Navigating the PhD Journey – building career and personal development into your route

In this blog, we (four psychology postgraduate researchers at the University of Surrey) outline our perspectives on the benefits of engaging with ‘extra-curricular’ researcher development activities throughout your time on your research degree programme.

It goes without saying that your central tasks as a Postgraduate Researcher (PGR) are conducting your research project, immersing yourself in the relevant literature, and writing your thesis. We believe, however, that doing a PhD also comes with huge potential for both personal and professional development, beyond the obvious researcher-in-training aspect. Furthermore, we would like to suggest that this wider development shouldn’t be seen as a secondary element, but as an integral part of your PhD journey.

An academic career might seem the obvious choice for those doing a PhD, but many PGRs will not stay in, or even enter, academic roles after they finish their PhDs. Whatever you plan to do for work after your PhD, we believe your career will be more satisfying if you are able to make an active choice about the career steps you take. To support this, you need a good understanding of what motivates you in the workplace and in life, where your key skills lie, and also some insight into your preferred working styles and environments. This should enable you to target your job applications to roles about which you are truly passionate and in which you will hopefully thrive, rather than just survive.

You may already have some insight into the kinds of tasks you enjoy or where your strengths lie, but there is always room for more reflection and development. Throughout your PhD you should be aiming to build a portfolio of skills and experiences that will boost your employability post-PhD. Much of what you learn will be relevant and useful regardless of the sector you ultimately choose to work in, but figuring out where your strengths and weaknesses lie takes time and effort, and no one else will prioritise this for you. We would therefore encourage all our PGR colleagues to devote time to thinking about your own development, beyond your technical and subject knowledge, to consider your broader skills and personal values to help guide your future career choices. To support this, we discuss some of the activities and resources available to PGRs at different stages of the PhD journey.

Starting out.

During your first year, it is easy to feel lost and unproductive, and you may also feel rather isolated or lacking in confidence as you slowly find your feet as a PGR. It may seem too early to be thinking about specific career routes or action plans, but there are still ways you can build up your skills and experiences at this stage. Early on, a good strategy for choosing relevant workshops is to think about the academic skills you will need, such as academic writing or methodological training. Sessions about what to expect from a PhD and general career development can also be valuable during the first few months.

Attending training workshops and other career development activities can provide a welcome break from your project and add some structure to your working week, especially when you are starting out. Going to Researcher Development Programme (RDP) workshops is a great way to meet PGRs from different disciplines and can help you feel more embedded in the University’s research community. Some of the sessions we found particularly helpful in our first year were general PhD guidance workshops, such as managing supervisory relationships, and those sessions offering advice on managing literature, writing styles, and the publication process. There are numerous RDP workshops available covering a range of topics, so you can pick and choose which areas you want to focus on. You will also get free hot drinks and biscuits at RDP workshops – every PGR’s dream!

You should also consider attending relevant training courses outside of Surrey, for example those hosted by the National Centre for Research Methods, as you will meet researchers working in related areas, allowing you to expand your network of colleagues and friends. Many professional societies offer training and networking events, and there are usually reduced rates for membership and attendance at such events for students. You could take on some voluntary work for your relevant professional society, which will also support networking and skill development, and may also provide inspiration for future career opportunities. Finally, attending social events such as Bright Club or Pint of Science can be a slightly nerdy but fun way to meet new people. Building a cohort of fellow PGRs and career researchers, both within and without your School or University is particularly important in your first year; trust us, they will become an invaluable source of support throughout your journey!

The mid-way point.

It can be hard to think about careers in the middle of your PhD; time feels like a precious and increasingly rare resource, pressure may be mounting, and the end is likely to feel a long way off. You will of course need to focus on your project, but also remember to pay attention to what you enjoy along the way. Perhaps start an electronic notebook to keep track of the things you really like doing and the things you could do without! Take a moment to reflect… do you enjoy being in an academic environment or not, do you love or hate teaching, or writing, or presenting? Think about your interpersonal and professional skills too; could you improve your organisation, time management, or negotiation skills for example? The Vitae website is a great place to start, as it offers a vast range of resources to support your personal development, both as a researcher and as a human being! Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework is an especially useful tool that can help you identify the core competencies you will need to build on throughout your research career.

Although you will want to prioritise your research, you can still make use of related opportunities to develop yourself. Presenting at conferences gives you a chance to practice your academic arguments, which will enhance your thinking and writing, but which will also improve your presentation and communication skills (and every employer wants good communication skills!). The RDP and Department of Higher Education offer workshops and training that have helped us prepare for conferences, presentations, and teaching. These activities all contribute towards you becoming a more rounded PGR but will also strengthen your capabilities as a potential employee in many sectors, not just academia.

Beyond activities directly related to lecturing and conducting research, think about other aspects of academic life that you might want to try. One good initiative is the ’23 Things for Research online training course, which walks you through some of the digital tools relevant to being a professional researcher. There are so many opportunities you could investigate at this stage of your PhD journey… you could try writing a blog, becoming a mentor, supporting public engagement events, or helping to organise conferences. You will, however, need to pace yourself with extra-curricular activities; we’ve each made the mistake of trying to do too much at once, but we have enjoyed the development opportunities that have come from the different projects and initiatives we’ve been involved with.

Approaching the end.

As you approach the final stages of your PhD, as much as you are trying to focus on writing and final analyses, you are also likely to be experiencing distracting thoughts about what you are going to do next. It is worth, however, setting aside some time to tackle some of these thoughts. The Prospects website and both have sections dedicated to postgraduate jobs and personal development, so consider some productive procrastination in the form of their self-assessment tools and advice guides. Prospects can be especially useful if you are looking for inspiration about careers outside academia.

If you haven’t already attended them, look for workshops on CV writing, identifying transferrable skills, writing job applications, and personal effectiveness. We have also found that one-to-ones with the RDP, the postgraduate careers advisors within the Doctoral College, and our supervisors and mentors have been especially valuable at this stage. The RDP team and careers advisors are very friendly and can provide lots of support with the job application process, such as CV advice or mock interviews. By the end of the PhD, when you have so many things swimming in your mind, it can be really helpful to have a couple of focused discussions about your career hopes and goals. External advice can help you identify the action points you need to take during the last few months of your PhD to ensure you are ready to fire off those winning job applications!

Concluding thoughts.

You may find it helpful to keep a working document of the additional things that you do alongside your PhD (such as teaching, presenting, mentoring etc.) – this will help you remember everything you have been involved in and you will be astounded at how much you do, learn, and develop in three, four, or more years!! It can also be a good idea to take stock from time-to-time; consider your values and also some of the more mundane characteristics of potential roles, such as how far you may be willing to commute for a job.

Remember, doing a PhD is an inherently life-changing experience, and you will be very employable at the end of it, regardless of how much time you devote to career development along the way. Even without spending time specifically thinking about this during the PhD journey, you will still be developing skills that many employers will find highly valuable. We have written this blog, however, to encourage you to be a little more strategic in your development; by thinking about where you might want to end up, and by paying attention to what you do and don’t enjoy along the way, we believe it can become easier for you to make informed career decisions later on.


Sarah Golding – 3rd year, health psychology PhD @SarahEGolding

Lucie Ollis, 2nd year health psychology PhD @lucieollis_psy

Lucy Cogdell-Brooke, 2nd year neuropsychology PhD

Jenny Lynden – 3rd year, occupational psychology PhD