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I guess this was my Imposter Syndrome making me think I didn’t have anything significant to contribute to a such topic!
As I started writing, however, it became clear that I was going to have trouble sticking to 800 words!
Here are my Top 4 pieces of career advice, based on my recent experiences as an Early Career Researcher:
1. Jump at opportunities as they arise
I completed my PhD in Microbiology at La Trobe University. In the same year, I worked full-time as an Associate Lecturer. When I was offered the lecturing role, I was concerned about juggling the job with writing my thesis but I realised I would never know unless I gave it a go. Academic positions can be quite competitive so anything you can do to make yourself stand out from the pack is a good thing. When recommending opportunities to PhD students (either employment or voluntary experiences), many of them tell me they are too busy. The fact of the matter is that as you move forward in your career, you will only get busier! So, doing these things during your PhD is the best time and makes you more competitive for employment post-PhD.
2. Think broadly about how your PhD has prepared you for future work
I wanted to pursue a career in research particularly in an area with clinical significance. So, when I landed a position at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute as a Research Officer (i.e. postdoc), I was really excited! I find my work interesting, thought-provoking and something that makes a difference in the real world.
However, it was by no means an easy path to get here. I was searching for a postdoctoral position for around nine months. This is why it's important to be thinking longer term – think about what comes after your PhD while you are still doing it to make sure you don’t end up with a lackluster CV.
My new role was a transition into a new field of microbiology, so there were plenty of techniques I had to learn. Rather than the technical expertise, however, I found that the personal characteristics and qualities that my PhD developed in me were far more important. This included how to think critically, design a controlled experiment, prepare manuscripts for publication, time management, and organisational skills.
3. Make plans, change plans
So, now we come to the question everyone asks: if you were to do your PhD over again, is there anything you would do differently?
Interestingly, I think most of the things I would do differently come not from the PhD itself but rather the informal parts - things that are not required for the degree but expected of us from future employers.
Undertaking a PhD is an important decision so you need to make sure you are doing so for the right reasons. Unlike me! I started a PhD because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and lucked out because I realised I wanted to pursue a research career.
Do some research into what your career options are, post-PhD, and what appeals to you. It doesn’t matter if your PhD takes you down a different path to what you had expected. Having a plan for why you are doing your PhD is going to provide you with direction. I wish I had done this so I would have been better prepared for life after graduating with my doctorate.
This brings me to the second most commonly asked question: what is the best/worst career advice you ever received? This question always confuses me as I wonder whether there is such a thing as bad advice. In science, we learn that feedback and criticism are important parts of the scientific process and we should use them to improve our research. I look at advice in the same way. It’s an opportunity to improve and learn.
In my book, any advice you receive should be carefully considered. As PhD students, we sometimes have a ‘know-it-all’ attitude and dismiss career advice from more senior people. I would say they have the hindsight that we don’t during our PhD so it’s important to take their advice seriously.
4. Be open to what comes your way!
There is one major theme that has emerged from this post and it's to be open to whatever comes your way!
Be open to opportunities that present themselves during your PhD that can help you stand out when looking for a job post-PhD (research or otherwise).
Be open to advice from others – in my opinion, there is no such thing as bad advice. Some advice is positive and some is negative but it is important to listen to all of it, especially when it comes from people who have more experience than you do.
Sam now works as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute exploring the biology, genetics and virulence of Streptococcus pneumoniae. Sam’s work has been published in well-respected journals and successfully secured funding.
He has served as a communications ambassador for the Australian Society for Microbiology and participated in conference organization at a local level to support early career researchers. Sam tweets from @sam_manna3.