I was running the Careers Service stand at the University Induction sessions for new research postgraduates. While waiting eagerly for conversations with keen new researchers, my ear caught the following comment from someone walking by: 'Careers? It's a bit early, isn't it?' Ever since, the question 'Is the first year of a PhD too early to be thinking about your career?' has been buzzing round in my head. Typically for someone with an academic background in Arts and Humanities, the conclusion I've reached is yes...and no.
Realistically, PhD researchers come and see us in the Careers Service at all stages of their doctorate, and we will never turn you away or tell you off because 'you should have thought about this earlier'. It's a reasonable point in many ways to suggest that the first few months of a PhD need to be spent settling in to the research and getting to know supervisors and collaborators. However, here are a few reasons why it can be beneficial to engage with your own career development sooner rather than later:
1. Setting a clear line between the present and the future can be a false distinction. In workshops with researchers I've started doing a 'time line' activitiy which aims to help people see how past activities, events and achievements can impact on current behaviour and future descisions. Right from first year, you will be engaging in many activities - the research itself, skills training, outside interests - that will contribute to your career development. All you need to do is consciously articulate - to yourself, friends, supervisors, a careers adviser - what you have learned/developed/achieved and what this means to you. Our Career Planning Timeline suggests career development activities you can be doing right from first year. Many of them are very small steps.
2. For many people, thinking about their career is a process rather than a one-off descision. Starting to consider career options early gives you more space and freedom to have a think, do some research into opportunities, build your networks, and allow some doors to close and your feelings and life circumstances to change. Choosing not to think about 'what next' until the last few weeks of your PhD can lead to panic at a time when you're probably panicking anyway.
3. Thinking about career planning early gives you the opportunity to build experience. A circular argument in some ways - as noted above, you are engaging in career development as you participate in research and other activities. Do make the most of your doctoral experience (and I know the research itself is time-consuming) to engage in a range of activities, such as internships, work shadowing, volunteering, entrepreneurship competitions, consultancy and public engagement, which builds your skills and networks.
4. You're probably thinking about it anyway. Those thoughts of 'What am I going to do after the PhD?' can creep in at unexpected moments. Sometimes (particularly in the middle of an experiment) it's best to push them away, at other times it's best to roll with them and take action. Turn anxiety into proactivity.
Next time you see me on a stand, come and have a chat!