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Whether you are planning to pursue your career in academia or are looking at other options or are still unsure, it is important to prioritise some time for self-reflection. Some key activities can help you to determine if there is an alignment of your strengths and interests with the kinds of work you are looking for.

Your plans may change over time and you will find this is not a linear process. You may start to research and pursue a particular path and find you need to return to consider further your skills and strengths to properly interrogate if it is a path that works for you or if it has opportunities where and when you need them.




Four ways to figure out what career might suit you

You are suited to more careers that you think. But it’s hard to narrow your options down when you start to look at the broad job market. One of the most effective ways to figure out suitable paths is to do some introspection and reflection as a first step. Here are 4 different ways to get insights. Try one for starters and see what it tells you.

What choices have you made? Map your career story
There is logic to your career story and to how you came to be a researcher at the University of Cambridge. To understand the trends and themes that have motivated your choices to date, draw a visual map of your career and at each point of change, identify what was the driving force for your decision. Use this to reflect on the questions in this document.
How this helps: Understanding what you have being drawn to in the past, how you decided on it and what have you learned can offer valuable insights for future decisions.

What is important to you? What do you value?
Spend a bit of time naming your priority work values and what is important for you in your work environment. This will help you to evaluate if the direction you are taking is meaningful to you.
How this helps: Understanding your priorities offers clarity on what’s ‘nice to have’ and what’s non-negotiable in your next role.

What gives you a buzz? - Define your strengths
Identifying your key strengths can help you decide direction. The things you are naturally good at – what are you doing when you are at your best or when you feel that time is passing quickly? What do other people say are your strengths? Use this tool to identify your strengths.
How this helps: If something gives you a buzz, it’s probably using some of your strengths. You are more likely to succeed and enjoy jobs which leverage your strengths.

What are you skilled at? - Identify yours!
What are the skills you have developed as a researcher that differentiate you in the labour market? This may be your research specialism but will also be those professional competencies you have gained through your research - e.g. your capacity to understand; your critical decision-making; your resilience. An analysis and clear articulation of your knowledge, skills and abilities will be key to defining your match with particular roles. Your reflection on which skills you most enjoy using will also help in deciding your direction.
How this helps: Research is a complex undertaking which means you have many skills. Researchers’ skills are as broad as they are deep and are more nuanced and rarer on the job market than you might think.

Some of these tools will help you to practise being proactive about connecting your strengths, skills and priorities with the roles you are seeking and to evaluate your current pathway. Using these tools actively can help you articulate to the labour market what your offer is.

Exploring options and finding inspiration

You are suited to more careers than you might think.

Narratives around career direction can often assume linear pathways e.g researching X leads directly to careers in Y.

Our experience of working with researchers suggests a far wider set of pathways. We're excited to share 4 ways you might find additional paths that could work for you.

You are welcome to share your reflections in a 1-1 careers appointment where a member of our coaching team can talk over your findings with you.

1. At random, select 3 competencies from the The Harvard Competency Dictionary . Read the competency descriptions and reflect on ways you might have developed these 3 skills over the course of your research.

Why? Postdocs and PhDs yield a multitude of skills, some are not always obvious to us. Reflecting on this may help expand what feels possible.

Then consider: Away from the 3 competencies you chose at random, which 3 competencies resonate most strongly with you? What drew you to them? What does this tell you about yourself?

2. The LinkedIn Alumni filter for the University of Cambridge is an incredibly powerful tool. There is data on what over 350,000 alumni are currently doing professionally. Use the search field directly beneath the number of alumni to search on what researchers in your field have gone on to do, e.g. searching on "engineering+phd" or "linguistics+postdoc". Scroll down, beyond the blue bars, to see the individuals that make up the data. You can use the alumni function on any of your other institutional affiliations in the same way.

Find researchers (current or ex) whose current work evokes either a sense of curiosity or envy.

Why? Emotions can act as useful indicators to our true desires. Pay attention to what you pay attention to.

Then consider: What, if anything, do those people have in common?

3. Ask 3 trusted individuals what 3 careers (or projects) they might expect you to be happy in.

Why? It's difficult to read the label from inside the bottle. Others bring a different perspective and can challenge our own assumptions and blind-spots. The intention isn't to take their ideas literally, but rather to reflect on what gets mentioned. Asking others what you might be happy in rather than successful in, might help reveal a wider set of possibilities.

Then consider: (a) what patterns do you notice? (b) How do their suggestions make you feel? Why?

4. Sometimes it's easier to identify what matters to us through games/thought experiments. We invite you to reflect…

Imagine it's 5 years from now. You wake up on a Monday morning and you feel energised. You are looking forward to your day ahead; both due to work and other elements in your life. What needs to be happening, both in that day, but also more broadly, for you to be feeling that way?

Overcoming obstacles in this process

Obstacles are inevitable. Often, time and reflection can help challenge such obstacles. Please know we can also help, whether through 1 to 1 confidential appointments, workshops, or resources such as this. Obstacles we often see are (i) career pathways that feel out of reach, (ii) career options that compromise other things of value and (iii) the feeling of 'then what' after identifying further pathways. There are ways forward, detailed below.

Book a 1-1 to talk through any aspect of career exploration; whether obstacles, reflections or more.

Next steps:
Once you have started to identify a framework of what is important to you, what you are good at, what you are interested in and what skills you have to offer, it's time to explore how these might intersect with sectors, roles and organisations. This is an active research process so starting sooner will help you better understand what could work well for you.

Start to explore sectors, roles and organisations
Get ideas of which sectors to explore by looking at the Postdoc Careers Service pages on Research in Industry and Careers Beyond Research , as well as the Careers Service sector webpages to get started. At this stage, you are generating ideas and don't have to commit just by looking! Sign up to relevant jobs boards, explore vacancies on Handshake and keep a portfolio of roles that look interesting to you. Look at the career stories of previous Cambridge researchers to see how they navigated their time as a postdoc and onward, using the LinkedIn Alumni filter for Cambridge University, linked to above. Over time you may see a pattern start to emerge and greater direction in your browsing.

Find out what jobs are really like
There is only so much information that can be gleaned about whether a career might be right for us, without getting some practical exposure to it. Think about strategies to work out what jobs are really like.

Lots can be discovered by talking to people in an organisation or in a role of interest to you. Think about your current contacts and activate your dormant networks to see if you can discover more. Find Cambridge alumni who may be working in an area or organisation of interest and speak to them to further your research; testing what you hear against what you've already learnt matters to you. You can also contact them asking about the possibility of gaining 'professional exposure to the work they're doing' - a way to ask for work-shadowing opportunities so you get a real look at their work to see if it might be right for you.

Developing and implementing an action plan

Once you have started to specify your direction, you will come to the stage of developing and implementing an action plan. At this stage, you will be articulating your value (your skills and strengths) in the context of the labour market and matching your value to a particular sector, role, organisation. This process takes place in social or unplanned conversations, planned informational interviews, on LinkedIn, and in job applications.

Additional Resources

Prosper is a career resource specifically built for post docs but useful to all researchers, it will support you to work out what you want from your career, create an action plan and help you to figure out opportunities outside academia.

Personality questionnaire - Types Dynamic Indicator - Personality profiling tool provided by Profiling for Success and accessible free to users of the Careers Service. Online questtionnaire generates a personalised report.

My IDP - Developed for STEM PhDs by Science/AAAS, provides self-assessment tools to help evaluate your skills, interests, and values, and compare these against a wide diversity of careers that value a STEM PhD.

Imagine PhD - Developed specifically for humanities and social sciences PhDs in the US, this career exploration and planning resource provides comprehensive assessment tools to evaluate your interests, skills and values and contains information on a diverse range of job families that value a PhD.

What Type of Scientist Am I? - Developed by the Science Council to help you reflect on what aspects of science appeal to you the most.

The British Academy's Right Skills - For Arts, humanities & social sciences

iBiology - careers exploration resource for biologists

Where Historians Work - An interactive, online database that catalogues the career outcomes of the 8,523 historians who earned PhDs at US universities.

Prosper: Unlocking postdoc potential - explore where your research background can take you and explore case studies for inspiration.

Research Careers - explore more researcher career case studies across a range of disciplines and career paths.

Researcher career stories - Video and written career stories covering a range of disciplines and industries.

How to Switch Careers - a video produced by one of our Careers Consultants, showcasing the processes of reflecting on what's important to us in our careers, and testing those factors against potential career ideas.

How To Make Big Career Decisions - a video by one of our Careers Consultants on how to make decisions that are right for you

A research paper on the pros and cons of pursuing a passion when considering careers