Now, more than ever, is the time to proactively manage your career, says Caroline Tolond

Now, more than ever, is the time to proactively manage your career, says Caroline Tolond


Caroline Tolond is the RSC’s careers adviser

Q I’m on my second postdoc position and would like to secure a permanent job but am a bit nervous about it all. An academic position is very attractive, but there aren’t many of these so I’ll also need a ’plan B’. I’m conscious that I might need some training to help make this move, but am unsure what to do. Can you suggest how to identify my skill gaps and develop an action plan? 

A Reading through your question it’s clear that you are thinking a great deal about where you are right now and what you need to do. This is a good approach in the current economic climate as proactively managing your career will help you stand out from the crowd. 

There are two parts to your question: firstly what type of job should you apply for and, secondly, what are the new skills you need to make this change. 

The answer to your question about careers direction will depend on what skills you need and vice versa. At these times its worth taking a step back for a moment and start by auditing the skills and knowledge you already have. On a blank sheet of paper sketch out the projects you have been, and are, involved with, both in and out of work. You should be able to identify many skills, from project management to managing and supporting others by breaking down not just what you have done, but how you did it. 

Aside from your skills, it’s also important to recognise what your career motivators are. Consider things like what skills or experiences you would like to use (it may only be a handful of the things you have identified in the skills audit), the type of environment you would like to be working in and what, if anything, is lacking from your current employment. 

Try and pull together a picture of where you want to be in five to ten year’s time. You don’t need to know the job title you might have but, by visualising your ideal working environment it should help you identify what is right for you. 

Think about your career planning, clip out job adverts of interest from a wide range of sources and compare academic and industrial positions with your skills and career audits. Be honest with yourself. When reflecting about an academic career consider factors such as your publication record and personal circumstances - could you move around the country or, if necessary, globally, to progress along this path? 

You mention that you’re nervous about thinking about your career but remember that you are not alone. Many postdocs arrive at this career crossroads and there are many sources of help available. In the UK, Vitae  (which is (funded by the research councils) have advice on analysing your skills and planning your career both in and out of academia. Outside of the UK there are other postdoc support networks, such as which has advice on policy changes and career mobility in America. 

I’m limited for space here to give you more career planning advice but a couple of books that might be useful reading are: Moving on in your career  and  What colour is your parachute?  In addition, many UK universities now have staff employed to support contract research staff, so it would be worth investigating what support you could tap into locally. Many of these support services do offer training courses in a wide range of areas that would be useful in many career paths, as well as one to one advice.  

Finally, bear in mind that this is just one of many career steps in your lifetime and you don’t have to find the perfect job at this stage. Many jobs are simply stepping stones along the way to what you see as your ideal role. Good luck with it all. 

  • Moving on in your career: A guide for academics and postgraduates  , Lynda Ali and Barbara Graham, Routledge, ISBN 9780415178709