CVs that need plenty of research

 

Many postdoctoral applicants do themselves no favours when it comes to applying for jobs outside of the university environment

MANY RESEARCHERS go through their PhD and postdoctoral experience with the tacit assumption that they will continue their career in this profession. This is not surprising, since the environment of doctoral candidates and researchers is that of the university. However, the statistics tell a different story. More than 50 per cent of all PhD graduates here leave academia to work in a range of sectors. In Britain, Cambridge University reports only 20 per cent of PhD graduates and 10 per cent of postdoctoral researchers become academics.

Research is a difficult profession to enter at the best of times, as academic posts are limited and there are only a few national research organisations here (including Teagasc, Marine Institute, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies). In the private sector, while the levels of RD are increasing, the availability of research posts is limited. Work by Forfás has shown that between 2002 and 2008 the number of PhD graduates hired as researchers in companies tripled from 400 to 1,200. Over the same period, the number of research staff increased by only 12 per cent. Nonetheless, with an annual PhD graduation rate of around 1,000, researchers need to think long and hard about their future.

Having sat on many interview panels for non-research posts, it continues to surprise me how little preparation some applicants from the research sector put into the process. They seem to approach this as they would a new research post. The curriculum vitae reads as a typical research track record. There is no attempt to tailor it to the specific job. Some redeem themselves by writing a good covering letter but this is the exception.

A researcher should approach their CV as they would a grant proposal. In the case of research grants, there are clear terms and conditions and evaluation criteria. For a job, these come in the form of the job specifications and the desirable attributes of the applicant sought by the employer.

During verbal interviews some conduct themselves as if it were for another lab position. They are content to talk at length about their research, disregarding the fact that their potential employer may have little or no interest. As with the CV, the interview is like preparing a verbal grant proposal. The researcher identifies key job specifications and addresses these specifically. Again it can be surprising to see how little planning has been done by some applicants, eg some do not realise it would be useful to check the employer’s website for a sense of the organisation’s business.

When employers are recruiting they look for a wide range of skills. These include, problem solving, report writing, numeracy, verbal communication, time management, leadership, teamwork, project and career management. Researchers often do not realise that they possess all of these skills as a result of completing a PhD. The doctorate is about solving complex problems in a highly analytical manner usually requiring a high level of numeracy. The content of their publications may not matter at all to an employer, but their ability to write and communicate is important.

Researchers must work to deadlines, write peer-reviewed publications and present these at international conferences. They may be responsible for managing other team members and mentoring graduate students.

Employers will also look for commitment, motivation and enthusiasm in applicants. A researcher who runs marathons may not realise this is important for the CV as it indicates a high level of commitment. Outreach activities to schools can show enthusiasm and an ability to communicate.

Recent changes in research training for doctoral candidates and researchers help in acquiring these transferable skills, eg structured PhD programmes provide specific modules on such skills. For PhD graduates, there is a ready tool that they can use to write curriculum vitae appropriate for the post. The Irish Universities’ PhD Graduates’ SkillsStatement lists the skills that doctoral candidates are expected to have acquired.

Researchers have a wide range of highly valuable skills and attributes that would make them attractive for many employers in a wide range of sectors. To be competitive in what is a difficult employment environment, they must ensure that they can properly communicate their skills and attributes.


Conor O’Carroll is research director in the Irish Universities Association, iua.ie