A PhD can be a springboard to a fulfilling and rewarding career. But it is all too easy to lose sight of that fact between experiments and thesis chapters. So, although anyone who's made it to the other side of the doctorate will say tell you "there is a life after the PhD," it is crucial that you step back and assess now what you want to do then. Academia is certainly one career path, but it is far from being the only option at a time when succeeding in the academic environment is increasingly difficult.

All very well, you may think, but how do you actually get around to planning your career? Well, help is at hand ...

For the last 35 years, the UK GRAD programme (previously the Research Councils' Graduate School Programme) has endeavoured to equip research students with the confidence and motivation they need to succeed in their PhDs, plus the self-awareness and skills that will give them a leg up for the next step on the career ladder. GRADschool gives you a chance to develop both your personality and your career, see the relevance of your skills in different environments, and promote yourself. And, for the first time, the 2003 UK GRAD programme offers students the opportunity to tailor the GRADschool to their needs.

For example, GRADschools now vary in length--they can run for 3, 4, or 5 days--and give different weightings to areas such as team-building, leadership, commercial awareness, and career planning. The courses that focus on careers run for 3 days and do not include the range of case studies that the longer courses offer, leaving more time for career-related activities and self-analysis.

What's in it for me?

In the career-planning courses, you will have the opportunity to:

  • learn more about your strengths and preferences, pointing you towards a motivating and fulfilling career;

  • look at how the skills you have developed doing research can be applied in other environments;

  • improve your personal marketing skills by getting feedback on your curriculum vitae (CV), refining your interview skills, and gaining insight into recruitment methods.

What does it involve?

Before attending, you will be expected to identify what you want to get out of the course, so that you can make the best use of the people and resources available. If you wish, you can discuss these aims at the start of the course and work out how best to achieve them.

The course is structured around a series of activities you will carry out in small groups supervised by a mentor and tutor. For example, you will get a chance to wear the employer's hat and put CVs on a short list, you will experience a job interview, and you'll have plenty of time and support to work out a personal career plan that you will be motivated to adopt.

The mentors and tutors are among the courses' great assets. They are selected to represent as broad a range of jobs as possible, so they can support you in improving your career plans with personal insight into a variety of occupations, employment sectors, and recruitment techniques. You will also be given lots of opportunities to discuss more complex issues with them, such as the effects of organisational culture, planning career transitions, and building long-term career strategies--of real value if your ideal job isn't easily achievable.

Is it right for me?

The courses are designed to appeal to students at various stages in their personal career planning. If you have a clear idea of what you want to do next, then you may value feedback on your CV, tips on completing application forms, a practice interview tailored to your chosen post, or advice on networking. If you have some general thoughts but aren't sure what jobs and occupations are actually available, then you can firm up your ideas and come up with some concrete areas to explore. And for those of you who are completely at sea, the courses will help you identify what you have to offer and what you want out of your career. Most important, they give you a chance to talk to people who will be honest about their own career choices.

What will it cost?

All students funded by the Research Council, Wellcome Trust, or Arts and Humanities Research Board can attend the course free of charge, and there are bursaries available for members of the Royal Society of Chemistry. The cost of the course is £395 +VAT, but many universities and industrial sponsors will support students who wish to attend, so if you aren't sure about your eligibility for funding, contact the UK GRADschools programme.

What if I'm not a research student?

The courses have been developed mainly for research students from all disciplines and backgrounds, including those who have worked outside academia before starting doctoral research. But they also have a great deal to offer to anybody interested in developing a career by being a mentor on the course. As a mentor, your role will be to support the students by working with them on programme activities, which will allow you to develop your own facilitation skills in a safe environment. As a mentor, you will be supported by a tutor who will help you identify your own objectives and review them at regular intervals. Each course has a limited number of mentor slots, which are free for Research Council-funded postdocs and subsidised for staff from charities and similar organisations. More details can be found on the GRAD Website or by contacting GRAD directly.

What have previous GRADschool students got to say about it?

These new courses have been developed in response to feedback from the 5-day GRADschools. Most students rate the career element very highly, and as this quote from the 2002 feedback illustrates, some wanted to concentrate on just this aspect:

"I'd have liked more emphasis on increasing my employability, time to explore the careers that are available to postgrads (especially those which aren't obvious), and advice on how to apply and market my skills."

Feedback like this has been important in reshaping the GRAD programme. And you can also influence future courses by telling the GRAD programme what you would hope to gain from a course such as this.

There are still places available, so if you feel that your career plans could do with a bit of a boost, the next 3-day course is running from 7 to 10 May. Book your place now.