Planning your career could be considered to be a contradiction in terms. How can you plan something which is largely out of your control? How can you predict whether and when a job will be advertised by an employer, or influence where it will be located? Furthermore, how can you plan for a career, if you’re not sure in which direction you want to go?
Researchers are finding themselves in an increasingly competitive job market. Finding the right position can be difficult, especially if you are an early career researcher, so having a career plan could make all the difference.
There is no right or wrong way to plan your career, but there are theories which offer strategies to enhance your chances of success. Two of those theories have stood the test of time and are used frequently by professional careers advisers: the DOTS Model cites four factors that are considered to be fundamental to a structured career planning process: Decision-making, Opportunities, Transition and Self-knowledge, while Planned Happenstance is founded on the premise that behaviors, such as being positive, flexible, curious and willing to take a risk, allow unpredictable situations (or luck) to be harnessed.
Let’s focus in on some of the main factors from these two theories, which play a key role in the career planning process:
1. Know yourself
The job application and interview process is a highly personalized procedure. It requires you to articulate what exactly you will bring to the job and the organization. You’ll usually be asked to summarize and match your knowledge, skills and personal capabilities to the position, and frequently you’ll be asked more searching questions such as ‘’What are your main strengths and weaknesses?’’ or ‘’What’s your greatest achievement and why?’’ Self-awareness will not only help you to answer these questions and make a good impression during the application and interview process, it will also help you to recognize which types of careers, and roles might be best suited to you. Once you’re able to define yourself in terms of your personality, skills, interests and values, as well as taking account of other personal and social factors, you will be able to take a more strategic approach to planning your career. Researching careers and reading job descriptions will provide clues as to whether particular jobs match up to your preferences (although, of course, it’s unlikely that a job will match up 100%) and seeking guidance from a professional career advisor can also help you with your decision-making process.
2. Be brave and confident (even if you don’t feel it)
Many people, when reflecting on their own career paths, mention something related to ‘luck’. For example, “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time”, or “I bumped into someone who knew someone who happened to have an opening just at the right time”. These so-called lucky moments can act as a turning point in many people’s careers. However, the truth is they are rarely a product of luck; they are often the result of someone being proactive and getting involved. This might mean attending a conference, approaching a potential new supervisor/employer or volunteering to take on some new responsibility. Taking a risk, coming out of your comfort zone or trying out something new all require some degree of proactive behavior. It can feel daunting, but people are usually kind and helpful towards those they see as making an effort to help themselves. If you opt to stay in your ‘safety area’ you are less likely to create opportunities for yourself.
3. Market yourself appropriately
Employers sometimes despair at the poor applications they receive from applicants. Potentially excellent candidates are hidden from view by untargeted resumes, misspelling and bad grammar, generic cover letters and other basic, avoidable mistakes. Marketing yourself on paper, online, or in an email to someone you have never met is a difficult task, but if you get it right you will stand out above your competitors. Rarely will an employer take the risk of bringing a new person into their organization without having met them, so interview performance can also be crucial for those who manage to conquer the application process. Communication is fundamental to the majority of jobs, so if you don’t demonstrate these skills in your resume or at an interview, it will throw doubt on your ability to communicate well in the job itself. Presenting yourself effectively, precisely and relevantly to the employer, whether you have met him/her previously or not, will give the impression that you have researched the job, organization, research group, department, etc. and have demonstrated clearly what you will bring (over and above) to fill the gap in their current expertise or service provision.
4. Build your network
Reading about the career paths of others with a similar background and qualifications to yourself can sometimes help you to identify the types of careers you might enjoy and could consider as a serious option. You can learn about challenges they might have had to face, what influenced them in their decisions or how they overcame barriers and took advantage of situations, courses, networking opportunities and other relevant resources. Career events, alumni visits, or online videos and scripted case studies can all deliver this type of support and advice. University and social networks, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as more specialized academic platforms, e.g. Researchgate, also provide a rich source of contacts, some of whom are willing to give advice, mentor or even offer work-shadowing and volunteering opportunities. Work is people; previous and current colleagues and employers, secondary, tertiary and more remote contacts are all potentially able to add value to your career planning process. So make sure you cultivate a healthy network of people – you never know when you may bump into someone, in person or virtually, who could help you advance your career!
For more information and advice on planning your research career, see Sarah Blackford’s book, ‘Career Planning for Research Bioscientists’.