By Dr. Sara Clarke-Habibi, who received her PhD in 2017 at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

(This is Part 2 of a two-part series)

As seen in the last post, my post-PhD career-building journey is still in progress. I continue to straddle the two worlds of academia and consulting, but I’ve made some important headway in both domains that I feel good about. Based on my experiences, here are my top recommendations for early career-building in these two fields:

1. Be strategically visible both online and in real-world spaces. 

In online spaces create a personal website that highlights your research and related experience and have a career-focused LinkedIn profile. My personal rule is not to accept any casual friends or acquaintances into my LinkedIn network that are unrelated to my specific professional interests. That’s what Facebook is for. Following this rule keeps my LinkedIn profile and news feed streamlined to only what is most relevant for my work. Additionally, submit your profile to UN expert rosters. There are sometimes specific calls for experts on UN job sites, but you can often submit your profile online to a roster at any time. The process is a bit tedious, but once you’re in the system it is easier to update your profile to respond to a job/consultancy quickly (this is important as many application deadlines are short). Don’t forget to join key institutional mailing/invite lists. For me this means institutions and/or departments that I’d love to work for and whose work I want to stay up-to-date with. International institutions and sub-departments often have their own newsletters where updates, events and jobs are posted. My experience is that once you attend in person one key event, you are often invited to future events, including higher-level expert events that are by invitation-only. 

In key real-world spaces, be physically present at academic and policy/practice conferences, summits, seminars and workshops – whether or not you’re presenting. Taking the time to meet and discuss with people who are there is a great way to become familiar with who’s who and what is currently the state-of-the-art. Since you can’t be present everywhere, choose strategically and make the most of each opportunity. This can include writing a short blog about the event afterwards, and/or initiating correspondence with key individuals you have met. 

2. Network proactively and thoughtfully. 

It’s implicated in the all of the above, but specifically, this means doing things like reaching out to people by email, phone and in person to thank / share / update / inquire, etc. You can also request meetings or information exchanges, or likewise, accept invitations from others to do the same. It is also important to proactively show interest in other people’s work and to invite collaborations. Trading favours, e.g. to review each other’s work, to make an introduction, to provide a recommendation, etc., is another useful method of networking. 

With participants from the training on “Intercultural Dialogue and Peacebuilding in the Western Balkans”, UNICEF/RYCO, 2020.

3. Take on small engagements during the PhD such as small research support jobs.

For example, I was hired to perform a literature review on evaluation methodologies for a US-based think-tank during one of my PhD summers. It gave me some pocket money, a nice recommendation on LinkedIn, and additional material that was ultimately relevant for my PhD and future consulting work. 

There is also the option of providing intellectual inputs pro bono. I like to think of this as planting seeds or gambling. You spend some energy developing a concept or proposal at the request of a potential employer/collaborator with the hope that they will see the value of your skills/knowledge and bring you aboard. I did this for a non-governmental organisation that eventually hired me for an interesting project. *Be careful though! In recent years, many organisations have starting exploiting job candidates by requiring original intellectual inputs for the company before offering an interview. They may be called ‘case studies’ in which you are invited to share how you would approach or resolve a certain situation. The organisation then gathers and benefits from all of these ‘free’ inputs without ever calling candidates back, acknowledging their contributions or hiring them. This is unethical. My personal rule is to never work for free in this way until after a dialogue/interview has taken place and I have a degree of confidence that the organisation is serious about potentially working with me. 

Undertaking self-financed internships or fieldwork related to your PhD is another option. International organisations tend to hire only those people who have already worked for them. The entry points for newbies are few: this is why there is so much competition for (often unpaid) internships. I won’t go into how exploitive that is as others have written about it, but if you can construct an opportunity to do an internship with an international organisation, it is an effective calling card for future employment opportunities. Once you’ve worked for one international organisation, you’re more likely to be hired by another one. 

Other entry points include being willing to go to dangerous/fragile places for a work assignment of a few months or more – the competition is lower as the risks are evidently higher. Higher too are the potential career benefits though, as individuals with experience in priority development countries and regions are in constant demand. 

If you can weave your PhD work into one of these forms of cooperation with international organisations, you’ll be a step ahead. 

4. Get good recommendations. 

It is important to be strategic about this too. I’ve found that receiving good recommendations relies on a combination of several factors:

Do your best work every time. There is really no replacement for this. “Best” is relative, of course, to the task and the other circumstances in your life. But sloppy and incomplete work can never be recommended. 

Be a good colleague. Do not underestimate the importance of this one – people will often choose to hire someone who is less competent but nice to work with, than someone who is intellectually excellent but personally arrogant or rude. Being trustworthy, reliable, kind, and supportive to your colleagues makes you a good person to be around and to work with. 

Give good recommendations. Making a habit of recommending your colleagues, superiors and students for opportunities they are well-suited for and, in general, being (sincerely) appreciative and encouraging of their work, character and/or achievements will help you build a good professional community around yourself. 

Ask and provide the right inputs. Firstly, you will not get recommendations if you don’t ask for them. Secondly, while you should not pre-write your recommendation letter, neither should you ever leave your recommendation letter to chance. When you ask for a recommendation, ask for what will specifically help you for the job opportunity you are applying to, including mentioning any key experiences or skills that the hiring body is looking for. Then provide all of the information that your recommender will need in order to write the recommendation that will be most helpful to you. This will include a description of the position you are applying to, a description of the relevant work / experiences / skills that you have (they should also be summarized in your application letter which will accompany your CV), and a reminder of any specific experiences you have had with the recommender that could be of further relevance for their letter.  

5. Be upfront about time availability & compensation expectations

Great, so you are shortlisted for a position you want and you’re being asked about your time availability and compensation expectations. Assuming you have now finished or will soon finish the PhD, you have expertise and higher qualifications. Therefore, you should be compensated at an appropriate rate and you should not undersell yourself. At the same time, depending upon how much or how little professional experience you have apart from the PhD, and how important the current opportunity is as a career stepping-stone, you may find that the benefits of lowering your compensation expectations outweighs the possibly of not getting the job. In my consulting work, I have benchmarked appropriate going rates for the work involved and my expertise, but have also shown flexibility in order to secure the assignment. I have also been upfront about the time that I have and do not have to complete assignments in a quality manner while ensuring that I meet my family and health obligations. Again, short-term flexibility is sometimes needed for critical deadlines, but I will no longer agree to working conditions that push me to burnout. And I have found that ethical institutions, of the kind I would like to work for, respect these obligations and accommodate them. 

When investments seem not to provide returns…

Inevitably, there will be ups and downs, successes and false-starts along the way to building a post-PhD career. What I have found to be important is learning to integrate all these experiences into the process. Here are some of the disappointments I faced along the way that I later discovered were not fruitless efforts after all:

I developed a detailed content outline for a project (for free): It was ignored… But the same organisation hired me two years later for a different project.
I provided expert input for a major project bid (for free): The bid failed… But the head of the bidding organisation wrote me a strong recommendation, and another colleague got my work into a key publication.
I applied for an assistant professorship: The position went to an internal candidate and was probably never really open for competition… But I developed a great dossier I can re-use when another position I want opens.
I lowered my consulting fee for a first-entry position with a UN organisation and worked crazy hours to achieve my mandate to the best of my ability within the limited time assigned to it: I did more work than I was compensated for…But my work was highly commended within the UN network, and one contract turned into four. I also gained excellent colleagues and excellent letters of recommendation for my academic career projects.

My concluding advice? Start building pathways to your post-PhD career now. I hope my questions and tips in these two blog posts help you in your career reflections and planning! 

What have been your experiences with building a post-PhD career?

FERSA would love to hear from you and invites your contribution to this blog!

Presenting on “Grassroots Approaches to Violence Prevention and Peacebuilding”, Association of Foreign Affairs, Lund University, Sweden, 2016.

Dr. Sara Clarke-Habibi has 20 years’ experience in the field of peacebuilding through education. She earned a PhD in Education from the University of Cambridge. Her work focusses on educational intersections with violent conflict, displacement, transitional justice, social healing and intergroup reconciliation. She is currently researching educational provision for migrant and refugee populations at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. She is also a consultant for UNICEF, UNDP and UNFPA in the Western Balkans, engaged in developing educational practices that strengthen youth competences for intercultural dialogue, dealing with the past and peacebuilding across the region.

Posted by:fersacambridge

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