“So, what are your plans for after you finish?”
It’s no secret that being a PhD student is stressful. Thankfully the process of earning a PhD doesn’t last forever, but because of its finite nature, any conversations with friends or colleagues will lead to the inevitable question of “So, what’s next?.” My group of colleagues includes some final year PhD students, all of whom are facing a not-too-distant future of writing and defending their dissertations. On top of this pressure, they are also worried about their job prospects and transition from student to employee.
When I finished my PhD, I was fortunate enough to have a prospective post-doc offer not long after finishing my dissertation. I managed to pass the time between submitting my dissertation and graduation without any additional job search stress. But I didn’t escape the job search stress for very long—last spring, and after many months of uncertainty about extending my post-doc contract, I found myself scrambling for what to do next. I applied for 9 jobs, and even landed an interview for one of them, but nothing fruitful came out of my search. I took a deep breath of relief when my contract was officially extended, but the experience left me with two realizations: 1) I was very lucky to still have a job, and 2) I would be in the exact same position again in 10 months’ time if I didn’t do something differently.
The importance of a professional network
Part of the reason for my struggle during my initial job search was that I only sort of knew what I wanted to do, which at the time included anything related to science communication, publications, public engagement, and so on. I knew that I didn’t want a career as a researcher, but I didn’t know what my exact options were or how to get there. What would an application reviewer be looking for on my resume? What sorts of skills did I need to highlight that were not on my academic CV? What types of positions could I realistically aim for with my skills and experience?
I had a lack of understanding since I had only recently decided what I wanted to do after my research post, and because I was new to the area I also lacked an existing network of colleagues and potential mentors working in the field that I wanted to enter. From my time as a researcher, I had a vast network of academics as well as industry and government researchers, but I didn’t know anyone doing science communication or writing. I had a broad understanding of where I wanted to go, but I was walking there blindfolded.
We discussed in a previous post about the nebulous nature of networking and some approaches you can use to make connections. Before we go further in this post, it would be good to revisit the definition of a network once more. Simply put, your network is the set of connections you have to colleagues, friends, and family members. These are connections you’ve made on a personal level: it’s not just shaking someone’s hand at a conference but means having a working relationship with them. They know who you are, what you can do, and your passions and area of expertise.
Networking may not seem that important if you are in the midst of lab work or writing your dissertation. But a solid network with more than one branch can take you places that wouldn’t be possible by simply sending in job applications and hoping for the best. Networking can show you hidden opportunities that won’t always be advertised and your mentors and connections can help you figure out how to enter into a new area by helping you to highlight your relevant skills or lay out a job-specific resume.
But there’s a trick to networking: because your network represents your relationships with other people, it’s not something you can put together on a short notice. You need to establish your network early on in your career so you have time to work with and establish trust between you and your connections. The key is to build trust with others before you need something from the other person—like a job, for example.
Where should I start?
1) Identify your skills, professional interests, and your long-term career goals
After going through contract extension panic, I realized that I wanted to pursue a career in science communication. But my short stint of job applications made me realize that this was a very broad ambition, and I felt like I was spreading myself very thin trying to cover every aspect of what this type of career could entail.
One of the ways I narrowed my career target was by reading Born for This and going through the book’s exercises. Perhaps the most powerful exercise in the book was when the author told us to think about what other people ask us to help with the most. This is a way of showing us what we’re good at because it’s something that others ask us to do for them. I realized that over the course of my time as both a PhD student and post-doc, I helped others the most with writing. Sometimes it was reviewing articles or manuscripts, other times it was in taking the lead on a paper that had been sitting unwritten for too many months. This exercise helped me realize something that was both a passion and a skill, which then helped me focus on careers related to writing.
2) Rework your brand
Knowing that I wanted to look for writing jobs, I sought out more opportunities to write. I participated in writing contests and guest posts for blogs and University websites. I then restructured my CV to highlight my written work more strongly. I also took part in writing classes (Coursera has some fantastic online courses if you’re looking for something free) and made sure that my social media profiles were up-to-date and reflected my career goals.
It sounds like a lot of work, and I did spend a good deal of time working on this outside of my normal post-doc hours. But it was also very enjoyable—I enjoyed learning about new topics and I got to meet other like-minded people in the process. This should also be a part of your re-branding process; if you’re not having a good time being the person you’re working hard to become, you should reconsider the path you’re walking on.
3) Look for opportunities that fit your style and your needs
Once you have your career goal and your brand figured out, start looking for what options you have based on your current/future limitations. For me, I knew that my husband had a job offer in Manchester for two years, so I wanted to look for science writing/communication jobs in that area. While looking at jobs on LinkedIn I found several posts for medical writers, and there were a lot of entry-level positions in the Manchester area.
I soon discovered a field, of which I had never heard, that was looking for PhD-trained researchers right in my back yard! I followed up by looking in more detail at the job advertisements, finding some resources about the field online, and sent off my resume for a couple of posts even though I didn’t need a job at the time. I felt that I had struck gold, but knew that it would take more than a good looking CV to get me my first job in a new area.
4) Look for connections that can help you reach those opportunities
Last autumn I was busy trying to get lab work finished so I could make more progress on the final manuscript for my project. One afternoon I found myself chatting with a PI in the physiology department whose lab space I used for some of my experiments. He knew that I was getting towards the end of my post-doc contract and asked if I had plans to stay in research and I told him I was looking to make a transition into the medical communications industry. As it turned out, the PI had a friend who was working at a medical writing firm near Manchester. He offered to pass me along his contact details and even to put in a good word with me at the pub when he met his friend for a drink later that week.
This conversation was a lucky exchange but one that highlights the importance of having trusted connections in all parts of your work. I was only working in this lab part-time and had no interest in continuing that facet of my work, but the PI knew I was hard-working, organized, and creative. He soon passed along his friend’s contact details and I made the all-important initial contact: a request for an informational interview.
I didn’t ask this new contact for a job or to look at my CV, since at the time he was only a colleague of a colleague. In my initial exchange I asked if we could meet informally to discuss more about medical communications in general. My goal was to meet someone in the field and hear from them what the work was like, then later on to expand this relationship and work towards getting help structuring my CV or even hints on potential job posts. This was all starting to happen close to six months before my contract would finished, so I also didn’t need anything explicit during our initial contact.
PS: If you’re looking for tips on what to ask during an information interview, be sure to check out Alaina Levine’s “Networking for Nerds book-it’s a great read!
5) Pursue opportunities as they come
The informational interview that I proposed never actually happened. As it turned out, the company was recruiting for an associate medical writer, and my new contact asked for my CV right away. I was nervous to send off my CV, but the work I had done restructuring my resume and highlighting my writing-oriented skills paid off. I was then given a writing test and made sure to not take the effort lightly even though I didn’t need a job at that time. I learned more about what was expected and dedicated a set amount of time to working on the test. One successful writing test and one in-person interview later (with my new contact at the other side of the table), I found myself celebrating the new year with a job offer to my name—months ahead of schedule!
Writing your own career story
My own career story was the result of yet another stroke of luck. But sometimes luck isn’t just a random coincidence: luck is something you can make for yourself. Sometimes luck is a product of the time and place you’re in. Sometimes luck is an opportunity you didn’t plan for that ends up directing your life’s story. Luck, timing, and the ability to find and seize opportunities leads us to many paths in our careers, and it’s often on these unplanned roads that we find the way through our own career journey.
But in order to take advantage of the hidden opportunities that can lead to game-changing moments, we need to network. This involves having strong personal connections with a wide range of colleagues as well as a solid and trusted reputation that connects to your name. Networking might seem like something nebulous or far-off while you’re knee deep in your own research, but thinking about your own career path as well as what connections you need to get there can take away part of the stress and uncertainty of your job search. You might not instantly have an answer for the question “So, what are you doing after you graduate?” but at least you’ll be able to say with confidence: “I’m exploring my options.”