I've been reading this excellent post on the Research Whisperer about one postdoc's gradual transition into a non-research role (specifically science writing). Do read it for yourself, but it inspired some general thoughts about career transitions that I wanted to share with you:
- Start small. As Ian's story shows, career transitions often happen in small steps. In his case that meant starting a blog (which I can testify is a highly satisfying and therapeutic thing to do, and becomes a lot less scary after a little practice). In your case a small step might be learning a new programming language (there are lots of online courses around which Ian also made use of), booking onto a training course, or arranging to shadow someone working in a field or role that interests you for a day or two.
- Re-write the narrative. Ian mentioned an 'anxiety narrative' that kept playing in his mind when he was in the early stages of trying out science writing. From him the narrative was: 'Anyone could do this', other common negative stories I've heard people tell themselves (and me) regarding a possible change of career direction include: 'Isn't it too late to change direction?'; 'I don't have the necessary skills'; 'but that's really competitive isn't it?' If you hear yourself recounting a negative story that might be stopping you from working towards where you want to be, ask yourself whether the story can be reframed (i.e. you can get the skills you need) or whether you have all the facts or are basing your assumptions on narrow perspectives.
- You may not have to leave everything behind. There may be aspects of your research skills and knowledge that you do want to use in a future career. 'Which aspects of now do you want to take into the future?' is question I ask often in 1:1 career conversations with researchers. In Ian's case he wanted to use the writing and problem-solving skills; in yours it might be data analysis, oral communication or budget management. Researchers gain a wide variety of skills that can be applied in various contexts. This lovely post from my colleague Clare Jones at the University of Nottingham explains how you can identify the skills you have and want to use in as little as ten minutes. If you have a little more time, draw yourself a timeline of a fixed period of your life (say the last five years) and map out the highlights and challenges. Are there any themes that emerge around what is important to you or when you have felt most satisfied?
- Broaden your experience. This could be through getting involved in research-related activities such as organising a conference, helping at an Open Day or explaining your passion for your subject to a group of six year olds. Online courses, for example in programming languages, project management or science communication, can be a great way to boost your skills. For some sectors and roles it would be worth getting some short-term experience; speak to a careers adviser about how to identify suitable opportunities and employers.
- Network online. An effective social media presence will help to raise your profile, develop your networks, keep up to date with developments potential target sectors, and even lead to experience or employment. In Ian's words: 'Most of the opportunities to expand my portfolio have come up organically through my presence on Twitter and connecting with people there.' For guidance take a look at the University's Social Media Toolkit and the Careers Service website.
- Take opportunities when they come up. Say yes to everything and you may have your supervisor or research manager at your back; say no to everything and you may miss out on invaluable opportunities to develop your networks and skills portfolio, as well as have a refreshing break from your research project.
- Identify your personal impact. Employers don't only look for people who can do the job; they also want people who are results-orientated and can make a positive contribution to their organisation. Reflect on your current and past experience not only in terms of duties and responsibilities but also in terms of achievements. What wouldn't happen if you weren't around? Be specific and quantify achievements wherever you can: how much money did you raise, what feedback did you receive from clients/students, what new initiative did you persuade your department to implement?
- Build resilience. Career transitions can take time and may well involve disappointments along the way. Follow Ian's example and identify where you've made progress, surround yourself with a support network, stay flexible and just keep going.