Preparing for your ideal career

Academia or industry? Or maybe you’re considering becoming a scientific editor, a consultant, or even a patent attorney? No matter what your answer is, you might want to start thinking about making the first strides towards your future career.

But first of all, don’t panic. If you’re a PhD student and you’re reading this now, it’s not too late to start getting proactive to find the job of your dreams. And as a fellow PhD student who has started doing just that, I want to share with you some of the useful things that I’ve gathered so far. So, here are some simple steps that will help you choose your ideal job and, hopefully, get hired to do it.

Step 1: Network and gather information

We’re constantly hearing about the importance of ‘networking’, but nobody really explains why we should network and how to actually do it. To begin, let’s just replace the term networking with ‘talking to human beings around you about something you’re interested in hearing and they’re interested in saying, in a language you both understand’. It’s true that doing this with strangers can feel a bit awkward at times, especially when we consider the social capabilities of the average academic, but it can also be informative, motivating and (sometimes) even enjoyable. More importantly, it’s an immensely useful tool for choosing and navigating towards our future careers, as it lets us see which jobs are out there, what everyday life is like for ‘normal civilians’ and what potential employers are looking for.

So where can you network? Many opportunities arise in conferences, where you get the chance to meet people from your own field or niche, and whenever they’re offered, you should certainly take advantage of career fair events. It’s in these places where you’re most likely to meet people with similar background and qualifications to you. It’s also easier to initiate a discussion at a professional setting by asking a follow-up question about somebody’s talk or poster.

After making conversation, don’t forget to ask for a way to stay in contact, presuming you want to, of course. If you feel like an email is too personal, you could add them on Linkedin or follow them on Twitter. Speaking of Twitter, I would highly recommend you start following people you find interesting and do some online cajoling (e.g. share and like their posts, or congratulate them on their career achievements).

Get a mentor in your desired field. This is another great way to network. You get the benefit of their own experiences, and at the same time they can give you ideas about activities you can partake in to increase your chances of being selected by future employers.

Take advantage of PhD resources. We tend to forget that our colleagues are going through exactly the same thing as us. Something as simple as bringing up the topic at a PhD social event can give you access to the stockpile of information that we collectively accumulate. It’s also a safe environment to talk about career dilemmas and insecurities and get more personal and honest advice. Outside of socials, the University offers courses, career talks and workshops too. For example, I participated in a GGNB course about consulting and learned a lot about what the job actually entails on a day-to-day basis, while also networking (and getting some PhD credits). The GGNB organizes industry excursions as well, which are another great way to meet potential employers and get firsthand answers to your burning questions. Moreover, if your dream is to ditch the employers altogether and start your own company, there are entrepreneurship workshops given by organizations such as “young entrepreneurs in science” to help you develop your innovative skills, by asking you to assess the start-up potential of your own PhD project.

Finally, you can always gather information about your desired career in true ‘hermit-scientist’ fashion by utilizing the power of the almighty internet. Here, you have unlimited resources about career opportunities matched to your educational background, the numbers of types of available jobs and the desired qualifications. No need for networking, talking or clothes.

Step 2: Set priorities

Now is the time to think about what you actually want in your life, and hopefully by this point you sort of know what things are essential for you. For instance, are you interested in prestige and money? Is it important to you to reserve some time for leisure and hobbies? Also, ask yourself what you’re looking for in the job itself. How do you feel about travelling for work? Some jobs might require you to do very repetitive tasks, which might not satisfy you if you constantly need a change of routine.

Probably your PhD experience has already given you some hints on how you want your future work life to look like. If not, it’s time to do a little bit more soul-searching*. Once you figure out what your priorities are, you can see how they fit in with the jobs you’ve researched in step 1.

*The editor recommends reading this cute blog post.

Step 3: Think about your current strengths and weaknesses

Let’s assume that by now you have some idea of which career path you’d like to pursue. The next step is finding out which skills are necessary for actually doing that job, and more importantly which ones you’re currently lacking in. Suppose you’re interested in a job where you need to give presentations on a regular basis, but you still suffer from stage fright; that might be something you’d want to gradually work on. You may start by presenting your project to your friends or your colleagues to get some feedback in a comfortable environment. Then, you could sign up to give talks in conferences, institution-wide seminars or retreats (rather than just presenting a poster), and give tutorials or methods courses if that’s a possibility (the added bonus is that you can write all of these on your CV). If you want more professional feedback, you could also take advantage of workshops focused on presentation skills (the GGNB offers some, for example).

The same effort should be applied to any skills you feel the need to improve on, such as writing, time management and problem solving. In addition to refining your weaker attributes, make sure to also identify your existing strengths, so you can emphasize them when applying for a job.

Step 4: Do activities that your future employer will like

It’s hard enough to keep up with our PhD projects as is, so finding the time for anything else (like improving our hireability) is no easy feat. However, in many cases you can kill two birds with one stone and get your PhD credits while doing an activity that helps you become more work competent, like supervising a student. Beyond getting teaching experience, this also helps you hone other skills like communication, leadership and good organization. Similarly, you can participate in mentoring programs (in or out of the university) and mentor high school, bachelor’s or master’s students.

If a career in science communication or publication sounds interesting to you, you could write an article or become an editor for a university journal (or how about writing a blog post?). Alternatively, if you think you’d like to try your hand at postdocing, a good selling point is being able to come into a new lab as an external expert. Therefore, you may want to consider gradually establishing your expertise in a certain topic or technique so that you can offer to join a group and establish it there. This is at least something you have a certain amount of control over as compared with, say, your publication record :/

Outside of ‘professional’ skills, it’s also beneficial to take part in things like sports competitions (which show how much of a team player you are, or volunteering (which shows how much you care about humanity). But let’s not be cynical – these things don’t just pad your CV and show your future employer how motivated and dedicated you are; they can be enjoyable and make you a well-rounded and sociable human being as well.

Nevertheless… you don’t have to finish your PhD work-ready

As a last note, I’ll point out that no one expects you to walk into your new office the day after Gänseliesel and wow the entire staff with your extensive knowledge and perfect skills. Most entry-level positions in industry, consulting and patent law include training for new employees, and for the latter you also need to pass an exam that ensures you’ve acquired the necessary knowledge to work as an attorney. Alternatively, if your job doesn’t provide training and you want to get up to speed beforehand, you might want to consider doing a short internship, which would help you test the waters before committing.

In conclusion, it is definitely beneficial to start thinking about which careers are out there, which ones you want, and how to start building your CV to get them. However, don’t push yourself too hard and don’t take on more than you can handle. If your PhD load is already stressing you out a lot, start by finding some activities that don’t just develop your skills, but that you also enjoy doing. Whatever happens, it’s highly unlikely you’ll end up a hobo. And if you do, at least you’ll be a Dr. hobo.

Chrystalleni Vassiliou

PhD candidate, Neuroscience, European Neuroscience Institute (ENI)

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