Career Planning for Postdocs for 2013 and Beyond

It’s that time of the year again – Christmas and New Year where work usually slows or stops for a little while so you can take stock of what happened in 2012 and start planning for 2013. It is well worth spending time doing some ‘big picture’ planning at least once a year and now is the perfect time.
Rather than starting by filling up your calendar for 2013 with activities straight away, why not try the following steps towards a more strategic approach to planning – starting with a celebration!
Step 1. Celebrate all your achievements for 2012
We so rarely take the time to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done so don’t skip this step, and take a little time to do the following:
– Create a ‘celebration board’, a big piece of paper or a whiteboard, where you jot down all the things you achieved in 2012. Don’t just concentrate on your work achievements; you can also add achievements say to do with a hobby, personal relationships, friends and family, financial success and so on.
– Highlight the achievements that you are most proud of, which might well not be the ‘big ticket’ items. For example, you might have published several papers in 2012 but the achievement you are most proud of is getting a difficult technique going by yourself.
– If you have an artistic streak (or even if you don’t), make the celebration board colourful and fun.
– Do this activity – or at least share the results – with your partner, a close friend or a family member. Celebrating is always more fun with others than on your own!
What’s the benefit?
Listing your achievements first puts you in a good and pro-active mood for the next step, which is planning. By identifying your proudest achievements you get a better idea of what really motivates you in your current career, which is essential to know for the next step.
Step 2. Decide your mid-term goal (2-5 years):
Suggesting this next step sometimes provokes some resistance in people, as in: “How do I know where I am going to be in 2-5 years’ time?”. As a postdoc, however, temporary contract employment arrangements usually create a forced decision point in this timeframe because you have to find your next contract, win your own fellowship or transition into a permanent academic (or other) position.
So, if you do not have a clear picture, take some time over this quiet Christmas period to decide what you want your next step to be. This will determine the focus of the plans you make for 2013 and beyond.
With the PostdocTraining program, we step our postdoc clients through a range of processes and techniques that help them identify a career path that is tailor-made for their own strengths and preferences. This includes determining non-negotiables, and getting a good overview of what career options are ‘out there’ and whether they suit your strengths and preferences.
After this process, with a clear mid-term career goal and a timeframe in mind to reach it, you are now ready to make your plans for 2013.
Step 3. Planning 2013 (and beyond)
The key to creating a great plan of attack that produces results is to work out exactly what you need to achieve and then work backwards from the date you need to achieve these goals by.
For example:
a. You know you will be looking for a second postdoc position in mid-2014 and have shortlisted several great labs you would like to join. To establish the necessary networks to get your next position you have decided to attend 2 conferences in 2013. This will be your chance to meet the right people and get your work known more broadly.
     You can now work backwards to the start of 2013 and plan what kind of work you want to present, look out for travel scholarship deadlines, plan ways to get invited for giving talks at the labs you are interested in, and so on. 
b.You have decided you want to apply for a fellowship in 18 months’ time. Next you need to identify what you need to have achieved by then to be competitive. A good start is to look at the actual application form for that fellowship and identify all the criteria you need to be competitive for. An even better option is to ask those who have won this fellowship recently, or someone on the selection committee. For example, one of the items you need to achieve is 2 more papers by mid-2014.
     You can now work backwards through the estimated time it takes for the manuscripts to be accepted all the way back to when you have to have finished all the experiments to write them up. This process will give you a clear idea of which experiments or work to prioritise, what date to set for finishing the first draft and pick the right journal not only by impact but also speed of processing.
c. You want to apply for tenure track position or careers in industry or government by early 2015. Through your research of the relevant career paths you have found out that you need to demonstrate experience in leading teams.
     Now that you are aware of this 2-year timeframe you can actively search for initiatives or service opportunities that provide you with a track record of leadership. For example, your idea is to initiate and organise a postdoc conference for mid-2014 (not for the faint-hearted, but a great way to show leadership and initiative!). Planning back from that date, some early activities for 2013 could be canvassing support from neighbouring schools or universities, setting up an organising committee, and so on.
Taking some time to plan is hugely valuable and important to your success.   Why not give it a go over the next few weeks, while the competition is still digesting its Christmas cake?!
The PostdocTraining team and I wish you a very happy and safe Christmas and a great start to 2013.

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