I Practised What I Preached: What happened when a PhD careers adviser took her own advice

‘I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it’

– Alice, Alice in Wonderland

Image shows a sign saying ‘Do as I say, not as I do’

2022 marked me passing five years in my current job. Over five years… that’s the longest I’ve ever done anything. Longer than any degree I’ve done, relationship I’ve had, place I’ve lived (except my parental home). With this in mind, I started to have a think and shop around to mix things up a bit and develop myself. Now, I’m talking mostly (though not exclusively) ‘extras’ like evening or weekend work, part-time volunteering etc. rather than new full-time jobs. However, I thought this was as good a chance as any to put into action some of the things I’ve harped on about in this blog so far, both for my own development… and to report back to you all about how I got on.

Making the decision to effectively ‘review’ advice I’ve given to others felt a bit like the time my mum came home from Tai Chi class with a sword: sort of cool, but also a bit scary.

So here we go: four techniques, tried and tested, to see what happened when a PhD careers adviser followed her own advice.

1. Being open about a disability

Rating: ☆☆☆☆ (4 stars out of 5)

Rationale: That being open about disabilities, health conditions, or any other difference that may impact one’s full participation and inclusion in society (on a equal basis with others) can help you to manage employers’ expectations when they meet you, and open the door to ask for adjustments during recruitment.

What worked for me: Let’s clear one thing up for starters: the eye condition that I live with is ‘physical,’ but is pretty much unseen. However, it means that in natural daylight or when looking at anything bright, I wear specs with luminous orange lenses (think the Dutch national football team’s shirt colour – an image below shows me wearing said lenses):

What worked well for me with this one was:

  • Mentioning my condition in a ‘positive way’ in my application. One example was for a training/teaching role, mentioning how managing a sudden onset condition/ impairment demonstrated my adaptability, and had made me all the more passionate (and I quote) ‘to foster an inclusive and supportive learning environment.’ I bagged myself an interview. Bingo.
  • Once I got the interview invitation, I then sent a brief (sticking to ‘the facts’) email in response to say how my eye condition affects me, and how I’d appreciate adjustments including being emailed any relevant slides in advance, and to have ‘dark mode’ enabled on any computer if there was any interview test or task. None of those things were required in the end (virtual interview, no ‘task’), but I flagging this felt reassuring. I also gave them a heads up about the eyewear I’d be using during the interview. Did the interview… was offered the work. Winner.
  • Bringing people ‘down to planet Holly’ before meeting them. My garish specs can be a bit of a surprise at first. People can stare a bit, and I worry that some might presume I’m just a full-on diva wearing what appear to be ‘sunglasses’ indoors. Feeling like I had taken a bit of that ‘element of surprise’ away pre-interview felt good.

Verdict: I felt like I couldn’t give this one 5 stars due to certain privileges. Firstly, I’m 10 years out from PhD now and somewhat established in my career, which no doubt gives me more confidence here than a fresh graduate. Also, I do think this is a matter of personal choice. If you ‘present’ in some way (like me with my glasses) that might be worth flagging to an employer in order to take back some control over the interview situation, then I say definitely useful. Other examples I’ve seen are when a disability or condition affects the tone or speed of someone’s voice, or their physical movement. However, some of you may feel that your disability has no bearing on the recruitment process/ job in question. Others may feel sensitive about how much to disclose. So, weigh up the benefits of being open (and what/ how you might want to do it) before deciding. EmployAbility have some really useful FAQs you can refer to here.

2. ‘Talking to people’

Rating: ☆☆☆ up to ☆☆☆☆☆ (between 3 and 5 stars out of 5, depending who I was talking to)

Rationale: There are quite a few ideas behind this one, including:

  • Talking to people who do work that might interest you gives you greater insight into whether that work matches your perceptions of it, and meets your priorities
  • Networking with people in industries of interest can help you to learn what people in those industries value, and the language they use to describe their skills and what they do (so that you can ‘speak their language’ in applications and interviews etc.)
  • Talking to the hiring manager or ‘named contact’ for a specific role (i.e. the person who it says to ‘contact for an informal discussion of the role,’ or words to that effect) can clarify the focus of the role, their priorities, and help you to tailor your application accordingly.

Verdict: Moderate to excellent. Talking to people who had been doing/ currently do some of the things I’ve been interested in trying was good for my motivation, and for understanding what their roles involve. When it came to making decisions about what to go for, however, it was mixed. Some people love what they do and will really encourage you to ‘give it a go…’; in these cases, I learned the importance of keeping your wits about you and making sure that you really consider your priorities, as well as their enthusiasm.

When it came to speaking to line managers/ named heads of department for roles, that gets five stars. 100% recommend. For example, talking to one ‘named contact’ revealed that one bit of teaching had come up because a department was launching a new full-time version of a specific Masters course. This helped me to tailor my application towards skills I had that could specifically help with that. Hey presto… an interview invitation. Similarly, talking to the person in charge of another role helped me to understand that it wasn’t quite what I’d envisioned, so saved me applying for something that wasn’t what I wanted.

3. Basing your interview prep on the job description & person spec

Rating: ☆☆.5 (2.5 stars out of 5… don’t judge me, I couldn’t find a half-star-symbol)

Rationale: That you can to some level ‘predict’ what questions might come up based on the activities involved in the job (e.g. scenario questions – ‘how would you deal with X?’) and the required skills (e.g. competency questions – ‘tell me about a time when you’ve…’). The idea is to prepare in advance examples that you could give should these come up.

Verdict: On its own, average. In some cases, it definitely paid off; for example, for one role where university teaching experience was a pre-requisite, I was asked what made me a good teacher, and for an example of a teaching session that hadn’t gone to plan. Had examples prepared for both – boom. But… wasn’t offered the work. On its own, this strategy wasn’t quite enough. Sometimes, specific motivation points came up… for example, being asked not just why I’d applied, but why I wanted to take this on at this stage of my career. I also encountered questions around what I might find difficult in a role, or what training I might need. Tips for this one are:

  • See ‘talking to people’ above, and combine this advice with that to make sure you’re factoring in the finer details of why that role has come up in the first place. Also, check Glassdoor for clues as to what specific companies or organisations tend to ask.
  • As I’ve said in other content, make sure your prep also involves ‘getting your story straight’: reflect on, and be able to articulate, how what you’ve done so far has now led you to the thing you’re going for next. Add to that thinking about the strengths you’d bring to the role, but also the things you might not be too hot on… and crucially… how you would go about addressing and developing those things. I mean, don’t go bringing up your perceived ‘weaknesses’ unprovoked throughout the interview, but be prepared if you’re asked about challenges or training needs, and show you’re self-aware and proactive about your own development.

4. The ‘Keep – Lose – Add’ model

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆ (5 stars out of 5)

Rationale: This is one that I bang on about all the time and have written about on this blog before. It says that if you’re trying to make decisions about your next steps, you ask yourself:

‘If I were going to turn my PhD/ postdoc/ current job into my ideal job, what aspects of it would I want to keep, what aspects of it would I want to lose (do less of), and what would I want to add to it (that i don’t get much chance to do now)?

The idea is that gives you a guide as to what you’re really looking for with your next step, and helps you to see it as exactly that: just a next step to ‘fine-tuning’ your professional life, not a massive, irrevocable decision that you can never take back.

Verdict: Honestly? It worked 10 years ago, and it worked now. Led me to a voluntary role that I’ve so far got loads out of, and that I’m confident will improve my practice in my current role and develop me for the future. As a well-known sports brand that will remain nameless would say… just do it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: