Looking elsewhere 

I posted last week about my enjoyable experience of attending my professional society’s annual meeting. This year, in uncharacteristic academic efficiency, our conference was a joint meeting of the professional society and our discipline-relevant Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence. Two birds, one four day meeting….

The Centre’s annual meeting is traditionally followed by a split day. The bigwigs head off to a meeting room to talk strategy and dollars, while the young folks head to a lecture theatre or conference room to run their own day and eat biscuits. Armed with a small amount of money for snacks, lunch and after session drinks, a small committee of students and early career researchers pick a theme, and organise guest speakers and professional development sessions.

It’s always a delight to watch. This year, the organising committee decided to focus on jobs outside of academia. The morning sessions were an interactive workshop focussed on building communication skills. Students and postdocs worked with two skilled science communicators to practice turning their complex research into stories that would be of interest to a public audience.

After lunch the focus shifted from skills to career pathways. We heard from five speakers who had strong academic backgrounds in atmospheric or climate science, but had later branched out into different areas. I was the boring one who spoke about starting an academic career, but we then heard from speakers who were variously working in big or small business, and in government departments or agencies. After hearing about everyone’s circuitous routes into their current roles, we had an hour or so for a panel discussion with the speakers.

It was refreshing to hear from a group of ‘young’ people so passionate about work and putting their skills to use in different settings. A few common threads emerged:

1. Make your own decisions

All the speakers were asked to give their one nugget of advice, and everyone converged around the idea of “make your own decisions”. Of course it’s not necessary to have the next 40 years of work mapped out in your 20s or 30s, but it is essential to give some thought to what interests you, what you are passionate about and what motivates you, and then use these answers as a guiding principle for decision making. For example, if you think science outreach and communication is important, then you are unlikely to be satisfied working as a project scientist in someone else’s group. Or if you don’t thrive working closely amongst people, a teaching university might not be a great place for you. Active thought about your own motivations will also help shield you from the sway of other people’s kindly motivated but unhelpful advice and expectations for your career.

After thinking through your own interests and goals, the panelists had some valuable practical tips. Everyone suggested keeping a broad eye out for jobs that pique your interest. These can be jobs you’d like on graduation or jobs you’d dream of 10 years down the track. Collect these and put them into a folder on your computer. This collection of jobs ads will give you something to work towards. They will help you work out what skills you and experiences you are missing and help you to start putting together a portfolio for yourself. Be brave and contact people in the sector that interests you and ask questions – How did they get their break? What makes job applicants stand out? What skills are essential? Be proactive and build up contacts and a profile by meeting people. If you are interested, it’s also useful to start establishing an online presence through linkedin, blogging or twitter early in the process.

2. Learn the lingo

Another big theme running through our panel discussion was about learning the lingo of the job you are aiming for. You’ll already have started this process with that folder of jobs ads on your computer and your gorwing portfolio of translatable skills. Every job market has it’s own language. Academics have a strong track record, excellent written communication skills and an adherence to equal opportunity principles. Public servants have an ability to work in a team and independently under minimal supervision, sound judgment and an ability to deliver in a timely manner under an environment of constrained resources. It takes time and effort to work out the lingo for a new job market, but it is an essential step in snagging a job. How is a cover letter written? What are selection criteria really asking for? Am I expected to call the contact officer on a job ad? What should I wear to the job interview? Will there be a work sample test?

A PhD imparts a graduate with a suite of generic and highly useful skills. Everyone leaves with solid written and oral communication skills, project management experience and an ability to navigate complex working relationships (i.e. a negligent or micro-managing supervisor/an a*** of a professor in the department etc). However, it takes time to learn how to translate these PhD skills into relevant work-speak. There are lots of online resources available to help. It can also save time and heartache to chat to a professional. While expensive, a good careers coach can help translate the language, identifying which jobs at which employment levels are most suitable and helping construct a great application. If you do have some $$ available and are keen to make a big change after a PhD or postdoc, a careers counsellor can be a solid investment in your future.

3.  An interview works both ways

Our panel ended on a positive note. While the world of work seems daunting and frankly often unobtainable for PhD students and postdocs, we are conversely in position of having an abundance of opportunities. A PhD is a fantastic investment in oneself and provides a chance to learn essential work skills and practices such as commitment and discipline. Many sectors are available after graduation, from small or large business, government or not for profit work or academic or professional work at a university. The opportunities are huge.

Many of the attendees at the workshop were worried that a PhD would be seen by other sectors as a disadvantage. This idea was emphatically squashed by one panelist who said bluntly, “well that’s not where you’d want to work”. Sometimes an interview seems like make or break, but in reality an interview works both ways. The employer and selection panel are often as nervous about the outcome as the candidate. Will they get a motivated and enthusiastic staff member or someone who rolls in at 10 am and eats canned tuna at their desk? A job application and an interview give you the chance to test out whether that particular government department or business is right for you. Be enthusiastic, give things a shot, but be confident that you have choices and if it doesn’t feel like a good fit, back yourself and keep looking.

4 thoughts on “Looking elsewhere 

  1. I was really enjoying this till I got to the bit about rolling in at 20 and eating canned tuna at the desk. OMG, that’s me!

    • This kind of behaviour is fine, only once you have ingratiated yourself to your employer. However, at the interview you have to give the impression you’ll be in early and pop out for 15 minutes at lunchtime for an efficient salad sandwich (hold the onion).

  2. Being a little older and sometimes sitting on the other side of the table, I can confirm that it is hard to hire good people. Hiring decisions are the most important ones you have to make. You definitely want to make a good impression to have a better chance of actually getting the ones that fit. Both sides should be equally looking whether it would fit.

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