A Friendly Network: How the People I Already Knew Helped Me Change Careers

After 5 years as a postdoc, I knew this was not a career that would carry me through to retirement. I had been unsure for a while and after several years of pondering and contemplating I was ready to make the break. But what next? Finding the answer has taken about 9 months of active searching and investigating. It has been time consuming and incredibly stressful, especially as I am prone to worry, and getting through it has made me realise just how important an informal support network--my friends and family--is to the determined career changer.

Although my parents did not understand what I was going through and were not close at hand, they listened and were a great safety outlet. However, nothing beat the unfailing help of my friends. They are scientists and nonscientists, long-term and more recent, living both locally and elsewhere. Being such a diverse group, they saw things from many different angles and made varied suggestions based on their knowledge of my character and personality, their understanding of other careers, and how I might be suited to them. It was like brain-storming. Suggestions ranged from other forms of scientific work where I would interact more with people, to teaching, and even a temporary job in a cafe for a change and a break to think things through. They also suggested getting experience of other vocations by work shadowing and they encouraged me to phone people to follow up on my ideas and the speculative interest I had shown in organisations. Amongst other things, this led me to experience a morning at the local physiotherapy outpatients department (shadowing, I hasten to add!).

Within the lab I bounced ideas off a colleague and chatted to other postdocs who were expressing similar feelings and doubts about their future career and investigating such alternatives as patent work, investment banking, and technology transfer. The local cafes soon became familiar haunts as I met one or two friends weekly for discussions about my latest thoughts, ideas, progress, and the job ads I'd seen. I also called friends who I knew had made the transition and who fully understood and empathised with how I felt. Having gone through a similarly stressful situation, they were very keen to use their experience to help. They suggested getting as much experience as I could from other areas of my life such as voluntary work and to go on courses so I could demonstrate through concrete examples my many skills.

Everyone listened, analysed, suggested, and helped me in my quest. They made useful observations about my suitability for jobs and provided advice reinforcing what I was saying. For example, when I thought about moving into industrial research--a safe, comfortable option doing what I was trained for in a different environment--a friend pointed out that in the 5 years she'd known me I'd always said that scientific research was not for me. I was forced to stop and think again. But most importantly the positive input and encouragement my support network continually provided kept me going through the low moments. They believed in me throughout and were honest and truthful as well. I trusted their views and paid heed to their comments.

Once I had started this informal type of networking, I gained confidence to network in other areas of my life. I had always kept myself busy outside work, which has provided me with other valuable skills and a wider group of people to gain views from. From them I found out about the real nitty-gritty of several careers and people were very helpful, providing further contacts, advice on CVs, and the approach to use to enter a new career. Having a friend or acquaintance make the initial contact with another party on my behalf really made things easier and often meant that I could chat to more senior people on an informal basis than would have been possible otherwise. Having become bolder, at every opportunity I started to ask scientists I encountered who had moved into other things about their career path. (Including Next Wave's UK editor when I met her at a careers event in Edinburgh ... which is how I come to be writing this article!)

With all this support and help behind me, when a job ad for a project manager in public health came along I had the confidence to apply. Once again, friends provided encouragement and made valuable suggestions on how to make my application stand out and really convey my skills and attributes. When it came to preparing an interview presentation, a friend and one of his acquaintances highlighted some relevant current information. As the interview drew nearer I ran answers to imaginary questions past people, and they suggested additional questions to think about. It all stood me in good stead and helped my composure so that, come the interview, I performed well. And they offered me the job!

So now after many months of hard work I have an exciting new career ahead of me and my friends and family are as thrilled as I am in my success. But importantly, I have become comfortable and confident networking and seeking the opinions and advice of others. Which is just as well since my new position will involve plenty of this!

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