A letter of support to PhD students and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) thinking about their future career

Dear PhD students and ECRs

I have had the privilege of supporting hundreds of you across the UK and Europe for the last ten years. In my role as a career coach, I have observed how capable, yet modest, you are as you grapple with career transitions moving from academia to a range of other sectors. 

Working within a context where critical thinking is essential, I notice that you have a tendency to turn this critical approach on yourselves, easily identifying the skills and experience you lack rather than focusing on where you excel. I sometimes think that working within a sector full of highly-intelligent and motivated people is both a blessing and a curse. In my workshops on impostor phenomenon, people often say ‘everyone around me is so much smarter than me.’ I notice, as does Malcolm Gladwell*, that ‘the more elite an educational institution is, the worse students feel about their own academic abilities.’   

Despite being your own harshest critics, I know that you are also a tenacious and dogged group of individuals who go on to make a tremendous impact in a variety of roles and sectors. I have run countless careers events where past PhDs and ECRs have given up their time to share their experiences of moving into a plethora of interesting and fulfilling careers. Publications such as What do researchers do? and What do research staff do next? are testament to this.

I have had many conversations with you over recent weeks. Many of you seem to be taking stock and thinking about the security of your future career as higher education and research continue to face financial challenges**. With this in mind, I am writing to offer some words of support and advice if you are thinking about looking for roles beyond academic teaching and research.

Remember you are more than your technical or research skills

Think about the skills and experience that you have gained from your time in academia. These should include your technical skills, your soft skills and your personal characteristics/traits. I notice a tendency for researchers to simply describe their worth to a company in terms of their technical or research skills. Although these are often very important, remember your worth more broadly.

You possess soft skills such as the ability to work autonomously and communicate your research effectively. I know you are also resilient and tenacious, both of which are very important in many workplaces today. Think about examples of when you have used your skills and write about them. This will be good preparation for job interviews as you will often be asked what you can bring to the company. Be ready, and proud, to share the breadth of skills and experience you have developed.

Write about your core values to remind yourself of what is important to you. Google ‘core values list’ and you will find lots of resources. Choose three values that are important to you and write about these. How have you used these values to guide your life and decisions?  Why are these values important to you? In many interviews you will be asked why you want to work for the organisation. If you can describe how your values align with the organisation’s, you will be answering this question more effectively.

Companies are interested in how you can help with their mission

In many sectors outside of academia, there is less focus on how intelligent you are and more emphasis on what you can do for them i.e. how productive are you and what difference can you make to the organisation?

When thinking about your achievements, focus on outcomes and results on your CV rather than presenting an exhaustive list of courses you have attended. You might want to state in your CV that you wrote a 5000 word grant application, resulting in £X of research funding rather than listing training courses from 7 years ago. Think about outcomes from your work and their relevance to the company, when you are constructing your industry CV.

Don’t obsess about skills gaps

You will probably have some gaps in your skills and experience. Remember that most employers write a job description as a wish list, knowing that they may not find someone with all the desirable skills and experience. Although some roles ask for relevant industry experience, I have known many PhD graduates and ECRs to secure roles without this. If you do not have industry experience, you will need to show potential and the motivation to learn quickly. Most of the PhD graduates and ECRs that I meet have these traits in abundance!

Think about how you can prove to a potential employer that you are interested and determined enough to fill your skills gaps. Look out for relevant talks from people in your preferred industry, complete courses on commercial awareness, blog about your sector of interest to increase your knowledge and showcase your expertise, volunteer at the weekend etc. There are many free online courses available at the moment which can help you to begin bridging skills gaps e.g. Coursera courses.

Find people not job adverts

It is becoming increasingly difficult to be shortlisted if you are applying for a job online. More and more industry recruiters use robots or applicant tracking systems (ATS) to screen CVs for keywords and other information.  For this reason, it is important to connect with people rather than spending all your time completing job applications and trying to get through applicant tracking systems. If you are the right person for the role, your connections can recommend you to the organisation, increasing your chance of securing an interview. Meeting people provides the opportunity for you to show your personality and potential, which is challenging to do even on the best applications.

Reach out to alumni from your current and past universities/organisations. They will be working in many roles across different sectors. You can connect on LinkedIn or by using email. Look at alumni groups on LinkedIn and ask to join. Your university or research institute may also give you access to their alumni database. There are also many tools available online to help you find email addresses. Ask for ten to twenty minutes of people’s time and talk to them about their job, the sector etc. Try to improve your knowledge of the labour market you want to enter. Some people will agree to speak to you and others may ignore you. Keep going and your tenacity will pay off! Remember that you will be more easily found by recruiters and hiring managers on LinkedIn if you are connected with people in the sector you want to work in. When recruiters and hiring managers search for people on LinkedIn, the search algorithm looks at your relevant contacts.  

Use your careers service

A 2017 survey by Science Connect showed that PhD students ranked their university career service as ‘least important’ when looking for their first job after graduating, preferring to look online and use their own social networks.

Many universities and research institutes have specialist careers consultants to support PhD students and ECRs.  This is a service that is offered as part of your studentship or employment, so make use of it! Specialist consultants can support you with evaluating your career options, editing CVs, practicing interviews and job hunting. They are also likely to run PhD alumni events where you can speak to people and make connections with PhDs and ECRs now working in a variety of sectors.

Job hunting can be an onerous and, sometimes lengthy, task. Find people to give you a helping hand along the way!

In summary

So here is my advice if you are thinking about making your way to pastures new! Remind yourself of your worth as a PhD graduate or ECR. Remember to think about the breadth of skills and experience that you have developed within the world of academia. You are more than your technical and/or research skills.

Secondly, use your research skills to do some more research! Reach out to people, ask them questions about their job and sector, be curious and find out as much as you can about different career options.

Once you have done both of these things, you are ready to do some job matching. Do your skills, experience and values fit any of the jobs and/or organisations that you have found out about? If they do, then you are ready to apply. If you have skills gaps, that is OK. Work out how to fill them whilst continuing to do your research. Once you have started to bridge some of these skills gaps, you are ready to apply.

Good luck on your journey!

*David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

**Junior researchers hit by coronavirus-triggered hiring freezes

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