In hindsight

It’s time for another blogging carnival! As with the previous time I wrote for one of these, it came to my attention via Scicurious (who also wrote her own post). The topic for this one looks really cool:

“So the plan is now that The Molecular Ecologist will host a “Knowing What I Know Now” carnival on Monday, December 10, and if you’re working in science at any career stage, you’re invited! All you need to do is write up a few things you wish you’d known in your previous career stage that would’ve helped you prepare for your current career stage. (i.e., grad students, write about undergrad; postdocs, about grad school; and so on.)”

So, as a PhD student in the UK, here’s my contribution. Although it is primarily aimed at undergraduates, I’m going to try taking my own advice during my PhD…

Start thinking of your next career step early on. Although the second term of your first year as an undergrad may seem too early (it’s really not), any time before your last couple of terms beats that last-minute panic of “am I going to move back in with my parents or sell my soul to a temping agency” you get around the time of final year exams. The independence, freedom and excitement of being an undergrad can be so intense that it’s really easy to seize the day and conveniently forget about the future. Getting a good degree from a great university is all well and good but those are actually not that uncommon and getting a good job straight out of uni depends on a lot more than your transcript and diploma. Of course, there’s passion, enthusiasm and doing well in an interview situation but other stuff also helps.

The things I did that were of the most help in fluffing up my CV were the extra-curricular bits: as a psychology student, I did some volunteering with the National Autistic Society and a university-run community project which involved socialising with in-patients in a local psychiatric hospital. I also got a cool part-time job with my University’s “Widening Participation” office and got paid to talk to, do activities with and give tours to primary and secondary school kids aimed at encouraging them to consider higher education. I found out about and applied for a Wellcome Trust summer research scholarship and spent the summer before my final year helping with a research project (a big part of which involved suffering the biggest heat wave I’ve witnessed in the UK, while preparing stimuli: taking photos of carefully measured portions of food, which refused to look photo-worthy, in a tiny attic room full of equipment emitting even more heat). These things were all interesting and looked pretty cool on my CV but when it came down to job-hunting, I really wished I had done more. Those weeks of 9-hours of lectures, which seemed so awesome and liberating at the time, could really have been spent doing more than sleeping in, studying and having fun.

If you see something that looks interesting and has potential to give you some good experience, go for it. Seek out exciting opportunities. My university had a job search webpage for students, with many quirky part-time posts and various opportunities. My department also had noticeboards which occasionally advertised useful things and some things (e.g. seminars and talks) got advertised before/after lectures.

The main problem I had as an undergraduate was that I was clueless as to where I saw myself in even 2 years’ time. I felt like I had used up all of my life-decision-making potential through choosing a course and a university. The most useful help I got was from talking and listening to people. I went to a very informative talk on being a clinical psychologist, which basically made me cross that career option off of my infinite-seeming virtual list. Still, a helpful thing to do. I spent some time hanging out in the University Careers Service, which was useful for things like CV-making but utterly useless for working out how to go about choosing a career and finding a specific job I was actually interested in.

One thing I didn’t do enough of, which might have been a lot more profitable, would have been to talk to more people (i.e. older students, lecturers…). I had a great personal tutor/advisor and really nice dissertation supervisor but I never really asked them what options I had. I did talk to my tutor about PhDs but I did so far too late for it to be of much use, in the end of my 3rd year, when all the funded places for the coming year had been filled months before.

In the end, I applied for any and every vaguely interesting job around for a couple of months until I “got lucky” and was offered a social work type job, which was alright to start and paid the bills. It took some crazy applying to get back into academia after. It was particularly difficult because the research assistant posts I was applying for were getting filled up with post-docs who were more qualified than me by at least a whole PhD… But I am so glad I persevered as in hindsight, I really should have been more organised and just stayed in academia in the first place.

So, my advice is: don’t get complacent. Just because your current rung on the career ladder feels secure and cosy for now, if you don’t start thinking about taking that next step ahead of time, the steps ahead might start seeming out of reach by the time your current rung starts dissipating. Having gone through the stress of desperately needing a job, any job, and then having a really stressful and dissatisfying job and not being able to move on to something better for a while, I think I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’m still in the first year of my PhD but that next step is always at the back of my mind.

P.S. If you haven’t come across it yet, do read the text of Dr Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”, which you can find here. It is awesome 🙂


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