Five years post PhD

Career to date

This week, it’s five years since I had my viva. Rather like finishing my PhD originally, I feel like I’ll celebrate this anniversary several times (five years since submission, since viva, since corrections accepted, since graduation, etc.). I guess this means that I’m no longer an early career researcher, and I’m supposed to know what I’m doing. I feel that this is as good a time as any to reflect on the past five years and my career progression; where I am, and where I want to be. This article contains thoughts on some of the strategies that worked for me – and that I’ll be employing over the next few years as I move on to the next stage in my career.

I sumitted my PhD in the Department of Geography at Durham University in December 2008 (February 2009, April 2009, July 2009…). I really enjoyed my PhD. I was blessed with patient, helpful, wise supervisors, with whom I still work and collaborate, and hope to do so for many years to come. They put up with my arrogance and impatience, and steered me towards six good publications in strong journals, international conference presentations, leading two field meetings and more. They are great role models and I hope to emulate them when supervising my own postgraduate students.

Following my PhD, I struggled to find a position initially, before landing a short-term post as a research assistant at the British Antarctic Survey. There I worked on processing marine sediment cores and foraminifera from around Antarctica, and learned all about the Antarctic continent. I worked nights writing up papers from my PhD, and did an online GIS course. From there I went to Aberystwyth University as a PDRA to Neil Glasser, Mike Hambrey, John Smellie and Jonathan Carrivick. Again, these mentors were generous with their time, wise and helpful, and I love working with them.

Always learning

Over the past five years, I’ve developed more independence as a researcher, gained confidence and experience in writing papers and applying for grants, teaching and presenting at conferences, broadened my research interests and developed new skills. So what have I learned over the past five years? What advice would I give to someone about to submit their thesis? Several things, I think.

Firstly, everyone thinks they’re not good enough. It’s even got a name: Imposter Syndrome. Don’t be afraid that your ideas aren’t smart enough. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself, even in the face of someone far more experienced than you.

Secondly, it’s a tough job market. It’s not easy to get an academic position. Some people walk into one; they just seem to be in the right place at the right time. Just because they do, and you don’t, doesn’t mean that they are better. There is an element of luck, and you need to be stubborn and resistant. When you get rejected (and you will, at some point), stand up, dust yourself down, and try again.

Again on this theme, you can make your own luck. Be in the right place at the right time. Network so that you’re a known quantity, and so that you’re made aware of upcoming positions.

Learn to take criticism in the spirit with which it is intended. Most people will want to help, and will provide abundant constructive criticism. It doesn’t always feel constructive, but it is.

Writing is a skill that gets better with practise.

Public speaking is a skill that gets better with practise.

You won’t get a job unless you have written lots of papers, presented at lots of conferences, and have demonstrated an ability to bring in a research income. Lectureships will need to show an interest in teaching. Outreach and public communication of science is, unfortunately, far less important in a recruiter’s eyes than all of the above. The most important thing you can do is write. Fortunately, writing is a skill that gets better with practise.

Although grant writing is a skill that gets better with practise, you’ll still get rejected. Everyone does.

Go and work abroad. It’s the best thing you can do for your career (after writing papers). If not abroad, do try and change institutions. Changing institutions can be stressful (moving, settling in, the unknown), but working with different people, broadening your scope and gaining different perspectives is oh-so-valuable for your career development.

Things I learned from Neil: Never do anything without asking “Why”. Why is this research important? Why is this the way it is? Why has someone done something in this particular way?

Don’t despair if you can’t find your perfect job. Be pragmatic. Set a time limit. Take a job that may not be your dream job – you may well find that it serves as a stepping stone forwards in your career. And always do something to continue building on your CV; after my PhD I wrote papers at the weekends and did training courses and extra fieldwork. If you are unemployed, it may be devastating at the time, but you can use your time productively. You can also be pragmatic; besides writing papers, I also volunteered at the council when I was unemployed, building fences and planting trees, which I found enormously satisfying.

Looking forward

My post at Aberystwyth University ends soon, and I’m excited to be joining the University of Reading in April. I’m starting another NERC-funded post-doc in the Department for Meteorology. I can’t wait to sink my teeth into an exciting new project, where I’ll be learning new skills and working with new people. I’ll spend the next few years working hard on this project, hopefully continuing to write papers and grants and to speak at conferences. I plan to continue to develop my skills and expertise so that, in the longer term, I will be a strong candidate for a lectureship or fellowship at the end of the post. Interesting times ahead.

What career strategies worked for you, and what advice do you have for those just entering the job market? Add a comment in the box below.

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3 thoughts on “Five years post PhD

  1. Great post Bethan – although I am not about to submit it is nice to read a very humble and honest blog post such as this one. Imposter syndrome is something I suffer from badly, and knowing even someone who I see as a strong academic such as you has this is good to know 🙂

  2. Bethan – in science (and in much of life actually), I have come to see that determination counts for a lot, and I think you really have it. Good luck with your next step!

  3. Brilliant post, Bethan. I’m a first year PhD student and it’s great to be able to read an honest but helpful post about what life is really like post-PhD and what kind of skills are needed. Best of luck with your new job!

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