Thursday, November 28, 2013

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to Plan your Career in Science

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


So you just got offered a research position? Congratulations, enjoy the feeling of success and triumph, and celebrate it. Then, fasten your seatbelt, you are in for a bumpy ride.

Regardless of the point in your career in science, you always need to have at least some sort of a plan and roadmap for your next steps (well, unless you are headed for retirement). We are talking about a career in science in general - whether that be at a university as an academic or a position in industry.

And how about planning in these tough economic times? Shouldn't we just ride the waves and hope we find a job somewhere, somehow?

Let me expand on that before you give up on the idea of planning and laying out your roadmap all together.

The key here is that having a plan gives you more determination. If you point your compass to your north and start walking towards it, your chances are much higher than when you simply start roaming around.

However, never forget to be flexible. If your dream position does not show up, then start cobbling together something that makes you happy, and that still more or less points towards your North. Many people (myself included) work a few part-time jobs together to assemble a career for themselves. Create your own possibilities. Don't lean back in defeat when something does not work out - you never did that at first defeat when trying to solve a problem in science, did you?

With that, I assume you are on board with the idea of having a roadmap. Remember that nothing is written in stone, and if you feel like a certain path is plainly making you miserable, then be true to yourself and look for alternatives.
Now, let's look at how you can put your goals into action!

1. Understand the requirements

The first step might sound like a nobrainer, but in reality, the requirements to move forward might not always be that clear. If you are on a tenure-track path, then maybe you have a rigid set of criteria that you need to fulfill within a certain amount of time, before you can move up. In most cases, there is a lot of reading in between the lines going on. Values differ from work place to work place, even from boss to boss. As such, it can be a challenge to see what is valued most highly for a career option in a certain place. When the list of requirements looks endless, the top priority might be hard to find.

When the requirements need some digging to uncover, go and observe people in that workplace. Walking into a place and asking "hey folks, how do things work here" is not what I mean with this. Instead, go to open days, meet people at industry events and listen to their stories. Meeting groups of people from the same place can be particularly interesting to observe their group dynamics.

2. Learn from an example

Who is doing what you would love to do in five or twenty years from now? What did this person do prior to achieving that position? Study a number of people whose career path seems in line with your dreams. Try to identify the tipping points in their careers (from "hit publications" to involvement in industry organizations), and learn from these examples.

To broaden your outlook on achieving excellence in general, look at examples outside of your field. Read biographies of inspiring leaders, and see in which ways you can have a bit of their oomph in your life. Dare to get the best out of yourself.

3. Show up and lean in

Be visible. If you want to climb the academic ladder, then go to the right conferences, get involved in committees, visit other labs, get your name out through publications... You know the drill - or you should have distilled the drill from your examples. If you are shooting for a job in the industry, then start getting involved in industry events, industry organizations and the like.

Don't shoo away into your dark hole where you are slaving away at getting your very best work out. You might be tempted to tell yourself "I'll wait another half year before I go out to a conference and present my work, so that I can be sure it's worth showing to the world." Come out and put yourself out there.

4. Keep your authenticity

With all the previous, you might be tempted to become a copy of successful person who you hold as an example. Keep in mind that an example is just that: an instance serving for illustration. Something to learn from, take your lessons home from, and then add your own sauce to it.

It might sound preachy and fluffy, but only when you are true to yourself, you can stand out. Only when you are true to yourself, people will notice you as being yourself instead of an anonymous copycat of someone who you are not, will never be and can never be.

5. Take your personal life into account

Last but not least - don't forget to plan within the opportunities and constraints of your personal life. If you have a family, moving abroad to your ideal lab might be a big challenge. If you're ready to take the plunge, make sure you have everyone on board in this adventure - otherwise you'll end up either separated from those who give you the energy and love to excel at work, or dragging along a bunch of unhappy people who'll take down your mood and energy levels too.

Your career is an important part of your life. It's something you can take pride in, something that can fulfill you intellectually. But it's just a part of your life - there are other aspects you should never let slip to the back unless you consciously take that choice.
When I decided to move to the Netherlands and leave my then partner / now husband in the USA, it was a conscious choice. It motivated me to work hard and finish quickly. At the same time, we had a plan for afterwards, and having that light at the end of the long distance relationship tunnel was something I had to remind myself of regularly.

Now go and reflect on what your ideal next step looks like, what you need to achieve for that - and make it come true!

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