Being seen


Looking for another role be an exciting and/or daunting state. It could mean that you’re finishing your PhD, coming to the end of your contract (still waiting to hear if your contract is renewed…), or wanting to move on from where you are. There is work to do, however, before you actually are on that market. And it is important work that needs to be started before you actively looking.

Let me start with two examples of what I mean:

  1. I was sitting next to a fabulous, proactive PhD researcher at ‘Shut up and write’ recently – let’s call her Nikeisha because that’s her name. Nikeisha was talking about the various things she’d done to position herself well and boost her chances of finding a position after completing the doctorate. These things included having her CV with her at a big conference where she had a poster and could immediately hand it over to interested lab heads or recruiting colleagues, applying to be part of an internship program (post-thesis submission) and specifying exactly the organisation they want to work in, and having a succinct and effective website. She’s a molecular biologist who worked with squid slime so I’m assuming she’ll get a role in no time – who could resist such a thing?
  2. I was cold-called by a PhD researcher who was almost submitting his thesis. Let’s call him Wade. I agreed to meet with Wade because a good friend had suggested me to him and he had flagged this in his email, as well as giving me the context of why he and my friend thought I’d be useful to talk to. While I may have still met him without the friend’s recommendation, I would not have approached the meeting with the same predisposed-to-like-him manner. In addition, he was very clear about why he wanted to meet with me and introduced himself along with sending along a very slick and impressive CV. Overall, I was dead impressed with Wade’s forthright approach, his clarity about his job-search context, and his courteous manner. He’s now a colleague of mine at the same institution.

The critical thread through Nikeisha’s and Wade’s pre-job search activities is that of positioning themselves to be seen. This is most important before you are actually on the market as, once you have to start applying around, the task of standing out in a stack of applications is that much harder.

There’s a lot of advice about what to do when you’re a researcher looking for work, and it can be a difficult phase to be in, particularly if you’re wanting to change sectors or types of roles. I should make clear here that this is not a ‘how to job-hunt’ post with intricate strategies for the complex processes of academic hiring – that would be a whole shelf of books unto itself!

This post is based on my own experiences and reading, and those shared with me through various channels (including a direct call-out for tips to my buddies, some of whom preferred to remain anonymous).

The short list below are the key things that researchers do when they are on the market for a new role. Many of them are common to all job-seekers but there are a few particular researcher inflections. If you already do these things, then you can feel assured that a strong basic strategy is in place. None of these things guarantees a job, of course, but having them in place means that you’re not missing out on opportunities or making potential employers work to find out about you and the fab things you have done/are doing.

Freshen up that digital face

This is a fairly standard thing to point to these days, and it’s a cliche because it’s true!

Many organisations do a digital scan of potential interviewees before short-listing to ensure that nothing is concerning on that front. There’s a fair amount of scaremongering about losing opportunities because of ill-considered social media updates, but what is not often mentioned is that just about as many people get onto the short-list because of positive things that are found about them (CareerBuilder survey, 2017). Building a strong digital profile can’t be done overnight so it’s helpful to develop it before you actually need to lean on it (as with any network!). There’s plenty out there on how to develop your social media profile – my ‘Digital Academic‘ module has quite a few links that might be worthwhile investigating.

Anitra Nottingham, who recently landed a new position, is a big fan of LinkedIn and advises:

LinkedIn is an amazing tool. Solicit references on LinkedIn, and pay it forward by handing out references out to others. Tweak your description so that you are endorsed for the right things and appear in the right searches and get the right job recommendations – I found it better than [other major jobseeking platforms]. Redo your website to make it as quick and easy to access your work as possible.

Aim to build a supportive network

All job searches are stressful, and when they stretch out a bit or you are getting more misses than hits, it can really send you into a negative spiral. It’s hard to maintain optimism when you are regularly being dismissed as being not quite good enough or – worse – not even in the running. My fellow research education and development colleague, Jamie Burford, had this great observation and advice:

Job searches can be a really lonely journey involving rejection and prompting questions about how awesome you are. So I reckon it is good to let your personal/professional cheer squad know you are applying for things, and let them know when things don’t come out the way you might have hoped. I reckon keeping your people in the loop really helps

It’s a really good idea to organise a job market support group. And don’t forget that having good support also means showing yourself due care and kindness during the job search or as you prepare yourself for a job search.

Get yourself out and about

As the anecdotes I shared at the beginning of this post demonstrate, getting yourself out there and letting people know you will be available for roles soon is an important step in the pre-job hunting phase. It can be hard to do if you’re not usually the kind of person who puts yourself out there and talks about you want. Having clarity about what you are actually looking for, though, can cut through a whole lot of angst around this. What you are asking of people is not often a lot. Think about what Wade approached me with: to have a chat about the sector, ask questions about opportunities, and finding out more about what would position him well. He was not asking for a job (don’t ask for a job). What you want to do is make a fab impression and have people want to help you if opportunities arise.

Just think about this: If you activate your advocates to be job-hunting on your behalf, that’s a much bigger net you’re casting.