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Keeping Your Options Open


Dear CareerDoctor

I'm partway through my PhD, but I'm not sure whether my future lies in academia. I want to keep my options open after my PhD. How can I make sure I do?


Dear Tim

First of all, don't worry about feeling indecisive--you're by no means the first PhD student unwilling to commit at this stage! Traditionally a PhD was the first step into an academic or any other research-based career. But as more and more PhD students are having second thoughts about that track and career fluidity in general is increasing, it is now much easier to change direction after acquiring that all important new title.

This column gives you a few key tips to bear in mind if you want to have a variety of career choices once you have completed your PhD. There are many things you can do to broaden your options, but it would be difficult to embark upon each of them without affecting your research (and your sanity). You have to assess which ones are important for you as your job search begins and which ones can be dipped into "little and often" rather than distracting you from the main event. As I stress in the first point, the most important thing is to have a PhD to offer--don't sacrifice research in order to build up a huge portfolio of employer-friendly qualities, as they are unlikely to eclipse a failed doctorate!

Tip 1: Be Successful

If you want to keep doors open, then it is important to build successes in your research so you can demonstrate achievement to the cynical employers who might think you are leaving research because you've failed rather than because you want to.

Your success in research might shine through papers, presentations--at conferences and to sponsors--secured funding (something difficult to do alone, but try to support your supervisor in bid writing), additional professional qualifications (e.g., chartered status or the equivalent membership offered by your discipline's professional body), or supporting the research of others (most undergraduate students undertake projects in research labs--and they're ideal guinea pigs on which to hone your teaching and research management skills!).

Tip 2: Know What Is Out There

Keeping your options open means knowing what your options are. Look around this site for profiles of people in a myriad of jobs. Look in on your Careers Service and pick up a few publications to brief you on different employment sectors. Talk to people at conferences and other events about their work and other roles in their organisations. If you come across an interesting job keep details of it in a "job file"--as you build this up you'll have a good picture of what interests you and what is available for when you need to make career decisions.

If you do not plan a drastic career change, but would like to leave the narrow field you are currently researching, you should read around your subject to get a wider view of your work and its impact in other disciplines. This will increase your chances of finding research posts in new subjects--interdisciplinary research is becoming popular and attracts an increasing amount of funding. If possible, spend time with researchers in fields you find interesting to discover areas of overlap between your expertise and theirs.

Tip 3: Do It Yourself

There is a lot of support out there, but ultimately you are the one who is going to enjoy your job or suffer the consequences of a bad choice. As you will probably be at work for 40-plus hours for 40-plus weeks per year for 40-plus years, it is worth making your career as interesting and well matched to you as possible.

Know your strengths and the areas you need to develop. Spend some time analysing your skills and the things you enjoy doing, and check them out against the careers you are considering. For a bit of help on that, refer to one of my previous columns Help! I Don't Know What to Do With My Degree!).

Once you have identified areas that need improvement, find out what events, publications, and development opportunities are available to you and make the most of them. You may choose to devise a development plan in which you keep a record of your skills development, experiences, and resources which will help you to improve further.

Tip 4: Talk the Talk

If you are planning to leave research behind you will need to convince prospective nonscientist employers of the value of your training. So it is important to be able to describe your work and its context to lay people. Make your research sound interesting and also emphasise the skills it helped you to build--but also be ready to explain in POSITIVE terms why you are seeking a new challenge.

A change of direction may expose you to recruiters who hold some rather disappointing opinions of scientists--not team players, insular, unable to communicate outside their fields, and so on. (For still more depressing "insights" click on the HESDA Web site.) The concerns of a prospective employer need to be dispelled as soon as possible, so make sure you avoid jargon, show you have any skills they might fear you lack, and maintain a friendly approach with lots of eye contact.

Tip 5: Know What Employers Want ... and Demonstrate You've Got It

Although the big recruiters spend lots of time and money trying to make their brochures look different, they all want the same fundamental skills. Do some research into the general needs of employers (your careers service should be able to help with this) so you can work on developing core skills that will be attractive in a wide range of careers. For example, invest some time and effort to improve your communication skills (by giving presentations at internal group meetings or conferences); your teamwork (by developing good working relationships with your research group, supporting undergraduate students, or through external activities); and your project management skills (have a system for planning your research and time).

Tip 6: Learn How to Market Yourself

On top of core skills, employers will also be on the lookout for more specific qualities in tune with their own priorities. Most employers are explicit about what these "specific requirements" are, so always base your CV on their list. Without telling any lies (or even being "economical with the truth") it is possible to present your PhD in a more flattering light. So if one employer is keen on "innovation", then use this word in your CV, perhaps as a heading, and describe the original contribution you have made in research. If another emphasises "personal effectiveness", then talk up your time management skills, your ability to meet deadlines and work with minimal supervision, etc.

You get the idea: Always adapt the format of your CV to a particular job, and this means maximising skills and minimising the academic side, if you are applying for a nonacademic job.

But don't restrict your marketing to just a CV or a job interview. Consider networking or work shadowing. Be ready to ask questions about people's jobs at each opportunity; talk about what you are looking for in a career and what you have to offer. This can be very informal (in the bar at a conference), semiformal (at employer presentations which are often arranged by careers services), or more formally at prearranged meetings. (For advice on how to quiz people about their jobs without seeming obnoxious, see a previous Tooling Up column).

Tip 7: Don't Be a One-Trick Pony

Although a career in academia requires focus and values your development as a researcher far above any other interests, if you want to keep your post-PhD options open, you will need to have more to offer than the wan complexion and weary air that experimental science can give. Dedicate some time to your interests outside the lab, whether they are in societies, sports, volunteering, or part-time work.

Finally, don't be intimidated by the thought of having to make a career decision at this stage that will determine your entire life, particularly if you haven't spent much time outside academia. Careers are no longer fixed, and most people change directions--either in terms of their employer or their occupation--repeatedly during their working life. The important things are to understand what you enjoy and what you are good at and to keep your skills up to date so you maintain your attractiveness to employers.

All the best in your career ...

The CareerDoctor