making the most of your PhD journey (to enhance your career prospects)

Each researcher has their own reasons for choosing to embark on a PhD or doctorate level study. Some researchers have a clear career path in mind and the PhD is the route to get there or continue in that field. Some have been encouraged to pursue further research by academics that have spotted potential. Some have a passion for their discipline and want to continue working in it. Some have enjoyed the research aspects of their degree and want to do more of that. Some have experience in one career but are looking for a change of direction. Some have a passion to create new knowledge. Some feel that studying at doctoral level is the thing that fits best with their current life choices.

Regardless of your reasons for doing doctoral research, the fact that you are doing it provides a significant time of opportunity. You have 3 or 4 years ahead of you to develop and learn. Much of that time will be focused on your research but it shouldn’t stop there. You should also focus on YOU and make YOU a priority.

Gaining a PhD will be a huge achievement and can potentially broaden your access to a diverse range of possibilities but the PhD alone won’t be enough. Now is the time to increase your skills, knowledge and attributes. It is also the time to learn and grow and develop a greater understanding of what motivates and enthuses you, what you want from life and where you fit.

I’d encourage you to use every month of your PhD to develop your confidence, build networks, gain insights, improve your self-awareness, add to your experience and perhaps even have some fun. Start now and keep adding rather than thinking a better time will come. All too often researchers at the end of their PhD say, “I wish I’d done this much earlier” when talking about their own development.

Have I convinced you yet? Here are some suggestions of what you could be doing?

Festival of the mind

Festivals / Events – the city of Sheffield and its universities host a range of festivals and events throughout the year. There are regular calls for speakers, participants and volunteers to get involved and it is a great way to add to your public engagement activity.

Clubs and Societies – are not just for undergraduate students and with over 300 to choose from you should be able to find one or two that appeal. Team work can be in short supply as a postgraduate researcher so working alongside others with a shared interest can be useful, productive and enjoyable. It doesn’t all have to be hard work and being involved with something away from your research can be an effective stress reliever too. Find out what the Student Union can offer.

Committees / Departmental responsibilities – all academic departments look for ways to engage effectively with their research students. Staff-student committees will regularly be looking for new researchers to represent their peers at meetings and may advertise other roles and opportunities too.

Training and Development – you could be overwhelmed with the amount of training and development opportunities that get advertised to researchers at Sheffield. Engage with them from your first year, do something every month and pick a mix of research specific alongside broader developmental opportunities. That way you’ll get the most from the programmes and won’t miss out.

Volunteering – is a way to gain skills and experience, meet new people, try out a role to see if you like it and make a contribution. It could be a one off event just for an afternoon through to a regular commitment over a period of time. Volunteering is a highly regarded activity in the UK and often enables you to gain experience and responsibility beyond that you could expect to be paid for at this point in your career!

Work shadowing – enables you to find out what a job or role is like without taking on too much commitment. Spending a day or two with an individual or organisation, observing what they do in a typical day adds a whole new dimension to just reading a case study. If you like what you see, this may give you the incentive to get more experience in this area and develop specific employability skills. If you don’t, you’ve learnt something important and can try something else!

Teaching / Demonstrating – is a way to earn some money and gain useful experience whether you plan a career in academia or other sectors. Most careers have some responsibility for training and developing others as you progress, even if only informally. Sheffield Teaching Assistant (STA) workshops give you access to training to prepare you and opportunities may be advertised in your department or across the university on Career Connect. You could also be proactive and let your department or academic colleagues know you are interested in teaching opportunities.

Competitions / Consultancy projects – are advertised to individuals and potential teams on a regular basis. Prizes could include funding, travel or work experience opportunities but the experience you gain can be a prize in itself! Many encourage cross disciplinary working or applying your expertise in new ways. Look out for email alerts, posters, email newsletters and social media for further information.

Research projects – many researchers look to gain additional research experience by contributing to research projects outside of their own PhD. This could be in other research teams, labs or research groups either here at Sheffield or at other institutions. Looking for ways to collaborate with others broadens your network and perspective. Make the most of events, conferences and guest lectures to spot potential opportunities and develop your network at the same time.

Community activities – take advantage of living in the 6th largest city in the UK. There is a lot going on at the university but there is even more going on in Sheffield that you can get involved with. Feel a part of your community and expand your understanding of the region – this could aid your research too!

Paid work / Internships – many researchers need to earn money and like a job unrelated to their research as a way to think about something else. Others want to build on specific skills. Whether you want a regular paid job or an internship that fits alongside your PhD you’ll find a range of opportunities advertised on Career Connect, and you can also visit the Careers Service Job Shop in the Student Union – or you could create your own!

Funding applications – gaining experience of writing funding applications can start small. Look for opportunities to apply for travel grants or other small awards that enable you to engage in opportunities during your PhD. The Careers Service has our own scheme, PREP (Postgraduate Researcher Experience Programme) to enable you to apply for money to fund your own work experience opportunity!

This is just a snapshot of some of the things you could do. There are many more. My main aim is to get all of you to do something, then do something else, do it now and keep doing it! If you’re not sure what would be best for you and your longer term career development, come and talk to us (your Careers Consultants for Researchers) about this or any other aspect of your career. You can book appointments through Career Connect – and you can do this from day one too!

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