It can get you down, filling in application forms, writing letters and continually polishing the CV in the hopes of getting a job. So, I am glad that way back April I signed up for the NatureJobs Career Expo held on the 20th of September at the Business Design Centre in London. The Expo has been running for several years in various guises and, this year consisted of a free careers fair and a low cost conference.
Hilarity and inspiration
The conference, at the low cost of just £40, had a lot of useful sessions. The keynote speaker, Jorge Cham of the wonderfully entertaining PHD: Piled Higher and Deeper comic strip, got the audience giggling and a little less worried about whether they were going to make the right impression, talk to enough of the right people, get some clarity for future career direction or just about whether they’d get anything useful out of the day. The PHD comics have helped postgraduate students around the world feel a little less lonely when they are still at their desk or lab bench at 2am questioning what on earth they are doing there and why, and wondering when everybody around them was going to discover that they are just an impostor – it is just those sort of thoughts that Jorge brings alive in the comic in a comedic and empathetic way and was also how he presented his keynote speech.
The session on marketing yourself was useful in collating all those thoughts that float around your head on a good day when you remind yourself that, “hey, completing a PhD shows that I am not an impostor and all that extra-curricular stuff I took the initiative to do in my own time shows that I am pretty versatile so I’m sure I will get this job that I am applying for now.” It also provided good strategies on a systematic way to go about learning what is marketable about yourself and how to use that information effectively. Nicola Osborne, social media officer of EDINA then gave use lots of information about the utility of an online presence and how best to manage it – very handy indeed given that I have only just started this blog! This was followed by a highly entertaining and participatory session by Andrew Harries of VOX Coaching on best practice and tips for effective networking using some tricks of the theatrical trade – a lot of foot stamping and giggling ensued and for me personally, made me want to join an amateur dramatics society (not because it made me think that I’m any good at acting but because the coaching, which drew on some techniques used in drama classes, was just so much fun).
New elements to completing the PhD programme – and I helped!
Then came the session that really got me excited – Simon Cutler, Senior Programme Manager of the BBSRC (the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council – a major funding body in the UK that is funded by the Government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) talking about science policy and programme management – something that many scientists overlook as dull and boring. Well, the talk was anything but. I do think it is important to understand how funding is managed and what direction it will follow, I should think this is especially important for researchers applying for grants – they need to know that the direction they want to pursue will be backed by their funding body and how to make their grants sexy so that they’ll be the ones to get a share of the money. It must be a complicated matter as targets and directions have to be forecast several years in advance and have to be in the best interest of issues we are predicted to be facing. I have to confess though that the most interesting part of the talk for me was self-indulgent – the information about the official scheme to support the professional development of PhD students funded by the BBSRC: integrated Professional Internships for PhD Students (PIPS).
You see, back in 2009, when I was in the 2nd year of my PhD and had recently completed a Researchers in Residence placement, I was invited to a workshop held in Manchester by the BBSRC for directors of postgraduate research. I was asked to give a presentation on my experience of doing a Researchers in Residence placement (a scheme that was then funded by Research Councils UK of whom BBSRC is a member). There was a bit of humour in there as I described my experience that was based on genuine fears – as I embarked on the placement, I was terrified of going into a classroom full of school children, having in my mind an image of the children from the film “Village of the Damned“. I don’t know what those fears were based on as I had done work with several school groups prior to that, perhaps the difference was that I was designing the whole thing myself and I wanted to do a good job of it.
The experience turned out to be fantastic and I got so much out of it. The reasons I decided to do it were to take on a challenge and step outside of my comfort zone, take the initiative to improve my communication and presentation skills and to flex my creative muscles as I came up with my session lesson plans. My description of how beneficial it was for my professional and personal development was well-received by most, although there were still some supervisors there that believed that their PhD students remain chained to their lab benches the entire time.
As recognised by the BBSRC, this attitude from supervisors cannot continue in the current climate where there are far more people completing PhDs than there are jobs available as a postdoc (see this interesting blog post by Casey Bergman on this topic). *I have to insert a cautionary note before I continue: in the following I am not doing PhD students a disservice and saying that they would not be able to avail themselves of opportunities outside of academia without taking part in initiatives such as PIPS. What I am getting at is that it really is useful for forging links, feeling empowered of your abilities outside of the academic environment and in the current employment situation you really need something to set you apart. Also, I always found that I was refreshed with my research when I had to step outside of it to consider science from a much broader perspective.*
So, those PhD students that do not continue in research require something to make themselves marketable to the world outside of academia. Of course, there are PhD students out there that may really want to concentrate solely on their research and not want to or see the point in gaining experience outside of academia. However, even for those students, it will be valuable at some time in their academic careers – it was described perfectly in the session I had seen earlier that day at the Expo on marketing yourself. From an early stage in academic life up until postdoc level, your knowledge base becomes narrower but you become specialised, an expert on a small segment of what is out there (with a little shifting around as you take on different projects with different jobs). As you continue to progress up the academic ladder though, you need to widen that knowledge base once again for managing several projects that you delegate to your lab members. Additionally, there is now just so much information so easily available over the internet about fields that are not as closely related, but that can spark innovation and collaborations to make that breakthrough with your research by examining it in combination with techniques that you normally wouldn’t encounter in your niche field of research. Then, you are loaded with greater admin responsibilities as you move into a senior academic position and beyond. I have attempted to make a reproduction of the image that was used in the session to describe what I mean, I hope it makes sense, see below! It cannot be detrimental to have wider experience at this stage even if it means that it is several years before the impact and usefulness of it is apparent.
It was fantastic to hear that my experience was involved in some way, big or small, in the implementation of a policy that allows BBSRC-funded PhD students to carry out a 3-month placement outside of the academic environment to get a taste of what else is out there and be empowered about their non-lab skills after completing a PhD.
Advice from the professionals
The careers fair was very useful too and featured several exhibitors from the science sector with representatives on hand to have chat with about the companies they represent. It was particularly interesting talking to Sarah Blackford, Head of Education and Public Affairs of The Society for Experimental Biology – she had many kind and encouraging words for me regarding my job search and also gave me very useful advice about my CV, unsurprising given that she has a book about career planning for bioscientists coming out next month. It was also great to hear from The Science Council that I can still provide evidence of continuing professional development to become a Chartered Scientist with the Society of Biology even though I want to move out of research and into a science communications role. I even got the chance to practice my Japanese with reps from Otsuka Pharma.
I am now reinvigorated in my job searching and am busy following up various leads, feeling hopeful for the future and happy about my progress thus far but aware that I need to continue my professional development to get that next position.