for which I’m a registered careers adviser. Luckily, however, I have my trusty A5 week-to-view diary to hand in which, turning back the pages, I can see some of my more significant activities scribbled in amongst the regular career workshop entries. For example, I can see that in January a joint proposal I submitted with other European careers adviser colleagues was accepted, which meant we were able to meet up in Toulouse in July to deliver some excellent career sessions to PhD students and researchers at ESOF 2018, as well as have some fun networking and watching the World Cup. In March I published a review paper on networking for Microbiology Letters, which had taken me a full year to write and revise, but the feedback I received and my sense of achievement made it worth the effort. In July I started learning German (although I have only achieved beginner level so far) and in October I delivered a CV workshop at the Naturejobs career conference in just 30 minutes! Finally in December, only a few weeks ago, I managed to sell my car and officially become a pedestrian and user of public transport.

So whether it’s your diary (digital or otherwise), an official learning log, your CV or on-line profile that serves as a reminder of your latest successes and achievements, try to record them somewhere so you can capitalise on them one day. And if you think you don’t have enough or the right kind of experiences to match your career aspirations, this exercise will also help to guide your continuing professional development.

Related links: Flying high
How to be a STAR performer


To use social media or not, that is the question. And if you use it, which platform should you choose? Researchgate, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook … ? How much time should you spend on social media? How will it benefit your career? In this month’s blog I’ve listed some positive reasons to encourage you to take part in these colourful worldwide networks:

Social media helps you to get better connected and even to find your next job
I posted this graph on LinkedIn last week and, so far, it’s had over 20,000 views and more than 250 ‘like’s.

That means that I’ve managed to disseminate this information to a huge international community who otherwise would not have known about it. Furthermore, everyone who viewed and commented on the post is now more closely connected, even if it is from a distance. Scientists post news, infographics and links to their publications on LinkedIn, highlighting their work as well as sharing news to those interested in their research discipline and a more wide-ranging community – I hear about really fascinating information I would never have come across outside of the usual more inaccessible research networks.

That’s me. I like to keep in touch with the wider world. Not only for my own sake, but also to help me to support PhD students and researchers. LinkedIn is the most amazing database in the world – a google search tells me that it has over 500 million users. It’s searchable so you can find and connect with people doing the same kind of work as you. You can look for people doing jobs and working in sectors you want to work in when you finish your PhD or leave academia. You can search for jobs and companies, filter according to region and even number of employees.

Sometimes I wonder how we ever managed to search for jobs and create new networks in the past, before this amazing tool was invented. I know it’s not comfortable for everyone, but you can always opt for quality over quantity by linking with just a few targeted people. Recently, a postdoc aiming to change careers into medical science liaison searched LinkedIn for possible contacts, only to find that a former fellow PhD student was already working in this area. She intends to ask him for tips on how he managed to transition into this new career, and who knows what other information and contacts she may find out in the process.

Social Media creates happenstance moments
I remember when I first heard about Twitter – it was a colleague who told me about it. He had 100s of followers, which I thought was a bit weird – how can you engage with that many people I thought? That was 7 years ago to the day and now I have over 3000 followers myself. During that time, Twitter has opened up a whole world of interesting people, facts, photos, humour and loads of useful information which I can pass on to students and researchers to help them with their careers – even job vacancies. Twitter is quirky and fun. It’s essential for attending conferences and if you’re not able to be there in person you can follow the # and watch from a distance. There are facts, photos, citations (helping to promote largely hidden journal papers), videos and all sorts of fun and games to cheer up your day. You don’t have to read for detail. You can search it if you’re looking for something specific, otherwise treat it like the radio – it’s playing in the background and from time to time you hear something that catches your attention.

Social media serves different purposes
I always recommend Researchgate for those planning an academic career. Here, academics, researchers and students can share their papers and other research publications with each other. Even careers advisers like me have a page and a rating on Researchgate (mine is 17.85 but I have no idea what this means!). You can find out about research news, ask questions, respond to others and generally engage with those in your own research community.

At the other end of the spectrum, Facebook is more relevant for personal connections and, for this reason, most people like to hide their FB content. However, bear in mind that FB is used by many organisations such as charities, associations, learned societies and companies. Conferences usually set up a Facebook page to provide information to delegates and companies post jobs and other news about themselves. If you feel uncomfortable linking to professional FB sites with your personal page, why not set up an alternative account for professional purposes.

Social media is not the only fruit ….
Remember, whatever you’re doing, people will Google you. Whether you’re trying to connect, applying for a job, setting up a new collaboration, giving a talk at a conference, or just minding your own business. Make sure you’re presenting yourself professionally on line according to your particular career interests: think about promoting your creativity, conventionality, innovation, analytical or problem solving capabilities and so on and make sure you have a good photo and profile.
Related information: Doing more with LinkedIn


Is your CV working?

If not, then neither are you! No matter that you have excellent skills and experience, no matter that you are convinced this is the job for you. If you are not communicating your suitability and enthusiasm through the medium of your CV, you are likely to be de-selected from the application process at an early stage and will never even make it to the interview. Selling yourself in writing is much harder than in person, where you can use body language, explain more fully your talents and expertise, smile and be convincing.

So let’s look at 10 of the most important rules to follow to help you to promote yourself at your best in a CV and covering letter. You can refer to the two CVs below targeted for academia (left) and industry (right) while you read my advice:


  1. Choose your CV format: There are different styles of CV. Most people use a reverse chronological style where you list your employment and experiences in reverse order, which is fine if you are staying within the same field (your supervisor may use such a style of CV). However, you can emphasise your experiences more clearly if you consolidate them into sections within a CV which is targeted to the role. For example, you may have taken responsibility for some technical facilities, worked on a specific model system or done some science communication in your past three research positions. If you list them in chronological order and describe your experiences under each of these job titles, you will most likely be repeating yourself and scattering similar examples in different areas of your CV. Instead, by using a targeted CV you can bring similar activities together under one heading.
  2. Know yourself and what you have to offer: A useful way to ensure you include all aspects of your experiences, skills and abilities, is to list or mind-map everything you do. For example, within RESEARCH, write down all your techniques, the experiments you have designed, developed and undertaken, successes, results, problems solved etc; within COMMUNICATION, list the conference papers and posters delivered, outreach, supervision and mentoring; within ENTERPRISING AND INNOVATION list new collaborations forged, proposals for funding you have written, new ideas and ways of thinking you have employed to solve problems, and so on….
  3. Divide your CV into sections: Writing a CV is much like writing an exam. Look at the employer specifications, underline the most important requirements, create sections in your CV to match these key words and use bullet marks below them to list evidence to demonstrate your capabilities. Prioritise examples from your current work/education and use personal examples only if you don’t have enough professional evidence. For example, to demonstrate your teamwork ability you may be able to draw upon times when you’ve collaborated with others in a research project, been part of an organising committee to host an event in your department or a session at a conference, as well as being involved in sports or other outside interests. You can draw upon your mind-mapping exercise as explained above to find examples to use – these can be moved around into different sections to show evidence of different skills and competencies.
  4. Don’t be too personal: Place your name at the top of your CV as the title and add in contact details below. Don’t confuse the employer – only use one email address and one phone number. Add in appropriate social media links such as Researchgate, LinkedIn and Twitter depending on their relevance to the job for which you’re applying [make sure your profiles are up to date, complete and consistent with the profile you are portraying in your CV]. You don’t need to add in any other personal information such as your marital status, children, date of birth, nationality unless you think it’s relevant to the post. Think carefully about adding in a ‘Personal Profile’. Is it a strong statement? Is it adding anything to the CV which won’t be covered in your cover letter? If not, then leave it out as it’s taking up valuable space! For more information on personal profiles see a previous blog on this subject.
  5. Less is more: Generally speaking, the core of your CV should only be two pages long. If you wish you can add on appendices to list your publications, conferences attended, teaching experiences, funding etc: this may be how your supervisor has formatted their CV. If you are applying for a non-academic job, two pages will be enough and you can always add in hyperlinks to your social media profile in case more detail is required. A long list of publications in a CV being used to apply for a non-academic job might confuse the employer or make them think you’re not suited to their company, where publications are not an important output. Having said that you can always refer to them as a measure of your successes and achievements by saying, for example: “Ran a successful research project investigating ….., which resulted in some key international publications and an invitation to speak at an international conference.”
  6. Use the STAR technique: I’ve already mentioned this technique for use in job interviews (see my previous blog for more detail), but you can use it in your CV and other applications to record your experiences in a succinct and structured way. For example, to evidence your leadership skills, instead of saying, “Excellent leadership skills”, you might say something like: “During my PhD, I was responsible for supervising two vacation students. I mentored them closely and challenged them to think critically which increased their research confidence.” This only represents two lines on your CV, but by telling a short story with realistic information, it’s brought your experience to life and made it more interesting and believable for the employer*.
  7. Be conservative: People ask me how creative they can be with the presentation of their CVs, for example using colour and infographics. My answer to this is to err on the side of caution. The employer is looking for evidence of your suitability for the job and although layout and formatting can help to draw attention to important information and lead the eye down the page, too much colour and too many distracting images may divert attention from the message of your CV. The exception would be for jobs where creative visualisation of data or artistic imagery is part of the role, but I would still use colour sparingly especially since many CVs are printed out in black and white anyway.
  8. Cover letter: The cover letter introduces your CV, provoking interest in the employer, so you need to pick out three or four key aspects of your experiences to highlight your suitability for each particular post. You also need to show interest and enthusiasm for the company/research group by saying something about them and what you have to contribute to their operations. I have already written 12 tips on cover letters so I’ll leave you to refer to my blog on this subject.
  9. One rule does not fit all: As with all rules, there are always exceptions. For example, some countries like you to add in a photo at the top of your CV, others prefer a one page resumé rather than a longer CV. If the job advert is in a particular language then the likelihood is you will need to write your CV and cover letter in the same language (you can always contact the employer for clarification, but they may require applicants to speak the native language as part of the job). Not all employers or even people on the same selection panel feel the same way about CV layout and structure. Some prefer the traditional reverse chronological CV, whilst others appreciate targeted applications. This might be where your covering letter is crucial to identify key areas of your CV to signpost which are most relevant to the employer’s requirements for the post.
  10. If at first you don’t succeed: When I hear somone saying they’ve sent out dozens or 100s of CVs with no results, I don’t wonder whether they are unemployable, I wonder how they’re presenting themselves in their CV and covering letter. It’s likely they are using the same documents for every job application and not targeting each one specifically to each and every position. Even posts which are very similar require tiny changes, bringing the most important information to the fore. Quality is always better than quantity, so I suggest that you spend time and effort on a few applications and if you find they are not returning an invitation to interview you need to review and revise your strategy. Is your CV targeted? Are there gaps in your experience you need to fill to be eligible for these types of jobs? Are you trying too hard and over-writing your CV and cover letter, bombarding the employer with too much information? Seek advice from a professional careers adviser or professional colleague if you can, show them your CV and ask them what stands out to them.
    S. Never be tempted to remove your PhD from your CV.

For more CV examples and information on writing a CV and cover letter take a look at my blog page and slideshare.

Wishing you CV success!!

Change Talk

Recently a postdoc told me he was concerned about his mental state. Stressed about changing jobs and moving countries, he was finding it hard emotionally and psychologically to cope with the upheaval. We had a long discussion, after which I sent him this transition graph to help him to understand some of what he was going through, that his feelings were a normal reaction to the process of change. I thought it was rather a trivial thing to do but, actually, the graph turned out to be a revelation: “I feel better knowing this is something we all go through and it’s just a normal reaction”, he told me. “I can see which stage I’m at right now and it’s motivated me to be more positive about my situation as I know I will get through and out the other side”.Reflecting on this exchange made me think about some tactics which might be helpful for those currently experiencing stress or anxiety due to their personal or work situation:

Get real
Admitting to yourself and others that you’re scared, anxious or stressed shows strength of character. It’s not possible to be happy and confident all of the time, so don’t feel intimidated to hide your more negative persona sometimes. You’ll be surprised how much it liberates others to be more open with their feelings too. You don’t need to broadcast this to the whole department or world (if you’re on Twitter) if you don’t want to, however just opening up to one or two trusted friends or colleagues can really help to release some of the inner tension, as well as receiving support, reassurance and a different perspective on your situation. .

Get advice
Having experienced depression myself, I know how debilitating it can be, affecting energy levels, motivation and outlook. If your feelings of depression are being caused by your current situation, you may decide to get help from counsellors and the medical profession, however I found it equally valuable to seek support from work-related professionals who helped me to improve my situation. Mentoring and coaching has been introduced into many universities nowadays, facilitating people to find a pragmatic, realistic way forward. For example, mentors can assist you in gaining access to information and networks enabling you to find ways to resolve issues associated with your research and related activities. Qualified careers advisers and coaches give you the opportunity to reflect on your position, suggesting tools and approaches to help you to realise your ambitions and consider realistic options for your next career transition.

Get support
Knowing that others are in the same situation and getting access to peer support makes you realise you are not alone and that you don’t have to face difficult times on your own. The internet provides many opportunities to interact with people on line through social media which can be helpful for those working remotely. Within your faculty or wider professional sphere there is capacity to join or create common interest groups or PhD and postdoctoral associations to bring people together for mutual support and social interaction. Attending career related events in your university or at conferences brings together early career researchers and students who can also share stories and form alliances.

Get going
Referring back to the transition graph, one thing is clear – life comes with its ups and downs so that when we’re ecstatically happy we know it won’t last for too long and vice versa. For example, having a paper published is a joyous moment, but soon afterwards it’s time to get on with working towards the next one. Equally, when things are going badly and experiments aren’t working, this is a temporary situation which will not last forever. Either you will find a way to resolve it (speeded up by asking others their opinion) or realise it will never work and move on. Faced with stress and anxiety related to other situations, such as the prospect of writing up your PhD thesis or moving to another job and country also presents you with choices to make: give in to your negative feelings or do something positive, even if it’s just making a small change.

It is clear from many surveys and reports that evidence of mental illness within academia is increasing due to reasons such as pressures of the work environment, temporary contracts, isolation and competition. Changing policy or influencing decision-makers is usually out of your control. However, changing your own behaviour can help you to avoid being paralysed into inaction: recognise the temporary nature of your situation, look for strategies to resolve whatever is causing your negative feelings and take positive steps towards changing things for the better.

Related post: Mind your career

Knowledge is power …

… so they say, and if true, PhD students, researchers and academics must be very powerful people indeed! As ‘knowledge professionals’, thinking about, generating, analysing and communicating knowledge is the focus of their everyday lives and their very raison d’etre, so shouldn’t they be the ‘masters of the universe’? Hmm….. What do you think? Do you feel powerful? Well, I guess that depends on how you define ‘power’, but, in my view, it’s not just knowledge per se that determines its power, it’s the type of knowledge and the way it’s used that’s the real game-changer. People who understand its strategic value and apply it in creative and innovative ways are the truly powerful members of our society.

So how can PhD students, early career researchers and other members of the academic community empower themselves and benefit from knowledge? In terms of your career, knowledge of the wider world beyond your current horizons will help you to take the lead and get an advantage. However, self-knowledge, as Shreefal Mehta (Nature Biotech, 2004) advises, is the key to being a successful entrepreneur and, I would argue, applies to most other careers.

Self-knowledge: I have written about self-awareness on several occasions and incorporate exercises around personal recognition into all of my career workshops. I believe it’s fundamental to personal empowerment and the equivalent of walking around with your eyes open, as opposed to being blind to yours and other’s strengths and motivations. If we understand our personality, values, talents, skills, competencies, weaknesses, areas for growth and other aspects which underpin who we are and how we interact with others it gives us the power to better understand ourselves and those around us. For example, if you know yourself, what interests you most in your current job and your preferred way of working, you can use this information to make informed decisions about your next career move or to inform your professional development. Knowing where your strengths and weaknesses lie can help you to form strategic alliances with others and, even at interview, self-awareness enables you to answer questions and talk about yourself in a more open and incisive way.

Business knowledge: Currently, you are probably most knowledgeable about the business of academic research, but how much do you really know about your business beyond your own specific sub-discipline? Do you know where your funding is coming from, who else is working in your field, the wider global context in which your research sits and its potential for application? This knowledge could help you to be more strategic in your academic career and help you to achieve a leadership position. For example, if you’re a plant scientist don’t just read plant science papers, if you have a go-to list of keywords look beyond these to find unexpected knowledge. Attend conference sessions and talks outside of your own field, read popular science news and engage with social media to hear about and view quirky scientific facts.

For those considering leaving academia, use your well-developed research skills to investigate other options, look at global labour market trends (what’s on the up, what’s going out of fashion?), which are the industries of interest to you and what kinds of skills will be needed in the future? Knowledge of other career sectors and the types of jobs and roles on offer gives you the power to investigate them, network and position yourself to make a successful transition out of academia. Speak to people within your current network and develop new ones to form a matrix of connections and potential collaborations. In this way, you’ll become more knowledgeable about which types of careers will motivate you in terms of the role, work environment culture and people within it.

Translating knowledge: Accumulating knowledge is one thing, doing something useful and productive with it is quite another. When I deliver my workshops, I always ask participants to write themselves an action plan at the end of the day; changing your behaviour, even if it’s just doing something small, will mean that you are applying your learning with the aim of making some kind of change/improvement to your current circumstances. Whether it’s investigating a potential new career area of interest, applying for funding, getting more involved in your department’s activities, approaching a research group about possible collaboration, joining a new network, revising your CV or looking for personal development opportunities, it will mean you’re applying your knowledge and taking a proactive approach to your career.

Related blogs: Subjective careers choices

The right way?

Don’t plead for your career, take the lead

Super investigator or super technician?

I once heard a professor say that some postdocs become highly skilled super-technicians during the course of their research contract(s). Much valued by their PI, group members and even other research groups, these postdocs are experts in specific technical areas such as scientific techniques, specialised equipment, methodologies, programming, troubleshooting and other activities associated with functional aspects of the research process. Whether through their own volition or unintentionally, they spend a great deal of their time working on the more practical aspects of the research project, and may even lend a hand to other groups who value their specialist advice.


If you recognise yourself as being such a postdoc then you may want to take some time to review your role in the context of your career plans. Ask yourself:

  • Did I proactively choose to go down this route or has it happened in a more passive/happenstance way?
  • Do I enjoy this more technical role? Does it give me satisfaction?
  • Am I developing useful skills and competencies which will increase my employability in terms of my career plans and aspirations?

This final question is very important: What are your career plans? For example, are you aiming for a permanent academic or group leader position, or would you prefer a specialised functional post such as a facilities manager, senior technical scientist or lab manager? Permanency in academia requires high-impact papers, evidence of funding success and a fast-growing international profile, accompanied by high level research skills and an enterprising disposition. Technical careers generally require knowledge and expertise in particular scientific/technical areas including lab techniques, informatics and programming, accompanied by analytical and problem-solving skills and a willingness to engage with a range of projects and people offering your insights and expertise to their research.


As a ‘super-technican’ you may consider yourself disadvantaged within the academic work environment in terms of your career progression possibilities and, in most cases, your assessment of the situation is correct: There are few opportunities to apply for a permanent specialist technical position within universities and research institutes and so it is likely you will need to consider other work environments such as industry and the commercial sector to find a suitable place for you and your specialist skills. This is not such bad news: the academic role generally involves leading a research group, writing grant proposals, recruiting and managing personnel, writing papers, preparing lectures and teaching, doing administration, assessing essays and exams, attending committees, etc. This may not appeal to your skill-set and personal interests. Instead, in industry you can put your skills to good use and develop your career along a path more suited to you – the divergent range of jobs within private sector companies means you could start off in a technical role and move into other areas such as regulation, quality assurance, advisory or communications as well as progressing to senior levels. Imagine. You may even find yourself with a job title that says ‘scientist’ rather than ‘postdoc’!


Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Review your skills and interests against potential careers using my PhD Career Choice Indicator: Follow the instructions and if ‘Functional’ is your Number 1 choice, consider your 2nd preference as well: Is it ‘Social’, ‘Research’, ‘Enterprising’, ‘Artistic’, ‘Administrative’? Combinations of your interests influence the role you might prefer such as something more people-orientated, innovative, creative or managerial.
  2. Research the job market by getting to know the careers and vacancies on offer: My resources page provides some jobsites but there are many more.
  3. Review your current network. Do you know anyone who could help you with your job search, give you insights or put you in contact with others who can help you?
  4. Use Social Media such as LinkedIn and Twitter to search for jobs and people in career areas of interest. This is a good way of finding smaller companies.
  5. Refer to some of my previous blogs about postdocing:

  1. Refer to other information and blogs:

Expose yourself !

If you don’t talk about it, it hasn’t happened. In other words, you can do the best science in the world but without communicating it, it doesn’t exist – and nor do you! So here are some ideas to help you to increase your exposure:

Science is a global and societal endeavour, so as a scientist you’re obligated to disseminate your research in one way or another. Journal papers provide the best rewards for scientists in terms of their personal impact and career advancement, especially when they are published in international journals with a high impact factor. Conferences also provide an ideal stage to present one’s science to other specialists in the field, particularly if you are selected to give a talk, placing you in the spotlight and giving you the opportunity to network with other speakers in the session. Posters are a great way to package your work into an A0-sized self-explanatory presentation, to be viewed by delegates during the conference and with the opportunity to explain your work to interested passers-by during the designated poster sessions.

So far so good … but by what other means can you communicate your work? How else can you increase your exposure? Research suggests that promoting your published paper on Twitter and other social media can significantly increase your citations and coverage, especially if your research is applied and you can include attractive and appealing images. Using conference hashtags and tweeting to other delegates ahead of and during conferences can also help build your network and increase your profile. A well-worded press release about your science, just published or about to be disseminated at a conference, can also escalate your exposure so that it even appears in mainstream national and international news outlets.

Last month, the subject of my blog was all about a paper I published in Microbiology Letters on the subject of networking. This mini-review showcased the many ways in which you can use networking to enhance your career prospects and I made use of social media to try to extend its notoriety. The ‘Twitter effect’ was quite minimal, but when I posted it on LinkedIn, it was viewed over 1800 times increasing its exposure quite considerably. Researchgate is also a good way to promote your research and you can make yourself more visible by engaging in discussions, asking and answering questions and generally being an active participant.

You can take a proactive approach by offering to organise or co-organise a conference session. For example, I proposed a number of sessions for the ESOF2018 meeting, which features interdisciplinary science, careers, science communication, business and policy. This put me in touch with lots of people working in my field with the aim of bringing us together in one place, not only to run our session, but also to network and have a nice time hanging out with each other and catching up in Toulouse! Learned societies, who organise a lot of major conferences, sometimes invite PhD students and postdoctoral researchers to organise a session or even a research conference. For example, the Physiological Society has a number of schemes for early career researchers and the Microbiology Society ran its first Early career conference this year.

Finally, if you’re less inclined to be posting, tweeting and joining societies, quality as opposed to quantity can be just as effective. Make use of the same sources of communication but target one or two key people with whom you want to get more closely acquainted. Devise a strategy to communicate with them, meet and even start working with them, e.g. find common ground between you by reading about their work, interests etc., and find a link to your own research and even leisure activities.

I hope this short blog has helped you to focus on the many ways you can put yourself and your science into the spotlight and that the sunny weather won’t be the only exposure you’ll be getting this Summer !

Five PhD networking strategies

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. You’ve probably heard this saying before – it’s well-known, well-worn advice that has stood the test of time. Espoused by colleagues, senior staff, coaches and mentors all over the world, it’s a way of saying “Get out there and network!”

Let me explain the value of networking with a few examples: If you’re having trouble with your experimental set-up and have no-one to help you, reaching out to a specialist on-line community can sometimes resolve the problem, as well as revealing your interests; collaborating with diverse research groups around the world can extend your knowledge and experience and even increase your employment prospects; applying for jobs is an important part of career planning, but connecting with people within your chosen career sector or organisation can give you a distinct advantage; being good at what you do and achieving results is still important, but its impact is accentuated when you’ve got people to tell. Unlike education where you can attain an A-grade on your own, work is people-orientated and so building relationships is an essential element to achieve results for both your projects and for yourself.

In my recent paper, “Harnessing the power of communities: career networking for bioscience PhD students and postdoctoral researchers”, published in FEMS Microbiology Letters, I list five ways you can network to achieve career success. You should be able to access it if your university has a subscription but if not, here’s a summary:

Academic-related networks
As a PhD student or postdoctoral researcher, you are likely based in an academic work environment with access to all kinds of researchers within your own institution and others all around the world. You can use this network to help enhance your academic career prospects by making contact with other research groups and individuals whose knowledge, skills and related networks will help you to expand your own horizons. For those wishing to remain in an academic work environment but to move out of research, a variety of technical, administrative and educational staff, based in other departments, can offer potential opportunities for you to gain experience or vacancy insights to help you transfer into other roles.

Internships and work experience
Voluntary or paid work experience is equally valuable, not only to extend your experience and try out other types of work, but to put you in contact with people working in new communities. Even if it’s a one-off event, a day or a week’s experience, you will be spending time with professionals with whom you can ask questions, make contacts and demonstrate your enthusiasm and commitment to this new type of role. Internships can be hard to access as a postdoctoral researcher, but PhD students may be more able to step away from the bench for a few months. Negotiating with your supervisor is crucial in this process, showing them how you will make up the time and/or continue to commit to the research project.

Transient networks
Attending conferences, seminars and meetings is a common activity in the academic world, so take full advantage of these opportunities to meet new people and learn new knowledge. Prepare and plan for longer, larger events and challenge yourself to meet at least two or three new useful contacts with whom you have the potential to work with in the future. Business cards are becoming more common amongst the academic community nowadays and it’s a great way to exchange personal information and stay in touch afterwards. Remember, you are as useful and interesting to them as they are to you so don’t think of it as ‘using people’.

On-line networks
Social media has democratised networking to a great extent making people far more accessible than before. You can communicate and link with a whole range of people, exchange information and learn about opportunities. I suggest Researchgate for those interested in an academic career, LinkedIn for industry/commercial sector and Twitter for everyone and anyone to learn about research/general knowledge, jobs, conferences, opinions and facts.

Professional associations and organisations
Clubs have always been a great way for people with similar interests to join together, e.g. stamp collectors, vintage car enthusiasts, gardening gurus etc. If your interest is a particular academic discipline, for example biochemistry, microbiology, plant science, endocriniology, neuroscience, genetics, ecology (and practically any subject you can think of), joining a learned society can bring you into contact with like-minded people. Not only that, many of them offer a huge number of benefits such as discounted registration to conferences, travel grants of up to £500, committee membership, regular newsletters, awards, competitions and mentoring.

You may recognise some of these networking strategies and be using them already, but I hope I’ve given you a few more ideas.

Related blogs:

10 ways to find your next job

Keep your acquaintances close



Medical Science Liaison (MSL) Role – investigative communicator!

The number of Medical Science Liaison (MSL) vacancies is on the rise. As more and more drugs come to market, pharma companies are rapidly increasing the number of MSLs they employ. So could this be a suitable and attractive career choice for you? If you like reading and talking about science read on as former postdoc Martijn Bijker, founder/director of ‘fromSCIENCE to PHARMA’ explains the role of an MSL:

“Like many scientists, I enjoy reading and discussing new cool science with my fellow colleagues. However, when I was a postdoc I found that reading and talking about science was generally overwhelmed by doing day-to-day experiments. Working for hours on end behind a flow cytometry machine in a dark place, I frequently found myself feeling quite lonely (and bored). The fun part of “doing” science was being eroded and so after 3.5 years of postdocing, I decided to move into a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) role in the pharmaceutical industry at Abbott. And so began a new career for me that ticked all the boxes on the science menu that I had missed during my postdoc.”

Companies hire MSLs to help bring innovative new drugs to market; they are the scientific and clinical disease and drug experts working within the medical (affairs) department of a pharmaceutical or biotech company. This includes knowing how the drug works – its mode of action (MOA), questioning the disease and patient profiles, how to prevent or treat an adverse event or questioning the clinical trials from your own and competitor companies. These so-called pipeline molecules are tested in healthy individuals and/or in actual patients with the hope that these new drugs will do better than the current standard of care/best supportive care.

MSLs work at the interface between internal stakeholders in the pharma company and external stakeholders in the field – called Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs). KOLs, broadly defined as leaders in their field, can be heads of departments at teaching hospitals, heads of pharmacies, professors of medicine, the CEO of a patient organisation, physicians involved in pharmaceutical clinical trials and sometimes clinical scientists themselves. Having discussions with KOLs – often referring to clinical papers and conference information – helps MSLs to gain relevant insights, allowing internal stakeholders to devise the best strategy to make a treatment a clinical success for the patient, the treating doctor and the company.

As an MSL you have to be up-to-date on the latest literature and be a good communicator, since you are working with the most influential stakeholders in the country. Having a pharmacy or scientific degree and strong personal and communication skills is essential to breaking into the MSL role. Because of the highly scientific and clinical nature of the MSL job without you having to directly sell anything, it has become a very popular career choice for pharmacists/MSc/PhDs/postdocs who enjoy talking science for a (very well paid) living.

“The combination of being a disease expert, reading clinical papers, discussing science with top clinicians in the field, having autonomy in your role and being able to travel a bit (across the globe to international conferences) was for me the ideal science job outside academia, while at the same time being able to influence how patients are being treated, and will be treated in the future, with the most innovative drugs on the market.”

To find out more about this up-and-coming career and how to break into it visit Martijn’s training company website and join their free MSL webinar on “How to become an MSL without industry experience” by signing up at


Employable you!

Two recent blogs, published in InsideHigherEd and Nature, got me thinking about how advantageous it can be to have a PhD when looking for a job – but you need to think beyond your qualification to be employable.

The two articles focus on the employability of PhD-qualified graduates and diversity of roles to which they can aspire. Career possibilities range from directly relevant roles within academia, for which a PhD is a requisite qualification, through to those where a PhD is not required at all, such as management, accountancy and finance.  For all of these roles, associated experience, skills and personal qualities are the key to entering the profession – and I think this might be where many PhD graduates fall down: unlike applying for a PhD where educational success is the main factor required to secure the post (for example, in the UK you need at least a 2.i or 1st class degree and even a master’s to be considered), most employers look beyond qualifications when assessing candidates for particular roles within their organisations. Even for a first postdoctoral position you need to demonstrate your functional skills such as lab techniques, computing expertise, methodologies, as well as publishing and funding successes when making your application. However, as you progress in your career “employable you” needs to think more strategically.

Look at your professor/group leader and consider his/her responsibilities: Are they doing functional work in the lab? Very probably not. They are horizon scanning for new research ideas and avenues to investigate, writing research grants to test hypotheses, recruiting and mentoring postdocs and PhD students, contributing to departmental activities, teaching, writing papers, reviewing papers, handling rejections, setting up new collaborations, etc. So, for those aspiring to an academic career beyond the position of the functional postdoc, you can see that acquiring an independent fellowship or two will be advantageous, gaining an international reputation, publishing papers and connecting with other research groups, etc will be strategically important to enhance the likelihood of being employed as a permanent academic. If you think you’d like to move out of academia, you will need to enhance other experiences and skills to place yourself in an equally strong position to make a successful transition into your chosen career sector.

As pointed out in Polk and Wood’s blog, spending your time during your PhD or postdoc on extra-curricular activities such as taking relevant courses, doing voluntary work or networking will help you to re-direct your career into one where a PhD is not essential, and will provide evidence of your potential value as a new employee in the organisation. Many employers like PhD-qualified scientists who have much-needed technical skills, are not afraid of technology, are can-do problem solvers, numerate and who think objectively and creatively. For some posts, relevant experience may be needed, blocking your eligibility to apply. In these cases, it’s worth trying to secure an internship or network with someone in the profession to gain insights and access to their community. However, sometimes, transferable skills can be enough to demonstrate your suitability. For example, if you were involved in project managing or marketing events during your PhD, if you took part in other activities where your experiences related to your new non-academic role, these will provide evidence that you have the aptitude to use and develop them in your new non-academic role.

Finally, to show the employer just how employable you are, don’t forget to target the content of your CV and covering letter to the organisation and job specification!