Career Planning for Graduate Students

Managing your career is an essential skill for graduate students. However, it is often neglected in favor of research responsibilities. Proper management of personal development is paramount to achieving one’s own professional goals and part of the responsibilities of a good researcher. The following is the synthesis of the insights and advice I have received from mentors and different career development events. As a graduate student myself, it is particularly relevant to fellow graduate students and predocs, but can also be useful to others interested in career development.  


Set Professional Goals  

The first step to any career development plan is to have a goal (or several goals). A goal can be something as concrete as “work in breeding of grasses” or something broader like “science communication” used to shape the professional plan. It is common to have multiple coexisting goals, especially at the beginning, and these goals can evolve as you advance or as your priorities shift.  

It is possible that you have not yet figured out which career path you want to take. In that case, your goal should be to find out! Give yourself time to define your goals and try to keep an open mind as you learn more about potential options. If you are interested in science outreach, you could try getting involved with initiatives at your institution or other local authorities. If science policy is your calling, be ready to collaborate in consultations with the government on matters related to your subject (If you are in the UK, I would urge you to check out Sense about Science and their work on evidence-based policy). What matters is that you take an active role and seek opportunities to learn and develop your career goals.  

Preparation: The Personal Development Plan  

Now that we have our goals, we need to make a plan. Many institutions in the UK and beyond require graduate students to complete a personal development plan (PDP). This is a document that details what skills you want to acquire, and which specific activities you will carry out in order to gain these skills. By designing a PDP, you can better manage your time to make sure that the activities that you take on support your career goals and avoid missing out on opportunities that are relevant to you. A helpful tool is the Vitae Researcher Development Framework, which identifies a set of skills that researchers should possess. It is a good guide to assess which skills you have developed already, and which are still lacking, allowing you to identify your training needs.  

For example, I am interested in education, which means skills within the “teaching” descriptor are particularly important to me. In order match my goals, I have included in my PDP activities that help develop those skills, like pedagogical training or teaching opportunities.  

And how do you determine what skills are important for your desired career path? There are multiple ways in which we can obtain insights:  

  1. Talk to your colleagues about your goals. This allows you to draw on a diverse range of experiences and gain a more accurate picture of what certain career paths are like in practice and determine how you should prepare for it.  
  1. Get a mentor or, better yet, several mentors. A mentor can give you extensive insight into her field and provide advice on what steps to take to follow that career path. Some universities run mentorship schemes where current students can connect to alumni and ask them for guidance. I participated in one such program and my experience could not be more positive. I wholeheartedly recommend it.  
  1. Look at offers for jobs you are interested in, even before you think of applying, and look at the skills required from candidates. This tells you which skills you should focus on for your PDP.  

Finally, a PDP also allows you to monitor your progress. By reviewing your achievements against your planned development, you can ensure that you are taking the right steps to prepare yourself for your future career stage or update your plan going forward if you identify any gaps in your training.  


Make Your Applications Effective  

When the time comes to prepare an application, it is important to prepare it carefully to ensure the highest chance of success. It is worth noting that the current job market is very competitive. There are usually many well-prepared candidates and, though it is not often acknowledged, luck can be a factor. The best we can do is to make our application as effective as we can and cast a wide net where possible.  

In order to save time when preparing your CV, a very useful advice I received from a mentor was to create an extended CV. This should contain all your academic and professional experiences, including a detailed list of all courses, leadership roles, conference presentations, volunteering and any sort of achievement that could be relevant to an application. When you prepare an application for a concrete role, you can select and highlight the relevant items for the post to create a highly specific CV in an efficient manner. In order to identify these, look at the list of requisites or profile described in the offer. It is important that you explicitly highlight how your specific experiences address these requisites in your personal statement or cover letter. Panels usually have to go through hundreds of applications, so making their job easier will make it more likely that your application gets noticed and you get an invitation for interview.  

Last, apply even if you don’t match all the criteria. One or two missed items may not necessarily exclude you from the selective process, as long as you can bring other relevant skills and show commitment to your professional development.  

Stay Focused! 

To develop professionally, you have to define your goals, identify the skillset required for your next career stage and make sure that your current training prepares you for that transition. This is no absolute, and as goals change, plans should be updated accordingly. Throughout the whole process, be sure to tap on your network and be proactive in promoting your own development. Opportunities usually exist, but it is up to us to seek them and devote the necessary time to develop into the professionals we want to be. 


About the Author:

Ángel Vergara Cruces is a PhD student at the John Innes Centre in the UK, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. He has joined the Webster lab to work on gene expression in chloroplasts using structural biology. You can find her on Twitter at @@ngelVerCru.