Writing non-academic job applications

This post is written by Cate Bennett, Researcher Development Manager (ECRs) and is part of our new PGR Career Planning Guide.

Just like your CV an application form is your personal marketing document. It is your opportunity to introduce ‘you’ to a potential employer and therefore your first opportunity to showcase the relevant skills, experiences and personal attributes that you have and that they are looking for.  Your key focus must be to tailor your application to the role.

Before you compose anything, have you …

1.    Carefully read the form, accompanying documents and instructions through from start to finish? Ask yourself: do I have all the information to hand that I will need to complete this form successfully?

The above may sound obvious, but you’ll be amazed at how many people don’t do this and then find they are wasting time hunting for key pieces of information, for example; key dates, names of qualifications, examining body details, employers’ addresses and strong examples to showcase evidence. Remember, follow instructions to the letter and don’t leave sections blank, unless you really have nothing relevant to say.

On top of all of this, many forget to seek the permission of their potential referees. It is vital that you ask whether they are happy to be your referee; if you don’t, you may find that a reference won’t be forthcoming!

2.    Carried out your research? Ask yourself: what do I know about this organisation and the sector it operates within?

Your research should not be limited to the organisation’s website and application materials. Often you can find out a lot about an organisation through following them on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook etc. Read the press and sector specific magazines and journals.

You may, through reviewing your own network, identify individuals who have knowledge of your organisation of choice. Using LinkedIn Alumni may help you identify graduates from the University of Exeter who are working within the sector you are trying to break into and even the company you are applying to. Why not use your common experience of studying/researching at Exeter as a way to connect through LinkedIn and start a conversation!

Attending employer events and fairs run through the University and elsewhere will also provide you with opportunities to have key conversations with recruiters.

3.    Identified the key elements your potential employer is seeking? Ask yourself: if I was the recruiter what would make this application form stand out for me?

Pay very close attention to the advert, job description and person specification.

If, in the advertising materials for the post, you are offered the opportunity to find out more about the role before applying, embrace it! Make contact with the person listed and prepare for your conversation in advance. Don’t ask questions for which the answers could be easily found through the website, or application materials. Think about what you need to know to support your decision making around whether the role and the organisation are right for you and to help you target your application further.

4.    Explored and understood the language of the sector and organisation? Ask yourself: does this organisation use an applicant tracking system (ATS)?

An applicant tracking system helps companies organize candidates for hiring and recruitment purposes. These systems allow businesses to collect information, organize prospects based on experience and skill set, and filter applicants’. 

Although you may not be able to find out whether an ATS is used (currently, it appears to be large organisations that utilise them), taking time to do your background research and looking at the language in the recruitment literature and on the organisation’s web pages will give you the opportunity to use the language that an ATS will be looking for. Try to weave this naturally through your application form and remember:

  • No spelling mistakes! The ATS will miss important keywords if misspelled.
  • Consider the keywords, buzzwords, technical terms, experience and skills used in the organisation’s recruitment material and in the industry
5.    Identified your skills and personal attributes and the experiences you will use to evidence these? Ask yourself: what are the essential and desirable criteria for this role? What else have I learnt about this role through my research and discussions? What experiences will therefore allow me to evidence my most relevant skills and personal attributes?

Don’t just consider standard work or study based examples; what other things have you done or do you do that makes up who you are? Always keep in mind relevance; you are looking for examples across your various experiences that will allow you to evidence skills, experience, enthusiasm and potential. Don’t forget that some experiences that, on the one hand, may not seem related to the role, on the other may be ideal for showcasing the development of key transferable skills that you can’t showcase from more directly related examples.

6.    Considered the language you will use to confidently convey your potential and enthusiasm through the examples you use?

Make it positive, for example, don’t use ‘I feel’, ‘I think’, ‘I had to’. You need to confidently convey your actions using ‘power verbs’. You may find the information found via this link will help you get into the swing of this technique:#.


Now that you are ready to start composing your personal statement and/or answer questions posed by the employer on the application form, consider the following …

1.    If the application form comprises a personal statement section i.e. the blank box which gives you the opportunity to explain why you are applying for the role and why you are suitable, how will you design it so that it’s easy to see how you match the key criteria laid down?  Below is just one approach you could consider:

  • An introductory paragraph that sets the scene i.e. explains why you are interested in the organisation and role;
  • Followed by a themed approach to showcasing how you meet the essential and desirable criteria. i.e. can you theme the elements of the desirable and essential criteria into simple headings and then provide the relevant evidence as to how you meet the criteria? Although theming may not always be possible, where it is, it will may make it much easier for the recruiter to spot how you meet their requirements, rather than trawling through long paragraphs of text trying to identify them. Unless instructed otherwise, it is often suitable to break-up paragraphs with bullet points, allowing you to highlight the key elements you want to stand out. When providing an example to showcase skills and experience, consider using the STAR technique (see section 2 below for details);
  • Brief summary, but not a repetition, of your interest in the role and organisation.

Remember: make the recruiters life easy, don’t write a novel, use a logical structure, be succinct, to the point and provide evidence to back-up your claims. Follow instructions, including those relating to word count or number of pages! If there are no such instructions, often 2-3 pages of A4 is suitable, but if in doubt you can always contact the organisation for clarification.

2.      You may find that the application form contains competency based questions. To answer these successfully you’ll need to identify the specific competency/competencies sought. Where this/these may not be obvious, you may find it helpful to refer back to the person specification and job description. Your next step is to pick a strong example from previous or current experience that will help you evidence not only the skill, but the level of your competence in using it. Read the question carefully, if you are being asked for ‘an example of a time when you …’ use one example only.

To help you with structuring your answer and writing succinctly, try using the STAR technique:

S – briefly describe the Situation

T – briefly describe the Task (often you can combine the S&T)

A – clearly explain the Action you took. This is the section in which you provide the detail of what YOU did. Here you must talk about ‘I’. The recruiter needs to know what you did to be able to identify your skills and personal attributes. This is the part of your answer you spend the most time on.

– explain the Result/s of your action/s. Most people forget to include the outcome of their actions. Don’t skim over this!

Sometimes it may be appropriate to add a second ‘R’ = Review to explain what you’ve learnt or done differently since this experience to showcase your development.

Often competency questions are word limited – remain within the word count!

An infographic of the STARR technique - Situation, Task, Action, Result, Reflection











3.      Strength based questions are more commonly asked at interview but may sometimes be asked on application forms. These questions are used to identify candidates whose own strengths and preferred working style matches the job role, therefore trying to ensure higher motivation and performance in successful candidates.

  • Utilise strong examples of when you have used the specific strengths asked for and     articulate, where appropriate, how they could be of benefit to the organisation
  • Make sure you draw on experiences from all aspects of your life – academia, voluntary work, clubs/societies, paid employment, gap year / travel etc.
  • Just like every other aspect of the application process make sure you answer honestly. If you pretend to be someone you’re not and are successful in securing the position it may not be a good fit for you. 


Final Words of Wisdom

  • Wherever possible, give yourself plenty of time to carry out the background research and the drafting of your application; it can take hours to write, so don’t put yourself under pressure. It is wise to take a break, once you’ve written your first draft, and then come back to it to read it afresh, you’ll often find that you can hone it further.
  • Whether the application requires a personal statement or answers to specific questions which are word limited, draft in Word first, then spell and grammar check; not every online form has a spell checker.
  • If you decide to copy and paste from a previous application form be very, very careful that you are copying the right information! It is more common than you think for applicants to copy across the wrong information, including the name of the previous organisation. It is often better to re-type than copy and paste from an old application form.
  • In Word use the word count checker for the elements of the form that are word limited, not every form will cut you off when you have reached the maximum words allowed. Anything written in excess of the word count is unlikely to be read!
  • Be aware that when copying and pasting into the online form, formatting may change. Make sure you give yourself time to go back through your text to reformat where necessary – visual impressions do count!
  • Don’t lie, be positive, clear and concise.
  • The careful use of bullet points can help draw the eye to key elements of your experiences. They can also help you stick to the facts rather than writing a novel. They help breakup blocks of text which are onerous to those who have very little time to read your application.
  • Proofread – you first then others.
  • If you would like to find out more about disclosing a disability at application stage, please visit the following web pages and listen to the podcasts.
  • Without fail, tailor your application and always follow instructions!


In February we launched our PGR Careers Planning ELE page, with bespoke resources taking PGRs through the Career Management Cycle.

This blog post is an extract from this ELE page all about Networking, and was developed by Dr. Kate Massey-Chase, doctoral graduate in Drama.


We are currently surveying our PGRs and find out what other resources you would like us to develop to enhance our PGR Careers Planning ELE page and Beyond Your Research Degree podcast, and in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic through a brief online form here. 

Some people shudder at the word ‘networking’, picturing awkward drinks events where you have no idea who to talk to (or how to hold a drink and canapé and eat/drink/talk at the same time). But networking isn’t just about meeting people in the atrium of a conference or going to events with people in shiny suits, aggressively thrusting business cards at you. It’s simply about making and sustaining connections.

You already have networks around you: your supervisors, other colleagues in your department, your research student peers, research networks you belong to, conference working groups, social media groups… So you’re not starting from scratch. But: are you making the most of them?

Ask yourself:

  • Do the staff in your department, beyond your immediate team, know you by name?
  • Have you positioned yourself as someone who can be asked for a favour? If someone needed an extra pair of hands for an event or had an exciting opportunity to offer, would they think of you?
  • If someone in your department was writing a paper that overlapped with your research area, would they know it was your area too?
  • Have you attended events run by your College? Or offered to organise any?
  • Do you ever email someone after an event to tell them how much you like their work?
  • Have you nailed your academic Twitter game?
  • Do you forward opportunities to your peers, if you think they might be interested? Do you offer to proof-read their abstracts or applications?

From this list, we can see that networking is not about self-promotion; it’s about dialogue and connection. It’s about being proactive, helpful, generous and kind. You get out what you put in, so it’s up to you to create the research community you want to be a part of.

Of course, this might sound a) daunting, and/or b) horribly time-consuming. You also might feel it puts those with other demands on their time – such as caring responsibilities, part-time work and health needs – at a disadvantage. However, we are not advocating participating in a toxic culture of trying to push, push, push and be everywhere, all of the time, for everyone. We’re not suggesting that research students sign up for lots of unpaid labour (like regularly doing the washing up after events, if the paid staff aren’t also helping). But rather that you think strategically about what you get involved in – and this course aims to help you do that. And yes, for those with multiple demands on their time, it can sometimes feel like a lot to keep on top of. That’s why it’s important that it’s always dialogic and mutually supportive. It only takes a moment to forward an email to a peer telling them about a conference that you think they might be interested in; then, you never know: they might do the same for you.

The harsh reality is: if you don’t build networks, your work and your job prospects will suffer. Your research suffers because you have fewer people to ask for feedback, are exposed to fewer ideas, and are less likely to encounter research at the fore-front of your field. And your job prospects suffer because you miss opportunities and you have fewer people to recommend you.

So, what can you do to build your network?

  • Find out what your peers’ research topics are, if you don’t already know, and send them the next call for papers or job opportunity you think might interest them. If they never do the same back, it doesn’t matter because you have done a nice thing. Bonus points if they are students who have the potential to be marginalised in academia (women, disabled people, students of colour, international students).
  • Follow people that interest you professionally on Twitter and engage with them (see more about using social media to build your career, below).
  • If you are feeling shy at a conference/event, ask a friend or your supervisor to introduce you to people they know; don’t worry too much what you talk about – you don’t always need to do your ‘elevator pitch’ – just see how things progress naturally. If your working group is going for dinner one evening, be brave and don’t just sit with your friends.
  • Subscribe to relevant Jisc Mail lists – these are email discussion lists for UK Education and Research communities (you can find mailing lists by category, or ask around which ones your peers/supervisors subscribe to).
  • Keep talking! If you are passionate about your work, people will find it interesting (and show interest in others’ work in return). You never know what’s around the corner or who you might meet, so go ahead and chat to people on trains, in cafes, at the pub… This also helps you practice talking about your research in ways that are accessible to diverse audiences.

As well as building your confidence in reaching out to people, making contacts and then nurturing relationships, you can also make use of ready-made networks at the University of Exeter. Some of the networks are listed here, such as the Early Career Research Network, women’s groups and initiatives, and the Parents and Carers Network.

Networking at conferences

If you are looking for more advice about networking at conferences, Heidi Maurer from London School of Economics, offers some sage advice:

Do not make the mistake of thinking you are only there to present your research. You are there to become part of an academic community, what means that you need to invest time and engage beyond your own panel appearance. When you are part of the audience, show interest and ask questions. We all like engaging audiences, so be one. Also, do not only network with the “big names” in your field (i.e. professors), but also engage with your peers. These are the people with whom you will share the largest part of your career, and it is indispensable to learn, exchange and create supportive networks with one´s peers.

Read more of her advice in her blog: ‘Preparing to Present at an Academic Conference’.

The jobs.ac.uk website also offers practical advice on networking as an academic in their blog ‘Networking: How to Maximize Opportunities and Boost Your Career Connections’, including the importance of opening conversations with questions to get things rolling. Remember: most people like to talk about themselves.

Getting Academic experience during COVID-19

Although all institutions and roles will vary, using the University of Exeter’s Job Description Library is a useful place to start to help us work out what prospective employers will be looking for. Below is a table of the sorts of things you will need to show you have achieved. In the second column, we have added ideas for things you could do to build your experience in the areas during COVID-19. You can also download a pdf version of this.


Personal Specification

What could you do next during COVID-19? 

Evidence of research activity (ideally including publications)



Most conferences are going ahead online during COVID-19. The presenting experience is different, but still an important was to disseminate your research and demonstrate research activity. Many conferences are also giving more varied opportunities to present, including pre-recorded and downloadable content. Some other opportunities include:

  • Research Showcase – the Doctoral College Research Showcase will take place online in summer 2021, with opportunities to share your research via Three Minute Thesis, a research poster competition, a Tweet Your Thesis competition and an Images of Research Competition.
  • Organise your own! – there are lots of PGR conferences that happen in Colleges and disciplines, so why not get involved in organising a conference of a research seminar series in your research area?



Opportunities to publish continue, and for those unable to conduct field or lab work at present, this might be an ideal time to focus on getting some of your work published. Researcher Development run a number of webinars that may be useful to get you started, including:

Knowledge of teaching methods and techniques


Undertake LTHE Stage 1 and/or 2

Apply for Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy

Don’t have many opportunities to teach in your department? You can also teach through:

All of these opportunities are continuing online during COVID-19. Some are paid, and some are volunteering so there are different options to suit your needs.

Don’t have enough teaching hours? LTHE/Aspire have agreed that facilitating PGR writing groups can count towards your assessment teaching hours, and be used as a case study/example.

Don’t have any teaching coming up to be observed on? You can also get observation feedback on online teaching resources you have created, or recordings of teaching.

Excellent written and verbal communication skills You may want to think about how the nature of communication has changed since everything has moved online. Communicating online has always been a valued skill, and will be even more so now. Think about how you have developed and evidenced your online communication skills during this time – online conference presentations, online teaching, online supervisions/research seminars?
Ability to build networks


Building networks has become even more crucial now we are online. You can develop experience in this area in the following ways:

Strong administrative skills


You demonstrate this in the management of your project, but you could also develop your experience further by helping to organise an online conference or applying for the funding listed below.
Able to identify potential sources of funding


Whilst funding pots for conferences, to conduct data collection etc. many not be relevant at the moment, there are other opportunities to apply for funding.

The Doctoral College Researcher-Led Initiative awards are running this year, asking for applications for online/virtual events on the following themes:

  • Developing an engaged research culture
  • Building a PGR or ECR community
  • Equality, diversity, and inclusivity
  • Wellbeing

Funding is available for applications of a maximum of up to £1000 per award to pay for external facilitators/speakers to support projects, events, and initiatives on these themes. You can apply using our online application form.


The Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Human Health run Research Initiation Awards support individual applicants, or community organisations, to build the relationships that initiate engaged research and generate the conditions for future engaged research.

Public engagement


Creative/digital research communication

You can engage in creative and digital research communication to demonstrate public engagement. Research Development run the following webinars you may find useful:

There is also the creative and digital research communication online resource.


Widening participation teaching opportunities:


Engaged research

  • Online Engagement Training – 18th March 1-2pm (For more information, including how to book to attend, please email , Enterprise & Innovation Programmes Officer)
  • Evaluation of Engagement Training – 25th March 1-4pm (For more information, including how to book to attend, please email , Enterprise & Innovation Programmes Officer)
  • The university have also produced a COVID-19 Digital and Socially Distanced Engagement Guide.
  • The Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Human Health run Research Initiation Awards support individual applicants, or community organisations, to build the relationships that initiate engaged research and generate the conditions for future engaged research.
Commitment to creating an inclusive culture


There are lots of ways to get involved in creating an inclusive culture.


Academic CVs and Combatting Imposter Syndrome

Ellen Grace Lesser is a PGR in the Department of Theology and Religion. Her current research concerns the relationship between nonhuman animals and the Christian God.

My first exposure to the concept of an academic CV was when I applied for my Masters by Research and needed to include one as a supporting document. At the time, I didn’t have an up-to-date non-academic CV. What was more, I didn’t know what the difference was.

After some research, I finally felt like I had looked at enough examples to give it a go. Particularly helpful were the resources on the University of Exeter Career Zone and the University of Oxford careers website. I separated out my research experience and went into lots of detail about my Bachelor’s Degree. I teased out all the society committee positions I had held over the previous three years and stuck them all under ‘Positions of Responsibility’. Then I wrote a little about myself at the top and put my interests at the bottom. There was much less emphasis on my previous work experience than there was on my non-academic CV – more important was my experiences of teaching and leading group sessions, something which I had been lucky enough to have the opportunity to do as part of being on various society committees.

Since my Masters application, the only time I’ve needed my academic CV was for my PhD funding application, and then only so my referees could have as much information as possible while writing my references. I was told that my CV was ‘impressive’, which was heartening to know.

Even though I have not formally needed my academic CV for over two years now, I keep it up to date. I have all my conference papers on it, detailing paper titles, conference titles, conference locations, and conference dates. I have a publications section – only one entry so far, but it’ll grow. Every time I do something, I make a point of putting it on my CV.

One of the beautiful things about academic CVs as opposed to non-academic CVs is that they don’t follow the same rules with regards to length. Non-academic CVs cannot be longer than two sides of A4 – no arguments. Academic CVs, on the other hand, can be three or four sides of A4. I add things to my CV as soon as they happen, partly so that I don’t forget to add it later, but also because having an up-to-date CV does wonders for combating Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome is a blight on the academic community to which no researcher is immune. PGRs and ECRs, however, are just getting their first taste of Imposter Syndrome, which can make it even more difficult to overcome. I know I have experienced terrible bouts of feeling that I wasn’t good enough to be doing what I’m doing, or that I might somehow get ‘found out’.

What I have found, however, is that when I am having those thoughts, reading my CV really helps. The horror of Imposter Syndrome comes from feeling that you are unqualified, and a CV shows you in no uncertain terms that that is not the case. Look at all this stuff you’ve done! You’re doing fine. Now go get that degree!

Written by: Ellen Grace Lesser. You can find out more about Ellen’s research on ORCID and read her poetry and fiction writing on her blog

Career Profile – Anna-Marie Linnell


Name: Anna-Marie Linnell

Current Role: Regional Manager (West of England)

PhD Subject and Graduation Year: English literature, graduated 2016

How did you become interested in the area that you work in?

The Brilliant Club supports PhD researchers to design teaching programmes based on their research, that will inspire more pupils from underrepresented backgrounds to study at highly-selective universities. The idea is that pupils will have the chance to stretch themselves academically and think about their options after school in a new way, whilst we train PhD researchers to develop their impact. Throughout my PhD, I was committed to the principle that academics should be able to demonstrate meaningful impact from their research. I produced public engagement materials for the Stuart Successions Project and ran a community history project funded by RCUK. By doing this, I realised that with the best will in the world it’s hard for academics to be able to design and/or deliver meaningful programmes for social impact on top of their research commitments. It’s also difficult for academics to evaluate that impact and think about how it can be further developed. When I found out there was a charity that specialises in identifying the barriers and challenges that young people face within the school system, and then trains researchers to help tackle them, I knew that was something I wanted to be part of.

How did you get to where you are today? (i.e. a brief overview of your career trajectory to date)

I started an undergraduate degree at the University of Exeter in 2008 and continued straight through to a MA in English Studies. During my MA, I successfully applied for a doctoral studentship with the AHRC Stuart Successions Project. This studentship was supervised by Professor Andrew McRae (University of Exeter) and Professor Paulina Kewes (University of Oxford), and I taught as a Graduate Teaching Assistant at Exeter throughout. I joined the Brilliant Club as a Programme Officer for the South after completing my viva, and have since moved to be Regional Manager for the West of England.

What does your current role involve, any skills and/or personal qualities needed?  

The most important thing to my role is passion and commitment to the Brilliant Club’s mission. It’s a varied role, which means working with a range of stakeholders – including teachers, university staff and researchers – who all want to make a positive difference for the young people we work with. You need a lot of empathy and great listening skills, as well as excellent time management and the ability to work well under pressure. The skills I developed through my PhD are all useful; the ability to set your own deadlines, grasp and apply core information and concepts, and attend to detail, are all vital to keeping on top of the role.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

The amount I get to learn!

Are there any things that are not so good?

I’m lucky that the Brilliant Club has a flexible working hours policy and we are out on the road visiting schools and universities a lot – I find sitting at a desk 9am-5pm quite hard after years of independent study.

Has anything surprised you about your role?

Having worked at the charity for a year already, I was going in with open eyes.

What key tips would you give to any students who might be considering entering a similar field today?

The most important thing is knowing your stakeholders and being able to show consistent interest in the field you are applying to, as well as the skills to do the job. If you are a researcher interested in creating social impact, think carefully about what kind of impact you are interested in – is it working with schools and young people, engaging audiences through the media, or working with government bodies or industry groups? Seek out opportunities to develop in these areas, whether it’s an AHRC policy internship or relevant placement through your DTP. Funded work and paid opportunities mean more to a potential employer because it shows that your services were valued, so don’t do anything for free.

Career Profile – Dr. Tracey Sara Sweet

Name: Dr. Tracey Sara Sweet

Current Role: Head of Science at Brixham College

PhD Subject and Graduation Year: Chemistry – 2001

First job/employer following PhD:

Institute of Cancer Research

What were your reasons for your career choice, including why you left, or stayed in, academia?

When I finished my PhD I was unsure about continuing my career in research. I felt a little unfulfilled working in a research laboratory and I was not sure if this was because I had become disinterested in my PhD research or whether it was research as a whole. I took up a post-doctoral position at the Institute of Cancer Research because I was very interested in the work and I thought that this would enable me to really make a difference through the research I was doing rather than carrying out research for the purpose of Chemistry itself.

How many jobs have you had since completing your PhD?

Since completing my PhD I have had 3 jobs and about to commence my fourth.

Could you briefly describe your career path?

After completing my PhD I worked as a post-doctoral research scientist with the Institute of Cancer Research. I worked in the Cancer Research UK laboratories and I was involved in drug discovery and optimisation. After working there for 18 months I began to realise that the aspects of the job I most enjoyed were training graduate and PhD students and presenting my research findings. I had always thought about teaching as a possible career path for me so I decided to go back to Exeter University to gain a Post-Graduate Certificate of Education in Secondary Science (Chemistry). Upon successful completion of this I took up a teaching post at Okehampton College where I worked as a Teacher of Science before being appointed to Head of Chemistry. I stayed in this job for six years before moving to South Devon College, which is a college of further and higher education. This role involved teaching Chemistry to A Level, Access to HE, BTEC and GCSE students. I also taught Biochemistry to foundation degree students and I was the Chemistry lecturer and admissions tutor for the BSC Extended Science (Year 0) course. Typically I would work with students of age 16-adults. During this time I was also involved in some research work with the University of Bath. I am about to start work with Brixham College in September. I have taken up a position of Head of Science with them.

What does your current job involve on a day to day basis (briefly)? Any highs and lows, skills needed and developed?

Day to day my job involves teaching science, chemistry and environmental studies to students of 11-18 years. I also manage the running of the science department and ensure that teaching and learning is of a good to outstanding standard; monitor the progress of students; communicating with parents; reporting of department and student progress and performance management of department staff. The highs of the job are working with young people and making a difference in their lives. To be successful in this you need to be determined and have resilience. Working in education can be extremely demanding emotionally and physically. It can take up a lot of your own time if you want to do an excellent job. You have to be prepared to make some sacrifices but also be aware that that you still need to build in time for yourself and family.

Do you have any key messages to current PhD students, particularly any looking for a career in your field?

Get some experience in fields that you think you might be interested in. There is no substitute for trying out something to see if it is the path for you. Do not rush into a career path; take your time after completing your PhD before committing yourself. Personally, it would have been better for me to get a temporary job to earn money and give me some time to consider all my options.

Could you share any tips on effective CVs/Job applications/Interviews for entering your chosen career?

Tailor your CV/application to each job you are applying for; use words from the person specification in the advertisement in your application; read examples of CVs and applications; be succinct; support any statement you make about your skills with specific examples.

For interviews look at example questions and practice your answers. Read through your application before the interview and try to think of more examples of the skills and qualities you have. Think about why you want the role you have applied for and what you can bring to the role.

Do you know of any useful sources of information/vacancies for careers in your field?

The best place to look for education vacancies and information is www.tes.co.uk. For general information about careers I found www.prospects.a.c.uk very useful.

Have you any general tips for successful career planning and/or career decision making?

It is important to think about your skills and the kind of things that you enjoy doing and the environment you would like to work in. Once in a role, think about how you would like to progress and look for opportunities to gain experience in different aspects of the role.

Career Profile – Dr. Daniel Holdaway

Name: Dr. Daniel Holdaway

Current Role: (as at 2013): NASA Global Modeling and Assimilation Office.

PhD Subject and Graduation Year: Mathematics – 2011

What were your reasons for your career choice, including why you left, or stayed in, academia?

I wanted to continue my research into numerical weather and climate prediction. My current job is an academic government hybrid. It’s a research position with an emphasis on publishing work but without teaching. I enjoyed the academic environment but I left to take a great opportunity. In hindsight it was easier to find this kind of position than something academic, especially since I’d had limited teaching experience throughout my PhD.

How many jobs have you had since completing your PhD?


Could you briefly describe your career path?

After finishing undergraduate I enrolled in a Masters and then a PhD. My research field is numerical weather prediction and I worked closely with the Met Office throughout graduate school. After completing my PhD in 2010 I briefly worked as a postdoc at Exeter University, in partnership with a local company building a prototype wind turbine. The work concerned the use of computational fluid dynamics to determine the optimal position to place the wind turbine, based on local wind flow. A secondary goal was to model the wind stress on the turbine. In early 2011 I moved to Washington DC, USA and began working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. There I am attached to the data assimilation group and am working on the use of satellite observations of clouds and precipitation to improve weather predictions. Our goal is to improve the data assimilation system so that we can make use of state of the art satellites such as the upcoming Global Precipitation Measurement mission. These instruments will provide very detailed information about clouds but current limitations in weather models prevent their proper use.

What does your current job involve on a day to day basis (briefly)? Any highs and lows, skills needed and developed?

My day to day work is very similar to a PhD, except with a few more meetings! Most of my time is spent on my central project. For the most part I am left to my own devices and report to various advisors every 2 weeks or so, or when I am stuck with something. There are around 20 people working in our group and we support each other quite a lot. I spend around 15-20% of my time publishing work, preparing for conferences or preparing internal reports. As with any research project there are highs and lows when ideas either work or don’t work and you constantly need to learn to deal with this and get past it. I have had to learn a lot of skills related to running the weather model and scripting when using a super computer. These are not skills that I was able to develop during my PhD since it was theoretical but are skills many PhD students from the US come armed with. As a result it was quite a fast learning curve.

Do you have any key messages to current PhD students, particularly any looking for a career in your field?

Learn as much as you can when doing your PhD. Don’t get hung up on doing something ground-breaking, see it as a learning exercise. Most of my PhD didn’t work and it was very frustrating at times. But I made it through; got it written and now everyday I rely on techniques and skills that I learnt. When looking for jobs don’t be afraid to apply for anything! Often I feel organisations are just looking for smart people and will hire around the positions advertised and even create positions. They’re looking for someone that can learn something new quickly and independently.

Could you share any tips on effective CVs/Job applications/Interviews for entering your chosen career?

Google is your friend! You can also ask your PhD advisor or other more senior people in your department for help and examples of CVs. There are lots of differences between the CV you write for different jobs/fields so it can be hard to provide general help.

Do you know of any useful sources of information/vacancies for careers in your field?

Metjobs is a mailing list run from Reading University that’s very good. Also climlist in the USA. Mathjobs and Jobs.ac.uk are quite good if you’re looking for something academic. Another good one is http://www.earthworks-jobs.com/ Apply for general post doc programs, e.g the NASA post doc program. There are literally thousands of potential opportunities. And even if you don’t get it you might make a connection that helps you get something else, that’s how I got my job at NASA anyway.

Have you any general tips for successful career planning and/or career decision making?

I’ve never really say down and made a formal career plan and my plans certainly fluctuated throughout my PhD (probably because of choosing an impossible project!). I think with academia/research you have to be quite flexible. Never miss an opportunity to make connections. Go to conferences and introduce yourself to people who work in your field.

Career Profile – Dr. Andrea Day

Name: Dr Andrea Day

Current Role: Senior Operational Analyst

PhD Subject and Graduation Year: Behavioural Sciences – 2012

How did you become interested in the area that you work in?

When I was researching group emotions for my PhD I started developing ideas on self-sacrifice. Why do some people give their lives and suffer horrific injuries for others? This led me to reading a lot about the military and one thing led to another and I was offered a visit to Headly Court (Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre). A visit led to a contracted placement there, and due to my experiences at Headly Court I have always had a keen interest in close combat and infantry, which is the area much of my work has been dedicated too.

How did you get to where you are today?

From Headly Court I formally joined the Ministry of Defence as a Numerical Scientist by responding to an advert in the “New Scientist”. I worked for over four years on a variety of tasks and projects related to close combat and infantry which involved research into better equipment, medical procedures on the battlefield, mental and physical health. I was asked to consider joining the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) which I did almost two years ago and now work within the Close Combat and Analysis Team (CCAT).

What does your current role involve any skills and/or personal qualities needed?  

My role predominately involves problem solving. I will have a Customer (Military or Civilian) who believes they have a problem, question or requirement. My first course of action is to define the what (problem, question, or requirement), then start planning the how (what has been done before, what is in scope of the research, what is out of scope, where is the risk, what resources are required, what are the timelines), then carry out the research and write it up in plain English! Brief the customer with the findings and answer any questions. In many ways, the same skills that are demonstrated in a good academic are what are needed for my role. I have found undertaking a PhD and utilising the transferrable skills invaluable. However, you also need to be able to work under considerable pressure with a fair amount of responsibility. Team work is essential and understanding delegation. Building and maintaining relationships and ensuring people have confidence in your decision making abilities are vital. Finally, being an effective communicator and having a good memory when you are put on the spot by someone senior is also beneficial!

What do you enjoy most about your role?

I enjoy working alongside the Military either in the field or in the office but with far more autonomy than is granted to Military serving personal. I enjoy travelling to destinations I would otherwise not have seen and meeting people whose lives are vastly different to mine. I get to play with new technology and equipment, conduct field trials and learn new scientific techniques and methods. My work is complex, challenging and vast. My work is always varied and requires flexibility and the ability to adapt to changing events quickly. When things are tough it’s good to know that my team and I make a positive difference to the situation we are involved in.

Are there any things that are not so good?

The work can be stressful as the responsibility you are given and tight deadlines can add pressure. The salary is terrible and the work days can be very long!

Has anything surprised you about your role?

Nothing has surprised me about my role, though I am always surprised when asked by old University friends “well wouldn’t you prefer to do something else?” The honest answer is no! No other job would give me the challenges and experiences this one has given me. When I want to sample a different area or try something else, I take the opportunity to move within a diverse organisation and try another area of Defence.

What key tips would you give to any students who might be considering entering a similar field today?

  • Check the eligibility criteria for working in the Ministry of Defence;
  • Check the Civil Service job site;
  • Why not try a University student placement opportunity with Dstl?
  • When applying for a job, ask yourself do you meet and can you provide evidence of the job criteria asked for? Evidence does not need to be military experience, draw on your research experience, work experience and other transferrable skills;
  • Before interview, ask yourself why do you want to work in Defence or the particular area of Defence you are applying for?
  • Do you understand anything about UK Defence and Security policies?
  • If unsuccessful, ask for feedback from the selection/interviewing panel.

Career Profile – Dr. Nicky King

Name: Dr Nicky King

Current role: Director of Studies for Natural Sciences, Senior Lecturer (E&S) in Biosciences at the University of Exeter

PhD Subject and Graduation Year: Chemistry, 2005

What is your disciplinary and educational background?

BSc Chemistry with European Study

PhD Chemistry

I am a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy

What made you decide to become an academic?

I didn’t really, I just fell into it. An opportunity to do some chemistry teaching at the university opened up just as I finished my PhD. I knew I wanted to stay in science but hadn’t found the right post-doctoral position. It also worked for me personally as my boyfriend, now husband, was working in Exeter.

What has been your career path/trajectory to date?

I was an associate teaching fellow for two years before being promoted to teaching fellow in 2007. In 2010 the structure for those mainly involved in teaching here at Exeter changed and I was promoted to senior lecturer in the education and scholarship job family. The University has changed almost beyond recognition over the last 11 years and I’ve been in the fortunate position to be able to shape some of those changes and forge a career path which simply didn’t exist when I started. One of the things I’m most proud of is my involvement in the establishment of the education and scholarship job family to replace teaching fellows, which improves progression for those who are mainly involved in education and leadership of education and also raises our profile within the institution, putting us on a level playing field with the more typical education and research academics.

I’ve been involved in a number of scholarship activities over this time, in addition to a significant teaching load. I coordinate the schools liaison and widening participation activities for Biosciences, am engaged in pedagogic research around the transition from school to HE and also on the use of technology in learning and teaching. I’ve also been senior tutor in Biosciences and am now the Director of Studies for Natural Sciences, which is a new programme seeing our first graduating students this July.

What are the good bits about being an academic?

I love working with our students. Despite it sounding a bit corny I love making a difference to the students and hopefully passing on to them some of my enthusiasm for science and fascination with chemistry. I find work a much more boring (though less stressful!) place in the long summer holiday as it seems such an empty place without the students around. I think it’s easy for academics to become caught up in the stresses and administrative frustrations and forget how lucky we are that we get to pursue things which we’re really interested in and which excite us. It’s also a very flexible job and in many respects you have much more control over both your career trajectory and on your day to day work in academia than in many other jobs. You don’t have people telling you which bits of your subject you have to read, research and write about, you can follow your interests and academic curiosity. There’s also, in my experience, good flexibility for working at home and childcare responsibilities.

What are the bad bits about being an academic?

There are periods of a lot of pressure and at times an awful lot of admin, however particularly in E&S these are fairly predictable based on the academic cycle, which does make them easier to deal with.

Having said that academia can be family friendly and flexible this is often not the case early in your career where you will probably have many short term contracts which is really hard and can make it difficult to settle. I was very lucky that I was able to remain at Exeter and got a permanent contract fairly quickly but that’s certainly not true for many.

Do you have any tips or advice for PGRs seeking a career in academia?

Remember that you don’t have to work 100 hours per week in order to be successful, it seems that there’s a lot of pressure amongst PGRs and ECRs to work late into the evening and at weekends, but if you have a life way from the bench you’ll be more productive and happier when you are at it.

Learnt when it’s expedient to do something ‘extra’ and when to say no. There are lots of committees, focus groups and additional roles which will impact upon your research and for which there’s very little material reward, however some of these are worth doing because they increase your visibility within a department/institution and can lead to valuable networking opportunities. Similarly learn to say no when you’re too busy and there’s little reward, you have to be a little selfish with these things occasionally.

Career Profile – Dr. Mike Beer

Name: Dr. Mike Beer

Current Role: Head of Modern Foreign Languages and Classics, Exeter College

PhD Subject and Graduation Year: Classics – 2008

How did you become interested in the area that you work in?

Became interested in teaching after teaching as a postgraduate.

How did you get to where you are today?

Post PhD, I taught modules at the University of Exeter, the Open University and Exeter College. I took my PGCE and continue to combine teaching with research.

What does your current role involve, any skills and/or personal qualities needed?  

Besides my subject knowledge, my current managerial role involves time management skills, the ability to manage people and to delegate, chairing meetings and liaison with outside organisations.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

The opportunity to engage with my subject area.

Are there any things that are not so good?

Paperwork and pastoral duties for tutees.

Has anything surprised you about your role?

I never thought I would end up being involved in managerial activities and have resisted a move to this area in the past, but I find I enjoy it, it is challenging and I enjoy it.

What key tips would you give to any students who might be considering entering a similar field today?

Don’t be put off by the horror stories about teaching in the press. It’s much better than it is portrayed but you do have to make sure that you carve out a work/life balance.