SSA PhD symposium 2020 – career advice panel
By Merve Mollaahmetoglu
The SSA PhD symposium ended with a great career panel with Dr Sarah Fox, Dr Tom Freeman, Dr Rachel Orritt and Dr Kyla Thomas each giving their individual insights into careers post PhD. What was great about the selection of the panellist was that each pursued a different route following their PhD, including academic roles, non-academic roles and clinical academic positions.
“PhD students tend to be dedicated and determined individuals which may sometimes make it difficult to manage work life balance”
Applying for jobs
All panellists agreed that it would be a good idea to start planning your next steps 6-12 months before you are due to finish your PhD. This may include preparing a grant proposal for a fellowship which would require considerable amount of your time during your final year as was the case for Tom – so something to bear in mind! Additionally, Sarah advised that you take in your non-PhD life into consideration too when planning your next steps.
Jobs post COVID-19 pandemic
The panel acknowledged that the academic and non-academic job markets may be particularly competitive at the moment due to the pandemic and it may be challenging to network without opportunities to meet people in person. Not all is lost though, as Rachel says you can still network remotely by scoping a bit more intensely than you would usually, by sending emails, arranging to have phone calls with people in your department, a mentor or your supervisors. Another tip from Rachel was to think and quantify all the transferable skills involved in completing your PhD to explore your potential options.
What else to do alongside your PhD
Rachel commented that it’s the breadth of experience that will be important: what you have done rather than how long you have done it for, so it’s important to get a range of different experiences and not get too bogged down by teaching only. Our PhD Addicted to Research podcast has an episode focusing on this topic and featuring an interview with Rachel so keep your eyes peeled for this!
I also liked Tom’s advice about collaborating with researchers in your laboratory, for instance two PhD students helping each other with systematic review screening and both getting co-authorship on each others’ articles. This is a great opportunity to develop a working relationship with peers around you and it would make for a very supportive work environment.
Tom also noted that it’s also important to develop your own network nationally and internationally during your PhD so that you have a wider network of potential postdoc supervisors if you wish to follow that route.
The panellists were asked about their insider tips and tricks and they delivered! One tip that stood out to me from Kyla was nominating yourself for prizes/awards: you have a greater probability of getting it if you apply for it than if you don’t, and they look great on your CV. You could also consider applying for small grants for attending conferences (fingers crossed for 2022?), travel costs and equipment as these also demonstrate that you can attract funding to your research. There will also be an upcoming PhD Addicted to Research podcast episode where we talk about additional pots of funding – another one to watch out for.
Rachel’s tip was to treat your mental health like a job, and to put in the time now to make sure your wellbeing is a priority, and I cannot agree with this more. Related to this is the importance of peer support: it takes a village to do a PhD… Reach out to students in your department, from the SSA PhD symposium or other events. It’s very important to congratulate the successes of your peers and be there for them when they experience disappointments, you will need them to do the same for you!
Work life balance
As Tom put it, PhD students tend to be dedicated and determined individuals which may sometimes make it difficult to manage work life balance. He recommends treating the PhD as a job with set hours (whatever hours work for you) and not respond to requests/emails on hours you are not working. I would add my personal tip to that and recommend removing work emails from your phone!
As Sarah commented, your job/PhD doesn’t have to be your whole life even though you enjoy it. Kyla also reflected you don’t need to sacrifice your family life, your friendships or whatever is important to you.
When asked about colleagues who work longer hours, Tom noted that working longer hours doesn’t necessarily equate increased productivity and output. A great tip from Kyla was to not use somebody else’s version of success and happiness in determining your life. For most people there is a life outside of academia and having more papers or outputs doesn’t necessarily bring more happiness to everyone. In Sarah’s words, you can be successful without having to aspire to be the “crème de la crème” in your field!
In her closing thoughts Kyla mentioned that it’s important to do the research you want to do. Rachel recommended seeing non-academic careers as a viable option post PhD. Sarah’s tip was to get comfortable talking to people about your research. And, finally, Tom advised us to focus on the reason why we wanted to do research in the first place.
For me the overall takeaway message was to surround yourself with peers who celebrate your successes and commiserate your failures, focus on what success and happiness mean to you and not others, and always keep in mind the reason you wanted to do your research.
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