Sorting out your career is nobody else’s job

With thanks to Dr Lauren Tedaldi, post-doc researcher at King’s and also now working for Sense about Science.

I’m sorry to break it to you, guys, (and this is something I only really realised recently) but there is no-one out there that will be able to tell you exactly what job you should be doing and how to get it: that includes the fantastic Kate Murray et al at the Graduate School. (Clearly they can help with your thinking and the processes of applying and so on….).

One year ago I started to realise that maybe the career in industrial research that I’d planned for the last 10 years wasn’t what I wanted. I confess it was partly initiated by the difficulty in getting a job but the more and more I thought about it, the more I realised I probably didn’t want the jobs I’d been applying for anyway.

Phew. Bullet dodged. Now what?

Well, first I started to complain. ‘My supervisors have never talked to me about what other careers are available.’ ‘No-one wants to talk about jobs outside of research.’ ‘I haven’t been given the opportunity to do anything else’, I whined to Kate. She’s too nice to say so, I’m sure, but I was quite whiny at this point, looking back on all the missed opportunities during my PhD and PostDoc and basically blaming other people.

Then I went to the Nature Careers Fair last September and realised things had to change. Every presentation I went to seemed to start with, ‘So I created this forum’, or ‘I started this blog’ and I sat there thinking ‘I can barely use my phone for email, how the hell am I going to blog?’. It was at this point that the penny dropped: if I wasn’t going to take responsibility for getting myself a new career path, why should anyone else?

So I started a blog on my career search. I write down what I found out and shared it with other people. Almost every link and image I uploaded for the first month was broken and I’m still convinced that only my mother reads it but it gave me a start that lead to a free place at a SciComm conference, new contacts (yes, networking), a new understanding of the field around research and the jobs therein, a chance to blog on someone else’s site, involvement in ScienceGrrl, the chance to do some public engagement, joining twitter…but not necessarily in that order.

Fundamentally, if you don’t know what you want to do, that’s fine: but you’re the only one who can find out. During your PhD you can easily feel like you don’t have time for extra things but you will never get less busy, I promise you. The wonderful thing about your PhD studies is that there are lots of things you can try for free and if you don’t like doing them, you can stop. Here are some examples of things you can try…

1. Offer to write your PI’s research paper or review, even if it’s not on your specific area of work. This will help you decide if you want to do medical writing, where you have to summarise other people’s work, clinical trials and even the inserts that go in medication. I’ve written (and published) two papers this year and have two more underway. This is helping me get the most out of my PostDoc and making me practise my scientific writing.

2. Enter writing competitions to see if you like writing about science for a mainstream audience. I entered Access to Understanding with an article on arthritis (not my area) and got lots of feedback from friends and family.

3. Write news articles about cutting-edge science and submit them to the university paper/a blog/your boyfriend to see if they’re any good, to see if you like doing this and to see how long it takes you. I wrote something on antibody-drug-conjugates (sort of my area) in application for an internship at The Economist.

4. GO ON COURSES They’re free right now, you probably have to go on some and you’ll definitely never have access to so many experts. I did a public speaking masterclass, public engagement course with King’s, science journalism at The Guardian and science writing at OBR. I paid £50 for the Guardian course, but the rest were free and it was a great way to meet like minded people for advice and support.

5. Talk to new people at every conference, meeting and seminar. If you’re absolutely awful at this then a job that requires networking is probably not for you. If you’re good at this then you will have made new contacts that could be invaluable. I ended up at a ScienceGrrl brainstorm, teaching kids about oxidation and sitting in on meetings about Science Museum lates all because of ‘someone’ I met ‘somewhere’ – not through my supervisor.

6. Read some patents. Properly. Is this something you find interesting? Patent law is a popular and competitive choice for graduates. It’s not easy so you should know what you’re getting yourself into. (I worked for a patent company as a chemistry consultant for a bit as part of my PhD – I’m pretty certain I find this dull)

7. Seriously think about how much money you’d like to earn and how little you will settle for: this will have a massive impact on what jobs you will apply for. My current job (which I love) is less than half my PostDoc wage and less than my PhD stipend.

8. Start a Twitter account or blog for yourself or your research group This is a great way to see what’s going on outside your research institution. If you do this for your research group you MUST ask permission from your superiors/head of department.

9. Plan something complicated from start to finish. A work party, a conference, a hen-do, a football tournament. The organisation this requires will tell you if you’re cut out for planning or project management and if you like doing it. I got married during my work search. I’m pretty sure I can now organise the hell out of most things. (Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting you get married purely for the project management experience, maybe just an engagement party…)

10. Apply for some jobs.  Even if you don’t know what you want to do. At least browse the job boards to see what’s out there. Some applications that I made steered me towards positions that I was better suited to. If you want a wake-up call, check out the picture below. It’s a screen shot of my ‘Applications’ folder. It doesn’t include those applications that were speculative or required only an online form…there are over 60 individual applications in less than a year. Don’t moan, just do something.

applications folder

Any of the extra things on your CV will make you seem more well-rounded and not just another fed-up researcher. I was told on a forum that I was just another ‘desperate PostDoc that couldn’t make it in academia’ – you need to make sure your CV shows that that’s not the case and that you have other skills! And remember, if you try something new and you don’t like it or you’re rubbish at it, that’s fine, just stop and try something else. Then you can also add ‘perseverance’ to your CV.

I was ridiculously busy during all of this but I’m now at a job I love. I work for Sense About Science, a charity supporting projects that equip the public to make sense (get it?) of science. We create guides for the public, run events for researchers to train them in the best way to talk about their work, address bad journalism and put writers in touch with scientific experts whenever we can to make sure that science is clear, well-represented and useful for the public and policy-makers alike. It’s fast-paced, responsive, dead-line driven and no-one has cried for the whole eight weeks I’ve been here. So far, it’s wildly different to academia.

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