Earlier this week I wrote a post on career options for researchers and how to choose the right career for you. I ended by saying that a lot of people don't really choose their career at all, and often talk as if things 'just happened' or they 'got lucky' along the way to where they are now. If, however, you listen closely to people talk about their career paths you usually find there are things they did along the way to give luck a helping hand. There's a whole career development theory - planned happenstance - around the fact that it's often as we get involved with things and take opportunities that more opportunities open up and we build a sense over time of where our strengths and preferences lie. My colleague Holly Prescott has written a lovely article on exactly this - how to let your career find you during your PhD - where she describes how the non-academic activities she got involved with during her PhD inadvertently opened up her future career pathway. She makes the excellent point that doing something different is vital to your wellbeing and can help to maintain motivation during your PhD. From a career perspective, getting involved in a range of activities will expand your networks, develop your skills in a range of contexts and can lead to unexpected opportunities and an evolving sense of what is important to you in life and work.
So, here's a few suggestions of activities to get involved in during your PhD to help you build experience inside and outside of research:
Undertake work experience alongside your doctoral programme – test out potential career options, build your skills in a different context and develop commercial awareness
Be active in your field through participating in and organising conferences and seminars
Take a vertically integrated project - innovative research and applied learning projects giving you the opportunity to work in inter-disciplinary, multi-level teams of students to work with a member of academic staff on long-term real-world projects. Good for developing team-working skills and evidence of working on projects beyond your discipline
I-Keep – learn about intrapreneurship and work on a real-world project with a company
Take on a leadership role, whether through being on a Departmental Committee or within a student society
Develop business acumen and think about broader applications of your research through enterprise and entrepreneurship
Develop leadership and people-management skills through teaching, peer-mentoring and supervising project students
Get involved with the learned society or professional body related to your field – great for widening professional networks and contributing more widely to your field
For more ideas, see the Doctoral College’s web page on managing your professional development
Of course, it's not just a case of ratcheting up a list of things you've done; for development activities to really add value to your career, you need to reflect on what you've learned from them and how you've developed the skills employers are looking for, and crucially, what you've enjoyed about the experience, as this can give you strong insights into your future career direction.