Naoimh O’Connor recommends a three-step process to laying the foundations for the next five years of your research career.
Guest contributor Naoimh O’Connor
It is becoming more and more apparent that having a doctorate and being an expert in your field does not automatically set you on a fixed career path. In fact, devising a focused career strategy is now becoming part of the job of successful researchers.
Many postdocs I work with find that, because of the need to focus on day-to-day activities, there is little time or mental energy to consider the future. So, when it comes to completing the Career Development section of a fellowship application or answering the ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ question at an interview, they feel unprepared and uninspired.
One of the workshops I facilitate is called ‘Creating a Job-seeking Strategy for Researchers’. In it I recommend a three-step process for beginning to structure your career-plan. It’s not so different to a research project in that it involves your imagination, collecting and analyzing facts, and then creating a timeline with short and long-term goals. The earlier you start, the more comfortable the process will be for you, but even if you only have a few months left, this model helps put you more in control.
Step 1: Imagination
Often, having invested so much of themselves in their PhD or their current project, researchers are not sure what they want from their career anymore. To ‘unstick’ this way of thinking, it is useful to consider the following questions, first from your current experience and then from the perspective of your future self, five years down the line: what do you like about your current day-job? What do you dislike about it? How would you currently describe your career? How much do you earn at the moment? How many hours a week do you work? Describe your life outside of work.
The benefit of imagining yourself five years from today, answering the same questions about your job, salary and working hours is that it can help you clarify how exactly you would like to describe your job and your personal life in five years. More probing questions here.
Step 2: Collect facts, analyze options
The next step involves turning abstract ideas into concrete facts. If you know someone who is currently living all or some aspects of your ideal life, contact them and ask them how they got to where they are. If you don’t know anyone like this, expand your network. For example, if you are trying to secure funding, identify people who are one fellowship ahead of you and get as much solid information as you can from them about their experience. If you’re curious about non-academic roles, start with some desk-based research: a LinkedIn ‘people search’ with your PhD title in the search field will help you spot what other people with your background call what they do every day. Once you have identified appropriate job-titles, examine relevant job descriptions online for mandatory and desirable criteria to clarify what are realistic options for you. As another careers expert puts it, collect data on yourself. And for academic careers in particular, make sure to assess how competitive you are.
Step 3: Project career
When you feel clearer about what you want and you are equipped with facts about how to get there, you can then prioritize how best to use your time and energy plugging the gaps. While your medium-term plan might involve a stint with another university/in a company, your short-term/six-month plan could include a personal skills-gap analysis, a career conversation both with your PI and a careers expert and weekly searches on job portals, LinkedIn and funding databases like researchprofessional, as well as attending grants-writing seminars and non-academic careers sessions.
Giving yourself time to clarify your goals, collect information about your options, build your network and find an expert team to help you on your path may not make the distant future less ambiguous, but will hopefully put you in charge of how you steer the next six months into your medium-term future.