Facts & Tools

How to build a career strategy and why this might help you

We put together four pieces of advice that help you build your career strategy as an academic. Putting together such a strategy will take time that you could be using to write that paper or finish that experiment – but we think it is no less important.

When asked about how they got their positions, people in academia most likely will say, „Well, I was lucky.“ On the one hand that is probably true. There are way more PhDs than faculty positions. Way more! And we all know that academia is not a mere meritocracy, either.

On the other hand, the “I was lucky“ narrative implies that your career is at the mercy of circumstances beyond your control, and you can’t do anything. That is false.

Now, a career strategy is no guarantee for getting that tenured position. It is also not a rigid plan that must be followed no matter what.  It is rather a tool for self-reflection and a compass that helps you to set yourself up for lucky coincidences. It makes you more aware of all the options you have. It can change as your life changes.

Here are four ideas how to start creating your career strategy:


1) Figure out what you want in life

Your career path is not detached from the rest of your life. You need to know what you’re aiming at as a life/career package in order to know where to go and what to ask for. And knowing what is important to you is crucial for making hard choices (Ruth Chang gave a great talk about that).

Know your values

Values are the standards that guide you in how you live and work. When they match your current situation, you feel good. If not, you will likely feel uncomfortable in some way. Academics we have worked with often identified values such as freedom, flexibility, curiosity, family, meaning, and recognition. You can find a list of values here and can narrow them down to the three or five most important ones. Some of them might stick, others might change as your personal situation changes. You can also think about characteristics that you really loathe. Often the opposite is one of your values.

Know your skills and your strengths

In order to create a list of your skills, you can write down all the activities you are doing at your job or volunteer work or check this article. You can also look through job ads for jobs you like and see what kind of skills are being asked for. This also helps to figure out the right wording. Focus on those skills that you enjoy doing or would like to learn.

A pragmatic take on strengths is that they are characteristics or skills that come easily to you and that you are willing to work to retain or develop. You might be really good at editing, but loathe it. If so, don’t push it as a strength. Strengths are rather things that strengthen you.

This well-done free test nicely puts into words what your strengths might be.

Your Message

Only when you know your values, your skills, and strengths can you communicate a coherent message to potential employers, to people who might have a good lead for you, and also your family or other people who are important in your life. You can align a job offer, an inquiry, a next career move with what you are actually aiming for.

Try to write that summary of values, skills, and strengths down. You can package it the way that fits best in different situations (your online appearance, a job talk, a conference), but stick to the core of the message.

2) Know the game and play by the rules

At least in Germany, the rules for how to become a professor are somewhat intransparent – but some are clear. For instance, there are similiar time limits for how long after your PhD you are eligible to apply for young research group funding programs. Make sure to plan ahead when you decide on the next step after your PhD.

When preparing your application documents, make it as easy as possible for the recipient to get the information they need. Check our webinar with the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers (DHV) to get tipps on how to prepare for an application and job talk for a professorship (in German).

Consider that rules and standards in other sectors are different from academia. If you apply for jobs outside academia you need to adapt your wording, layout, and style of communication.

Know about the formal and figure out the informal rules of the working environments you‘re interested in – consider it a field study.


3) Build meaningful connections – when you don’t need them

Many people hate small talk. And we understand that it is never comfortable to approach someone because you want something from them. However, actively building a network is important to get the hint for a job, to have someone rally for you, know someone who knows someone important, and so on.

It is somewhat helpful to compare networking to dating. Don’t talk so much about yourself, but ask good questions. Be genuinely interested in the person or their work or both. Stay in touch if you had a good conversation.

It is easier to ask for something when you have already established a relationship and maybe when you have also already given something.

We use LinkedIn as a data base for contacts. You can filter your contacts and get a good overview. A spreadsheet is fine, too. Find more helpful tipps in the video.

The most comfortable way to foster your network is, however, to be seen by others first.

4) Make sure you are on the radar

What do you do when you meet someone new? Or when someone approaches you with an interesting idea, inquiry etc.?  Usually, we type their name in an internet search engine. What comes up on the first page when you search for your own name? Will the results reflect the message you want to convey and will people know you exist (see advice No 1)?

It is helpful to have at least one good internet presence. This can be your own website, a profile on ResearchGate or LinkedIn. Maybe Twitter is for you, too – the research community is quite active there. Just make the page a comprehensive and current one. Remember, this way you are in charge what message and image you convey to the world outside. For more details, check out our webinar.

And at last: Don’t stress and have some fun in the process. You made it this far already. We still wish you luck, but moreover encourage you to create your career strategy.

If you need help or a sparring partner, get in touch with us.