HDR Career Conversations

Supporting research student career development and employability at UOW

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PhD job search advice from UOW HDR graduates

Introduction: One of the highlights of my role is hearing graduates share their career stories.  It’s fascinating to hear how such divergent paths can share common themes. Careers Central collaborated with academics from the School of Medicine to run a PhD Careers panel and career discussion as part of the recent School of Medicine Research Forum.  UOW PhD researchers Lauren Houston and Gabrielle Phillips both volunteered to write about their reflections on listening to these three wonderful career stories. 

Lauren’s reflections:

Completing a PhD can seem like a 24/7 endeavour. We are often busy rushing around trying to balance personal, family and work life all at once, forgetting to stop and ask ourselves why it is we are writing this very large book! A panel of three University of Wollongong (UOW), PhD graduates (Dr Danielle Camer, Senior Medical Writer for Swordfish Media; Dr Rhoda Ndanuko, The George Institute for Global Health; Dr Sheridan Gho, Co-founder and director, Cenofex) highlight that there are endless lessons and opportunities presented along this roller coaster of the PhD journey.

As each PhD journey is so different and unique it was emphasized by the panel members that within each journey there are actually many commonalities. In saying that our PhD has equipped us with the ‘stock standard’ research skills such as problem solving, teamwork, designing presentations, communicating effectively and academic report writing. So how do we stand out from other PhD graduates?

‘Just roll with it’ and ‘see what opportunities appear’ was a common theme initially.  This did not seem very convincing… as discussions continued, it was clear that all three-panel members had started their job searching journey much earlier than I think they even they recognised. All three panel members had in fact increased their chance of finding a job due to relationships, networks and collaborations that they had created throughout their life. Most importantly, these relationships were built on a sense of trust and respect not just their academic knowledge.

Yes, your knowledge still matters! It was highly recommended to start putting together your CV early and be part of an active online profile. Do not leave it to the end as in our technology advancing world this can sometimes feel like a full-time job. Panel members spoke about how their online presence allowed them to grow their network beyond researchers who they had met in person. Forms of electronic CVs such as LinkedIn do matter to head hunters and potential employers. In addition, Twitter, Facebook, Research Gate and other various social media sites are public domains that should be managed carefully to advertise your professional knowledge and background.

In other words, be confident in your online approach and get yourself out there to be publicly respected in your research field. It can be tough when looking for a job online but do not feel embarrassed to reach out for support and get encouragement from peers, colleges and potential employers to help build your research profile. Panel member, Danielle spoke at the forum about how she has utilised online sites to personally contact potential employers. It was at these times she broke out of her comfort zone to approach an employer, or ask for further information about a job, that opportunities arose. While on the other hand, her online profile has led her to be head-hunted by competing organisations who have offed her job opportunities.

So, a message of support is that the feeling of being lost and a sense of uncertainty is normal during the job search. Take a chance amid the chaos of the job search but remember be confident with your level of skills.

Ms Lauren Houston is a PhD candidate in her final year at the University of Wollongong and a recipient of an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship. Dr Yasmine Probst, Associate Professor Ping Yu and Dr Allison Martin supervise Lauren’s research, which focuses on developing a best practice framework for monitoring data quality in allied health clinical research.

Connect with Lauren on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter: @Lauren_Houston

Gabrielle’s reflections:

It’s hard to be a HDR student and not think about our job opportunities.

Will this PhD get me a job? What will that job be? What can I do to stick out to employers?

Looking around the UOW campus, you’re sure to notice, HDR students aren’t exactly hard to come by. So what will set us apart?

Employability was a focus of the SOM Research Forum, and alongside others like me I thought about job advertisements I’d seen. How I’d read them and thought ‘oh, I’ve never used that program before… I’ve never worked with animals…”

I’m not saying that checking the practical skills boxes in job applications isn’t important, it definitely is. But what we don’t discuss is how our personal qualities and our relationships will help us secure these opportunities.

Sheridan, a UOW HDR graduate spoke at the forum about recommending a fellow graduate for a job after running into him. Hearing how he had little success in finding employment since finishing his PhD and how he had since gotten that position. It came down to her confidence in him, and her relationship to him and to that employer.

How our personal qualities and relationships will shape our opportunities isn’t something that’s heavily focused on – how standing out to employers can really come from a reputation of being punctual, reliable and friendly by our colleagues. Our employability is in these relationships. It’s being noticed for helping a colleague come through on a deadline, being supportive, being seen working late in the lab or in the office, having a visible passion for what we do or even our positive attitude on a Tuesday morning after the long weekend.

I believe it was my recommendation letter that really landed me my first graduate position, and that letter had come from spending time with someone on a shared passion.

It’s these qualities that are often overlooked. What do we look like on paper vs what do our referees say about us? Networking is all about building trust, becoming better to work with, and shared passions tend to drive innovation, teamwork and great success.

So I’d like to leave HDR students with this question to ponder ‘How can you foster your personal qualities and relationships to better support your future opportunities?

Gabrielle is a first year PhD student at the University of Wollongong supervised by Associate Professor Todd Mitchell. She is working to understand the region-specific changes in the brain lipid biochemistry of people with Huntington’s disease. She hopes to contribute to the development of better lipid based treatments.

Connect with Gabrielle on LinkedIn


Thanks Lauren and Gabrielle ….. what an excellent synopsis of what you gained from what was a very interesting panel discussion. Thanks also to Dr. Kelly Newell, Head of Postgraduate Studies, School of Medicine and the SOM Research Forum organising committee for inviting Careers Central to collaborate and lining up an impressive panel of graduates.  And thank you again to Danielle, Rhoda and Sheridan for taking the time to share their experiences – all three welcome students to make contact through LinkedIn.

At UOW, engage with your career future through Career Ready Learning for Higher Degree Researchers (CRLH900) a zero credit point elective subject.  Check out our HDR Careers events. 

Rachelle Balez (another School of Medicine PhD researcher) wrote about her experiences using social media to build connections in a previous post


  1. Hi,
    Gabrielle has helped me with Mass Spectrometry and lipid extractions from tissues. As a “Come-back” student I entered PhD many years after my previous post graduate studies at UOW. As a person Gabrielle is pleasant and made the new learning process not so daunting for me. She helps without any reservation-a great quality. I wish her all the best in her research and future opportunities.

    • What great feedback for you Gabrielle! And thank you Nalini for taking the time to write it. Seeking, receiving and acting on feedback is an important part of career development: we gain a better understanding of ourselves which can help inform career decisions, and it is useful to be able to refer to feedback when making applications or answering interview questions. So seek and give each other feedback on personal qualities and skills – and support each others career development!

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