Guilty as charged: why career decision-making makes you the prime suspect

In this blog post Dr. Holly Prescott, our PGR Careers Adviser, talks about how to put yourself in a position where a great career can find you…

After six long months of trying to kid myself that I could make my own entertainment, I bit the bullet and bought a TV for my new flat. After a barrage of suggestions as to what I should spend my weekends ‘binge-watching,’ Dexter left me underwhelmed, whilst Doctor Foster Series 2 was five hours of my life I wanted back. Perhaps this whole telly box thing wasn’t for me after all.

That was until I tried BBC police drama Line of Duty. If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, the series follows AC-12, an anti-corruption police unit whose mission is to sniff out and bring to justice corrupt officers within the force.  Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott is a diminutive cockney detective-genius with a superlative ability to maintain a single facial expression for five entire series. Detective Constable Kate Fleming makes working undercover look as easy and seamless as riding a bike… if you’re Bradley Wiggins.

As I was engrossed in an episode in series two, Steve and Kate outlined the three criteria that a suspect must fulfil to be convicted of a crime:

  • Motive: a reason/ motivation to commit the crime
  • Means: the ability and tools necessary to commit the crime
  • Opportunity: adequate chance(s) to commit the crime

This was when my chronic inability to switch off from work kicked in. When considering career options, are these not also the very three things we need to establish before ruling a potential career area ‘in’ or ‘out?’ Consult exhibit A from the evidence:

  • Motive: reasons that motivate you towards that option, including your interests, values and so-on (the work ‘ticks your boxes’)
  • Means: the right credentials, qualifications and skills for the job, plus techniques to effectively sell yourself to relevant employers
  • Opportunity: access to jobs/ openings in that career area

If the evidence adds up and you have all three, chances are that’s a realistic opportunity for you. If one aspect is currently missing, you can assess where your gaps are that you need to address before presenting yourself as a prime suspect (or, should we say, candidate):

  • Motive: if this is missing, why are you going for this job in the first place? Perhaps it’s an interim role, or you need a job to earn whilst you explore your options: either way, you will be expected to communicate to employers why you want the job and why you want to work for them
  • Means: Perhaps you’re unsure if you have the skills and experience required for the job. Can you tease out relevant skills from your PhD experiences, and show the employer how these skills would make you effective in this particular role? Or… might you need a bit of additional experience or training first? If so, how can you access this?
  • Opportunity: If there aren’t opportunities out there, perhaps this option isn’t faring too well in the current labour market. Or… are you just struggling with where to look for the right kind of jobs? Or do you need to expand your network to meet more people ‘in-the-know’ about your chosen field(s)?

Pushing the metaphor even further, some crimes are premeditated and planned, whilst others are opportunistic – exploiting and capitalising on chance events or circumstances. Again, it’s the same with careers: yes, you can assess your options systematically and set goals, but it’s also fine to keep your options open, continue to develop your ‘means’ (skills) and put yourself in circumstances and situations where opportunities are more likely to find you.

So, to avoid committing any career-planning crimes, think motive, means and opportunity. DS Arnott would be proud.
Check out UGS’s career resources for PGRs on the web at or contact PGR Careers Adviser Dr Holly Prescott on



The Pure Research Information System is now available to all PhD researchers…

In this blog post Sam King from the Planning Office talks about the benefits of using Pure (Publication and Research)…

What is Pure and why should we use it?

Pure is a Research Information Management System and is the institutional Research Repository used by the University of Birmingham. Whilst the majority of records added to Pure are publications, Pure can also be used to record information about your research activities and can even be used to publish datasets.

If you want to plan for your academic career, Pure is an excellent tool to start collecting together your research activities in one place.

Adding information to Pure is quick and easy and the information can be easily downloaded in a variety of formats. This means the information held in Pure can be used for a wide range of purposes, from creating a simple publications list to presenting all of your academic activity for a review and much more. Similarly, should you ever choose to move institution you can easily download your information from Pure and take it with you.

Pure also has some very useful tools such as the CV builder which can quickly create a customisable CV. Using the information brought together in Pure from many different university systems, new information and changes will update automatically and the final CV is easy to download in either a Word or PDF format.

If you are an RCUK funded student you may know that you are required to report back on the outcomes of your research via a website called Researchfish.

Whilst Researchfish will only be made available to you from year three onwards, Pure is available to you from the very first day of your studies. By recording your research activity in Pure, when you come to report on your outputs in Researchfish you will have the information presented in a structured and orderly fashion, ready to be added.

Additionally, when you create your ORCID (as some publishers now require) it’s possible to create and integrate this with Pure. This means that you can allow Pure to update your ORCID account with publication information, saving you time and reducing the need to enter information in many different systems, further reducing duplication and saving you a great deal of time.

Many readers may also be aware of the new Research Portal being launched, any publications uploaded to Pure will be made available on the Portal. This means your research publications will be open to a much wider audience, potentially enhancing your research profile and reputation.

Whilst as a postgraduate researcher there is no obligation for you to use Pure, the potential benefits to you; your career and your research are far greater than the tiny amount of time required to keep it up-to-date. Give yourself a head start in preparing for your future career now and think what you could achieve with the time saved later.

To access the Pure Research Information System please go to and log in with your normal University username and password.

For guidance with Pure please see or contact us by email:

We also operate a monthly Pure and Open Access drop-in clinic where it is possible to work in a supported environment with experts on hand to solve any problems and answer any questions you may have.

Working from home

This week Jonathan Ward, who is part of Liveable Cities team in Civil Engineering, shares his experience of working from home as a postgraduate researcher…

working from home

Doing my PhD from home has given me an opportunity to reflect on a few things which I’d like to share with you. It brings benefits, but also pitfalls.

At first the freedom of the PhD brought excitement, possibilities. In time, I noticed a self-inflicted loss of identity. I didn’t go out to work; gone were my responsibilities: a humble student, hidden from view. I had met my ego, and had to make peace with it.

Being useful. What could I show for my day except some notes and pages of reading? Especially when my partner has a frontline occupation. They weren’t judging me, I was. I would start doing DIY and chores to show I was ‘useful’.

After the guilt came the feeling of treading water– PhDs are unlike normal jobs. It’s full of non-linear progress and periods of stasis. By yourself you can lose perspective. A sense of completion, of impact, seems essential for the wellbeing of many of us and to keep motivated.

The freedom of unbounded time and space, ironically, became a prison of inertia.  As much as I tried to confine my work to an office in the house at certain hours, mentally it followed me everywhere, nagging, making me less productive at everything. PhDs always want more from you; without discipline it will cause guilt and interfere with the rest of your life.

Isolation. If you spend most of your week at home alone four walls can feel pretty close. I was surprised at how much I needed both company and communication as a person and student. Research is done in a community, but I was closed off. This impacts on work and mental wellbeing.

What wisdom can I impart from my experiences?

  • Value your PhD as an opportunity and for the contribution you will make
  • Get regular feedback
  • Recognise your own work patterns – where, when and how best do you work.
  • Home reminds of us of other tasks that are not normally tempting, but are when faced with the PhD. Try changes of scenery.
  • Be aware and accepting of your social and mental health needs. Humans generally like company, even if just a café environment.
  • PhDs are your own work, but doesn’t have to mean working by yourself. Collaboration and discussion helps shape ideas, provide feedback, and overcome isolation. Find peers and make time to meet them.
  • Breaks to use social media or phone so you can reconnect with the world without distracting yourself.
  • Designate space for working and don’t take it elsewhere in the house.
  • Routines are often helpful, but when flexibility is required, limit your hours. Know what is enough.
  • You’ll get more done and feel better, and able to separate from your PhD if you make realistic aims and reflections at the start and end of each day. Try bullet journals or put one key task in Outlook.
  • Balance your day with other activities that provide for your wellbeing. Have the opportunity to do something practical, visible and tangible.

Do you have any other tips? Share them with us in the comments below!

If you would like to share your experience as a postgraduate researcher, please get in touch with Dr. Eren Bilgen to become one of our guest bloggers.

How to find your tools of the trade

In this blog post Patricia Herterich, the Research Repository Advisor in the University of Birmingham Library, provides a summary and reflection of the Writing Summer School session “Navigating the maze of research and writing tools”…

Using the right tools is crucial to make your research and writing processes as efficient as possible. There are plenty of tools to choose from to support the full research life cycle from discovering literature related to research to publishing and promoting your own works. To get a better understanding, Bianca Kramer and Jeroen Bosman surveyed the tools used by researchers around the world for 9 months in 2015/16. The more than 20,000 survey answers can be accessed for detailed research and inspired some workflows based on e.g. services offered by the same provider or services that support the ideas of Open Science.

In general it can be said that the more of these systems work together, the easier your work. Thus, the first part of the session focused on getting attendees to think about the tools and systems they use and which of them can exchange data. Some examples were shared on Twitter:

The second half of the session was filled by group discussions about the participants’ favourite tools, and criteria that make us choose certain tools or stop us from using them.

Writing Tools Photo

Important criteria for workshop attendees were that tools were free (or cheap) to use or licensed by the university, come with a friendly user interface, and work on several operating systems and are thus compatible with private and university computers. Furthermore, students counted on recommendations by others (e.g. in their research group) so they can share knowledge with other people in their department and collaborate more easily. Tools should also be open source, be easily connected to other programs, and allow for content to be exported to other systems. Even better if there’s training available on campus or online!

Some of the attendees’ favourite tools included the reference manager Mendeley because its user friendly interface outweighs occasional synchronisation issues between desktop and cloud hosted versions of the software. Quirkos was mentioned as it supports qualitative analysis in a visual way, but do not underestimate more traditional tools such as NVivo or Excel.

Still looking for the right tool to use? A full database with tools you can use (that can be filtered by e.g. discipline) can be accessed here. Why not set yourself a challenge and use one of the next shut up & write sessions to try and familiarise yourself with a new tool?

Most important however is to back up whatever you do and regularly export your work in open file formats in case you lose access to the tools. While Dropbox and GoogleDrive might be great, we recommend using the University of Birmingham’s BEAR DataShare service, especially if parts of your work cover sensitive and personal data that needs to be stored in line with the Data Protection Policy.

Do you have favourite tools or advise to share? Let us know in the comments below or comment on the slides from the session or notes from the group discussions.

Turn your research into a course!

Carol Gray, a doctoral researcher at Birmingham Law School,  shares her experience with us on designing online courses…

“To teach is to learn twice”, as the saying goes.

Have you ever found yourself explaining your research to other people, then wondering how much they have taken in? Ever been tempted to set them a quick quiz to test this? (Okay, that’s probably going a bit too far….)

What about your key stakeholders or colleagues? Wouldn’t it be good to share your results with them in a format that allows the learning to count as Continuing Professional Development (CPD)? Many professionals are now required to complete a certain number of hours of CPD per year, and this can be a powerful recruitment tool for short courses.

So, why don’t you think about turning your research topic into an on-line learning module? On-line learning has become a hugely popular form of learning, either on its own or mixed with face-to-face sessions as “blended learning.”

How do you start to design a course?

Tip number 1: find a high-quality course provider to work with.

I was lucky that an ex-colleague is now running a company that provides on-line CPD for veterinary nurses. She sounded positive about my ideas to turn my research on informed consent into an on-line module, targeting vets and vet nurses.

Tip number 2: get to know the course platform before you start designing the module.

I volunteered to act as an additional course tutor for an existing on-line module, to see how presentations, discussion boards and assessment tasks worked.

Tip number 3: sign up to do the “Managing your research project” PGCARMS module!

There is nothing quite like a looming assessment deadline to get your creative juices flowing. The project management module has been eye-opening, and crucial to developing the “completer-finisher” skills that were sadly lacking in my skills set. The module requires you to justify what you are doing, to plan it down to the last detail and to anticipate problems and risks, all of which are central to the completion of a project such as this. I failed to spot the main risk involved in my plan, which was that my supervisor was less than enthusiastic about the whole idea! After some negotiation, we managed to reach a compromise that allowed me to develop the module (and use it for the PGCARMS module assessment) but not to run it until I complete my PhD.

Tip number four: make use of the many MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that are available, and free!

I participated in a “Designing e-learning for health” course run by the University of Nottingham on FutureLearn, and it was a great way to try novel approaches, share learning with others and add specific skills to my learning development kit. You can also pick up some “best practice” ideas for on-line learning.

So now I have a module that is ready to run, has been approved by the on-line CPD business owner, and will be available to both vets and nurses in the (hopefully!) near future. I am excited to think that I can share my passion for informed consent with other veterinary professionals, and would encourage anyone else with a topic that would work as an on-line course to investigate this possibility.

Public Engagement with Research: The Personal Development Holy Grail

This week James Walker, a postgraduate researcher in the Centre for Doctoral Training in Fuel Cells and their Fuels in the School of Chemical Engineering, shares his public engagement experience with us…  

Ever been at a party and killed a conversation in ten seconds flat when asked “so, what do you do?” If so, you’re probably also a postgraduate researcher (PGR) – or perhaps a town planner. My heart goes out to my peers who are both! I used to get as far as “oh I’m doing a PhD in Chemical Enginee-,“ before I’d notice the glazing over of the eyes of what had been my audience. “You must be very smart,” they all say, before suddenly needing to nip to the loo. Now I lead with “well I make really tiny renewable energy catalysts and look at atoms using fancy, expensive microscopes that look like weapons in a Bond villain’s arsenal!” Suffice to say, the second response engenders significantly more discussion. The subtle difference is in knowing your audience and tailoring your delivery, I’d say. These are among a crop of new skills that I’ve picked up since becoming heavily involved in public engagement with research and I’m writing this to tell you how you too can revolutionise your personal development simply by talking about the thing that you spend most of your time doing. Convenient eh?

I recently hosted a workshop as part of the University’s Arts & Science Festival. Entitled “In The Chemists’ Kitchen,’ my workshop invited a group of unsuspecting adults for a look behind the scenes in our labs in the Birmingham Centre for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Research. Workshop participants joined in in preparing nanoparticle ‘soup’, made microwavable ‘ready meal’ silver nanoclusters and recrystalised a copper sulphate ‘cheesecake’. It might sound wacky to use cooking metaphors to communicate scientific concepts but it occurred to me that while my lab is veritably inaccessible to the public, most people have at some point made a pot of soup and can relate to chopping up vegetables and boiling them to release the tasty goodness – usually as per the secret family recipe. When I synthesise nanoparticles, I boil up chemical compounds in a broth-like solvent until bonds break and smaller fragments assemble as desired, and I am usually following a recipe handed down ceremoniously in Nature Chemistry. The parallels are clear – to me at least!

James Photo

So what did I learn from developing my workshop, I hear you ask? First of all, independently developing and hosting a workshop required a significant amount of planning and project management. Keeping the activities and briefing engaging required a very critical assessment of my aims and objectives for the workshop, and a shrewd review of the way each concept would be communicated. I could not have achieved this alone – my workshop developed iteratively through inputs from experienced Public Engagement with Research Committee and Cultural Engagement staff, as well as technical suggestions from colleagues and the School’s health and safety officer. On the night of the workshop, I was ably supported by four PGR colleagues. I think the term “collaboration” is overused but in all reality my event would not have been nearly as successful were it not for my collaborative working with each of the above individuals – from encouraging me to be creative in my approach to physically assisting participants in their experiments. Finally, my colleagues and I were shocked by just how awe-inspiring routine and frankly boring aspects of our day-to-day work (using a magnetic stirrer, for example) were for the workshop participants. This new perspective well and truly answers the “surely people won’t find this interesting?” question that is such a barrier to getting researchers involved in public engagement.

To summarise, then, organising and hosting my workshop offered me an all-encompassing opportunity to develop my communication, team working and project management skills. It’s easy to get bogged down in the pursuit of data for that all important PhD thesis, but I think it’s also prudent to remember that there’s life after the viva and these kinds of transferrable skills will stand anyone in good stead for just about any career that I can think of.

We’ll be discussing the pragmatic personal development merits of getting involved with public engagement and highlighting just how fun bringing your research to a wider audience can be at an upcoming coffee morning for PGRs and ECRs. Please join us! The aim of the coffee morning is to encourage a collaborative and peer-supportive approach to PGR/ECR-led public engagement activities so some things to think about – how can we best assist each other to deliver impactful public engagement? How can we organically foster an interdisciplinary/cross-college approach to developing these activities?

For their kind assistance with his workshop, James would like to gratefully acknowledge Caroline Gillet, Jon Wood, Laura Milner, Kaye Winwood, Aimee Jackson, Laura Allerston, Pete Mardle and Alan Stephen.

It’s not all about you: How to make some sweet non-academic CV music

PGR Careers Adviser Holly Prescott explains how a quick change of perspective can make all the difference when writing a non-academic CV…

As a PGR Careers Adviser I’ve learnt to spot some classic PhD CV errors quicker than Theresa May can call a snap election. Something that really interests me though is one of the most popular questions I get asked by PGRs, which is…

‘What should I include in my CV?’

A relatively understandable and inoffensive question you might think?

Well… What I find interesting about this question is that the person asking it seems to be approaching their CV in a very specific way that comes from the self: what have I done? What should I write?  When we’re thinking in this way though, it then becomes easy to forget that our CV isn’t a summary of our life story: it is a marketing document strategically written for a particular target audience.

The CV mind-set shift we’re thinking about here is:

Moving from ‘what should I include’…

To thinking instead… What does this recruiter want to know about me?

This is why, in order find out what we ‘should include’ on our CV, we first need to know:

  • For what kind of opportunity are you using this CV?
  • What is involved in the role?
  • What essential and desirable skills and experience is the employer is seeking?

Think of your skills and experience as music (bear with me…). Your potential employer’s job description and person specification are musical scores. Once you know what’s written on those scores, you can hit all the right notes. Without knowing or paying attention to what’s on the scores, your chances of reeling off a Beethoven-standard application are pretty slim. So, the answers to these key questions become our blueprint on what the employer wants to know about us… and hence, what to include in our CV or application. So, we know what the employer is looking for, and hence have some good clues as to which of our skills and experiences should take priority on our CV. Cue the next inevitable question…

What about my PhD?

How can we effectively communicate our PhD skills and experience to match what it is that an employer wants to know about us? Especially when applying for non-academic jobs where a PhD may not speak for itself?

Mike graduated with his PhD from the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences in 2016 and wanted to take his PhD outside of academia. He secured a place on a Graduate Scheme, and has some useful advice for current PhDs applying for jobs beyond academia.

‘When talking to people (including employers) who haven’t been through the PhD experience, it can be quite hard to convey what is involved in a PhD and how hard it is,’ says Mike. One way that he addressed these difficulties in communicating the value of his PhD to non-academic employers was to include his PhD under both the ‘education’ and the ‘work experience’ sections of his CV. ‘Under “education” I’d give the working title of my thesis and a couple of bullet points covering the main points and achievements. What was far more substantial though was what I wrote about my PhD as “employment.”’

Here, Mike used his PhD experiences to pick out key skills relevant to the employers he was targeting. ‘I presented my PhD experience in terms of competencies relevant to that employer. I looked back on the PhD and times when I’d showed qualities like leadership or team work. Then, I gave demonstrative examples of when I’d showed these competencies: for example, coordinating a team of volunteers during fieldwork.’

So there you have it… those key competencies and skills that the employer is looking for are our ultimate guide on what to include in our CV and how best to present our PhD experience to that recruiter. If you want to know more about how best to nail your non-academic applications and interviews, join us for our workshop ‘Successful job applications outside of academia: a complete guide for Postgraduate Researchers’ on Friday 26 May.