Pathways, Publications and … Panda Penises. #Manchester PhD careers advice

University of Manchester’s Careers Service have just put on their tenth “Pathways” day for PhD students.  There was free food (good), free entertainment (better) and free advice (best of all).  There were 500 of us, and if there’d been a medical emergency, it would have been easier to shout out ““Is there someone who ISN’T a doctor in the house?” Read on for some personal snippets.

actuallyiamaprofessorAfter a clear brief intro – it was into the sessions. There were lots to choose from of course.  As I lost my humanity years ago, I went to “Academic roles for Humanities”. Some great advice was forthcoming.

  • Get explicit advice/critique of your CV (and have broad shoulders about it). The Careers Service helps folks out all year round, btw.
  • The first question in an interview is “why do you want the job” and what they’re actually asking is “how do you fit into this department?
  • Keep a list of the questions you’re asked at (probably multiple) job interviews, and the answers you gave (do this on the train home etc, while memory is fresh).
  • They are looking for a ‘safe pair of hands’ and that you can back up your claims with evidence.
  • Lift specific words from the person spec and drop them into your statement (with evidence)
  • Ask for an informal chat/phone call about the job BEFORE the interview process. Will show you care, get you on people’s radar.
  • There is a point where you will finish your PhD, be exhausted, and think that you will have time to get those papers written while working at job x or y. That time will (probably) never come.
  • Look  into collaborative writing ( a smart new friend told me about Authorea over our (free) lunches.
  •  Special issues of journals are good because the call for papers has a strict deadline.
  • Quality of publication matters, not just quantity.
  • When you get offered a job, you’re in a good negotiating position, so try to get out of training  that you’ve already done elsewhere, try to carve out time for career-advancing projects etc

Next up was ‘Marketing your skills and your PhD”

  • Don’t underestimate the skills you have/be confident in your answers
  • Emphasise what you’ve picked up (teaching etc.) evidence of what you’ve done.
  • PhD by itself is not much (or “nothing), you’ve got to show you can multi-task.
  • Get over any researcher’s cringe you have about business jargon around ‘competencies and team-building’.
  • Present self as a problem solver rather than someone who can find the nuance in a blank sheet of paper.
  • Talk about how you’ve been in a “feedback rich environment” – i.e. survived while your supervisor did some anatomical engineering on you every three weeks or so.
  • CV’s need to be targeted.
  • Cold-calling can work, shows guts and brains, but –as came up in a later session – speculative approaches must be tailored.  Remember, most companies don’t want to use (expensive) recruitment agencies, and will  first try friends and families of employees, then social media.
  • Have your Linked In profile up to date.
  • In interviews, listen to the interviewer, find out what they want. If you can quote back recent  reports/documents at them, you’ll look like you have brought your A-game.
  • Your cover letter matters.  Keep it short, explain why you meet the person specs, what you have to offer (as someone said in the arvo – sell yourself, show your passion, look at the skills and show how you match/exceed them)

From the final session of the morning (we were all flagging, but it was still good and really well chaired) I got the following

  • Research Professionals” website
  • Standing out from other PhDs matters. Science communications (schools, workshops) can help
  • Ask if you can be on – or at least observe – an interview panel at work. You will see all the mitsakes you make from the other side of the desk.
  • Famelab” is a thing and is also on this new-fangled thing called Twitter.

The afternoon was a game of two halves.

A bunch of people who sit opposite you at an interview panel gave their advice on “What do employers/recruiters look for in PhD applications”

  • Again, the point about thinkers being seen as over-thinkers came up.
  • Don’t appear arrogant or lofty/above the process (that’s me stuffed then)
  • Big organisations probably have an ‘automated sifting’ process.
  • Again, take feedback, learn from it.
  • PhD doesn’t mean anything to most people -0 have to show skills you’ve learnt.
    Be ready for those “give me an example of a time when…” questions.
  • If asked “what was your PhD?” imagine you’re talking to your mother (or father).
  • Interviewers MAY google/facebook you.  So have a spiffing time, but not a spliffing time…  (“illegal activity, conscious risk-taking” is going be frowned upon, get your CV into the circular file.)
  • The “where do you see yourself in five years’  time” question is tricky, but they are looking to see your attitude. Do you want to be (continually) challenged etc.

At this point I should give a shout out to this thing  (“award-winning charity that exists to widen access to highly-selective universities for pupils from under-represented groups“) called Brilliant Club.  I went to an orientation session last year and was impressed. Chris Wilson, of Brilliant Club was at a bunch of sessions/panels today, and was engaged, energetic and precise throughout. #stamina.

Finally, Dr Paul Redmond, who is the Director of Student Life (now THAT’s a job title) gave an entertaining and thought-provoking talk about The Future.  One of his best and last bits of advice is that time is precious.  So I will cut to the chase(s) with some dreaded bullet points.

  • Universities are busy preparing people for the 20th century (e.g. armies training for the last war).
  • There are plenty of “zombie jobs” out there, that will be gone soon.  Not just blue collar, but white collar too (pharmacists, accountants, GPs)
  • He advocated “We’re going on a bear hunt”  [We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it” as a management bible above and beyond “The Tiger who comes to Tea” (reactive people) and the Very Hungry Caterpillar (eat anything, hope something comes along).

He explained how selection processes have been changing.

In a phone interview –

  • wear a suit (they can’t see you, but you’ll feel and therefore sound more authoritative)
  • Stand on a table (for the benefit of any lawyers, he DID said “Don’t try this at home” but that’s because the HR folks would have a fit)
  • Have your CV to hand to answer questions then and there
  • Smile (see first point’s brackets)

He closed out with five (well, there were six – he may have been testing to see if anyone would heckle)

  • 1. Don’t confuse being employed with being employable (i.e. you’re on a treadmill of lifelong learning, and it’s going to get faster. Karoshi-a-go-go.
  • 2.  Focus on the intersections between disciplines
  • 3. Write down your goals. Now. (FWIW I wrote down “transform eh way social movement organisations capture and mobilise ‘human resources’) You then have to talk to people who will keep you honest about that.
  • 4. Become your own unpaid PR agency .  Especially your flaming Linked In profile (come back GooglePlus, all is forgiven) and have a business card. The latter was interesting – he pointed out that social obligation will compel people to give you their cards back, even  if they don’t want. You can phone up and ask for 20 minutes of their time (30 mins is too easily ‘no’ed to).  Have your (elevator) pitch and questions ready, and always ask at the end “who else should I now go to speak to”, which you can roll over…
  • 5. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication (comes back to the perception of PhD sorts as wordy.
  • 6. Always turn up to the things that are important.  And time management.

Personally I think Dr Redmond is right about the future being different but he misses the Pending Ecological Debacle.  His nephew won’t be looking for Apple products, but be grateful for apples (think The Road meets Mad Max Fury Road, only without the former’s light-hearted japes and the latter’s fossil-fuels).  FWIW,  I think the second half of the twenty-first century is going to make the first half of the twentieth look like a golden age of peace, harmony and enlightenment.  But I could be wrong.

In closing, a big thank you to the organisers, the catering staff, the academics who came and shared their experience, and the people from beyond the Ivory Tower who came and shared their experience.  It was a very VERY useful day.

That’s the end of this blog post….

Except, right now you’re probably thinking “Panda Penises; we were click-baited with panda penises (or possibly penii?).”  Indeed you were. So stiffen your resolve, and here we go;

One of the panellists on the “you don’t have to be an academic to use your research” – I’ll spare her blushes, but –damn, she was the only female panellist-  explained how at a loose end [that’s enough genitalia jokes, Ed] she went to a lecture that talked about how some members [You’re fired. Ed] of the mammal family (bats, for instance) have bones in their penises. And no-one knows why.  And now she is investigating. Recently she saw a (pickled?) panda penis, and they’re particularly interesting because the bone is superior to the urethra, rather than inferior as it is in other mammals.  I am not making this up.


And finishing with that highly relevant snippet of information demonstrates my commitment to serious (scientific) communication.  My funding runs out in a year (tops), and if you have a job going, and you’re reading this, you should defo gizzajob. #justsaying.

2 thoughts on “Pathways, Publications and … Panda Penises. #Manchester PhD careers advice

Add yours

  1. So glad you got so much out of Pathways – makes all the months of organisation worthwhile! Would you be OK if we re-blogged this on our Careers Service postgrad blog?

    1. I would be *delighted* if you reblogged it!!

      Thank you to you and all the people who turned up as panellists (I will add that to the blog now, so it is there if/when you re-blog it.

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