You do three years, then a couple more, and then – my God, what next? A master's, a PhD … and never a job at the end of it.

Sylvia Melchiorre

In embarking on research work at university, there's always a risk that you can get dragged along uncontrollably with the tide. When finishing up a three or four year PhD, it can be stressful enough without even considering the impending unemployment that will imminently follow. So, if you're in that situation and your PhD supervisor suggests that you apply for a forthcoming postdoc contract, you may well, just as I did, do that since it's an easy solution to this predicament. It's a comfortable option, since it postpones any serious (and tricky) career decisions for a couple more years.

In my case, all was well until this problem reared its head again as I reached the final six months of my postdoc contract. I had questioned what was next, but didn't really know how to go about answering that question. I'd been in university so long that I had no idea of what my options were: what else, other than research, can you do with the skills you've acquired as a researcher?1

Despite that predicament, when I received an email advertising a careers programme for postdocs working in medical engineering, I initially passed it up as being something not very useful for me. My (admittedly misguided) impression was that it would be all time-wasting whiteboard exercises.

Thankfully in the end, I did apply, but only after having my arm twisted by a friendwho went to a meeting outlining the programme and was greatly enthusiastic about it. In retrospect, I feel pretty stupid that I could have easily missed out, since it's been greatly helpful in pointing out alternative careers and taught me a lot in how I should be presenting myself to prospective employers.

In fact, I've been incredibly fortunate. My feeling is that this kind of intensive programme is rarely offered to PhD students or postdocs.

What the programme involved was several small group meetings over a few months with advice and support on offer from the course organisers, and each other. Each week discussed a different theme and we covered just about every aspect of career management, from identifying possible careers, to writing CVs and cover letters, to networking and other job search approaches, to interviews. Given that comprehensive coverage of job searching, the title the course had ("Career Architect") certainly wasn't unreasonable.

Why did this approach work so well?

1. It provided time to think.

Career planning is not something that I personally have never really taken time out to sit down and think about. It's just one of those things that never seems a priority (though it definitely is!) If you're busy in your existing job, you don't get time to think about future moves. And, if you're in the process of finding a new job, survival instinct usually kicks in and you immediately start searching for vacancies and sending applications, rather than spending a long time considering what you actually want.

The course's structure meant that it forced us to consider our career path head-on, rather than putting it off for another day. We had regular group meetings, and had to spend time between meetings working on exercises, which were designed to get us thinking about career options and help narrow down the possible choices.

2. It provided time for the staff to understand our motivations.

I'd previously considered consulting the university careers service. On reflection, I don't think this would have been too effective. It's hard for someone to advise you in a brief meeting without knowing you that well. They can certainly give you some basic pointers and point you to reading material to explore, but this isn't going to be very specific advice geared to what you, as an individual, want.

By contrast, the rapport that we developed with the staff over a period of weeks and months was a real benefit. They developed a great understanding of who we were and where we wanted to go, which helped them to give us personalised advice.

3. It provided us with mentors who were willing to discuss ideas and approaches.

Not only did we have the enjoyable regular meetings, but we had constant — and exemplary — email and phone support from the staff. Having the outside opinion of people who know a lot about career development is incredibly valuable: rather than dithering over some decision, say, for example, what to put on an application form, being able to ask somebody who's going to have a well-considered opinion is a boon. Through this consultation, my CV was completely transformed in the space of a few days and several phone calls from being mediocre into something that I was happy to send out.

4. It provided peer support.

Job searching is usually carried out in isolation. Because of that, it's easy to worry and lose perspective on your situation, especially when facing rejection. Knowing the similar trials that others are going through is a great way to put some perspective on your own troubles and really does help to keep you motivated, rather than disheartened. That outside perspective is incredibly helpful in stabilising your view of your situation which can easily become skewed if you're experiencing rejection.

In the six months before the course started, I'd applied for positions on and off, but I'd go into lulls of being incredibly fed up following rejections only to have to pick myself up and spend more time completing applications. Here, the continuous support, feedback and encouragement from peers (and staff) was a tremendous boost in keeping me motivated during the often frustrating task of applying for work.

So, what should universities be doing?

Well, as many PhD and postdoctoral researchers are unlikely to have a permanent academic career, universities should be making a decent effort to help researchers plan for a future outside university. Helping future alumni to hopefully go on to success in industry jobs is certainly a good advertisement for the university too.

What I've learned is that career moves are a lot of work. The sooner career planning is started, the better. As glad as I am that I went through the process, it was a very intense five months' work and I would have much preferred to begun this much earlier. Retrospectively, it might even have been wise to started preparing when I first started my two year postdoc…

Of course, it's probably a little unreasonable to expect every researcher to be provided with such thorough and specialised one-to-one career coaching, though it would be nice. Nonetheless, providing ongoing peer support and the time for researchers to begin considering their careers shouldn't be too difficult or expensive to arrange. Talks given by career advisers on things to consider in career decision making, and approaches to job searching would definitely be a start: I've recently learnt about several job search strategies that I hadn't previously heard of. Also, hearing from speakers who've already made the progression from academic research to positions outside university could offer a helpful insight into how best to make this successful change.

Perhaps these kinds of events for postdocs were already ongoing and I just wasn't aware of them. (I knew there were lots of careers events for undergraduates, but job searching for experienced researchers is a distinct process.) In that case, it may be sensible for those in careers services to better publicise them or more strongly encourage researchers to take an afternoon or so out of the lab or office to attend.

Finally, I should give a very special thank you to the three wonderful staff who ran the course at the University of Leeds and those who were responsible for it existing in the first place!

  1. Actually, as I learned through the course, more than you might think. As an experienced researcher, you've probably developed a lot of research, organisational, presentation, and team working skills that are readily transferable to work outside university, even if you move outside of the research area you've worked in for so long.