As I write I am on a train heading to York, where I will be taking part in a careers session for a group of 80 high acheiveing graduate plant scientists who are attending the Gatsby Plant Science Summer School.
They want careers advice from me? Are they sure?
When I was doing my PhD, my dream would have been to have become a research scientist, with my own lab. The pay is terrible, you have to deal with awful departmental politics, and you spend a lot of time and energy applying for grants so you can keep doing research. And there’ll probably be a flash colleague in the lab next door who’s just landed another multimillion pound grant who has three times more postdocs than you, and whose lectures are packed. But it’s the dream for most of those who start out doing a PhD.
As my PhD drew to a close I realized fast that my prospects as a researcher would depend on getting a post-doc in a top lab, preferably abroad. And this didn’t turn out to be an option: my supervisors weren’t well connected enough, and my PhD topic a little too niche. So I applied for a job as a science editor, got it, and stayed in the same organization for 15 years. This wasn’t planned: it’s just that it was a good enough job with a nice working environment and it was just well enough paid that any potential move would have been sideways. So I was stuck in a career dead end.
This is where wine came in. About half way through my employment, I began a wine website. I just did it because this is what people were doing at the time. The Internet was new, and lots of people put up hobby sites. It was initially a Geocities site, and it became wineanorak in about 1997/8 after a girl at a tasting I was hosting in Portsmouth described me as one. In November 1999 I registered the domain name wineanorak.com and took out my own hosting. And I was really active on the various wine bulletin boards, where I got to know like-minded folk.
This is not career planning. I was just having some fun. But in 2000 I started getting advertisers on the site, and later that year got my first paid writing work, producing a glossary and some copy for Virgin Wines, who had just started up. In 2001 I started blogging. In 2002 I got my first commission from a print magazine: Harpers. In 2004, I began discussions with Hilary Lumsden at Mitchell-Beazley about writing a book: she suggested one on wine science, and in 2005 this was published. In 2005 also, I was approached by The Sunday Express with a view to writing a wine column for them.
So a hobby was morphing into a way of earning money. But I didn’t have the guts to kick the day job. Without kicking the day job, I wouldn’t be able to spare the time to make a proper go of wine writing. It was almost too hard a decision to make. I was the sole income at the time in my family, and we’d recently adopted two boys, so our expenses were high. What would a careers adviser say to me?
In the end, the decision was sort of made for me. The organization I worked for lost its funding and we were all out on the street, albeit with a decent redundancy cheque. This was the time to see whether or not I could make a proper living as a freelancer.
Looking back it seems a no-brainer. I could have jumped earlier, but the buffer of the redundancy money was a real help in smoothing the transition. And because I was earning money from my website, I had some control, and wasn’t just in the hands of commissioning editors.
So what careers advice would I offer, based on my experience?
First of all, be brave. Fear keeps people in jobs that they don’t enjoy, or from moving on at the right time. Most safety in terms of employment is illusory these days.
Get a job where you’ll continually be networking and meeting potential future employers. This is the best way to find your next job.
Learn to see things from the perspective of others. That includes you. Ask trusted friends to give you (kind) feedback. What would your CV look like to an outsider.
On the subject of CVs, let yours tell a story. Don’t let this story get lost in the details.
Choose your compromises. Life is full of compromises, but it’s best if you decide in advance which trade-offs you are going to make.
You spend a lot of time at work. So it’s vital, as far as you have the power to, to make sure that you are spending it with nice colleagues in a supportive environment where you feel valued and empowered.
Nothing is wasted. This is the only way to make sense of the past. Even wrong turns and dead ends can be of great use.
Be careful lest you achieve your dreams.
Beware workplace psychopaths. Avoid them. They are often plausible and successful, but their lack of empathy and ability to use and abuse their collegues is very destructive. Make sure you don’t end up reporting to one.
You can’t have everything. [Why would you want everything anyway?]
Don’t be a slave to ambition. Rather, let it work for you. Dream big, reach for the sky, but learn contentment, too.