Are you among those who tend to postpone career planning until later? Until you have only a few months or weeks till your current contract ends? We know that it’s not easy to map out the unknown path after your PhD completion, or once your postdoc contract terminates. That’s why we’ve accumulated 10 easy to implement and fun activities to kick-start your career preparations now. These activities will help you accumulate relevant information and insights, and you’ll be ready in good time to send out job applications and make that big move to the next career level.
by Anja Matthiä and Bärbel Tress
You are short on time, super busy, and have a ton of important things to do: analysing data, setting up new experiments, preparing a conference talk, or finishing a grant application before the deadline.
While being in the thick of a PhD, your ‘life-after-the-PhD’ might seem light years away. You don’t perceive it as urgent, and postpone the career quest for a less hectic time. But if you are dead-honest with yourself, it’s not only a time-issue. It’s that thinking about your career is the’ big-unknown’ you try to avoid. You might not know what to do afterwards, and you might not know which choice to make, given your skills and preferences. Even if you know – in principle – what you would love to do, you might be anxious about getting it. As a result, career-planning is perceived as uncomfortable and burdensome, and gets less attention than it deserves.
Herein lies the dilemma: The longer you postpone tackling your career planning, the more difficult it will get. Why is that?
Because, the more advanced in the PhD you are, the higher the pressure to actually figure out what you want and make the first steps. A smooth transition from your current status as a PhD candidate to the next career step – in most cases – involves considerable thinking, planning, and strategizing, until you figure out what exactly you want and how to get there. It takes time – which is in even shorter supply towards the end of your PhD. But planning your career in good time, in smaller steps alongside your other PhD tasks, is a lot easier, less scary and more fun.
In this blogpost, we’ll suggest 10 easy to implement actions that you can take anytime, and which are easy to accommodate next to your busy PhD research schedule. These will help you gain more clarity as to what the job options are, and how to take first steps towards applying for appropriate positions.
Here are our 10 easy-to-implement activities:
1. Do a mind-map: ‘Me and my future career’
Getting clarity on what you want and what you don’t want in your future career is crucial. It helps you avoid looking at jobs that ultimately you don’t like or won’t match your personality. Becoming aware of what suits you and what you perceive as fulfilling is a gradual process. Doing a mind-map on the topic always yields helpful insights and is super easy to do. Start with ‘me and my future career’ as the topic in the center, and then branch out to what you want/don’t want and what you would like/dislike in your future career. Add as much detail as comes to mind. Then leave it for 1-2 days before doing further analysis. Go through your mind map for clues of what is most important for you to have in a future career and what you absolutely want to avoid. Mark that out!
If you’re not familiar with mind-mapping, here’s a ‘how-to’ guide.
2. Pay a visit to the university’s career center
It might not seem like the most fun activity, but it’s one that is worth doing nonetheless. Search online for what your university’s career center has to offer. Check out the ‘Career Advancement’ services from the University of Basel to see what we mean. From courses to coaching to career fairs, there’s activities aplenty that will be beneficial to attend at your career stage. While online searching is ok, going there and making an appointment with one of the career-advisors is a must – see the University of Basel Advisory Service as an example. See when the career-advisors at your university are available, and book an appointment right now.
You might think it’s better to visit the career center in your last year, but the advantage of your visit early on during your PhD is that you will receive relevant information, e.g. about career events in your field, and you will still have the time to join those events during your PhD! Mention during the visit that you are in the early stages and you’d like to know their expert advice on how to find a great position.
3. Talk to your graduate school coordinator
In contrast to the university advisor, your graduate school coordinator has insights into your specific field of research and respective job prospects, and is likely the one who has contact with alumni. Contacting your graduate school coordinator early and sharing your interests means that the coordinator can forward you relevant information and job openings they are aware of.
A good starting point for discussion is to ask your graduate school coordinator for examples of career paths previous alumni of your graduate school entered after completing their degree or contract. They may also be able to contact alumni on your behalf so you can speak with them directly, which is what our next point is about.
4. Talk to alumni
Remember the post-doc who gave great speeches as a PhD student representative and is now working as a press officer for an NGO? Or the nerdy one, who hardly ever talked to colleagues, but completed her PhD in under 3 years and moved on to be a data scientist at an insurance company? Or the postdoc who you recently heard has started a second postdoc position at a prestigious research institute? Trace them down and ask if they would be available for a video-call. Tell them that you’re considering a similar career and ask them about their daily work, what they like and dislike. Keep an open-mind during these talks and listen to what they say. Afterwards, reflect on the information that came across during that conversation. Can you imagine doing the job that this person does? Furthermore, you can find out how they got the job and what they would suggest you prepare, or which qualifications might be beneficial. You’ll be surprised how many valuable insights they share.
By the way, Such an informal conversation about a certain job is called an ‘informational interview’ when you receive direct information from people working in this job first-hand. This will help you decide to follow a similar path or not. The University of Berkley’s Career Center has a great overview on how to conduct informational interviews. Or, check out these 5 questions to ask during an informational interview from the Harvard Business Review.
5. Familiarise yourself with job-portals and subscribe to job alerts
Job-portals are online platforms that post job advertisements, and support you with a ton of additional information. There are specific ones specialising only on the academic job market and scientists. Job portals fulfil a multiplicity of functions, but below you can find the two most important features we recommend:
- Get news alerts whenever a position that matches your search profile is published.
- Regular news and articles on trends in the job market
- Dos and don’ts in the job-searching process
Examples of job-portals for scientists:
There are many more, often focussing on one specific academic field. Also check out your main scientific associations for the best databases in your field.
- The American Psychological Association – Education and Career
- Earthworks – Jobs in Environmental Science related fields
Are you now thinking, ‘Wait, this is too early for me, I’m not ready to apply yet. Why should I read job advertisements?’ Well, you should read job advertisements regularly from now on, because:
- You’ll get an overview on what is available in your field. Track this for a couple of months or, even better, for a full year, and you’ll learn when job openings are posted, and where positions are available.
- You’ll get better at understanding the different jargon that is used to write job advertisements and, if necessary, get help. Deciphering the code used in job advertisements is one activity that is taught in our course ‘How to apply for an academic staff position’.
- You’ll realise what a good position in your field and at your career level offers in terms of job function, salary, benefits, working-conditions, etc.
6. Update your full CV regularly
Your full CV contains all details about your past career, education and current competences. Have your full CV easily accessible, and update it every time you finish a course (even those without a certificate), contribute to a conference, or have achieved any milestone. This full CV serves as the basis for later job applications. Depending on the job you are interested in, you take out the most relevant parts and create a final concise resume for a job in the industry. Or, if you apply for a job as a scientist, you submit your full academic CV.
Starting to ‘write’ a CV/resume when you need it right away for a looming job application deadline will likely fail. You don’t ‘write’ a CV/resume–you build it step-by-step as you gain experiences, skills, and move from one position to the next. In post #33: Why a great academic CV is a work-in-progress! You’ll find detailed advice on how this process works.
Note: your achievements give rise to your competences. Reflect on the competence(s) that helped you achieve a milestone or complete a particular research task in your PhD. Add those competences to your full CV. Translate research related competences to transferable skills that are used in many jobs.
Uhh, networking? That thing for extroverts or those who like small talk? No, everyone can network. Choose events like conferences, summer or winter schools, workshops or alike according to your interests. Or join career events like the career talks at the PhD Program Health Sciences at the University of Basel. Whether it’s online or in-person, take the chance to talk to speakers, panelists, or other participants. You can find great suggestions on how to approach people in an interview with Devara Zack about “Networking for People Who Hate Networking”.
Have you approached someone, mentioned your interests and career thoughts, and asked how they found their current job? Or, if you have decided on your career path already, ask whom they would consider a good employer and how you might get in contact.
8. Set up a social media profile on LinkedIn or Xing
Are you using social media mainly for personal purposes? Well, then it’s about time to set up a profile on one or two professional platforms like LinkedIn or Xing. Doing this as early as possible in your academic career will help you achieve better credibility and reach in your posts. In order to be successful in academia today, you need to raise your profile and display your work and achievements to the global scientific community.
In our post no.#93: The top 5 reasons to have a LinkedIn profile as a scientist you’ll get more insights into how to use a professional social media platform, and which benefits it can bring for career advancement.
9. Test your preferences/Find out what truly interests you
So many people end up in a profession that does not truly fulfil them. They grind for years in jobs that do not make them happy. After your PhD you have a chance to start out in the right direction because you have so many opportunities that are open to you. More on opportunities in our post #101: Preparing for a career after your PhD or Postdoc with Career Expert Tina Persson.
A great way to learn more about what drives you or makes you tick are assessments of your preferences or your character traits. Two well validated and profound ones we personally love are:
10. Find a career buddy
Are you in your final year and still not sure how to proceed, or are you too busy with your thesis to think about the time afterwards? Can’t afford a good career coach? An alternative is to find a peer career buddy. In regular meetings, you describe your current situation, what you can imagine doing, and what you’ve already tried to do. You can decide to join career events together, give feedback on each other’s CVs, or simulate an interview or a negotiation.
I, Anja, once had a career buddy. I paired up with someone who was at a similar transition point on the career path as me, just in a different field. We met every other week – in one meeting I talked about my challenges and thoughts, in the next meeting, my career buddy did. We only had a few meetings, but those were enough to consider several alternatives in our career path to decide on the next steps in our careers. I was truly proud of my career buddy’s achievements during our buddy time, as well as more certain about my next moves.
How can you find your career buddy? Ask a PhD Program coordinator or other PhD students writing their thesis. Even if you meet only a few times, you will have more insight into your possibilities and gain more security about your next steps.
See – there are lots and lots of activities to do. Most of them are neither difficult nor time-consuming. You’ll likely discover that dealing with career planning is easier than you thought and might involve talking to people you admire. It can be fulfilling to step-by-step discover more about yourself and what you really want in your career!
If you had to choose one of our ten activities, which one would that be? Get started with that one now!
About Anja Matthiä (PhD)
Anja Matthiä coordinates the PhD Program Health Sciences for the University of Basel as a mandate at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH). Anja is a neuroscientist by training, which is a very interdisciplinary field. She is highly interested in those interdisciplinary topics like computational sciences, health sciences, communication, diversity & inclusion, and education. After her Postdoc at the Charité in Berlin, she transitioned into coordination of higher education programs, such as Bachelor’s, Master’s and now PhD programs at the University of Basel. As a coordinator, Anja focuses on improving the environment for students to learn and do research, as well as for lecturers and facilitators to teach effectively. In that spirit, Anja is also engaged in mentoring activities, not just at Swiss TPH, but also at SwissTecLadies, to promote technically interested girls to prepare for a career in STEM disciplines.
- Fields, J. 2021. Sparked: Discover Your Unique Imprint for Work that Makes You Come Alive. HarperCollins Leadership.
- Giles Metcalfe: Networking for People Who Hate Networking – an interview with Devora Zack. Emerald Publishing.
- Sean O’Keefe. 2021. 5 Questions to Ask During an “Informational Interview” HBR. 2021
- Simple Mind: Mind-mapping basics.
- University of Basel: Career Advancement Office.
- University of Berkley – Career Center: How to conduct informational interviews.
- Zack, D. 2019. Networking for People Who Hate Networking, Second Edition: A Field Guide for Introverts, the Overwhelmed, and the Underconnected. Berrett-Koehler.
- TRESS ACADEMIC Expert Guide: 8 Common Reasons Why Application Letters Fail
- SMART ACADEMICS BLOG post #31: Six smart strategies for a strong Academic CV
- SMART ACADEMICS BLOG post #33: Why a great academic CV is a work-in-progress!
- SMART ACADEMICS BLOG post #77: When should I start searching for my next job?SMART ACADEMICS BLOG post #93: The top 5 reasons to have a LinkedIn profile as a scientist
- SMART ACADEMICS BLOG post #101: Preparing for a career after your PhD or Postdoc (with Tina Persson)
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