Dr Steve Joy
[This is a re-posting of my third piece for the Guardian Higher Education Network. You can access the original here.]
Tradition dictates that the start of a new year is a fitting time to make plans and promises for the 12 months to come. Eat and drink less, exercise more, keep in touch with friends and family regularly – these are the stock fixtures on many a list of new year's resolutions, whether solemnly written out or only half-intended.
This seasonal tendency towards a spot of healthy self-reflection could just as usefully be applied to your career and, specifically, whether your current career plan is still the right one for 2014 and beyond. Below I offer a list of 10 questions which you might find handy to prompt your reflection.
The intent is not to lead you sententiously in one direction or another, nor is this one of those magazine-style quizzes where you add up your answers and find out at the end whether you and your career plan are a perfect match. These are prompts – what you want to do; what you can do; what, perhaps, you ought to do. The questions aren't necessarily presented in order of priority, and there is no expectation that you'll find all of them relevant, but some at least may resonate with you.
1) How did you get to where you are now?
Let's be honest: very few careers follow an absolutely linear path, where each step is meticulously pre-arranged and executed as part of a master plan. Happenstance is a crucial determinant in almost all professional stories, just as most of us are, at times, constrained in our options. But each career step entails a positive choice (apply or don't apply; stay or go; keep trying or move on) and it's important to remember why we made those choices.
Why did you opt to study your subject? Why did you stay on in academia? Why did you choose job X? Why did you move to university Y? Implicit in these questions is, of course, the path not travelled: why did you do X, but not Y or Z? It's almost never true that there was "nothing else"; it's more likely the other options were unpalatable and/or unfeasible.
2) How much do you know about other options?
When it comes to careers, I've heard one phrase from researchers more than any other: "I don't know what else I could do." Don't stay in academia just because it's the only thing you know; make an informed decision that it's the best career for you. Of all your friends and family members, how many do jobs you don't fully understand? Here's a resolution for 2014: find out how they actually spend their time. Your go-to question could be: what does a typical working day for you involve?
3) What do you find fulfilling in your current work?
When do you feel that you're both energised and doing good work? Which days do you leap out of bed, or at least crawl out of it less slowly? Don't be content with sweeping answers – "when I'm doing my research" – because any activity is made up of myriad tasks and responsibilities. Deconstruct what you really mean. Doing bibliographic searches? Reading papers? Being at your desk/bench? Doing experiments? Searching the archive? Writing up?
4) What do you find unfulfilling or frustrating?
There's nothing wrong with admitting that you dislike parts of your job, even in such a powerfully vocational career as academia. Apply the same principle as you did to what fulfils you by deconstructing your answers in order to get to the specifics.
5) Do you have talents you're not currently using, but would like to?
This question is fairly self-explanatory, with the caveat that we are talking here about demonstrable talents rather than mere desires. For example, my passion for tennis is not, sadly, indicative of any ability whatsoever, which is why it would be a preposterous career step. But if you have a proven capacity for, say, successfully leading teams and a job that primarily involves working on your own, then it's worth considering whether you are making the most of what you have to offer.
6) What, realistically, will you need to do in order to maximise your chances of succeeding in your current career?
If you know what you want to achieve, do you know what is required for you to get there? If publications or funding are high on your list, as they are for most early career researchers, then how – in the spirit of resolutions – are you going to commit to getting them done? If you're not sure what's required, then start by making a list of who will be able to advise you.
7) Are you good enough?
Perhaps this question is better expressed as: can you convince others that you're good enough? Either way, the point is a tough yet vital one. Knowing the career you want is one thing, but do you have what it takes? The harsh reality is that there are more PhD students than there are postdoc jobs , just as there are far more postdocs than there are permanent academic positions, more lecturers than endowed chairs, and so on. What's your evidence that you're good enough to last the course?
8) What practical considerations must you keep in mind?
This question is another self-explanatory one. It's a truism, for instance, that to make it in academia, you have to move around (preferably internationally). But this is not a workable scenario for everyone, and it pays to be realistic about such things. Are you being honest with yourself about whether you can, or are willing to, do what's practically required?
9) Whose career advice are you seeking?
What I really mean here is: how many opinions have you sought? Career pathways in academia are various and often complex, and they have undergone significant changes in the last 20 years. In other words, it's unwise to assume that what worked for the preceding generations of academics will work now.
If you're looking at other career options, then the need to hear a mix of viewpoints – what a job is really like – is even more critical. All you can do is to be ecumenical in the range of people from whom you seek advice. If you're not already seeking multiple and varied opinions, then add that to your list of new year's resolutions.
10) How do you tend to make decisions?
Here's a final reflection on the nature of reflection itself. Some people like to gather facts and details which they can weigh up carefully before acting; some are inclined to be more instinctive and spontaneous in their decision-making; and some oscillate between the two depending on the stakes.
Put more directly, some readers of this piece will like the kind of reflective thinking these questions intend to prompt; others simply won't. Either reaction is fine, because, at the end of the day, nobody cares about your career as much as you do, and you are responsible for it. So, don't try to operate against your preferences, try to work with them.
I wish you every success in your career during 2014.