This is the first guest post by Dr Shari Walsh from the Careers and Employment service at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. Shari is one of a very small number of careers counsellors who specialises in helping PhD students. Here Shari talks about the importance of developing a vision about your future career path, post PhD.
I have to admit that I really didn’t think much about my career when I started my PhD. My research degree wasn’t part of a big career plan, I simply loved my research topic and thought the lifestyle was pretty good. I realise this is a bit paradoxical given that I am now a Career Counselling specialising in career development for Postgraduate Research students!
Upon reflection though, I realise that I actually did do some form of career preparation and development during the degree. Things like tutoring, applying for and receiving a research grant, publishing, presenting at conferences and the like. These activities were primarily to set me up for an academic career so it was quite a shock when I realised I actually didn’t want to be an academic or researcher for the rest of my life.
Don’t get me wrong, I admire people who do these roles, I just realised that I didn’t want to be one of them. I studied my undergraduate degree to be a practitioner not an academic. And then I kind of stumbled into my current position where I can use my experience to help other postgraduate students to think outside the box and really identify what they want to do and how to go about it.
One thing I have realised in this role is that most postgraduates are totally unaware of their skill set and what they can do at the end of their research degree. It is very easy, like me, to get on the academic/research pathway and not take time to reflect if this is where you really want to be. I also notice that many postgraduates get disillusioned about the realities of post-doc life as they hadn’t researched or prepared for this inevitable occurrence. So, start thinking of your post-PhD pathway now. Here’s some ideas:
Take time to reflect on your career direction:
Rather than seeing reflection as an ‘extra’ activity that you will do if you get time, schedule it into your calendar. It is really disappointing for me when I have a client who has handed in their thesis for external examination and then arrives in my office saying – What’s next? Unfortunately, a job is not likely to just appear when you are ready – you need to do some preparation.
Identify your skills:
Do a formal activity such as a skills audit or brainstorm your skill set to identify the skills you have beyond research.
For instance, teamwork is a part of the PhD process as you work with a supervisor or two and most likely have interactions with other students and staff. In reality, a PhD is a massive learning curve in project management as you have to organise tasks, meet deadlines etc. Rather than simply seeing your activities as part of the research process, re-frame them as employability skills and change the language to build your understanding of how they will help you in the work environment.
Develop a vision:
I am not a huge believer in having a fixed career path. Difficulties arise if the end goal is not what is expected and often people with an absolute goal overlook exciting opportunities along the way.
Rather than having a fixed goal, develop a vision of what you want to do. What activities do you enjoy doing? Do you envisage working in a team or on your own? Do you want to a lot of interactions with people? Is money important? Understanding what you enjoy, what motivates you, and your values is an integral part of developing a vision. I used to do collages of my career vision and stick them up around my office to keep me motivated.
Ask for suggestions on what you could do:
What would your friends and colleagues suggest you do and why? The ‘why’ is very important as it reinforces our skill set and competencies. Often people see us in a different light to the way we see ourselves, their advice might be life changing, but:
Become your own person and decide your own pathway
Often students say that they have a strong sense of loyalty to their supervisor and they feel guilty if they decide they choose a different path.
I had a great supervisor. She had given me many opportunities to prepare for academia and it was a difficult decision to let this person, whom I admired, know that I didn’t want to become an academic (she took it very well and we still collaborate on some projects). However, in general, supervisors want the best for their students so let them know your thoughts.
Use your research skills:
Use your well developed research skills on yourself to research roles that interest you and to develop an understanding of the skills you already have that you would be beneficial in that role. Identify useful sources of information such as career and job seeking websites (e.g., This website); regularly read the Higher Education section of The Australian and the professional section of The Weekend Australian; talk with people working in roles that interest you. Make sure you keep a record of what you discover.
See a Career Counsellor:
All universities offer a career counselling service. Make an appointment to discuss options and to have time and space to talk about where you want to go.
Finally, just like you are becoming an expert in your research field, you can also become an expert in your career. Be pro-active, get started now, and work towards obtaining a successful result. What are you doing now that you think will help you in your career goals post PhD?