Hi. Thank you so much all for joining this session with us today. My name is Fiona and I’m from the Prosper team. I’m a research staff developer and I’m going to be facilitating. just a very quick intro to Prosper for those of you who are new to it. We’re a new approach to career development to really unlock postdocs’ career potential to thrive in multiple pathways. Our ultimate goal is to open up the huge talent pool that exists within the postdoctoral research community to the benefit of the postdocs themselves, principal investigators, employers, and the wider UK economy. This is more relevant now than ever. It’s going to be really vital as the UK moves into a successful post-COVID world. Ultimately, Prosper is going to create a model of postdoc career development that will be available to all by the end of March 2023. Prosper is led by the University of Liverpool, working alongside our partners at the University of Manchester and Lancaster University. We’re funded by the UK RED Fund. that’s enough about Prosper. I’m just going to explain how this session is going to work today. we have three panel members. We’re going to go to them one by one, and they’re going to give us a potted history of their career from postdoc to now. They’re only getting five to seven minutes. it is going to be very brief, but hopefully it’ll give you a flavour of the journey that they’ve been on. Then, once they’ve spoken, we’re going to move to a question-and-answer. Obviously, whilst they’re speaking feel free to pop questions into the chat. If you’d rather ask your question verbally rather than have it typed, that’s absolutely fine. We just ask that you raise your hand in the participants window, or if you type a dollar sign into the chat we’ll come to you during the question-and-answer session. without further ado, I will move to our first panellist. I’m going to go to Dr Georgina Key, who is joining us here today. I’m not going to reiterate her biography. without further ado, Georgina, could you please tell us how you got from a postdoc to where you are now?
Oh, wow. I’ll actually do one step back. I’ve constantly changed my subject. I did my PhD in agroecology, focusing on pest control, and then when I was doing my postdoc it was in soil fertility and systematic reviewing, so reviewing a lot of literature over a relatively short period of time. I did that for two years. It was split between Lancaster, Manchester, and Cambridge University. I was part of a big team doing a wider project, and while I really enjoyed it I found it quite draining. Towards the end of my postdoc, I got an offer to do another postdoc in Madagascar, but I realised that I wasn’t keen on moving across the world on a regular basis to keep doing the postdoc life. I made the decision not to go for the job and to just take a step out. I really needed to rest my brain so I became a gardener, a professional gardener for about 18 months, and then realised that actually, as much as I loved it, I wasn’t using my brain enough and started applying for other jobs. I got a job at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. It is a levy board, so farmers have to pay us a tax levy and we use that money to fund research and knowledge exchange to help them solve problems. I’ve been there now for six years, nearly. I’m still relatively early on in my career. I started off in the horticulture sector, and it was my job to develop research programs to help the horticulture sector solve problems, whether that’s pest control, whether they need some help with some new policy or legislation that’s come through, water management, anything. It can be absolutely anything. it’s all about how they grow, how they produce food and ornamental plants and things like that. My role evolved a bit and I’m now part of the environment team, so I’m an environment scientist at AHDB, still doing research programs but it’s across multiple sectors. It’s cereals, horticulture, beef and lamb, all these different things. we’re also involved in the new Environment Land Management scheme that’s coming out from DEFRA, and we are that key link between government and producers, growers and farmers. We also have a lot to do with research institutes. We’re that sort of middle linchpin that we can draw different people in. I could go on for ages, but I will leave it there.
Fabulous. Thank you very much. That’s an amazing potted history of where you’ve got to for now. Fantastic. I will move to our next panellist. Dr Chris Humphrey, if I may pick on you next. similarly to Georgina, can you give us a flavour of how you got from postdoc to where you are now?
Yes. Thanks, I certainly can. I completed my PhD in medieval studies back in 1997 at the University of York. that’s my background in the humanities. After that, I was successful in landing a British Academy postdoctoral fellowship to carry on at the University of York for three more years, which really suited me at the time. I mean, to me, going into academia further after my PhD and becoming a lecturer was like a logical thing for me. I probably didn’t think loads about it, but it just seemed to be a natural progression. I was happy to go along that route. During my postdoc, I applied for numerous positions at UK universities, and I was actually interviewed five times for lecturing roles at different universities. This was during my postdoc. While all this was going on, I also had something in the back of my mind that, if I wasn’t going to be successful in securing a permanent position or further funding at the end of my postdoc, then basically I wouldn’t have an income. That was something on my mind. My wife and I had recently had a baby, and so it wasn’t something that we could accept or manage as a family, that I’d lose any income. this was something that was on my mind. After I had my fifth decline at interview, this was in the early part of 2000, for a university lectureship, I really had to think again and think about a plan B, which was what I decided; right, I’m going to strike out, even though I’m a medievalist and that may be something that doesn’t appear immediately transferable to the wider world. I was going to try and find myself a job outside of academia where I could use all the valuable transferable skills that I’d built up as a PhD and a postdoc in the humanities. Project management, research, public speaking, IT skills, analysis skills, teaching and training, writing, all this skillset that I’d built up. when I looked around, there was this exciting new technology that was emerging in society which was called the Internet. It seemed a fascinating, exciting thing to me. I was really excited by the potential of what I thought of at the time as a democratic dissemination of information. rather than having to kind of go into a classroom to learn, or in the old days obviously you had things like Encyclopaedia Britannica, huge piles of information, here was a really new, exciting way to make knowledge and information available to people just on demand, so knocking down some of the barriers to learning, Given this interest that I had at the time, I began to look for jobs in this newly emerging area of e-learning and web-based training as it was then. I thought that would be a good match for someone with my own background and interests, and so I applied for a few positions within universities and also within some private companies, and I was fortunate to get a job as a content analyst, as the role was called, with a Swiss e-learning start-up company that was setting up in different European countries. I relocated the family from Yorkshire to Berkshire to start that. When I look back on it I wonder; would I have hired myself given my lack of direct experience and qualifications, which were basically none, to be honest. on the other hand, the company was mainly technical people, programmers who were building the software. They really were looking for people with an education background who could take existing, more like classroom-based, courses and adapt those to web delivery. I think there was a fit there in terms of my skillset and their need. also, I think I was quite confident at the time, maybe naively so really, about how I could do this job. I had also a vision of how the Internet could transform education and learning. the example I gave when I went for an interview is that in the future you wouldn’t have to necessarily take your car to the garage for a small repair. You could download a video, and you could look at that video and it could tell you how to do it yourself, something that seems very obvious to us now 20 years on. at the time it was something that was not really possible, and I think that’s something that helped to convince them to hire me and take me on. I worked for that company for about two-and-a-bit years until one day the managing director came into the office. As usual, I’d say, ‘Oh, good morning, Nigel,’ and he said, ‘Actually, it’s not a good morning today, Chris, because the venture capitalists who fund the company have decided not to put any more money in, and so the company is closing today, now. Pack up your stuff and go home, because we’re closing down the company today.’ that was obviously a bit of a shock to me at the time, especially as I was quite new to the field, probably only two-and-a-bit years outside of academia, and there was a more general collapse as well in technology roles in that late ’90s, early 2000 period. Anyway, I was able to use that small amount of experience that I’d gained in that background to get another job with a company that was making software that gives passengers the times for public transport. you know like if you see a bus stop and it counts down when the bus is going to come? I got a job working with them as a technical author and as a trainer on those sorts of systems. Having jumped out of the frying pan of academia into the fire of capitalism and commerce, it was a bit of a challenge to make that transition. I was kind of lucky that I managed to get this other role. I worked there for a few years, redeveloping my career into consultancy, and I worked on a couple of sustainable transport projects for the UK Government and the European Commission. in 2011, I was made redundant again, unfortunately, and at that point I crossed over into where I work now, which is in sustainable banking. today I manage a team of project managers, mainly delivering new technology projects, digital technology projects, for Triodos Bank in the UK. Just one final thing. I also have a side project which is listed on my bio there called Jobs on Toast, which is really like a website of resources for people who want to make this transition out of academia into non-academic jobs. On my website there I’ve got over 50 articles that cover this process of how do you leave academia and get a job outside of academia. that’s there as a free resource for anybody who wants to have a look at it as well. Okay. That’s it from me.
Fantastic. Thank you very much. I particularly enjoyed the overview of how useful the Internet is. Amazing. I’d like to now obviously come to our final panel member, Dr Meera Vijayaraghavan. I would like to invite you, Meera, to please tell us about how you got from postdoc to where you are now.
Hi, everyone. Thanks for having me here today. my background has been quite varied. I did an undergraduate in chemistry and then a PhD in pharmacy focusing on advanced drug delivery, and then I did a postdoc for four years at the University of Liverpool which was 100 per cent funded by BP. it was quite a commercial project. it was working on oil recovery using high-pressure gases. During my postdoc, it was fantastic to see all the different kinds of experiences that people had, but by the time I got to the end of the four years that I was there, I knew that staying in academia wasn’t for me. at that point, I was looking around to see what kind of jobs interested me. I wasn’t really focused on one particular area or subject. I was looking all across, any subject really, but I was really focused on location. I either wanted to stay in the north-west of England or move back to the north-east where I grew up. that was the main driving force behind my applications for jobs. I was primarily looking in industry because, as we all know, being a postdoc can be a little bit tenuous with fixed-term contracts, and I knew that that was something I wanted to avoid in my next position. that was my criteria when I was looking for jobs, something that was a bit more permanent and in those two locations. I found the job that I’m currently in now, which is a senior innovation associate at the National Innovation Centre for Ageing, which is actually based at Newcastle University. it’s quite different from what I was doing in my postdoc. when I saw the application there were a lot of things that I could do, or thought I could do at least, and I put in an application, had an interview and very happily they offered me the position. I’ve been here for four years now. We work with businesses, researchers, academics across all sectors from transport, housing, fashion and beauty, to help innovate products and services for older people, not just older people, across the life course, to help people live better for longer. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last four years, and in fact, in the next few weeks, I’ll be changing jobs. I’m still staying at Newcastle University, but moving on to become a business development manager.
Which sounds super-exciting, I may say. Okay. Thank you so much, panellists. That was really lovely having an overview of how you’ve got to where you are now. our first question we have is, to all of you, which transferable skills from your postdoc would you say you use the most now? Either wave at me, or I’ll pick on somebody to answer this first so we don’t all talk at once. Fabulous, Georgina. Great. Thank you.
I would say the number-one skill is being able to assimilate and synthesise and think about a large amount of information over a relatively short time period. It doesn’t matter what subject you do, science, medieval history, whatever it is, you are accumulating a huge amount of information into one place and having to make outputs from it, and that is useful in whatever job that you do.
Yes, thank you.
Just to add to what Georgina said there, I’d absolutely agree with that, and being able to make sense of it and make a story out of it as well, I think, is absolutely essential.
It’s that critical thinking, isn’t it?
Not a skill that a lot of people have, I can evidence.
Chris, would you like to add to that at all?
Yes, no, I definitely second that. I think also, just as I mentioned in my talk, there’s just some key things with the PhD and postdoc. You’re kind of following a process from uncertainty to more certainty as you go through whatever you’re doing, writing or presenting, and that is just such a valuable skill. Like you’re saying, making sense of uncertainty in the business world or whatever, where it is you’re working, through into making decisions then delivering things that actually do something, real, concrete outputs. That sort of project management life cycle. That’s really what I’ve made my career on. that came from that research mindset of starting off with a simple bit of paper that’s got an idea on it, through to a dissertation or a book or whatever that you end up with. That skill is invaluable, definitely.
Fantastic. Thank you. Oh, Georgina.
Just one last thing is, on a personal level, I found my PhD and my postdocs very stressful, and nothing has come close to how stressful they were and how intense they were. You have stressful situations at work and you think, oh, it’s nothing, absolutely nothing compared to my postdoc. resilience, I would put in there as well.
Fantastic. Thank you. Thank you for bringing that in. That’s a really interesting insight. our next question. Could you tell us what the process was for identifying your roles in terms of locating jobs, but also knowing you would be a viable candidate for those roles? This is also open to all panel members. Meera, please.
Yes. I’d say I’ve had two different experiences of looking for and applying for jobs. thinking about when I went from my postdoc to the position I’m in currently, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew that I was looking for a position in a certain area and with a permanent contract. for that, I looked everywhere. I was on LinkedIn, I was on jobs.ac.uk, all the other sites which I can’t remember right now, Reed, all of those. It was boring. It was dull. It was hard work. you just have to keep plugging away until you find something. Then, for the position that I’m going to move into, I was quite focused in that I knew I wanted to move into this kind of area, managing university research with a commercial aspect, and I knew these positions were coming up within universities in the area. Newcastle University, Sunderland University, Durham. I kept an eye out, and I was quite focused in doing that and tried to incorporate some of what they were looking for in the job I was doing currently. there’s a lot of commercial work which we do anyway, so to try and think about how I could show that I’d done that already in the job. I think, like I mentioned, I had two different experiences. Neither, I’d say, were the right one or the wrong one. It’s just the way it is, and I guess it depends on where you are in your life and what you’re looking for.
Thanks, Meera. Would Georgina or Chris like to come in? Georgina. You’re looking keen.
Well, I didn’t want to jump in, but I was similar to Meera in that. If you can go anywhere and do anything in the world, that’s really quite stressful, and where on earth do you start looking? If you have some sort of linchpin, like a location that you want to work in, you want a permanent contract rather than a fixed-term contract, these sorts of things help whittle down all of those options and focus your searches. I did similar to Meera. Looked in all sorts of different places, asked lots of people. I cold-called people and said, ‘I would love to have a job where you work. If you don’t have any jobs going can you recommend somewhere that might?’ the other thing is, when you’re applying for a job, you don’t have to hit every single thing that is on that job role. If you hit half of them or 75 per cent of them, you are well on your way. They don’t expect you to come with everything ready to go. They’re expecting to have to train you. don’t be put off if you don’t 100 per cent fulfil a job advert, would be my top piece of advice.
Brilliant. Chris, anything you’d like to add?
Yes, I’d just add that one of the things about the world of work and jobs is that we can never know what all the jobs are out there. The thing I hate is when people ask young people and stuff, ‘What do you want to be?’ and some of these kinds of questions. You can never know. in my case, like I said, I was interested in e-learning and web-based training. I just used those keywords and I put those into job search engines and saw what came up, and then looked at the job description and compared it with my own CV and saw the areas that I could match. I think that’s key like you’ve already said. You’re not going to match on everything, but you’re just trying to match as much as you can, and then hopefully at the interview… Employers also want to develop people. It’s a purple squirrel thing. You’re never going to find a purple squirrel, but you’re going to find somebody who is close. Employers do want to develop people as well. don’t self-exclude just because you don’t tick all the boxes. I think that’s, like I was trying to say, something that carried me through, actually a kind of naivety or a confidence actually got me over that sort of hump and that first job, landing that first job.
Thank you very much. I really enjoy the image of a purple squirrel. That will stay with me now. I’m going to slightly take these questions out of order just because, Georgina, you touched on one of the other questions that has popped up. Zora asks us, ‘Have you any experience in cold-calling or emailing when seeking out job opportunities when coming to the end of your postdoc or coming to the end of the role?’ I’d obviously like to throw that open to the rest of the panel as well, and any more experiences of cold-calling and how that’s worked out for you.
Yes. You do have to have quite a thick skin. I guess, as Chris said, I think there was a bit of naivety on my point of, oh, I’ll ring someone up, they’ll love to talk to me. That wasn’t always the case, but the vast majority of the time people are really flattered that you’re interested. If I had someone call me up, even if I was really busy, out of the blue and said, ‘Oh, I just wanted to find out more about your company or what you do,’ I would be really quite flattered and I would take the time to talk to them or at least say, ‘Oh, I can’t talk now, but I’ll call you back later,’ sort of thing. I would say be brave. Make that first contact. It doesn’t always work out, but if you’re positive and you’re not sitting there going, ‘I deserve a job, you should give me a job,’ people are very open to talking about their subject and what they’re interested in. It’s such a good payoff because you learn really quickly about specific roles that you might like. I called someone about an agroecological role. It was in more of a charity rather than an arms-length government body like I’m in now. I just said, ‘Well, how did you get into it? What skills did you have to have? Is there some interesting event that I could go to?’ and they gave me all these resources. They sent me an email with just tonnes of stuff, and one of those links was how I found this job. you just don’t know where it could lead you. I would say be brave and have an open mind, be polite. If someone rebuffs you don’t pester them, and move on to the next person, but I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
Yes, I’ll just add to that about, you can do it in a more formal way by informational interviews. Maybe there could be some resources, Tiona, that you’ve got. You could point people in that direction. if you set out, a bit like as a researcher, to discover more about a job area like you were talking about, Georgina, there, and you actually approach people and ask for a short 20-minute interview, a chat, contact people through LinkedIn, people are very generous and giving of their time. That’s how you build up a picture of an area to then learn more about it and how you can approach it for jobs. Those people you speak to aren’t necessarily going to be in a position to give you a job. six months down the line they might say, ‘Oh, Chris, this just came up. Is this something you’d be interested in?’ It’s building up that sort of network and not just relying on advertised jobs as well.
Great. Thank you very much. Meera, have you got anything you’d like to add to this?
Just to say that probably, a few years ago, I probably wasn’t bold enough to cold-call anyone. I can appreciate it takes a lot of nerve. from what Georgina and Chris have said, it sounds like a fantastic thing to do. just to add, to maybe use your network as well, like ask people to introduce you to other people in the field that you’re interested in if you don’t feel quite brave enough to make that big step. I think there’s lots of different ways around it as well. just to say that I think, after what Georgina said, I’d definitely cold-call people about jobs now.
Everyone knows it’s a scary thing to do, and if you’re brave enough to do it people remember you.
Oh, fantastic. Thank you for that. It’s great tips, certainly. whilst we’re still talking about these, looking for jobs, often job person specs ask for qualifications in things like project management, for example. Will postdoc experience get you to the selection stage for these jobs, or do you have to get the qualifications to even be considered? Georgina, do you want to go first? You’re nodding the most vociferously.
You might have gathered I’m quite a chatty Cathy, so feel free to stop me talking any time. No. I think when it comes to applying for jobs, match the language in the job advert. They’ll have keywords, and if you hit a certain number of those keywords you will get through to interview. It’s like a trick of the trade. No, you don’t. The most powerful thing you can do is show evidence. Say, project management. That’s the example. You don’t want to say, ‘Yes, I’m good at project managing.’ You say, ‘I managed a postdoc project over this many years, and it cost this much money in funding, and I delivered this.’ You need to show that process and that evidence that you have those skills. If you’ve had a PhD student help you with your work and you had to manage them and their time, you talk about that. You should use specific examples. I think everyone’s heard of STAR, which is situation, task, action, and result. Just google STAR. it’s really good for job applications because it requires you to outline what the situation was, the specific task you had to do, the actions you took, and the result from it. that’s what they’re looking for. no, you don’t necessarily need to have the official qualifications. I don’t know how Chris and Meera feel.
I think I did an official qualification as part of some training in this role and, to be honest, I haven’t really used much of the principles that we learned about. I’d 100 per cent agree with Georgina. If you can evidence what you’ve done through your postdoc in the application, and if you get to interview, then that’s far more valuable than a qualification.
You have a lot of experience in those postdocs that you’re doing. Don’t underestimate how much you’re picking up.
That’s it. I think especially in academia, there’s a little bit of a risk of credentialism, that you’re accumulating qualifications and pieces of paper and things, which are important, but like you both said, the key thing is what have you achieved? How can you express what you’ve delivered in numerical terms, like in terms of money or in terms of the number of people that you’ve reached, or the kind of impact that you’ve had in the world? It’s all those things. It’s creating that compelling story as much as having the pieces of paper, that you can explain to people and really win them over on a personal level as much as what’s necessarily on your CV, or the training that you’ve had.
Thank you very much. I’ve got two questions that we’ve been asked. These might be very quick because the answers might be just no to both of these. we’ll see if you guys have got any experiences you can share. we’ve had a question about, what are the chances of international postdocs transitioning to industries in the UK, and how difficult is it to acquire positions outside of academia if you’re a non-UK citizen?
I don’t have much experience or knowledge of that, I’m afraid. Sorry.
It’s absolutely fine. Anybody else? I was going to say, I think we’ve got an entire panel of UK citizens.
Yes, I don’t have any personal experience of it, but I know that if you have the right qualifications for the job it wouldn’t exclude you. As long as you have leave to work here, that’s fine.
I think if an employer wants you, can they also sponsor you for a visa and that type of thing? I think that’s a possibility. yes, I don’t really have any personal experience of that, I’m afraid.
Thank you so much for those. I thought it might be a quick one. The next question that we’ve had is, have any of you had to interact with the Jobcentre? I have been told they are not used to dealing with people with a PhD or with postdoc experience.
Again, that’s a no from me. Sorry.
University job centre?
It didn’t specify, so I’ll take either.
I actually didn’t. When I look back, I totally ignored the career centre and didn’t make any use of them when I was looking for a job. I mean, I think there’s some fantastic work that’s being done now, and especially things like practice interviews. Even if they’re not necessarily going to help you with the job search, if things are more oriented towards graduates and things, but take advantage of things like practising job interviews, for instance, or getting someone to review your CV.
Thank you very much for those ones. we will move on now to, I guess, some slightly more emotional-based questions. how did you deal with, quotation marks, turning your back on an academic career? Did you try for an academic career, or decide early on it wasn’t for you? This is to all panel members.
You go, Meera.
I think I mentioned when I was talking in the introductory bit that I knew by the time I got to the end of my postdoc that I didn’t want to stay in academic research. It was tough because you’re surrounded by fantastic postdocs who have been working towards this for many years and you almost feel taken along with them, that you should want this as well. It took a while for me to realise that it wasn’t what I wanted and that it wasn’t a failure to move away from research. Me and Tiona used to work together, and we talked about this a lot. Going into this position I still had those feelings, and four years later I hardly think about it. It’s not even a thought anymore. When I got this job, the job that I’m going to move into, just to remind people, I moved from physical sciences to ageing. One of my colleagues asked me, she’s like, ‘Oh, will you regret moving away from ageing? Will you miss it?’ I was like, ‘Not at all. I haven’t even given it a thought.’ It was harder to leave science, as it were, than it is to move away from ageing. I think once you’ve made that big step that you spent 15, 20 years of your life working towards, it gets easier after that. I don’t know if Georgina and Chris would agree with that.
Yes. I felt like you. I felt a bit like it was a failure not to have made it, you know, a career in academia, and it’s very exciting to be at the cutting edge of science and research, and it’s very seductive to want to stay. I think stress and the short-term contracts and the constant moving and the difficulties that come with it outweighed that desire to be smart, to be at the top of my game. I’m a bit like you, Meera. I knew fairly early on that I didn’t want to stay in academia, but I thought, you know, I’m going to give it a red-hot go just to be sure. it is hard, and when I did the gardening thing, I call it my year-and-a-half, two years of wilderness time. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do. I needed a break. I needed to up my resources again, and then I started searching. In my job now, though, I use so many of the skills that I learned during my PhD and postdoc that I don’t regret it. I don’t regret it at all, and I think it makes me a better scientist. It makes me a much better critical thinker. You leave it behind as a career path, but you don’t leave it behind in terms of the skills it gives you. it just opens a lot of doors to potentially something that’s better suited. I’m not suited to individual research. I’m much better at taking research and translating it for people who don’t have a scientific background. People who sit in that middle place are actually relatively rare and it suits me down to the ground, and I would not be able to do it if I hadn’t had that academic grounding.
Yes, I think that’s really important, isn’t it, to think about your PhD and postdoc as a sort of enabler of something else rather than an end in itself. I mean, I certainly did focus on an academic career, like I said, and I was successful in getting a number of interviews. I was very close to it. it’s something where, like I said, to me, in balancing up family and everything, I wasn’t prepared at the end of my postdoc to then wait around a couple of years on part-time work, or then to have to move somewhere else. I wanted something that was permanent and stable, and if that was outside academia that was more important to me than staying in academia. I think that’s the key thing, is to think about yourself as an intelligent person who’s applying their skills within academia currently. There’s nothing to stop you applying that skillset and everything else outside of academia, and just think of it that way around, rather than thinking of yourself as an academic and that’s your whole identity. It’s not. It’s often, just like both you guys have said, it’s a temporary thing that you’re doing and you can go and do something different. Then maybe you can come back to it, because some people do come back into academia, in academic roles, later.
Fantastic. Thank you very much for all of those answers. We’ve had a question that’s kind of related to this. how was the support you received from your professors or your principal investigators when you decided to leave academia?
Oh, maybe I can say something here. I didn’t speak to my PI or anyone like that when I was applying for jobs in academia. there was a postdoc, a senior postdoc, who was very helpful. I think, like Georgina’s mentioned, it was quite stressful doing a postdoc, and I think I was on the edge by the time I spoke to this guy. He was like, ‘Just get out. Just apply for anything that looks interesting and go for it.’ He was very kind, and I think it was just that push that I needed towards the end to make that step. even if you don’t get support from your PIs, there’s other people, and the project, the Prosper project, sounds great to be able to offer that support. don’t just rely on your PI to offer that support.
Thank you for the plug. We’ll give you a fiver later. Georgina or Chris, what were your experiences of any support?
I got on very well with my PI. I’m still in touch with him now, but it was a natural end to the project and I hadn’t approached him to say, ‘Oh, I would like to do another project with you.’ he just wasn’t part of the decision-making process for me. I think I’d approach it like the cold-calling, you know? Be brave and ask them, and ask their opinion and ask for their support. Don’t just expect it to come to you. Proactively seek it.
Thank you. Chris, anything to add?
Yes, it’s an interesting one, because I think within the humanities you don’t probably have such a close relationship with a PI. You’re an independent researcher doing your own thing. I guess I was still working in the same centre for medieval studies where my PhD supervisors were. I don’t really remember any big or dramatic conversations. I think it just gradually emerged that if I’m not successful down this route, I’m going to go and do something else. I think people just backed me and were really pleased that I had a confidence and a vision to go and do the next step of my career. I do feel very supported, did feel very supported, and people said to me afterwards, ‘I wish I could do what you’ve done,’ really, which was a nice thing. it was a wholly positive experience in that way.
Fantastic. Thank you very much for those. we’re sticking on a theme around the slightly more emotional side of things. how do you find the work/life balance in non-academic positions compared to academia? I know we’ve touched on this a little bit. Georgina, go for it.
I have my weekends and my evenings. I work 9:00 to 5:00. Obviously there are stressful periods where I might work longer if I’m travelling. I might not get back home from where I was travelling until later, but generally, my free time is my own, so much so that I’ve been able to become an Innovate assessor on the side, and I’m able to write papers with scientists that I’m working with on the side. That’s how much more free time I have doing my job. It can be very intense in the job but it is, it’s contained. It’s far more contained. I don’t know, though, in a more capitalist company it might be a bit different. I don’t know what you think, Chris.
No, I’m the same. I think I’ve got a much better work/life balance. When I look back, I used to go to some seminars after doing my research all day in the late afternoon or evening and go to conferences and things on weekends. Once I left academia it was 9:00 to 5:00, and like you say, you do work hard during the day, but the time after at the end of the day is your own. Yes, I found it a massive, massive relief to be able to separate those things out a lot better. I think, yes, as I’ve gone on I’ve got more experience and responsibility. I think companies are very… Things about mental health, mental well-being, are really in the forefront of companies’ minds now and trying to make the best, in a lot of companies, the best conditions for people who work there. I think I still am able to have a very good work/life balance, even with the much more responsible job that I have now compared with the one I first got when I left academia.
Meera, have you got anything to add to this?
No, I’d agree with all of that, and just to say it’s a lot easier to put those boundaries in place. Like you said, you can work as hard as long as you want, but if you want to finish at 5:00, then you finish at 5:00 and no one’s going to look down on you or penalise you for that.
Fantastic. Thank you very much for all of those. We’ve got a couple of questions that are to specific panel members. the first one of these is for Georgina. Have you included your gardening experience in your CV? If not, how would you explain that gap at interview?
Oh, yes. It’s in my CV. If you go on my LinkedIn profile it’s there as well. It’s something completely different, and it’s not high-flying or anything like that, but you still learn things from it. Like I said, when I first started this job I was in the horticulture sector, and so having gardening experience, there’s ornamental horticulture. you use that situation, task, action, response to show what you’ve learned, and it might be that that job is not for you and that you wanted to use your brain more, or that you really loved networking with people. For me, it was working with a bunch of people who had absolutely no computer skills whatsoever, and they needed to track who was working where and how much it cost, and so I just built a spreadsheet for them. You know, it’s very easy to do, but they didn’t have those skills. I was able to say, ‘Look, I improved their productivity and their organisational skills by providing this information for them.’ even if it’s small, if you demonstrate how you’ve made a contribution, it’s useful. Related to gaps, I actually had a very horrible injury and had to have reconstructive surgery on my ankle. They just rebuilt the whole thing, and I was actually on my back for six months before I was able to start applying for jobs and things. I think the gaps that concern people are gaps that are not explained. If you go in and explain that gap, even if there’s no particular reason for it – I have switched out of academia, it’s really hard to get a job outside of academia, I have all these skills, but it’s taken me a while to find this job – that’s not a problem because you’ve explained why and what it is. It’s when you have a massive gap and you don’t say anything about it, that’s when a little red flag goes up for interviewers. don’t be afraid of having breaks in work. Don’t be afraid of doing things that are unusual or require less qualifications. It still all adds to that picture, that tapestry that makes you, and gives you the things that you have to offer.
Fantastic. Thank you very much. I know that was directed to Georgina, but have either of the other panellists got any comments you’d like to add, perhaps, about gaps or things you do or do not include on your CVs?
I actually have a gap in my CV, and I think at maybe two or three interviews they’ve asked about it. It was simply that it took me a long time to find a job after finishing my PhD. I say that and they’re happy with it and move on.
Fantastic. Thank you very much. The next question that’s just for one panel member is actually to Meera. you mentioned leaving science, and that this was daunting. How do you know what you would be suitable for, or what jobs you’d like outside that field, when you’ve got no experience of that?
Okay. I think it was just a case for me of looking around at the job descriptions, seeing what was interesting, what I thought I could do. Yes, I was looking at typically FMCG companies, chemical companies, but also different universities to see what they had. I think we’ve talked a lot about going outside or beyond academia. I think there’s a lot you can do within universities or research institutes that aren’t academic research, so to keep that in mind as well. Tiona, could you repeat the question? I feel like I’ve got a little bit off track there.
No, no, that’s fine. yes, you mentioned leaving science and this was daunting. how do you know what you would be suitable for or what jobs you would like outside that field when you don’t have experience of that?
Yes, I think knowing what you’re suitable for is just a case of talking to people as well. I didn’t do any informational interviews, but the more I read about them and hearing people here speak about them, they sound like a fantastic idea. It’s certainly something I’d look to do in the future. I think the main thing you’ve got to remember is that it’s a job. It’s not your whole life. If you do it for a year, if you don’t like it, you can move on. It’s not the be-all and end-all of things.
Yes, I think sometimes people think when it’s a permanent job that means that’s it. You’ve got to stay forever.
Yes. Fantastic. Thank you very much for that. we’ve got a question for all panellists now. did any of you take a pay or a pension cut when moving outside of academia? How did you approach negotiating over pay and benefits and moving out of that structured grading system that jobs have within academia? Chris, do you want to start on this one?
Yes, it’s an interesting one because I got a big pay rise when I left academia. when I went to work in a private company, they paid me much more than I was paid as a researcher. that was a positive thing, and I think I was… I joined as a content analyst, like I said, and probably in the first week I was promoted to a senior content analyst because they realised what I was bringing, and soon after I got a job as an education designer. It’s a funny thing, because sometimes you have to take a little bit of a dip, to go down when you go out of academia, maybe more of an entry-level role, but the other side to it is, because of all the transferable skills and experience you’ve got, you can also quickly rise up. I think that’s a little bit of a way to think about it. I think it’s key, like the question says, it is a little bit strange if you don’t necessarily have the whole grading system of academia. on the other hand, there’s a kind of freedom of that, that you actually are free to explore roles within a company and you might change what you’re doing within one organisation if you like working there, or you can look around to other organisations and think, how can you jump off and go up to the next rung of the ladder, or do something different. I think the flip side of it is, there’s a lot of flexibility to chart your own squiggly career, as it’s been coined.
Thank you very much. Meera or Georgina, would you like to come in on this?
I actually took a pay cut going into this position. I think for me, I could still live on it and understood what I was doing, but in the negotiation stage, I asked about training because I know that training budgets can quite often go underspent. I felt like that was maybe something that I could get out of the job that wasn’t monetary value, that it would help for the future career progression as well. maybe that’s an option when you’re looking at negotiation as well.
Georgina, anything else to add?
Yes. I did the really cool thing of when I finished my postdoc, I moved in with my mum. I did take obviously a big pay cut with the gardening job, and I chose to do things like keep paying my national insurance contributions myself so that I didn’t have a gap in that pension pot. that is something to think about. I was very lucky to be able to live at home and live very cheaply for a little while. when I got this job, it was like Chris. It was a big leap up from my postdoc salary, let alone the gardening salary, and they’re a big company so they have to do pension contributions. I opted for the highest pension contribution, so actually I feel like I’m sort of sitting pretty, quite nicely really. Again, with the training, these bigger companies often have development plans. I was put on a development plan which meant that I had my starting salary, but then once I hit certain training and development milestones, my salary would increase. That was over about two years. You can have shorter ones. That’s just the one that my company does. there is a banding system. You do get banding systems in companies, and they are roughly similar to academic ones. it’s not a million miles away from what you might be familiar with.
Fantastic. Thank you very much. As we move into our last question, I believe we’ve got through quite a lot. Thank you so much, panellists. Our last one’s actually to Meera. The question is, how did you stay motivated during your job search, as you said it took you a little bit of time to find a job.
What I found really helpful was doing it with other people. I had a friend. We’d meet up maybe once a week, go to a café and sit and work through job applications. It’s hard. I won’t say that it’s not, but I think for me it was just a case of keeping my head down and keeping going to know that it would be okay in the end. Use your support network. Use your friends, family. They’re there for you as well. definitely reach out to them, I’d say.
Brilliant. That’s a really lovely note to end on, I think. Although obviously I feel you’ve overlooked cake in keeping motivated. Works for me. I would like to take the opportunity to thank all of our panellists. Thank you so, so much for coming along today and being so wonderful at answering all of the questions. It’s been wonderful to have you here.
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