‘What Next?’ The big question for postgraduates

The point at which “What do you want to be when you grow up?” turns into “What are you planning to do with the rest of your life?” tends to come around your third year of undergraduate life, if not before.  As a postgraduate, this becomes less of a question and more of a mantra.  As a third year PhD student, this question/mantra/challenge has become the deafening “What next?!” that accompanies an increasingly number of the things I do.

I began my PhD with the intention of working in academia. When asked as a 21 year old about to graduate with a BA in American Studies, “what next?”, I told my supervisor at the time, who had had a huge influence on my studies and my choice of future career, that I wanted his job.

Yet the route to his job—or, indeed, any job like it—remained hazy.  About eight months ago, I finally decided to talk to someone in Careers Network here at Birmingham.  This session raised more questions than answers, but at least they were questions I could start attempting to answer.

Fast forward to the end of 2012, and I now work for Careers Network as a CV adviser and as a postgraduate workshop facilitator.  One of this term’s Masters career coaching workshops – Career Action Planning: Goals, Values and Motivations – focused on the process by which career goals can be identified, pursued, and eventually achieved.  I had the opportunity to share my own experiences with the group, as well as my completed career action plan.  While the specifics of my situation, including my career goals, might be personal to me, I think the broader message remains.  It is difficult to answer the “What next?” question; it is even more difficult if you don’t know where to start. Starting might mean more questions – What do I want? What am I good at? What are my priorities? What am I not good at? All of these questions were things I had to work through when I started determining how I was going to get the job I wanted at the end of my PhD, and being honest is key to this part of the process.

The next step is to start thinking about how you can start putting some of these aspirations in motion.  For me, this meant a visit to Careers Network, talking to my supervisor and other staff in my department, and sharing my goals with other people, in the hope they’d have some useful advice or a different perspective. Thinking about where I could gain experience was something I took some time over. Apart from my research and various academic activities, I felt I needed to expand my teaching experience specifically. My work with Careers Network might not at first glance, feed into my long-term career aims. Yet it has enabled me to improve my presentation skills, work closely with students and evaluate my teaching practice.  All transferable skills that will impact on my future career path.

“What next?” can be daunting, confusing, and easy to ignore: but once you start asking the questions, the answers will hopefully start to become a little bit clearer.

I’ll be helping run the Masters Career Coaching workshop on 6th December at which there will be themed discussion groups on doing a PhD, getting a job in business and industry and working freelance. Go to www.intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/careers/events  to book a place.

Katie Barnett, PhD student, College of Arts and Law


About careersbham

Student Engagement Officer for Careers Network University of Birmingham

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