Self-reflection can help young researchers analyze their skills and plan for their futures.
Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “what road do I take?”
The cat asked, “where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?”
— a paraphrased version of the scene in Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Karen Hinxman completed two postdocs before realising she was on the wrong road and wasn’t cut out to be a professor. “I still love science and research, but I’m better suited to my current role,” she says. Now she’s a career consultant at Imperial College London, working with other postdocs who are looking for careers advice. “The perpetual postdocs are usually still there either because they are determined to become professors, but more often than not, they don’t know what else to do.”
Hinxman’s postdoctoral experience, like that of many others we’ve seen in this series, was beneficial when it came to finding a job outside academia. She had an insider’s point of view of what life as a postdoctoral researcher was like. “What comes next very much depends on the postdoc, what kind of person they are and what career they are hoping for.”
To help lost postdocs, Hinxman guides them go through a process of self-reflection by asking about their skills and experience, whilst trying to understand what exactly it is that they want. “This is my favourite part of this job: seeing their eyes open as they begin to realise that they have got lots of skills and there are jobs out there that they can do.” Hinxman advises that instead of finding a job that fits you, look for a job and trying to fit to it.
Although self-reflection sounds extremely difficult, it’s actually relatively simple.
Write. The first thing to do is to answer the following questions:
1: What do you like about your job?
2: What do you dislike about the job?
3: What don’t you mind about your job?
Think. Now that you’ve written all these things down, answer this questions: Why have you written these things down? By understand the What and the Why behind your likes and dislikes about your role, you can begin to think about the things that you might enjoy doing in another role.
Talk. “Find out what others have gone on to do and see whether or not the list of skills and things you enjoy doing would fit into that job,” says Hinxman. And don’t just apply this to familiar roles. Go out and speak to people who do all sorts of things to see how your skills might fit.
Research. If one of the conversations you had with friends and colleagues sparked an interest, follow it up with some extra research. Have a look at their company website; ask your friend to put you in contact with a manager there to organise an informational interview; look online to see if there are other companies that have similar roles.
Apply. Hinxman suggest you avoid using the Scattergun approach, where you apply for every job in sight. “It takes too much time and you need to tailor your application to each job,” says Hinxman. “You need to be picky and true to yourself: make sure the jobs you are applying for are those you actually want.”
Prepare. Once you’ve got a few interviews lined up, you will need to have examples of how you have used and developed various skills that they are looking for. We’ve talked about this before too: use story telling to explore and explain your transferable skills. Pick a skill from the job description; write down how you used it. This should include any challenges you over came and how they were over come. This approach can be used both to determine what your transferable skills are and how you can frame them for an interview.
Even though this process looks fairly straightforward written down like this, it can still be daunting to do on your own. Working with a group of friends can help identify extra skills you might not realise you have. They could also have a more objective opinion about what they can see you are good at and what they might think you enjoy.
As a postdoctoral researcher, you will have had the opportunity to develop a myriad of skills that you can apply to any number of positions. So even if you don’t know what you would like to do next, you are prepared for much of it. Just take some time to think about what you enjoy, because if you pick something you enjoy, then it really doesn’t matter what road you take in life.
If you’ve only just come across our Postdoc series, you can catch up on all the other posts here: