Get a game plan, then move on up

September 2, 2005

Don't ignore the fact that you're stuck on the career ladder. Seek opportunities and blow your own trumpet. And if you're an ambitious PhD, find a partner with a healthy bank balance. Harriet Swain explains

OK, so avoiding career decisions was your main motivation in becoming an academic in the first place. But now that you're in the ivory tower, how do you move further up it - or manage to escape?

Maybe it's time to think about what else motivates you, suggests Janet Metcalfe, director of the UK Grad Programme. Is it money? Contributing to the social good? Achieving work-life balance? "Trying to prioritise what's most important helps you to make decisions," Metcalfe says.

She says that it is never too early to start thinking about your future and advises researching career options well before you finish your PhD. Your university's careers service should be your first port of call to get an idea of what jobs and companies are out there. Then network, she says. And take every opportunity to broaden your experience.

Mike Shattock, joint director of the MBA in higher education management at the Institute of Education, University of London, says that if you want an academic career, you need to start planning before you embark on postgraduate study.

"People who do PhDs at second or third-tier institutions find it quite difficult to break into academe," he warns.

Shattock says that your career will be influenced by the standing of your supervisor and the research atmosphere of your department. He believes that if you want an early professorship, it is probably wise to try to stick to posts in top-ranked research universities.

Career planning could also influence your love life, he suggests. While gaining the experience you require to secure a permanent academic post, you will need a patient partner or spouse, with a decent enough job to finance it all.

The UK Grad website, which includes a section on planning your career, warns that the career-planning process is time-consuming and hard work.

Knowing what your skills are, and being able to sell those skills to the right person at the right time, is essential.

"An effective career strategist is self-reliant, flexible and open-minded," it states. "Don't set impossible goals. Don't wait for opportunities to appear: seek them out and create them."

Jane Artess, research manager at the Higher Education Careers Service Unit, says you should use all the resources at your disposal - careers advisers, colleagues, friends and family. "Think in terms of being part of a network of people who will help and advise you."

Carrie Paechter, professor of education at Goldsmiths, University of London, says you mustn't be afraid to let people know about your skills. "A lot of what we have to do feels like boasting," she says.

While Paechter cannot attend too many conferences because she has small children, she never says no to a committee, including standing in for others, "so I get seen around". She warns of the dangers of going part time, particularly if you end up doing research on days off.

Loraine Blaxter, co-author of The Academic Career Handbook , says that networking is especially important for those from groups with traditionally less representation among university staff.

She stresses that it is important to remember that teaching, research and writing are the vital elements of an academic career and that you must ensure you do all three. "If you move in and out of academia, you have to keep writing and you have to be sure you know which are the places to publish that are recognised by the academy," she says.

Shattock says it is important to publish early on in your career, when administrative duties are likely to be light and to ensure that you have a good research assessment exercise rating.

But you must not neglect teaching. "You absolutely need to make sure that when students fill in questionnaires about your teaching, they are pretty good," he says. "Nobody will want to appoint to any kind of senior academic post someone known to be a poor teacher."

Artess suggests that ambitious young academics should seriously consider one of the increasing number of postgraduate certificates in education qualifications aimed at the tertiary sector.

Broadening your experience is also important if you are at a later stage of your career, she says. If you are well established at an institution, it may be time to consider taking on a national role, such as becoming involved in the Quality Assurance Agency, the funding bodies or chairing a working group. Spending some time abroad could also enhance your career opportunities.

Shattock says that if you are thinking of going into management, you should consider management training in your thirties.

"There are dangers for people suddenly deciding in their late forties and early fifties that they would like to become a manager because at that point you don't have time to get the broad range of experience you ought to have," he warns.

But Metcalfe has some words of comfort if you think you've left it too late. "In general, most people's careers never turn out the way they expect them to. Opportunities present themselves. It is just important not to blinker yourself and consider only one option," she says.

Further Information UK Grad Programme information on career planning found in the online information for postgraduates: www.grad.ac.uk

The Academic Career Handbook , by Loraine Blaxter, Christina Hughes and Malcolm Tight, Oxford University Press, 1998 Graduate Prospects, commercial subsidiary of the Higher Education Careers Services Unit: www.prospects.ac.uk

TOP TIPS

Start planning now

Call on supportive friends, colleagues and partners

Don't be too self-effacing about your skills

Network

Spot an opportunity when it comes up and be flexible

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