Work Experience for Twenty-Somethings

In my first year of my PhD, I was lucky enough to attend the (inaugural!) EMBL Australia Molecular Biology Summer School (AKA Nerd Camp). I remember being told by Terry Speed (all round bioinformatics guru) that the secret to having successful career in medical research is to learn more maths. Or, if you’re more confident with your maths than your biology, you need to learn more biology. In short: you should always be out of your comfort zone.

I guess that’s sound advice for people in most fields. You should always be looking to develop new skills, make new connections and learn as much as you can.

But when it comes to seeking employment, there’s always going to be a required skill-set. And while it’s true that pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone will help to extend that skill-set – just how far are we expected to push?

I sought out some advice from a careers counsellor recently, and upon learning that I was interested in:

-science communication

-public engagement

-education

-working with children

-and events management…

…they told me that I needed to pick just one of these interests and then get a diploma in it.

I’m 26. I have three A-Levels, a BSc, 2/3 of a science PhD and experience in each of these areas I talked about with my counsellor. I more than understand that having a PhD does not automatically qualify me for any job. However, what I want to know is: just how much experience do people need in a field before they can consider working in it? Perhaps more importantly, getting PAID for doing it?

I was recently asked to write a blog post aimed at high school students about the benefits of volunteering. It’s true, volunteering has got me far in terms of developing a professional network and building on my skills. But I understand that having the capacity to volunteer is not a luxury available to all of us. I have a supportive supervisor, partner and family without whose help I would not have had the time available to do any of my volunteering. And while I’m yet to be offered (much/any) paid work despite my experiences, I’m not so keen to write a piece encouraging young people to follow the same path as me.

If the expectation is that, on top of my time spent pursuing my interests in order to gain more applicable skills, I am to gain qualification after qualification, that’s not advice I am ready to give. It’s not realistic to expect people to be experts in every area they are asked to work within or task they are to perform in the workplace. Learning needs to take place here, too, or we will spend our whole lives in training.

As put by the wise James Arvanitakis at the recent Young Writers’ Festival (and I’m paraphrasing here), “The most important skill we can teach young people is adaptability.” Just welcome us into your workplace and watch us flourish! It’s amazing what a person can do with an ACTUAL INCOME.

Come on guys. I’ve been on a panel. A PANEL. That’s got to count for something. Right? RIGHT?!! Image credit to Carol Duncan

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