Successful careers, like successful projects, result from good planning. Many successful people claim that they have simply been ‘lucky' but, in fact, most are well-prepared to seize opportunities when they arise.
Being prepared means making a commitment to your skills development. The effort you invest will not be wasted. You do not have to do this alone - there is much support for researchers within your institution and outside.
When you have decided on your career goal, you can begin planning what to DO to reach your goal. Here you will find advice about selecting development activities and creating a workable plan.
Select development activities that work for you
The type and range of development activity you decide on will depend on:
- your goal - how much change you intend to make:
- improving in your current job
- preparing for a more senior role
- moving to a new employer but similar job
- making a fundamental career change
- your preferred learning style - are you an experimenter or do you always want the theory first? Or do you prefer to learn by observing others? Would you rather learn in a group or independently?
- time and resources - funding and time allocations are real issues
- availability of opportunities - you may need to look wider than your institution
- the skills you need to develop. Some lend themselves better to certain types of learning than others.
Learning opportunities come in many guises. They are not restricted to the workplace or formal training courses. If you cannot find opportunities in the workplace, think creatively. Look at your leisure activities or use your networks to find people who can help elsewhere.
Work-related learning opportunities
- Practice and reflection
- Observing other colleagues (eg to learn a new research technique)
- Giving presentations to your research group
- Collaborative working
- Giving a seminar
- Organising, attending or chairing meetings
- Attending conferences
- Work shadowing (a valuable way for anyone to gain insight into new or unfamiliar work environments, especially in conjunction with information interviews)
- Information interviews - interviews about types of work structured to help with job decision-making
- Mentoring a student or more junior colleague, or being mentored
- Part-time jobs not related to research.
Typically, attending a course, either at your institution, externally, or online. Courses cover transferable skills such as presentation, writing reports, academic journals or grant applications, CV and job search skills, time management, or project management. They may also be subject- or discipline- specific on eg research techniques. See your own institution's programme of events and that of your professional body. Another option is online or distance learning where you can work at your own pace and in your own time.
Taking part in social/leisure activities or volunteering may offer opportunities for development that are not available in the workplace, for example, organising a sponsored hike, membership of social club committees, playing team sports.
Plan your development
Having decided on your development goal:
- Break the overall goal down into manageable objectives
- Decide on method(s) of development appropriate to your learning preferences, to the skills you want to develop and to the availability of development opportunities
- Discuss your plan with your supervisor or line manager
- Set manageable objectives. Look at the advice and example in setting objectives and be prepared to revise these plans if things change. Ensure your targets are SMARTE (Specific, measurable, advantageous, realistic, time limited and evidence based
- Identify help and support - you do not need to go it alone.
Actions to fulfil your plans
To ensure that your development happens, put dates and block time in your diary. Where possible, agree this with your manager or supervisor. Review and amend plans periodically.
Making a successful transition
Without adequate preparation, transition to a new job or promotion can be an uncomfortable process. Achieving a major career development goal usually means significant adjustment to change. Information gathered whilst investigating options and opportunities helps prevent unrealistic expectations of the new environment.
Career paths of academic researchers, a study for the Higher Education Staff Development Agency (HESDA) highlighted a range of competencies displayed by research staff who made successful career transitions. These included not only the skills required for marketing yourself to prospective employers, but those that enable you to adapt to new circumstances. Strengthening this set of skills will prepare you for the transitions you can expect to make during your career. You can read case studies of postgraduate researchers and research staff who have made major career transitions.
Achieve your goal and celebrate!
Before moving on, take a little time to learn from your experiences. You can find tips on reflection and review in What have you learned?
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