How to build up your career support network during your PhD

Local, peer and expert support

When you’re seeking a professional job outside of academia after your PhD or post-doc, who can you turn to for career advice and support? As researchers we get very used to spending time on our own and doing things for ourselves. We naturally reach for books and articles to help us to navigate a new challenge – which finding a career outside academia certainly is!

While career-related books and articles can improve your knowledge, you also need to think about how to develop a great support network of PEOPLE around you during your transition. With the right network in place, you’ll have folks who can give you feedback about how you’re marketing yourself, pass on their connections, identify potential sectors and jobs suitable for you, commiserate with you when things don’t work out, and celebrate with you when they do – something that books can’t do (yet)!

It’ll take you time to build up this network, so don’t leave it until after you complete to start! You’ll need to put time aside each week in the penultimate year of your research to meet people, cultivate relationships and identify the activities that’ll strengthen your job-seeking skills and CV. Here are three key places to focus your attention when you’re starting to build your support network while still a researcher:

1. Get local support – from your institution

Many researchers will benefit from professional careers support when starting out on their job search. It’s been heartening to see many universities starting to provide this support and training for researchers taking the non-academic career route. This support can take many forms, such as offering talks by PhDs who’ve gone into non-academic careers, CV workshops, transferable skills mapping and interview practice.

I’m proud to have been involved in delivering this training for a number of institutions in the UK in recent years, including Southampton, Oxford Brookes, Brunel and York. What support does your university offer you?

Take action now: Today, contact your university careers service or head of faculty and ask what non-academic careers support your university has to offer PhDs and postdocs. If no such support is currently offered, ask them to invite me or another guest speaker to get the ball rolling!

2. Get peer support – from the researcher community

Always remember that however specialised your area of study, however isolated you may feel, you’re not alone when it comes to making the transition out of academia. You’re part of a much larger movement, a huge migration of talented and resourceful researchers who are leaving the academy in unprecedented numbers.

Take action now: Contact other researchers at your university who are thinking of pursuing careers outside academia. Use the web and social media to connect with researchers beyond your university. By tapping into both groups, you can find inspiration, share your experiences and get help if you’re stuck. Do something today for each of the bullet points below:

  • Ask a question or share a useful career resource in a forum such as Versatile PhD or on Linked In – three great Linked In groups are Alternative PhD Careers, PhD to Consulting and PhD Careers Outside Academia.
  • Put up a note on a notice board to find others at your university who have similar career aspirations. Both Versatile PhD and PhDs At Work organise face-to-face meet-ups for non-ac PhDs – check if there’s a meet-up in your local area, or organise one yourself! PhDs At Work meet-ups are already happening in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, with Washington coming soon.
  • Sign up for a researcher careers conference outside of your university, either virtual and real. Some examples include Beyond Academia at UC Berkley, Life After the PhD from Cumberland Lodge in the UK, and the online conference Beyond the Professoriate, which was held in May 2014.
  • Read the profiles of researchers who’ve gone into careers outside academia on websites like PhDs At Work and From PhD to Life, or download my free Resource Guide for the top 10 PhD interview and profile sites.

3. Get expert support – from a coach

Outside of universities, you can get help and support from private providers who offer specialist careers advice to researchers. Coaching can be especially helpful if your university doesn’t offer careers services, or for researchers who’ve left academia and need some assistance in moving forward.

Obviously there are costs involved in hiring a coach or consultant. You may decide it’s worth the investment to kick-start your career and minimise the gap between completing your research and finding well-paid work. By thinking ahead and identifying a coach who’s a good fit for you, you’ll have time to build up a budget, rather than scrambling for funds at the last minute when you’ve landed your dream interview.

Take action now: Today, put terms like ‘PhD career advice’ plus your location into a search engine to find out about expert coaches in your area. Check out the websites of these providers and follow them on twitter to stay up to date with what they offer. Keep your eyes open for chances to hear their advice for free in online chats, google hangouts, teleconferences or on campus visits.

Below I summarise details of a selection of experts based in North America and the UK who offer coaching and mentoring to researchers, who I’ve got to know personally since starting this blog.

Well-known academic careers coach Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In now offers advice for careers outside academia. Karen has a team of expert writers and coaches who are producing some great blog content and offering webinars and hourly consultation. Check out Karen’s Post-Ac Services page to find out more and book your free 20-minute consultation.

As mentioned above, the virtual conference for PhDs wanting to get Beyond the Professoriate, organised by Jen Polk and Maren Wood, ran over 2 days in May 2014 and was a huge success. Jen and Maren both offer career development services for researchers: find out more over at From PhD to Life and Lilli Research Group respectively. Fatimah Williams Castro, who headlined the second day of the BTP conference, is another coach offering a range of coaching and mentoring options, including defining what success means for you and preparing a career action plan. Be sure to check out the excellent video answers to tough questions like ‘Can you afford to take a summer vacation?’ while you’re on Fatimah’s blog!

In the UK, London-based Eyes Wide Opened runs career-clarifying courses and workshops which are getting rave reviews. The September 2014 course was aimed specifically at quarter-life job-seekers with a few years of experience – ideal for PhDs and early career researchers! Please mention Jobs on Toast if you apply for a place on an EWO course.

STEM PhDs should check out Cheeky Scientist for training and support on making the transition into an industry career. There are lots of free resources on the site which are of interest to all researchers, including a series of videos and a regular blog.

I first got to know about Cheeky Scientist via the awesome book written by its founder and serial entrepreneur Isaiah Hankel PhD – Black Hole Focus: How Intelligent People Can Create a Powerful Purpose for Their Lives. This is such a great book that I intend to dedicate a whole post to a review of it soon!

If you do decide to take up the services of a coach or training company, whether listed here or not, please let me know about your experience, and whether you’d recommend them to other job seekers.

Further reading – getting started

Why you need to start thinking about a career outside academia – today! by Chris
Use my Career Roadmap to kick-start your career planning, by Chris
Get organised – create a Career Planner, by Chris
Deciding when to quit the academic job search, part 1, by Chris
Deciding when to quit the academic job search, Part 2, by Chris
Preparing for life after the PhD – re-train your brain, by Chris

Read my note about affiliate links on the Jobs on Toast website.

About Chris

I've made the transition from a PhD in Medieval Studies, into a career in business, consulting and project management. But I want to give something back to the researcher community, and help everyone who's facing the challenge of finding work outside academia. Jobs on Toast is a way for me to share my insights and experience, helping you to make a successful career change. Use my five-step plan to get started right away!

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