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Should I Stay (in the Lab) or Should I Go?


Dear CareerDoctor,I'm 28 and now coming to the end of my first postdoc. Even though I've wanted to be a scientist from about age 10, I'm gradually coming to the conclusion that perhaps I'm in love with the idea of being a scientist, rather than the work itself. However, I am unsure enough to still be tempted to give it another go.I took a PhD because it was offered to me, and didn't think hard enough about what area it was in. My field is in cellular neurophysiology but I am probably more interested in cognitive neuroscience than anything else. I am now worried that I am caught in a field I don't want to be in. I am glad that the PhD is done, but wish that it was in a different area.In addition to these general problems, my social situation has changed and I now have a mortgage and a long-term partner. Clearly I need to get money coming in as soon as the postdoc is up (November 2002) otherwise I can't pay my mortgage.How do I get a job which will allow me to get money coming in, and still be a plus point in terms of experience in case I still want to continue in science? I have come to the conclusion that I need to get at least an income and then concentrate on getting a job which is more in line with some sort of career plan. Is this a good way to proceed? And how can I turn this period of change to my advantage? What's the best way to focus my career plans when I simply don't know what the correct move is?Aaron

Dear Aaron,

If you think you may want to stay in research, then think very carefully about leaving the bench at all, because skills and knowledge quickly become out of date. Talk to academics or more senior researchers about their careers and try to weigh up their insight against your personal career objectives. Remember that academia is in a period of rapid change, so be sure to ask them about how they see their careers developing.

In the short term, see if there are any funds to extend your contract for a few months--this may give you time to think through where you want your career to go. If it isn't possible and you have to find temporary work outside research, keep in touch with your group and keep reading papers in the areas that interest you. I'm not familiar with your research field, but given your obvious enthusiasm and (presumably) relatively young age, I would consider a second postdoc in cognitive neuroscience. Get in touch with the key players in the field (provided they are in geographical locations that suit you) and discuss your interest with them. You can still plan a career transition during this second postdoc if it confirms your suspicions about not wanting a career in academic research.

If your contract is ending soon anyway, then you are obviously going to have to work in order to remain solvent, but be aware that researching careers requires commitment and it may be more difficult to extract yourself from a stop-gap job than you envisage. Short-term work through an agency may be an option, although you may not have much choice about the work they offer so it might be difficult to manoeuvre your immediate responsibilities such that they point you in the right direction. By all means discuss your needs with the agency before joining them and if you are hoping to remain in science, focus on scientific agencies. These organizations advertise in the scientific job press, and your Careers Service may also know of some in your area.

Next Wave Tips: Planning Your Career

? What You Want From a Career

? Build Your Career Path Map

? Career Development Portfolios for PhDs

  and for scientists and engineers

Often it is difficult to find the ideal career in a single leap, so you are right to have a career plan in mind, even if it requires a number of steps to achieve your goals. Ideally though, each step will be in the right direction for two good reasons. The first is that the sooner you start moving toward your preferred career, the quicker you'll gain the skills and experience you need--which should lead to more challenges and more money! The second is that unrelated jobs can stand out on a CV and make you look unsettled.

If you feel rather uninspired when trying to envision your career path, then try talking to people in attractive jobs about the early stages of their own careers--they may have some surprises for you. Many will have gathered skills and knowledge from a variety of jobs and experiences, which may encourage you to make the first step.

If you decide to get a job outside of academia at this stage you will need to be able to market your skills effectively. For help identifying your skills and phrasing them in "business" terms, take a look at the excellent list of transferable skills identified by one of the Concordat working groups. It is well hidden as Appendix 1 to the Report from the RCI Working Group on Training which you can find (also fairly well hidden) in the Universities UK Web site. The whole report makes interesting reading, although it is likely to compound your frustration with life as a postdoc because it makes many recommendations to universities on supporting your career management that you may not have experienced!

Next Wave Tips: Skills, Skills, and More Skills

? Inventory Your Skills

? Skills Employers Want

? Develop Your Skills

? Mind the Gap

There is a wealth of useful tips on Next Wave (see boxes above and below), and you may also want to seek advice from your institution's Careers Service (check first that they offer support to staff--their remit may only be for students) or other people whose opinion you value. Pieces of advice such as emphasising skills rather than the content of your research will prove invaluable if you are applying outside research or academia. A technical abstract will turn employers off!

Next Wave Tips: Applying

? Door Openers

? Winning CVs and Résumés

? Prepare Your Interview

? Survive Wacky Interviews

? Small Mistakes With Big Consequences

In order to focus your plans, I'd suggest that before you start reading about alternatives, you spend some time drawing up a list of what you want from a career. This should include as many aspects as possible, ranging from the skills you enjoy using, your knowledge, motivations, ideal work environment, and factors such as location (for more on this, see an earlier Career Doctor column). As you start to research jobs you should compare them to the list, which you'll probably want to edit as you work out what is really important to you and which jobs might meet your needs. You can also talk to people in your network about your priorities and see if they can suggest suitable careers or other contacts to talk to. People are usually the best source of information on careers, so see if the careers service or alumni offices have lists of former students in the areas you decide to focus on.

To make the most of this period of change, you must commit to a programme of self analysis to identify all your skills, preferences, and values, so you can define yourself in terms of assets rather than a job title. If you can develop a system of review and professional development then you are unlikely to face career dilemmas in the future. Some professional bodies produce career development portfolios in which you can record skills and achievements, or you could contact the Human Resources Department in your institution for advice in this area. Most universities have resources to help contract researchers: Swansea University, for example, has personal appraisal forms designed specifically for postdocs who are planning transitions.

Finally, alternative careers relevant to research may offer a good compromise between getting a stop-gap job and embarking on another postdoc. ... But I need the whole of my next column to tackle that subject!

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor.

Thank you for all of the questions that you've sent me in the last fortnight--please keep them coming in. I can't send personal career advice, but I will address your requests as soon as possible in my future columns.