Sunday, 7 September 2014

Doing more with LinkedIn

Recently, I’ve noticed that more and more researchers and students are joining LinkedIn. I say ‘joining LinkedIn’ rather than ‘using LinkedIn’, since many say that they’re on it, but they’re not actually doing anything with it. This may be the same for you. You may have been advised to get on LinkedIn in case you miss out on anything – in fact, one of my previous blogs “Get Linked In!” does just that – but then nothing happens. So, it occurred to me I could give you some further help to get more out of this social media platform, by giving you a few more insights into its functions. Take note however, that I’m no expert and my suggestions are limited to my own experience of using it. So here goes:

Use the groups. There are thousands of groups on LinkedIn covering a wide range of subjects. You can join any number of them – some are closed, some are open. Search for groups relevant to your subject discipline and career interests, where you’ll see discussions to which you can also contribute, as well as starting your own. You can even set up your own group. Three groups which are dedicated to helping PhD students and researchers are:
c)    CARE – Careers Advisers supporting Researchers in Europe (and beyond)
Use it for research purposes You can research companies on LinkedIn. It’s especially useful to find out about small companies, which are not well known. You can search by specific countries or regions, and even search according to the number of employees in the company. You can also look for people in careers of interest to you. It’s useful to see their background and education to give you an idea of what you can do to enhance your own skills and experience.
Use it to contact people Taking things a bit further, you can use LinkedIn to connect and then contact people to ask them about their work. You need to approach them politely and diplomatically, since they don’t know you personally. However, if they’ve agreed to link with you, people tend to be more amenable to being asked for a job information interview.

When you’re ready to apply for positions, you can sign up for job alerts and actively look for positions being posted by companies and in groups. Many organisations are using social media as their primary place to advertise their jobs, so consider others such as Twitter (using the #) and relevant professional Facebook sites to enhance your search.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Careers - the planned and the downright unplanned!

Naturejobs and Vitae are currently running a survey aimed at postdoctoral researchers who have left academia and are enjoying an ‘alternative’ career. They are inviting them to tell their career story and offer advice to those who are also considering leaving academia. A snapshot of the initial results posted on the Naturejobs site is already revealing some interesting experiences and advice from researchers, who have entered non-academic employment sectors. With the final results being showcased at the International Researcher Development conference in Manchester in September 2014, they will be a welcome addition to the information available to help researchers to transition out of academia - and with less than 5% ultimately realising a permanent academic career, this applies to a lot of people (see my previous blog “What’s the point of a postdoc”).

Planning to leave academia is not an easy choice to make for many researchers. In fact, career planning itself is not a straightforward process. With ‘luck’ playing a large part in many people’s career journeys, how do you plan for that? If you look at two well-used career planning theories (Figure 1), you’ll see that a combination of planned and unplanned activities provides a great strategy for finding your ‘dream job’.

Figure 1
DOTS Model blended with Planned Happenstance theory, illustrating the need for a combination of structure and flexibility in the career planning process (reprinted from Blackford, 2013 “Career planning for research bioscientists”).
First, the DOTS Model (proposed by Bill Law and Tony Watts in 19771, and refined in 19992), illustrated as the yellow boxes, consists of all the important factors which need to be taken into account when choosing and searching for a job suited to your skills, personality, abilities etc. It is shown as a step-wise process comprising Decision-making, Opportunities, Transition and Self. However, the reality is that, usually, all of these activities are happening at the same time. The trap most job seekers fall into is that they focus solely on looking at jobs (O), and writing their CV (T), whilst ignoring self-analysis, so risking bad decision-making (S and D). In my professional opinion, I suggest that the most important part of the DOTS model is S – knowing your SELF (see my previous blog on this subject: “Knowing me, knowing you”.
Moving on to the other career theory, ‘Planned Happenstance’ (proposed by Mitchell et al in 19993), this is the ‘luck’ part of the career planning process. Planned happenstance is based on the notion that life happens to us and that we have little control over it, except to harness and capitalise on events and circumstances that we sometimes find ourselves in, and which may be helpful to our careers (although, note that the 'O' networking part of the DOTS Model can be invaluable for generating 'chance' circumstances). Mitchell et al, identified the key behaviours, which can assist in harnessing chance moments, as being Curiosity, Risk-taking, Flexibility, being Positive and taking a Proactive approach.
Looking at the initial nuggets of advice on the Naturejobs website, as well as other career stories such as those on, it seems clear that these two career theories are still very relevant to today’s career planning strategies. Remind yourself of them when you view the published career stories and see if they apply to your own, or perhaps you can see a way of using some of the tactics for your own career plans.
If you are a researcher who has moved into a new employment sector outside of academia and you would like to take part in the survey go to:
1.      Law, B & Watts, AG (1977) Schools, Careers and Community. London: Church information office.
2.      Law, B (199) Career-learning space: new-dots thinking for careers education. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling 27 (1), 35 – 54.
3.      Mitchell, KE, Lewin, AS and Krumboltz, JB (1999) Planned happenstance. Constructing unexpected career opportunities. Journal of Counselling and Development 17 (2), 115 – 24.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Where are the jobs?

See the powerpoint slides from my 'Job seeking strategies' session
Having just returned home after running career workshops galore at the recent Society for Experimental Biology’s annual main meeting in Manchester, I thought I’d share some of the careers information with you. The workshops covered a wide range of training including professional development: tips on writing journal papers and using bioinformatics tools, and personal development: career planning, making career choices and how to find a job. These sessions are always useful to attend when you’re a PhD student or early-career researcher delegate as they serve two purposes: 1) you learn about new techniques to help with your research and/or wider career aspirations and 2) you get to know some of your peers, since most of these sessions are interactive with exercises and discussions. This means not only do you go away more knowledgeable, but ideally you will have also increased your network.

In one of my sessions, I discussed with delegates various job search strategies. We brainstormed and came up with two types of job market: the ‘visible’ and the ‘invisible’. What does this mean? Many jobs are advertised by employers on specialist websites and discussion lists or using recruitment agencies. However, the majority are not and are mostly found through word of mouth and contacts. How many PhD students or postdoctoral researchers did not have to apply for their position, but were offered it directly by a professor in their department or whom they met at a conference? Similarly, this can happen in other career sectors, which means that if you are to be effective in your job search you must try to raise your profile and capitalise on your network as much as possible. Networking places such as conferences and social media play a large part in extending your network and enabling you to find people who may be able to help you with your career. More and more, job alerts are posted on LinkedIn and Twitter. See below for further advice and information.


Monday, 16 June 2014

Professional & personal career development – getting the balance right

Have you been on a career development course recently? Career development for PhD students and researchers is becoming more and more popular in universities, offering the chance to broaden skills and increase personal effectiveness. The Concordat, HR excellence award and the European Charter for Researchers have encouraged universities to acknowledge that, due to fierce competition for very few academic posts, the majority of researchers need to be well prepared for their future careers, whether within or outside of academia. They are offering courses, retreats and workshops for their students and research staff to help equip and up-skill them for their next career move. A strategic and mindful approach by a PhD student or researcher, cognisant of the behaviours and skills needed to succeed in particular careers, is more likely to yield results.

But, with limited time and resources, which development training should you choose? Basically, you have two main choices: professional and personal career development.
Professional career development
Dr Carmen Gervais (HFSP) tutoring
on a SEB funding workshop
Professional career development is associated with learning new skills and improving your expertise to enhance your effectiveness within your chosen career, or to help you transition to another. It is closely allied to those professional skills which employers specify on their job advertisements and may also be formalised with a qualification or certificate. The training examples below show how professional training might help you if you are looking to secure an academic career. These activities are offered by universities and other organisations to help you gain expertise in research techniques and associated academic activities. They can also help you transition to a research or technical post in industry or another science-related career.
Research funding: e.g., how to write a funding application, locating funding schemes
Writing and publishing: e.g., how to publish a paper, thesis writing, overview of the scientific publishing business, overcoming writer’s block
Research project management: e.g., managing your research project, supervising students
Technical workshops & summer schools: e.g., synthetic biology, mathematical modelling
Research methodologies & analysis: e.g., Nvivo, SPSS, bioinformatics tools
Associated training: e.g., Endnote, health & safety, LaTEX, Photoshop
Teaching techniques: e.g., e-learning, innovation in teaching, assessment and evaluation
Impact factors: e.g., how to deal with the media, science communication, making presentations, building effective collaborations
Personal career development
PhD students (Max Planck Institut) during a recent careers retreat
Personal career development is associated with self-development, and is not specifically targeted at enhancing career prospects and effectiveness (although in many cases it achieves this indirectly). There is usually no formal qualification associated with this type of development training, as it is primarily aimed at personal growth and raising self-awareness (although some personal career development provides practical advice and information to help transition into a new career, e.g., CV writing). If you want to identify and build on your strengths, if you need support to help you choose a new career path, or if you’re looking for ways to improve your personal effectiveness these types of activities will help you to achieve this.
Self-awareness: e.g., analysis of personality, values, skills, interests
Networking & communication: e.g., using social media, getting the most out of conferences
Career choice: e.g., alternative career talks, analysing the job market, making effective career decisions, volunteering, workshadowing
Career transition: e.g., making applications, writing an effective CV, successful interview technique, assessment centres, psychometric testing
Personal effectiveness: e.g., improving self-confidence, managing your time/workload, leadership, team building, entrepreneurship
So which activities should you choose to do? I recommend a combination of both types of career development, professional and personal. The balance will depend on your current situation, level of skills and expertise, as well as your career plans for the future.
Related content:
Career services and support
Education, policy and career meetings
NPA postdoctoral core competencies toolkit
Vitae RDF planner


Friday, 30 May 2014

Job titles - What you see isn't always what you get!

What’s the difference between an Advanced Research Assistant, a Research Fellow, a Research scientist and a Research Assistant? These are four job titles I picked up from various sources on the internet recently. The first was a lab-based technician post in a company, with no PhD required; the second was a university postdoctoral position, stipulating a PhD, whilst the third, also based in a university, stated that a PhD would be desirable, but not essential. The fourth post turned out to be a ‘policy and research’ position with a social science organisation. They were seeking someone with an interest in research as well as experience of qualitative and quantitative research methods. All posts were also asking for a variety of accompanying personal skills and offering different salary ranges.

So as you can see, you can’t always judge a job by its job title, which is why it’s important to conduct a more in-depth job seeking strategy when you’re looking for your next career move. It’s all too easy, as with literature searches, to simply plug in the same old keywords, or sign up to recruitment pages with limited search facilities. This blinkered approach will, invariably, lead to you missing out on a plethora of opportunities, due to anomalies between job titles and what the job actually involves. 
Here’s another example:  Communications manager, Communications executive, Engagement manager, Project officer. These are all posts in the field of communications and, although they have different job titles, they were all media roles requiring the successful applicant to be able to generate newsworthy stories for a variety of organisations. Compare the ‘Project officer’ role with a ‘Project manager’ post I also saw, which involved managing an education initiative.
Here are 5 ways to conduct a comprehensive and effective job search:

1. Determine where your career interests lie. Don’t identify yourself solely with your subject or research discipline. Discover what you’re good at, and what you enjoy in terms of your interests, skills and personality. For some, career choice may be influenced by personal factors such as location and family commitments.

2. Different careers have different entry requirements. For example, some require specific qualifications, some will train you ‘on the job’, whilst others look for relevant experience, gained through previous posts or by volunteering.  If you keep falling short of the requirements specified in the job description, it may be time to try to fill these gaps in your CV by doing some professional career development.

3. Access to different careers varies. Many governmental and public sector posts are advertised at particular times of the year, for example those in the European Commission and the UK’s NHS scientist training programme. Applications open and close on specified dates, after which there is a lengthy assessment and interview procedure. Large multinational companies often attend university careers events because they are looking for lots of students of any degree discipline or qualification to join their management training programmes. Careers requiring specialist qualifications and skills aren’t usually on offer at career fairs. For these, your best strategy is to find specialised websites, discussion groups and recruitment companies who advertise jobs in these areas.

4. Networking is paramount! The majority of jobs are not advertised and are found by word of mouth or by ‘chance’. Make use of all your contacts but generate dozens more by joining social media for professional purposes. This may mean generating a new Facebook or Twitter account to present yourself more professionally. LinkedIn is a great place for finding businesses and researching and linking with people working in industries of interest to you. If you use search words on these sites you’ll be surprised at the number of jobs that pop up. Target organisations and professional bodies who may also be promoting opportunities, and joining LinkedIn groups is a useful way to find out about more specialist career areas. For those interested in academic research careers, Researchgate and Mendeley will be more appropriate networking platforms.

5. Start early. The more research you do on potential future careers of interest, the better prepared you will be when the time comes for you to make your applications. As professional researchers, you’ve developed excellent research skills, so put them to good use and be creative in your job search. Be bold and brave; if someone you approach for information or to enquire about opportunities ignores or is rude to you, move on – there are plenty more people to ask, who will be generous and helpful.
And finally, a note for women: When you scrutinise job descriptions and decide that you won’t apply as you can only fulfil 80% of the requirements, bear in mind that men will apply if they only fulfil 60% or less of the requirements!
Related content: Networking ; Social Media; LinkedIn

Monday, 5 May 2014

Career Directions

What happens if you don’t think you’re going to secure a permanent academic or research group leader position? Where will you go next with your career? What other careers can you consider? Many postdoctoral researchers feel a sense of trepidation at the prospect of leaving the familiar university or research institute environment, which may be why some choose to stay on regardless of the post they are offered, e.g. a technical or administrative position. Others may be drawn to these posts by the need to remain rooted in their current location due to family or other personal reasons. However, it is likely that a lack of knowledge of the career sectors outside of academia also plays its part in the career decisions of postdocs.

In a previous blog (What’s the point of a postdoc?), I ended by encouraging researchers to network and find out about other career options. One way to do this is to attend specialist career fairs aimed at bioscientists. I took part in one such event, organised at the Max-Delbrüch Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin. During one of the talks, Dr Martin C. Michel (Boehringer Ingelheim) brilliantly articulated what I have been pointing out to postdocs for a long time. That is, in academia there is only one vertical career path if you want to use your PhD directly - the career path towards a permanent tenured academic post. Therefore, opportunities seem very limited. However, in industry an array of horizontal non-research careers exist, many of which require a PhD or specialist bioscience knowledge and skills. This means that if you enter industry on the research ticket, you can choose to stay in research, with the prospect of advancing to a team leader position, whilst considering moving across into other areas of the business which will still be scientifically stimulating.
What are those horizontal careers? In his talk, Dr Michel referred to a whole list, many of which you may not even have heard of, and some of which cannot be entered directly from a postdoc, although you can gain entry via cross-functional moves within the company:
Some of the many career options in industry
Research and Development
Medicine and medical affairs
Clinical operations
Production operations
Quality assurance
Drug regulatory affairs
Publications management
Medical science liaison
Marketing and sales
Market access

For many of these posts postdoctoral experience is either essential or beneficial, so for those who think that a PhD is detrimental to securing a job in industry, think again! What is clear is that the way in which you present yourself to the industrial employer in your CV or application form is crucial to demonstrate that you will be able to adapt to their work environment, not only in terms of your skills but also your ability to work in a team, communicate and generally fit in. So make sure you don’t present yourself too academically – see my pages on writing a CV for guidance on this.
Finally, on the advice of Dr Michel, try to plan ahead and make preparations to move career sectors 6 months to a year before graduation or your postdoctoral contract ends. It can be daunting to leave academia, but people who have done it have no regrets: see a case study from my book of ‘John’ who works for a contract research organisation (CRO).

Monday, 24 March 2014

Success at interview: 7 ‘Ps’ to the Prize!

Last week I ran a workshop on interview technique for postgraduates, but the rules apply to everyone:

1. Purpose – Keep in mind the purpose of an interview, which is for the employer to find out more about you and vice versa. Meeting you in person will allow him/her to see how well you communicate and whether you will fit into the team/organisation.

2. Plan – Review the job description, company/research group and personal requirements. Find out the details of the interview location and set-up. This should have been specified in your interview letter but, if not, contact the organisation to ask how long the interview will be and who will be on the interview panel. If there is a presentation, who will be in the audience? This will help you to make the content of your answers and/or presentation relevant.

3. Prepare – You are bound to be asked to clarify or expand on much of the content of your application/CV so make sure you can give examples relevant to the employer and bring the content to life. Think of one or two brief questions to ask the interviewer (but don’t ask about salary until you’ve been offered the job!).

4. Predict – As with an exam you can probably predict many of the questions you are likely to be asked. Put yourself in the shoes of the employer and imagine what you would want to know from the applicant. As well as detailed technical questions (depending on the job), they are likely to ask you open-ended questions. For example:
• Why do you want this job?
• What can you bring to the organisation?
• Tell me about any challenges you encountered during your PhD/research? How did you deal with them? What was the outcome?
• (For more senior research posts) If you had a grant of €5million, what would you want to spend it on? (Eg What big ideas do you have in your mind in terms of this research area?).

5. Practice – Try to set up a mock interview or just practice saying some of your predicted answers out loud to yourself. This will help you to familiarise yourself with your evidence and identify any gaps or weak areas in your performance which you can work on a bit more.

6. Perform - Good body language and eye contact is essential to make a good impression. Dress to impress (at the same level of formality as the interview panel) and don’t forget that how you say what you say – the tone and assuredness of your voice – is as important as what you say.

7. Persist – Using these ‘rules’ you should be able to optimise your chances for a successful outcome to your interview. However, if you are turned down don’t take it personally. Ask for feedback, review your performance, move on and persist with your applications – imagine and believe in your ultimate success!

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