the secret of effective career development…project manage it!

keep calmI’m regularly asked (often by researchers just starting a PhD or their 1st postdoc), “what training and development activities should I sign up for?” They are often overwhelmed by the mind blowing amount of workshops, schemes and seminars that are on offer. It is true that a researcher could spend more time attending workshops than actually doing their research. As important as it is to spend time on career development activities, the one thing you don’t want to do is to become a serial workshop booker, enrolling onto everything you see advertised. As managers of training programmes we often come across individuals who sign up for every single workshop we advertise (I’ve even come across people attending the exact same workshop more than once in a year). As flattering as it is that they want to attend all we provide, this really isn’t the most effective use of your time.

So what is the secret to ensuring you make the most of the training and career development on offer? In a nut shell…manage it as a project, just as you manage your research.

pm cycleStep1: Plan- Like all well managed projects you need to do some planning.

To answer, “what activities should you take part in?”, first of all you need to spend some time not only researching all the opportunities that will be available to you during your time at the organisation, but deciding when during your time (e.g. 3 year contract) would be the best time to do them. Panicking and trying to fit it all in your last 6 months to try and build up your CV is not the most productive way to develop your career. Also make sure you check how regularly things run to be sure you don’t miss anything in the time you have left.

For new PhD students, you should carry out a training needs analysis with your supervisor at the beginning, which will help you identify areas of development to initially focus on. For research staff, both your induction and initial review meeting (Staff Review and Development Scheme at the UoS) are ideal opportunities to take time to discuss what you can do to develop your career in the direction you would like.

Step 2: Do -Make sure you get the most out of any development activity you do carry out.

Do act professionally by turning up to sessions you enrol on, on time and make sure you will be able to stay the whole session. If you leave early, clearly you aren’t able to get the most out of the opportunity. Often the last part of the session is vital for allowing you to ensure you have understood everything, reflected on the learning to identify how it relates back to your own career/research and given time to planning what you will now do in response to what you have learnt. You also need to make sure you go with an open mind in order to fully engage and get the most learning possible from an activity.

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” (Isaac Asimov)

Step 3: Check – Add the activity to your development plan/training portfolio

You need to make sure you have a way of recording everything you do to develop your career. I see so many people 3 years down the line, hurriedly updating their CV desperately trying to think of all the activities they have been involved in. They will often either forget something or not be able to really describe how that gives them evidence of a particular skill etc. Good practise would be to record attendance at an activity or participation in a scheme somewhere (ideally electronically) straight away. Researchers at UoS can use a great tool called Pebblepad to create an e-portfolio.

Also do you ever feedback to your supervisor/PI about how you have benefitted from something you attended? How can we expect managers to be happy for us to spend time away from our research at development activities, if no one ever lets them know how useful it was and how it will impact on their future?

Step 4: Act – This is the most important stage, actually doing something as a result of taking part in an activity.

Recording activity in a portfolio isn’t enough on its own, those who really get the most from development are those who spend time reflecting and most importantly making a clear action plan of what they will now do as a result. But how do you stick to those plans? By making yourself accountable to someone, whether that be your supervisor or line manager through yearly (although ideally 6 monthly) reviews, a mentor or perhaps even someone else who attended the workshop with you. However you make yourself stick to those plans, crucially there is little point in using your precious time attending activities or taking part in schemes, if you don’t actually do something or change your behaviour as a result.

Effective project management means you can create an appropriate balance between time spent on your research and time spent properly managing your other big project, your career development.

Keep calm image credit. Project management cycle image credit.


  1. Reblogged this on Newcastle Researchers' Blog and commented:
    Great post from Sheffield University on how to make the most of researcher development training. Don’t forget that there is a huge amount available to you here at the university, either through the faculty training programmes if you’re a PhD student, or SDU if you’re staff.


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