Career building for new research postgraduates

Posted in: Career Choice, Career Development, For PhDs

I've deliberately entitled this post 'career building' and not 'career planning'. If you're embarking on a research degree this week, you may very understandably feel that the first few weeks of a PhD programme are too early to be thinking about planning your career. I wrote a blog post around this time last year with some thoughts on that, but this year I want to take a slightly different approach.

I took part in some of the Faculty inductions for new research postgraduates yesterday, and one of the things I said was that some researchers have a definite career plan in mind, potentially from the beginning of their research, and for others the plan will unfold and evolve over three years. Some people have a systematic approach to deciding what they want do; others let their thinking develop more fluidly and wait until quite late to develop firm plans. Others will feel that they never have a plan but that things 'just happen' or they're in 'the right place at the right time'.

Whether you plan your career or not, you will be building it, simply from engaging in research and in other things that matter to you, and interacting with other people. Some of the things that influence our career do seem to 'just happen' or evolve naturally; other things can be influenced, initiated or directed by us. It can be helpful to view your career as something that has already started, rather than something to come in the future. How have previous events and decisions influenced where you are now, and how might your time as a doctoral researcher influence what comes next?

A good place to start might be to ask yourself why you decided to do a PhD. Here are some common answers to that question, and some thoughts as to what 'career building' might look like in each case:

- I'm passionate about my research topic/subject area. Fantastic. Where did that passion come from? Who needs to know about your research and how will you tell them? Where does your passion sit within the broader research field? How might you develop your ideas into new projects (evidence of research independence and future plans is a key criteria for academic jobs) ?  What will you do if the passion wanes? Are there other passions you might want to develop?

- I have a particular career path in mind. Great. Do you know what it takes to be successful in your chosen field? How can you build experience over the next few years? Who could help you? If the plan needed to change or didn't work out, what would that look like?

- I didn't know what I wanted to do, and I was offered a PhD so I took it. Very common. Start noticing your thoughts and feelings about the PhD and the other things you're involved in. What do you enjoy? What skills are you developing? When do you feel most like 'yourself''? You can do this in your mind, or develop a more structured way of recording your thoughts and reflections.

It's very easy for someone like me to tell you  'should' be spending time thinking about your career. Ultimately it's up to you as to when, how and if you proactively engage with career development. Here are some suggestions for things that might help to build your career, bearing in mind that you're already building it anyway:

- Write stuff. If you're aiming for a longer term academic career, publications is a key area to take action in. Depending on your research field it can take a while to generate any data to publish, but start thinking early about where you might publish and what a successful research publication looks like. Write other stuff too - press releases, blog posts, applications for small or large pots of research funding. If you want to move outside of academia, write stuff for non-academic audiences.

- organise a  conference. Great way to build your academic networks and raise your profile, and the skills you build in administration and organisation are highly transferable.

- test the waters with social media. How are other researchers using it? Which social media tools are potential employers or others in your field using? Scary for some, but undoubtedly useful for building networks and finding out more about career options and opportunities; check out these guides to help get you started.

- wider University life. Student representation? Teaching, supervising or supporting undergraduates or taught Masters students? Volunteering?

- public engagement activities. Our Public Engagement Unit organise a wide range of events and activities, such as their Public Engagement Forum for Research Postgraduates.

- skills training. The University offers a wide range of personal and professional career development training courses for research postgraduates, designed to help you become a better researcher as well as build your career.

- Work experience, including freelance and consulting. Jobs on Toast has some good ideas and tips.

It really is up to you to decide how you will use your time, and what activities need prioritising at different stages in your research. Whatever you engage in, including the PhD project itself, make sure you have some mechanism for recording and reflecting on what you have done and who you've encountered; this great article from The Thesis Whisperer has advice on how to do this. Our career planning timeline has suggestions for career development activities you can be undertaking at different stages of your PhD.

As a Careers Service we can support you at any time with confidential 1:1 appointments, career management workshops, tailored web resources for researchers, the Bath Connection (our database of alumni contacts), and of course the great advice on this blog!

Posted in: Career Choice, Career Development, For PhDs


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