Even though you think that the rest of your life will consist of the lab and your computer, there will be a day when you "come out." The day when you finally get your PhD, and then take your next step in life.
You might cringe when I mention "the next step in your life." You might start giving me an entire list of excuses why you really don't have the time and energy to start thinking of life after the PhD while you are still engrossed in your PhD. But unless you have a tree that grows money in your garden, you will need to find something that pays the bills once you finish your research and your scholarship runs out. A job.
Today's article will not tell you to start sending your resume to 300 companies while you try to finish up your dissertation. The final months of the PhD can be incredibly messy with looking for a job, moving to a different place, often a different country, and then trying to finish the dissertation and defense. I'm in the very middle of all that myself and can tell you that the final months of a PhD don't allow much time for a big job hunt.
Before you actually reach those final months, there are many actions you can undertake to grow your network, so that your job search becomes easier once you are reaching the final months of grad life. I've outlined a simple plan with six steps that you can take from the very start of your PhD to transition into a job right after graduation.
1. Reflect on what you want
A PhD doesn't automatically mean that you will stay in academia for the rest of your life. In fact, many graduate students wouldn't be happy staying in academia for the rest of their lives, and are anxious to roll up their sleeves and get a more hands-on job in industry.
Reflection is key. Spend some time analyzing your strengths and imagining what your ideal job would be like. Then, use your research as a leverage to work towards your ideal position. Your PhD research can be an incredible tool to grow your skills. You can learn new coding languages, delve into more theoretical work, or prepare to transition to industry.
Regardless of where you imagine yourself in three to five years from now, just realize that your PhD research gives you many more skills than "just" becoming an independent researcher. All these skills, along with your communication skills and the strong work ethic of graduate school, are additional elements you can later show to a prospective employer as benefits that come with hiring a (maybe overqualified) PhD.
2. Present at conferences
Get your face out there, show your work, and meet people. Conferences are a very important way to grow your network, and the majority of jobs are still found through using your network, rather than simply reacting to a job opening at company X or university Y.
Similarly, use conferences to get an overview of what is possible after your PhD. Try to find conferences that combine research from academia with cases from industry and that come with a large exhibition hall. At the exhibition hall, you can learn about companies that might be interested in hiring new employees, even though their primary goal might be to sell their product or services.
3. Attend industry events
Again, get active, talk to people, and get your face out there. The benefit of attending industry events and becoming involved is broader than making sure people start to know you. It also helps you to explore what is out there in industry. You can get to know the different companies and get a feeling for their company culture. Would you "fit in" at that company? Do their projects look attractive to you to work on? Use your involvement in these events to get a taste of the world out there - sniff around and see what could be suitable for you.
4. Personal branding: offline and online
Personal branding is a fashionable term, and you might think that it is only for designers and the flashy men and women from the advertisement industry. In academia, we can rethink branding as having a clear statement on who we are and what we are good at. It's about having a consistent image of ourselves—online and offline—and carrying that out into the world. It's not about pretending you're someone else, it's not about compromising on authenticity, and it's not about vanity or praising yourself either. It's simply about your very professional essence and being okay with sharing that image with the world.
Once you have completed Step 1, and reflected on what your strengths are, and how you envision yourself in the future, you can use this information to show the world how you can help in situation Y because you are very good at doing Z. You can get active (Steps 2 and 3) in international organizations by volunteering to do something you are good at. You can build a digital footprint by using a blog or social networks to share what you've learned in your research, connect to like-minded people, and make your professional image and statements Google-able.
5. Cherish your network
Don't build a network just for the sake of having contacts with certain people for whenever you need a job. Cherishing your network is about getting back in touch with people every now and then, about keeping good ties to your former classmates and rekindling the connection with professors from previous institutions because you are grateful for the people who helped you learn and grow over the years. And from these contacts, people who you truly enjoy being around, fruitful collaborations can grow. You can imagine that it can be very rewarding to be able to work later on with people with whom you have a very good relationship.
6. Let people know you will be available
Once you are nearing your final semesters, or your thesis starts to grow steadily towards it first draft version, don't get too secretive about it. It can be hard to really tell people that you think you will be finished six months from now, if all goes well, as that might add pressure, but trust yourself. Something can always go wrong, but there's no need to live life assuming all possible doom scenarios. Share the message that you are wrapping up your work. Write to people in your network to let them know when you will be defending, invite them for the day itself or send them a copy of your dissertation. Share how your progress is going on your online networks. Share on LinkedIn that you have a few more weeks to finish your first dissertation draft. Share your updates on Twitter - get the word out that you are coming out soon! You might get some reactions completely out of the blue from people asking you if you're interested in learning about possibilities at their firm.
Have you started thinking about life after the PhD? Have you incorporated some of these ideas into your daily research life? Please share your thoughts with us!
[Image by Flickr user michael.heiss under Creative Commons license]