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#12 Sarah Blackford on how to kick-start your career planning: Tips and Tricks

Sarah is qualified with a master’s degree in career guidance in Higher Education. She is a member of the Career Development Institute and a founding member of the network Careers Advisers supporting Researchers in Europe (CARE).

Published onDec 23, 2016
#12 Sarah Blackford on how to kick-start your career planning: Tips and Tricks

Qualified with a master’s degree in career guidance in Higher Education, Sarah is a member of the Career Development Institute and a founding member of the network Careers Advisers supporting Researchers in Europe (CARE).

She is the author of Career planning for research bioscientists and much of her advice and resources are available on her blog

“Use your head to think through the pros and cons of what you do, but also listen to your heart and go with your gut feeling. Sometimes, it’s worth taking a risk to get where you want to go.”

– Sarah Blackford, Academic and Science Career Consultant

Welcome to my podcast on career planning. In the next 10 minutes you will find out the main factors which will help you to plan your career including those which are under your control and those which are not.

If you think about it, career planning is a contradiction in terms – how can you plan something which is subject to so many unknowns? As we all know, trying to control our own destiny is something of a myth as we are all operating in an eclectic world where factors and events beyond our control are constantly interfering with our plans and changing and shifting our direction.

For example, you may have started out in your PhD aiming to become an academic, however along the way you might have changed your mind when you’ve seen the pressures on your supervisor and others in your working environment, or maybe your experiments didn’t go the way you had hoped so you didn’t get the publications to enable you to compete for senior positions. Maybe you were influenced by your personal life.

Perhaps you can’t move as easily as you could have done in the past because you prefer to stay where you are and focus on family life. In this case, when you’re not so flexible in your mobility, you will need to be more flexible in your career choice and perhaps you’ll have to compromise your ambitions or think about other ways to pursue your career interests by considering flexible working arrangements or finding a job where it’s possible to work remotely.

Beyond this, sometimes technology and market forces make some skills more marketable than others. For example, there’s currently a need for bioinformatics, genomics and bioengineering skills and good communication skills are also in high demand. Blogging and other social media related jobs didn’t exist in the past and new jobs will appear in the future, whilst others will fade away. On the other hand, world events and politics can influence your career, making your current job obsolete so you need to learn new skills or reposition yourself to be employable in other career sectors.

So you can see, careers are not at all straightforward and so planning your career can seem a daunting prospect. That said, with a PhD you have lots to offer employers: You are highly qualified with lots of skills and a willingness to learn. You’re likely to be self motivated, innovative and capable of grasping new ideas. Perhaps you are good at problem solving, have an analytical mind and well developed communication skills. What you enjoy doing will influence your career decisions quite strongly as well as other personal traits such as your values and personality.

Self awareness is rated as one of the more important factors in the career planning process. It not only helps you to figure out what kinds of careers might suit you, it’s also integral to you being able to convince employers of your value to them in your application and at interview. As well as knowing yourself, you need to know the job market and the opportunities currently available as well as emerging new types of jobs. Be curious about life beyond what’s immediately in front of you.

As with keeping up with the literature in your field of research is important, being knowledgeable about the job market is equally crucial so you become familiar with the career landscape. This can be done by keeping an eye on job and company websites, looking out for information and jobs on social media such as LinkedIn and Twitter and developing networks in your career sectors of interest. Employers tell us that over 70% of jobs are secured through networking and it’s not surprising when you think about it – hiring is a risky business but if you already know someone or they are recommended by someone you trust in your network, why take the risk by going elsewhere?

During this process of career planning, as I said before, life is happening all around you and unplanned events and situations are likely to pop up unexpectedly. Many people who look back on their careers will tell you that they had a chance encounter with someone, or something happened beyond their control, which changed their career for good or bad. Usually good.

This is what we call the luck factor, but you can make your own luck by being proactive and getting ‘out there’. Don’t work in splendid isolation. The more people who know about you and what you do, the likelihood is you’re more likely to benefit from chance meetings. It could be something formal like being spotted giving a great talk at a conference, it could be during a conversation with a colleague, someone may find you on LinkedIn or it could be during a workshop or a chat in the coffee room. Many people cite these encounters as turning points in their careers.

Remember though that if this happens to you you might need to have your CV handy so you can pass it on quickly to a prospective employer, so make sure you have one prepared even though you’re obviously going to have to refine it to fit whichever job or employer you’re sending it to.

Selling yourself is a skill in itself both in writing and at interview – many people can scupper their chances of getting a job because they market themselves in the wrong way, for example, writing an academic CV for a job in industry or talking in detail about areas of their career experience of no direct interest to an employer at interview. These transitional parts of your career planning are well under your control so make sure you get help or training in these important elements of the process. I’m sure there’ll be future podcasts in this series you’ll be able to refer to on these topics.

Let me end this short podcast by highlighting the need to make informed decisions about your career planning. Use your head to think through the pros and cons of what you do, but also listen to your heart and go with your gut feeling. Sometimes, it’s worth taking a risk to get where you want to go. It can be scary and unsettling but most things feel like that when you are doing something new and exciting.

Many years ago I left my comfortable permanent job in scientific publishing to take up my first careers adviser post which was only a 3 month contract. I had a strong feeling it was the right thing to do and I was right to rely on my gut feeling. Remember to look before you leap though – it’s always good to talk things through with people in these situations where you are moving to your next job so seek out professional help if you can and, of course, there are many places to gather information and advice these days.

So, in summary the key things to consider when planning your career are as follows:

  • Review your own skills and interests and think about what aspects of your current or previous jobs you enjoy doing the most. Or it could be that you get most enjoyment out of things you do outside of work or voluntary activities associated with your job or PhD. These will give you clues to the types of jobs which might be best suited to you – the idea of career progression is to keep doing what you like and leave behind more of what you don’t like.

  • Make sure you’re as knowledgeable as you can be about the job market – you can find out about jobs and the people doing them in so many ways nowadays so be creative and look at people’s career paths and stories to get a better idea. You can even ask them if you could ask them some questions about their job to get a more in depth insight into what is involved.

  • Make sure you get your CV in good shape and if an interview is coming up make sure to prepare and practice beforehand.

  • Be proactive and make yourself visible by getting involved, networking and generally doing things beyond the scope of your research project. Depending on the type of career you’re aiming for, different activities will benefit you more than others so try to be strategic about this.

So I hope this short podcast has given you some ideas about how to kick start your career planning whether or not you’re aiming to stay in academia. Even if you don’t know what you want to do, as Lewis Caroll says, in his book, Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you’e going, any road can take you there”.

Good luck and I wish you success in 2017 and beyond!

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