How a non-academic job found me

There are a few difficulties just about every academic faces when considering a non-academic career move. The first is probably deciding whether to make the move at all; as I have written about extensively on this blog. Once you have started to consider that possibility, there are many potential opportunities for finding overlap between academically acquired skills and non-academic jobs. But one of the most daunting problems to content with is what non-academic possibilities are out there and which of them might suit you. With that in mind, I am sharing the main steps on my journey into a non-academic job.

1. I talked a lot

The first main step in my transition was to talk about the possibility of doing something different. Talking about my worries and doubts helped me to explore my own feelings and realise that it was OK to have ambitions other than a professorship.

2. I got visible

Taking this conversation online by blogging and tweeting about my thoughts helped me to get my opinions seen and heard and opened up conversations beyond my usual network. In particular, taking part in #ECRchat and the Guardian #HigherEd chats exposed me to a wide variety of opinions and provided a safe place to get feedback on my own thoughts.

3. I said yes

This new exposure opened up lots of new possibilities, such as participation in online debates, writing guest blog posts, and invitations to speak at conferences. It is usually important to be mindful of saying yes too often, in case it takes too much time away from research. But, when you are not sure of your options, doing a variety of new things away from your day job is a great way to find out about and explore other possibilities.

4. I talked some more

I made the most of these opportunities as much as possible. I am a naturally shy person, but I got out of my comfort zone and introduced myself to people. I took the chance to ask people about their experiences of leaving academia and what it is like to work in various other careers. It was extremely reassuring to hear lots of positive career move stories. The piece of advice that sticks in my mind the most it is that the hardest move is the first one out of academia, but once you’re out, you can go anywhere from there. It was a good reminder that the first non-academic job I took didn’t have to be a job for life, but it was a chance to get acquainted with a new way of doing things and might open doors to other opportunities that I couldn’t have heard about before.

5. I got a job application buddy

My office mate and I were both coming to the end of our contracts so we decided to team up and help each other get through the job application marathon. The first step was to update our CVs and then swap them for feedback. This was an extremely useful process that I wish I had considered before. Both reviewing someone else’s CV and having feedback on my own helped me to come up with something stronger and more coherent. We also reviewed each other’s cover letters for specific jobs and provided moral support, especially for that nail-biting period between applying and hearing something back.

6. I trawled the job websites (and assessed my priorities)

At first I spent a lot of time looking for jobs that might match my skills, but after some great conversations on Twitter I came to realise that it was much more important to think about my own needs and wishes. I spent a long time reflecting on what I liked and disliked about being a postdoc and what parts I might like to keep or change in a future job. I realised that one of the most important things for me was location. The next job, above all, would have to allow me to live together with my partner. The aspect of my postdoc that made me most unhappy was feeling like I was putting the rest of my life permanently on hold while I waited for a permanent job to come along and the next job would have to help me get away from that feeling.

7. I heard about the perfect job

Although I was keeping a regular eye on the job websites, somehow when the perfect job finally came along, I didn’t see it. But, because I had been so vocal about my job search and had been widening my network, I was extremely fortunate to get an e-mail encouraging me to apply.

8. The pieces started to fit together

Because I hadn’t seen the job advertised, by the time I heard about it I didn’t have long to prepare. Fortunately, all of the background work I had done up to this point meant I was already in a good position to be able to apply straight away. My CV was almost ready to go. All I needed to do was re-order the sections to tailor it to the post. I wrote a cover letter to match the job specification, which my job application buddy reviewed and helped me to finesse. Having recently attended a relevant conference, I already had a good knowledge of the organisation and had met some of the key players in the field. I also had an informal chat with someone at the organisation before I applied, which gave me the confidence I needed to write my cover letter.

9. I asked questions

Once I got to the interview stage, I asked a lot of questions of my interviewers. In previous job interviews I have always concentrated on trying to impress the interviewer and to show how I would fit what they were looking for. This time was different. I came to the interview prepared with questions that would help me assess whether it was the kind of job I wanted, and whether it was the right organisation for me. These questions will be different for everyone, depending on your priorities. But for me, it was important to find out about the kind of professional development and mentoring opportunities there would be, and how the employer would help me to settle into the new job and get up to speed. I liked what I heard.

10. I got the job

The day after the interview I was over the moon to get the call that they would like to offer me the job. And I accepted!

That was a few months ago. This week I finally started working in my new job as a project manager with Vitae. I’m really excited about all of the possibilities and really pleased to have found something so close to the work I have been doing with #ECRchat. It ticks all of my boxes so far and I look forward to keeping you up to date with future developments.

To stay or leave: The big answer

For many months I went round in circles. I swung back and forth between throwing myself into the possibility of an academic career and preparing for the probability of something else. I spent hours, days, and weeks wondering what that something else might be. But for the past few months I have been adjusting to my new reality. I have accepted a non-academic job.

There are many reasons why it has taken me so long to blog about this. When I first got the job offer back in October, I didn’t want to announce it here before my family, colleagues, and collaborators had heard the news. The process from application to job offer also happened extremely quickly, leaving me wondering whether it might somehow be withdrawn just as quickly, so I couldn’t say anything until I was certain that it was a firm offer. Then I needed to consider the social media rules and etiquette of my new employer, which I will need to clarify when I start work next week, so there won’t be any specific details of my new job until then.

So, why blog now? Well, I needed to get something down about the last few months before I face the inevitable information influx of settling into a new job. And it has been an extremely busy and complicated few months (another reason for the recent blog-silence).

Almost immediately after I got the job offer, I set off for two back-to-back conferences in the US. That was a difficult time. As well as coming to terms with my decision to take a non-academic job, I had to enthusiastically present my research to others from my field, many of whom I knew professionally, at least by reputation. The feedback from the first conference was brilliant; lots of helpful suggestions of how to take the research forward. I probably came away with enough ideas for a five year research program. It was everything I could have wanted from a conference, except that I already knew I didn’t even have five months left to wrap up the research I had already started, never mind following up on all the new ideas. It left me very conflicted for a while.

The second of the two conferences was the big conference of my field. At a conference of this size (30,000 delegates), it is much easier to swim in the sea of anonymity and let the whole thing wash over you. I had time to ponder the realities of not attending this conference next year. The likelihood is that I won’t have the opportunity or inclination to follow up on any of the research I saw there. It is difficult to say whether this is the reason that I didn’t throw myself into the scientific program with my usual level of energy. It could have equally been that I was drained from the previous conference. But I wonder whether it was actually a sign that I had already mentally withdrawn from the field some time ago. I was feeling slightly more positive about my own research after presenting it, but I had known for quite some time that my enthusiasm and engagement with my research had been low. I can never say for sure how the adjustment happened; whether my overall lack of enthusiasm led to me seeking non-academic opportunities or whether having a non-academic job offer caused me to become less enthusiastic about my field. All I can say is that by the time I came home from the conferences I felt more comfortable with my decision to try something new.

So, where does that leave me now? Having had three months to get used to the idea of not being an academic anymore, I am excited about starting a brand new job for the first time in about seven years, I am curious about what the future holds, and I am ready to take on new challenges. I don’t know what the future holds—for my new job, for my life, or for this blog—but for the first time in a long time, the uncertainty is welcome. It feels different to the uncertainty and insecurity of being a postdoc because (whether it is an illusion or not) I feel more in control of where I go from here.

ECR Anonymity in Policy Debate: A Response

[Update: This post was based on Tanya Filer's article as published on the Guardian Higher Education Network. You can view the unedited (and more balanced) version of Tanya's article here, along with an essay on which the article was based. If I had read the longer, unedited version first, I probably would have given a different response. But, I think the Guardian piece was still a great starting point for this important debate.]

This post is primarily a response to Tanya Filer’s recent article on the Guardian’s Higher Education Network. In her article, Filer argues that early career researchers (ECRs) should not hide “under cloak of anonymity” in order to contribute to policy debate. While I don’t, in principle, disagree with this conclusion, I do have a number of concerns. I started to get into some debate on Twitter, but I felt stifled by the 140 character limit, which I worried might not allow me to convey a nuanced argument and would instead come across as an attack. I needed more space, both in word count and in time, to digest the article and to explore my thoughts on it in more detail. The overall purpose here is to contribute to a debate that, regardless of any difference of opinion, is extremely valuable to have in the open.

My first concern links back to my previous blog post on my fears surrounding being an online academic venturing out into the job search. As a generation of new PhDs and postdocs, we are more connected than any generation before us. There is constant encouragement and at times pressure to create an online identity spanning the many available social and professional online networks; with the lines between social and professional seeming to become increasingly blurred. But, there is a lack of research into the potential impact of this. I am not suggesting that I think it is a bad idea for academics to have an online identity and to participate in online debate; if I thought that, I wouldn’t be blogging. What I worry about is that the information available to potential employers about job candidates is much more than the candidate chooses to present in their application, and the true risks and benefits of this are largely unknown. The question Filer poses, but leaves unanswered, is “what might the career consequences be?”

Filer also acknowledges that ECRs are on a journey with an unknown destination. Being a contract researcher is a very uncertain and unstable position, with many unknown and unpredictable variables. When Filer states that ECRs should “open ourselves up to the risks that putting our opinions and names out into the world can engender”, I think she is taking too lightly the sense of confidence and security that it takes to enable someone to take these unknown risks. I think the challenge should be directed at institutions and the wider academic community to first alleviate the feeling of vulnerability, in order to stimulate open participation at all levels, rather than directing the challenge towards some of the most vulnerable of the academic world.

I do take Filers point that it is hypocritical of academics (including ECRs) not to value and encourage a productive critique of academic culture, when our academic principles encourage exactly this kind of unbiased and accountable rigour in the rest of our academic life. But the author herself admits to being guilty of self-censorship on academic culture. Therefore, I think it is a shame that the author decided to put her name to an article that mainly places blame and highlights risks, rather than offering solutions, and does more to undermine the confidence of ECRs than to empower them to let their voices be heard.

A more empowering approach would be to congratulate those who are already letting their opinions be heard, even if there is no name or face to go with it. I think that instead of creating a culture where participation can only take place anonymously, this anonymous debate is actually an important first step in realising that others share the same concerns. Another way to grow this critical mass of ECRs needed to tip the balance in favour of participating publicly is to make use of advocates to take concerns forward, without fear of risk to an individual. Organisations such as the UK Research Staff Association and Vitae are already opening up the dialogue between ECRs, policy makers, and employers. They, along with the Careers Research and Advisory Centre, are already conducting research into the experiences and outcomes of PhD students and researchers. I think that this is the solid foundation that will provide the opportunity for ECRs voices (collectively and individually) to be heard; not the few loud voices needed to take on a disproportionate amount of risk by revealing their names and faces first. Then the foundation for debate becomes not anonymity and opinion but evidence that change is necessary and that ECRs are not waiting silently and patiently for change to happen, they are making their own changes by leaving academia altogether.

My solution (which I am happy to be challenged on) is not to shame those who participate anonymously, but to encourage more to participate in whatever format they comfortable. The most important thing is break the silence, not to put a name and face to the voice. Participating in research staff associations, responding to surveys, commenting on articles and forums, tweeting, blogging, and researching, are all important ways of making noise and rocking a boat that needs to be rocked. And this foundation of many diverse voices will provide the security and climate needed for ECRs to start to take ownership of their thoughts and opinions in a way that benefits the many, without penalizing the few.

Top 10 Tips for an Effective Work/Life Balance

Last week I hosted an #ECRchat on ‘work/life balance’ for early career researchers. I know not everyone is fond of that term, as it implies that ‘life’ only happens outside of work, and work only happens separate from everything else, which is perhaps an especially flawed description when applied to academia. However, I think it captures the idea that the different areas of our life (with work being one aspect of life) and the competing demands on our time need to be kept in balance somehow. Even though work can be satisfying in many ways, we could not sustain a 24/7 work routine (because we need to eat and sleep), but the important questions to ask are whether we would want to, what other priorities we have in life that work cannot fulfill, and whether we are dedicating enough time and energy to these priorities.

Here are the top 10 tips from the chat, reblogged from the ECRchat blog.

Work/life balance is an important and popular concern in academia. We know it is important, but we don’t always remember or feel able to take care of it. So, here are the top 10 hints I picked up from this week’s #ECRchat (for the whole chat, including many more tips and links, see the Storify).

  1. Decide on what you want from your work/life balance

Everyone has a different idea of what makes the perfect work/life balance, so the first step to obtaining a good balance is to decide what you want from it. What are your priorities? Making more time for your family? Safe-guarding personal thinking time?

  1. Be flexible

Remember that these priorities might change over time to accommodate deadlines, changing family commitments, new responsibilities at work, a new job, etc.

  1. A poor work/life balance has consequences

Poor work/life balance can impact negatively on relationships, health, energy levels, and productivity. It can increase feelings of guilt about spending too much or not enough time at work. You can find it more difficult to prioritize leisure time, or family and other obligations can take too much time and attention away from personal or work time.

  1. Make the flexibility and variety of academia work for you

The opportunity to do a variety of different types of work and to set our own schedule can be some of the best perks of being an academic, but it is important to make these work to your own advantage and fit them in with your own priorities. The flexibility to work any time and the competing demands on our time can also turn into too many late nights and overwork if not kept in check.

  1. Flexibility – part 3

Remember that flexibility and variety can be found in many other careers. Also keep in mind that swapping the flexibility and/or variety of academic in favour of a more stable routine might fit with your priorities better (now or in the future).

  1. Exercise

In an already busy schedule, it can be difficult to squeeze in time for exercise. We didn’t come to a consensus on the best way to do that (some of us are morning people, and some are not), but we all agreed that there are physical and mental benefits to carving out some time for exercise.

  1. Try to maintain perspective

Many of us agreed that this is important, though can be difficult. Try not to lose sight of your priorities. Make time for the things that are important to you, such as children and family time. Avoid being sucked into the competitive overtime culture.

  1. Spend time planning

Create plans that work for you by being realistic about what you can achieve in the time you have. Have a stop time, especially for tasks that have no obvious stopping point. Shared calendars can be useful, especially for dual-academic families. Plan your time so that you work smarter not harder. Remember the power of saying “no”.

  1. Don’t wait for the ‘right time’ to start a family

This is an important tip that could be applied to so many other areas of life. Remember not to put your life on hold for an academic career that may never materialize. Enjoy life now; not just when you finally get a permanent position.

  1. Move to Scandinavia

This was the number one conclusion from the chat, but not necessarily to be taken literally. The point is that work/life balance is strongly influenced by the people around you. This can be the local culture of your lab or department or the wider national culture. These cultural influences can mean the difference between feeling pressured to stay in the office until midnight, or to leave the office every day by 3pm. So remember that academia is not always the same; if the local or national culture doesn’t fit well with your priorities, you might be able to find a better balance elsewhere.

If you have any other tips or thoughts to add, please leave a comment below, or tweet me.

Being an Online Academic, the Job Search, and False Starts

One of the wonderful things about Twitter is hearing about jobs, funding calls, conferences, and potential future collaborators. But, one of the most daunting things about Twitter is being followed by those potential employers, the people who review your conference abstracts, the people who review your grant applications, and people whose work or career you respect and would like to emulate. The thought of this sends me into a sort of stage fright for tweeting and blogging.

As part of my intention for this blog is to discuss the challenges of the postdoctoral journey, I feel that I have to document this internal conflict. But the very process of blogging this fear entails confronting the fear head on. I have to publically admit that I am worried about how future employers might see me online, whilst at the same time realizing that they could read this post too, and wondering what they would make of it. It gets very circular and almost paralyzing. That’s why I decided just to get the words out there.

One of the decisions I made up front when I ventured out into social media was not to blog about my research. I didn’t have a role model in my lab group or department for doing this, and it felt far too risky to take it into my own hands. But now I worry that I have created an ‘online identity’ that is too much of the peripheral and the personal, and not enough about the core research work that a future employer is probably interested in. I don’t think that I have taken enough ownership of my research area online, but I probably haven’t done this enough in other ways either.

The lack of a strong ownership of my research is probably a symptom of a larger problem that has left me exploring many varied options for the next step on my (as yet, undefined) career path. It is difficult to be honest online about these larger difficulties that have hindered my postdoc journey, because I worry that it is too personal for a semi-professional blog and that it might come across as making excuses to potential employers. But these reasons probably form my core motivation for reaching out online and questioning my ambitions and future career. Although I have continued to add lines to my CV and I have found passion in some areas of my work (particularly teaching), I wouldn’t describe my first experience of being a postdoc as entirely successful.

When I think of how my postdoc has turned out, I am sometimes reminded of a tragic helicopter crash that happened in London earlier this year. That sounds over dramatic. What I mean is that, in this particular crash, it seemed like a number of things all happened to go wrong at the same time resulting in a ‘perfect storm’. On that day in January, it was extremely foggy, but experts have later suggested that the pilot might have perceived that he could see better than he actually could. In a further series of unfortunate events, the pilot was unable to land, so had to turn back, but ended up taking a different direction. This ended when he crashed into a crane that was not lit because it was daylight and the regulations didn’t require it to be lit in daylight fog. If any one of these things had been different, perhaps the crash would not have happened, but perhaps just one change would not have been enough. It is debated whether lights could have helped the pilot see the crane in time, and the flying conditions were already so difficult that perhaps taking another direction would have resulted in a different crash site.

My own perfect storm is, of course, nowhere near as disastrous as a helicopter crash, and isn’t the result of many things happening exactly at the same time. Instead, it is a combination of many of the usual postdoc struggles with other more specific circumstances that have changed the course of my postdoc in ways I didn’t anticipate. I guess that not many postdocs turn out exactly as planned, but in my case I think that might be even more true than usual. The first and biggest thing that went wrong was something that changed my whole experience in unquantifiable ways and got my postdoc off to the worst possible start. Around six months before I was due to start work, my intended supervisor was diagnosed with cancer and given a year to live. He fought long and hard, and out-lived expectations, but did not survive my whole postdoc. We were only able to work together for a few months before he took permanent sick leave (though, I had worked with him previously for six months as a visiting PhD student). There is not much I can say about this, except that I still feel very lucky to have met him and worked with him at all.

Without my original supervisor around, there wasn’t really a lab group anymore. Just me and one PhD student; both working on barely related projects and transplanted into different groups with different supervisors. We are the orphans of our department and I often feel like the problem-child of my new, already bursting at the seams, lab group. My new group and supervisor have been incredibly welcoming and supportive, but it just isn’t a very good fit for my research interests. So it has been difficult to be inspired about my research while feeling like a lab group of one. Collaborators and conferences have helped, but they can’t replace the (near) daily interaction that I miss and that I have realized I need to keep the research momentum going.

It is difficult to say whether things could have gone differently. There are so many other peripheral reasons that have contributed to my dissatisfaction during my first postdoc. The original plan was for my boyfriend and I to move here together, but after many months of unsuccessful job hunting, he had to move back home. A long distance relationship was not part of the plan. I also hadn’t factored in how difficult it would be to get involved in the intricacies of my department and institution without speaking Dutch. Even if my boyfriend had been able to live here as planned, I don’t think it would be a place I could imagine staying for longer. It’s just not a good fit for me here in so many ways.

It would probably be easy to regret moving here, but I don’t at all. Experiencing the kind of things that have made this postdoc unsuccessful has been important in allowing me to discover what is important to me for my next job. A network of people to bounce ideas off is somewhere near the top of the list; either by joining a department where people share my interests, or by having the freedom and passion to create or join this network online. Finding a place (country, city, institution, research area) that feels less temporary is important too.

The overall difficulty is that my experiences and outputs look very different from an ideal postdoc now and, as Tseen Khoo discusses in part 1 of her latest post on The Researcher Whisperer, “academia doesn’t deal well with messy career trajectories”. As I heard from a recent workshop on academic career progression, the pressurized academic system works against late bloomers, false starts, and changes of direction. So, what are we to do? Well, in the second part, Tseen shares some advice on how to frame these difficulties in job and grant applications. But I have also decided to take a very different approach to my job hunt. Instead of looking further down the line at where each job might possibly take my career, I am looking for a job (and location) that will be fulfilling and satisfying in itself. Somewhere that feels like home and that allows me to stop feeling like I am trying to balance on the racing treadmill of the academic career path. The job might be an academic one, or it might not, as long as it allows me to make use of my skills and talents and keep learning new things. Career paths just don’t look like the perfect linear progression assumed by grant applications, so I am not going to dwell on the shape or destination of my career path anymore. My ‘online identity’ might look messy and imperfect, but it is mine and it is real.