We are all effectively entrepreneurs.

Lee Wainwright, Business and Management, University of Liverpool ( 2019 Cohort)

Full disclosure – before I started my PhD I was an Employability Officer for Business undergraduates, so I’ve seen and been told first hand from students and employers what works and what doesn’t when it comes to getting noticed and getting the career opportunity you want. But that was undergraduates with limited CV’s and a highly competitive and swamped applicant pool. A key difference I’ve found so far with PhD students, is that we’re all effectively entrepreneurs trying to pitch our research in the most attractive, easy to digest yet interesting enough to want more, kind of way. And we’re pitching to journals, to co-authors, to internal review panels, to prospective employers, to funding bodies, to anyone who can help further our research and academic ambitions.

So unless you are undertaking a PhD just for the fun of it (and hats off if you are), what you do with your PhD and how you make the most of your research, probably pops in and out of your mind quite often. It does for me and during May I took part in a series of PhD employability seminars covering publishing and career development, from which I have been inspired to share some of the best, most useful, headline grabbing points which I think everyone who is doing a PhD can benefit from. I present them to you below…

Start thinking about your employability and career development before starting your PhD

Hopefully you did this and have been directing your efforts towards certain goals as you’ve attended conferences, drafted papers, logged onto seminars etc.  If you didn’t then now is the time to do so!  Take a minute to ask yourself what is the purpose of your PhD? Is it a personal selfish project?  Is it to create private sector opportunities?  To develop an academic career?  How will you use that Dr title?  Once you know this you can start working backwards to the rough steps you’ll need to tick off and start to see those conferences, papers, seminars, supervisors, newsletters etc as opportunities to get you there.

It’s all about people, people, people

Just like with any career path putting in the effort to connect and network is where the opportunities come from. LinkedIn is still useful and during the pandemic grew even more important for researching people, connecting and sharing yours and their academic content. In the real world consider if you can connect with potential co-authors in universities and research groups you want to work at. Can you ask for more information about a paper from an academic located where you’d like to work? Twitter is a mixed bag of opportunity, but it can be useful to find other PhD students doing similar research to yourself who may become future co-authors. It’s also a good place to comment on published papers, tagging in the authors to share your positive thoughts and to let them know who you are. So make sure your twitter bio and imagery is working for you. Your Supervisor is a key component to your employability, they have contacts, knowledge of conferences, relationships with editors, and of course have done what you are trying to do. Take the time to sit down with them and plan out what your post PhD ambitions are.

Zoom and online conferences are not going away any time soon

Because it’s online you can have prompts all around your webcam – why not stick up the most interesting and concise sentence of what your research is about so you get it right every time you describe it? You might as well make the most of such a controlled environment for presenting yourself and set up your background, make sure your full name is always displayed, do have your camera on (for at least some of the time), make an effort to ask a question or two verbally and introduce what your subject is when you do, have your camera looking at you not at your side profile, get your lighting set right so you aren’t a black shadow, and if you’re frequently taking part in Zoom sessions with groups of people you’d like to work with think about promoting your research so you are memorable.

Online conferences where you can meet the editors are a great direct route to get insight into what gets published

I won’t go into how you should be reading journal guidelines and targeting your papers specifically because you already know that, but the added insider knowledge of what topics are of interest to editors and what they see as up and coming areas can really help identify where the niches are you can apply your research to. Equally they can advise which areas are oversaturated, which brings me to…

Don’t be too inflexible with your research and paper plans

I planned out two papers to focus on identity in entrepreneurship, spent a month drafting up, had a detailed chat with my supervisor who is frequently published and very experienced with current research trends, and the direction of my research changed in a morning. I swallowed my coffee, remembered what I’m trying to achieve, and began to discuss the new plan with as much enthusiasm as I could!

Impact and REF are also not going anywhere, so how you build your research to line up impact opportunities matters.

Often the data collection stage provides opportunities to meet organisations who could use your research or a variant of it. As you’re processing data consider writing up a short research brief to share with your stakeholders, you never know who they may share it with. You could always publish a one-page overview of your results to date in plain language to LinkedIn tagging in a few people in the public/private sector who you think may find it useful. A morning’s work could just open the door to a future impact collaboration and a great answer to future job interview questions.

Finally – Did you know that it is quite doable to have your research discussed in Parliament?

There is probably an All Party Parliamentary Group set up to do with your research subject. And if you follow the relevant APPG’s Twitter account or newsletter they’ll put out requests for experts and current research on relevant topics. This is a great route to build your impact and network, so make sure you can provide your research in layman’s terms and are ready to act when you see the requests. You can find the APPG lists here (from p.214 onwards): https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmallparty/210602/register-210602.pdf There is a great talk from Naomi Saint, Knowledge Exchange Manager UK Parliament here all about researchers working with UK Parliament: https://youtu.be/6nRPUlgJrWI

So they are my best bits of employability attributes you can pick and choose from. Employability is important to keep in check whilst you’re doing a PhD, but I don’t think it should take over your PhD. In my eyes the PhD should be about those times of “I’ve got it!” when you’ve spent weeks re-reading your data, or when you spend a morning in a coffee shop reading articles just because that’s your job, or even having your hairdresser/barber say “that’s interesting, so does it mean….” when you tell them what you’re researching. It’s unlikely that you will get this type of protected time again to just focus on your passion, so make sure you do.

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