If you find yourself facing milestone birthdays without a permanent job, or your life outside academia seems permanently on hold, you may decide that now is the time for action. Rather than wait for a kindly benefactor to appear and reward your years of hard slog, there is something practical you can do. The first step is to come up with the basis of what Baldrick might call 'a cunning plan'. This should be very simple.
Start by knowing who you are. You could begin with a list of your strengths, skills, and experience. What makes you stand out from the crowd? This might be your ability to coax uncannily accurate data from a mass spectrometer, but could equally be skills of an administrative or managerial nature. These may sound boring but are surprisingly scarce and hence valuable to a whole cartload of employers, inside and outside academia. Map your strengths onto a CV, such that this document represents a quick-fire, easily digested summary of what you have to offer a potential employer.
Next, consider who you know. Presumably, you are unshackled from the lab from time to time in order to attend conferences; if not, now's the time to ask! Who are the people with whom you'd like to work, given the chance? Think beyond your institution and perhaps even beyond your discipline. Be ambitious, but be practical. If you are feeling particularly brave, offer a seminar or talk to a postgrad society at another institution; they may even pay your expenses! Alternatively, you could "help organise a conference or workshop," suggests Moya Kneafsey, a lecturer in geography at Coventry University. "Ideally, get involved in networks that extend beyond your department and institution". This will help you to raise your profile externally and get you thinking about where you'd like to be a year from now.
The third stage in constructing your plan is the easiest bit. In your university there are people who would like to help you realise your ambition of a career in science. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to track down these kindly folk and ask for feedback on your revamped CV. (Don't expect them to seek you out, they are busy people!) Your closest allies might be colleagues whose doors are always propped open for a friendly chat. Friends working in industry may also offer words to the wise, perhaps steering you away from an academic career. But guidance doesn't stop, or necessarily start, there.
Many university career services now offer help and support tailored to the contract researcher. Staff development units or personnel departments may run workshops or seminars aimed at developing the careers of postdocs. There are also national initiatives, such as the EPSRC's Career Development Schools or the MRC's New Generation meetings. Help in career planning and opportunities for professional development are definitely on the increase: Find them and make use of them!
By now, the bare bones of your career plan are in place. You have begun to identify possible career options and noted which paths offer the most promise. You know what it is you have to offer an employer and have assembled a network of helpful contacts inside and outside academia. Opportunities for career development have been embraced with enthusiasm. Without realising it, you have already made significant strides toward your dream job. Don't stop now--your future career depends on you keeping up the momentum!
So far, so good. But how do you keep a steady course with all the demands on your time? All will be revealed in the final instalment of 'DIY for Postdocs: How to Build a Career in Science'!