Clarity - I have no idea where I will be in two yearsThey always ask in job interviews, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I hear the same reply again and again… “I don’t even know where I see myself in 2 years.”

What can you do to get more clarity?

To improve the performance of our Doctoral School, I have interviewed many postdocs and asked them what they are struggling with. I had expected to hear that postdocs struggle with precarious working conditions, the insecurities of short-term contracts, and the lack of direction.

However, there was an unexpected insight.

I learned that there are two very distinct groups of postdocs.

Firstly, there are those who are getting closer to the end of their contract who have no idea where the next position will be. They suffer massively from job insecurity and are pessimistic about their current situation.

But to my surprise, there is a second group: postdocs who are relaxed, love their work, and do not think much about their next position. They are optimistic, improve their CVs by publishing excellent papers, and build a network to hear about upcoming job openings.

What is the difference between these two groups of postdocs?

The members of the first group keep all doors open. They spend their time looking into every possibility, such as an academic career, working in a company, becoming a teacher, or leaving science entirely and starting a business. They have not locked in a specific plan and constantly jump from one option to the next. If they gain additional qualifications, they do it with the expectation to keep more doors open. For example, they enroll in a program to be eligible as teachers (which is possible in Belgium) just to have this alternative later, although they do not see becoming a teacher as a high priority. These type of postdocs jump from option to option, creating a lack of direction and focus.

The members of the second group are – on average – older. Often they are already on their second or third postdoc contract. The big difference compared to the first group is that they have made the decision to pursue an academic career. They are not looking for industry jobs anymore. They are not following courses simply to qualify for alternative employment. As a result, they work with an intense focus on their career goals, such as publishing excellent papers and raising grant money.

This does not mean that they are free of fears due to job insecurity. They are still in a system based on 2- to 4-year contracts. However, making the decision for a specific career path leads to greater emotional stability and focus in contrast to “keeping all doors open.”

How do you achieve this clarity?

One of the biggest mistakes is to attempt to figure it out in your head. Clarity comes from engagement and action, not only from thinking. Thinking about potential career paths on your couch does not bring clarity. A half-hearted Google search only creates more disorientation. You have to invest time and energy to identify different realistic and ideal career paths, then get insights and guidance from people who are already doing these jobs.

In the course Find your dream job in science, you get hands-on strategies to develop clarity by actively engaging with people who give you real-world advice. Check it out here.

A crucial step is to answer a few key questions: Did I reflect sufficiently on my career and write down a career plan? Do I know which career path is right for me? Do I have the adequate qualifications for my chosen career?

Find some additional inspiration here:

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