PhD career confusion – FAQ

Karolinska Institutet recently hosted the Nordic PhD Summit “Health Sciences across Borders”, an event that brings PhD students from the Nordic countries together for two days of interaction and scientific discussions. Career Service was invited to be part of an event called “Career Options Speed  Dating”.

With some initial confusion the 15 minutes speed meeting sessions could start and each table had an eager audience of about 5-10 PhD students at a time. Here are some of the most frequent questions and answers I picked up at the Career Service tables.

/Emma, Career Service

Are all PhD students as confused about the future as I am?

Well yes! It is a common feeling. You spend four years focusing on a very specific topic and by the end you have to make up your mind of what to do next. The sooner you start thinking about what you want to do after dissertation the better. Talk to colleagues in the lab and ask them about their career steps. If you meet people in industry ask how they got there. Learn about the career opportunities in academic research but also outside academia. There are indeed many career paths for a PhD!

How do I get to know more about career opportunities in industry?

Career Service at Karolinska Institutet offers internship programmes for PhD students and postdocs and researchers. For PhD students the programme is part of a 1.5 credit course called “Career Skills for Scientists” that PhD students usually take in their final years. In the course, apart from internship opportunities, you learn about identifying your transferable skills, how to network and how a job application process works. The assignment in the course consists of writing two career portraits of people who have a PhD and what their career looks like five years after they got their degree. The students have to present one portrait from a career outside academia and one from inside. The assignment is a good excuse to contact somebody that you would probably never contact otherwise! There have been students reaching out to CEOs and Nobel laureates. Inspirational career portraits from our courses can be found in a magazine!

How do I get a postdoc position at Karolinska Institutet?

All positions are always advertised but there are of course informal ways. Networking is important. Reach out to groups that are, in your eyes, conducting interesting research. Good advice on how to land a postdoc position can be found in one of our blogs “How to secure a postdoc position in 4 steps”. If you bring your own funding it might be a bit easier. But our number one advice is to be bold and ask!

How do I combine clinical work and research?

This is tricky and how to find a balance is challenging. Time has to be negotiated between employer and university.

What is the difference between being a PhD student and a postdoc?

As a postdoc you are expected to be much more independent in your research. As a PhD student you always have your supervisor to support you. You’re not expected to start your own group as a postdoc but this is the time when you perhaps explore new research areas, increase your professional network and start your journey towards becoming an independent researcher. But why a postdoc (?), Ellen Elliott, PhD and postdoc at Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine elaborates on the topic in a blog.

Does the postdoc need to be in a field related to the topic I have studied?

No, it is even encouraged to widen your field of knowledge, dive into something new, or you can use the opportunity to go back into a field of research that you touched upon during your studies, but had to abandon. Ask yourself what you enjoy doing and what research fields you find interesting? For inspiration on switching fields read this blog.

What would be the most common mistake in a CV?

It is difficult to say what would be a standard mistake in a PhD CV but a very common mistake is that you have forgotten to tailor it for the ad. Also there is a great difference between an academic CV and if you are preparing a CV for a position in industry or anywhere else outside academia. You can find some good basic advice on how to construct a general CV in the blog “The ABC of a CV” and you are welcome to come by when we have drop in sessions in Solna Sept 14 and Flemingsberg Sept 15.

What is your best advice for career planning?

“I do not believe in checklists, unless there is an action plan!” says Kerstin from Career Service. Do not wait until your final months to start thinking about the next step. At least a year before your dissertation is a good time to get started. Check out the Career Service calendar. Discuss with your supervisor and colleagues and try to identify and articulate your skills. As a PhD you have many “soft” so called transferable skills that can be used outside the lab. We have a short film on youtube with one of our career coaches Tina Persson on this topic. Your hard skills are easier to identify and describe but employers outside academia usually are more interested in your project management skills , communication skills or ability to lead and cooperate.

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