Career Support Staff: Careering Around

Sarah Blackford

Editor's note: Sarah, the subject of this profile, provided us with an update on her career in August 2007. Sarah still serves in the education and public affairs office of the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) where she combines her background in biological sciences with her experience and skills in science communication, career guidance, and personality profiling. She provides education and training for SEB members and the wider scientific community, edits the membership's newsletter, handles public relations and policy advocacy, and conducts career management workshops to enhance the employability of postgraduates and postdocs.

"Those who can, do; those who can't, teach; and those who don't know become careers advisers," according to a good friend and careers adviser colleague of mine. Not all teachers and careers advisers might agree with this saying, but from my own point of view it seems appropriate. Because I'm a Libra (a notably indecisive sign on the astrological chart) as well as one of the great natural non-decision makers of the world, you can guess that my career was never planned or logically mapped out. After completing my degree in 1986, I simply went for the obvious first move: research (at York University). I quickly realised that research was not for me, but, since it was a paid assistantship, I decided to stay on for the duration of the contract, opting out of any PhD commitments.

I certainly don't think this time was wasted, as it kept me in touch with biology. And at the end of the 3 years I had a clearer idea of what I wanted to do. I realised that the lab work was not for me but that I'd found the writing and presenting part of research stimulating. Therefore, I decided to try publishing as a career and got a position as editorial assistant for the Journal of Experimental Botany. This was based with the editor, a professor in the biology department at Southampton University, and subsequently at Lancaster University. The job suited me very well, because I was still working in a university environment but doing something completely different.

After 3 or 4 years, however, with no promotional prospects on the horizon (well, I wasn't likely to get my boss's job as head of biology!), I was getting itchy feet again. Clues as to my next move came during my editorial career; as the well-known editorial assistant in the biology department, I had often been approached by PhD students and postdocs to look over their CVs and application letters to check the grammar and spelling. I really enjoyed helping them. In order to take this a bit further, I went to the university's Careers Service to see if I could have a chat and get a bit of work shadowing experience. The Careers Service was very helpful to me, allowing me to assist with CV workshops and sit in on careers interviews. I got my first 'big break' at Lancaster, where I was able to jump into a 3-month contract as a temporary careers adviser. Luckily for me, this panned out for a further year, by which time I had gained enough on-the-job experience to apply for a careers adviser position at Leeds University.

To cut a long story short, I worked there for 18 months and then returned to Lancaster to take up the position of education and public affairs officer for the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB). It seems this job was tailor made for me, encompassing all my previous experience in research work and editing and, of course, the massive and broad experience that careers work entails. Not only am I fully aware of the trials and challenges that postgraduates and postdoctorals face, but I am also equipped to help out, having been involved in running postgrad workshops and interviewing students on a day-to-day basis. This is invaluable for my current job, because many of our members fall into this category, and many of them take part in the careers workshops that we run during the education event at our annual meeting. The SEB also takes an active role in the UKLSC careers conferences that are sponsored by Next Wave each year. Being based in the biology department at Lancaster University also gives me the added bonus that I still have access to a higher education careers service as well as to the national association, AGCAS. This allows me to keep in touch with careers issues as well as giving me direct contact with students through my work as the careers adviser for the biology department here. Overall, my creative, marketing, and publicity skills, as well as networking, presentation, and general communication skills are much more fully developed. On top of that, I have a greater understanding and knowledge of education and employment issues.

So what's the important take-home message here? As I hope the title of this article and its contents have illustrated, my career has not exactly been a linear and focussed affair--far from it. It has been haphazard and I have been very lucky. I have the kind of personality that means I'm not keen on planning, and I've also been willing to take risks such as giving up a permanent job for a 3-month contract just so I can try out something different.

I think the key to most people making their way in the world is 'awareness'. I was never aware of my opportunities when I was at university; I just merrily applied for research work because I couldn't think of anything else to do. I wasn't aware of the need to sell myself when applying for jobs, and so my CV was pretty poor when I left university. I wasn't aware of what my skills were or that I needed to review and analyse them to sell them to employers. I wasn't aware that I could use my experiences to try to predict the kind of general career path I should set off on. It just happened!

But it could have just as easily not have happened. Therefore I would say, in defence of careers advisers everywhere, that it may be true that some of them 'don't know', but this means that they are much more likely to have a greater empathy for their clients. They are also, like me, in support of career planning since it serves to raise awareness--the key to wise decisions. So use your careers service! And don't think if you're a postgrad or postdoc you don't need any advice or guidance--far from it! Even though many careers advisers have no background in science, they can still help you to assess your potential and point you in the direction of relevant information. More importantly, they can check out your CV and make sure you're selling yourself and your skills (believe me, most people's CVs are BAD--and I don't mean in the 'wicked' sense of the word either). So get in there and do something positive, even if it's just booking a short interview, checking out the computer-assisted guidance system, or looking at the information. And don't forget that many universities nowadays run special programmes tailor-made for postgraduates to help them with their career planning--so take full advantage. And you never know--if one day in the future you're still not sure what you really want to do, then maybe careers work is for you too!

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