Personal and professional career development, essential tools for early-career researchers

Sarah Blackford is convinced that personal and professional career development are essential for young researchers
Sarah Blackford is convinced that personal and professional career development are essential for young researchers
  • <p>Sarah Blackford is convinced that personal and professional career development are essential for young researchers</p>

The Research & Academic Office and Human Resources organised in June two one-day workshops for PhD students and postdoctoral fellows aimed to help young scientists to reflect on their personal strengths and discover their ‘blind spots’. This way, they can increase their self-awareness and be ready for career planning, management and development. Academic career specialist Sarah Blackford has some tricks and tips that might be useful for their next career steps.

Sarah Blackford is an independent careers consultant specialising in supporting bioscience PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. She thinks that, “personal and professional career development are essential for PhD students and early-career researchers to equip themselves for a competitive job market, whether they are aiming for a career within or outside academia.” This is the reason why this academic careers specialist, with more than 10 years of international experience providing coaching and guidance to young researchers, came to IRB Barcelona on 12 and 13 June and gave two workshops on career development.

These workshops are part of the Institute’s commitment to the European Commission's Human Resources Strategy for Researchers (HRS4R).


Career planning: Time to think

To make informed career decisions, what should PhD students and Postdocs ask themselves when considering their options?

First, and most importantly, you need to know yourself and what you want. This means going beyond awareness of your disciplinary interests and qualifications and examining yourself more deeply. For example, what motivates you? What skills and activities do you enjoy most? What are your work values in terms of the type of role or organisation that would be compatible with them? Self-examination is not an easy process, but with assistance from a professional careers advisor or by using personal audit exercises, you can identify your key drivers and start to think about the kinds of careers that may suit you best.

How can they get started?

To make informed decisions, you need to be knowledgeable about the world of work. Much like being familiar with the research landscape is important for PhD students and postdocs, being familiar with employment opportunities, organisations, people and communities associated with different career sectors is essential if you want to successfully access new careers. As experienced researchers, you can put your research skills to good use by investigating the career landscape: social media platforms, especially LinkedIn, are packed full of the kinds of information that will help you to network your way into new career communities.


Transferable skills

What are the skills developed during a PhD or postdoctoral programme that are readily transferable to an occupational setting? 

PhD students and postdoctoral researchers acquire a vast array of skills during the course of their work; skills and capabilities that most take for granted as they are surrounded by similarly highly skilled colleagues! However, employers are starting to appreciate the value of PhD-qualified scientists, especially where new technologies, innovative thinking and problem-solving are central to their success in today’s globally competitive and fast-paced markets.

Which of these skills are more important to an employer?

The skills you enjoy using can give clues to the types of future careers that may be of interest. For example, would you like to stay in science and specialise in research and/or data analysis and management? Perhaps you would prefer to be more interactive with others, choosing to move into a more front-line advisory or teaching role? With so many opportunities to get involved in associated activities, such as teaching or outreach, you can see that there is great diversity of skill usage and development amongst your community.

Why it is important to improve these skills?

Being aware of your skills and knowing which ones you would like to take forward into your new career will enable you to be more strategic and purposeful in your job search, as well as being able to demonstrate your suitability to an employer in your CV, which is a key element of the career planning process and is an essential document when making a career transition. 


Improving a professional profile

In order to promote a professional profile, what are the key elements to writing an effective CV?

When you write an exam paper, you need to read the question carefully and answer strategically using your most relevant and impressive knowledge. The same rules apply to writing an effective CV, which may include the following:

1. If you are responding to an advertisement, highlight the key requirements (most will appear at the top of the list, with the least important towards the bottom). Alternatively, if you are writing speculatively, research the job role and identify the key skills and experience required for this career.

2. Your task is to use your own experience and skills to demonstrate your suitability. This kind of targeted CV usually consists of a four or five headings matched with the key job requirements, e.g. Project Management, Research & Technical, Organisational skills, etc., underneath which you use bullet points to list brief examples of tasks/activities you have done to show evidence of these skills.

3. Depending on whether a PhD is essential or not will determine whether you position your qualifications on the first page of your CV, as well as how much detail you supply.

4. It’s essential that all the information can be fully understood by the employer–don’t blind them with science if you are applying for a non-scientific post! Similarly for your publication list–if the post is not related to academic research leave them out or use them as evidence of communication skills, or successful research outputs.

5. A CV is usually two pages in length, but can be extended by adding in appendices (for example your list of publications). It should also be accompanied by a powerful and enthusiastic one-page covering letter setting out your motivation for applying for the post and drawing attention to two or three significant areas of your experience that are most relevant to the employer.  


Sarah Blackford’s workshops are broadly based on her book, ‘Career planning for research bioscientists’ (Wiley Blackwell), authored in 2013 and much of her advice and resources, as examples of CVs and the PhD Career Choice Indicator tool, can be found on her blog,


(Written by: Llúcia Ribot)