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Combining the job search, your PhD and a move overseas!

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Guest Post by Dr. Jo Khoo

Introduction:  A question that can haunt many PhD students from the beginning of their candidature is, “what will I do after I’ve finished?”  Jo Khoo recently completed her PhD at the University of Wollongong, researching the private health insurance system in Australia and its role in supporting patients with chronic and complex needs.  All job searches can be daunting, but Jo’s had the added complexity that she was moving overseas!  Here, she shares her experience of planning her post-PhD career path and how she secured her current position as a Senior Analyst in Clinical Informatics at Clarify Health Solutions, a health data analytics company based in San Francisco.

For many people, the post-PhD job search can be almost as daunting as the process of thesis completion itself! It is intensely personal, as research has become part of the candidate’s identity, and as a result, the process can be really isolating, particularly if you are going into less familiar territory and looking for a job outside of academia (which is the reality for most PhD candidates).

Everyone has their own personal context that influences their career direction, which is important to acknowledge at the outset. For me, I knew that I was moving to San Francisco after submitting my PhD to join my husband who was already working there. This factor had an important impact on the direction my career would take, opening up new career opportunities that weren’t available in Australia.

Academic job search

I started my job search process with academic roles, knowing that these roles have a longer lead time than most industry roles. I always considered the academic career path to be a long shot, given that I would need to establish an entirely new network of professional collaborators in a new country and the general scarcity of early career research positions, but I wanted to give it a shot.

I first familiarised myself with relevant research institutes in the San Francisco area and specific researchers with aligned research interests – Twitter was a great resource for this. I also reached out to colleagues in Australia, who I knew had spent time in the United States (US) or had US-based collaborators, to ask if they would be willing to introduce me to people who I could talk to for further information on potential opportunities. This process was definitely uncomfortable at first but I was overwhelmed by the generosity with which people responded to me, both in Australia and in the US. There was a snowball effect, with most people I spoke to offering to introduce me to someone else.

Aided by two trips to San Francisco in 2018 where I could organise in-person meetings, I established some strong connections with researchers based in San Francisco and even drafted applications for post-doctoral fellowship projects (there are a number of funding opportunities available in Australia for international research collaborations such as Fulbright scholarships). Ultimately, I was not successful with this pathway and not having a solid vision for my own academic career, I shifted my focus to roles outside of academia.

Changing tack

While the academic search process was aligned with all the work I was doing as part of my PhD (including conference networking and writing up journal publications), I needed to take a different approach in searching for roles outside of academia. To consider which positions to pursue, I thought about skills that I had, what types of work or tasks I most enjoy, and importantly, what someone would hire me to do. While I could draw on a range of skills and experience from my professional career before starting my PhD, I knew that I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t use some of the knowledge and technical skills gained during my PhD in my future role.

For me, this process was the most challenging part of the job search and required a lot of self-reflection over time to work out how to frame my skills set. I scoured job ads online and spoke to people with similar academic backgrounds working in a variety of industry roles to understand the type of opportunities available to me. In the end, I narrowed it down to two areas and interviewed for roles in both areas:

  1. Health data analytics and quantitative research: Skills in health data analytics was a common requirement in job ads. This technical skill is more specialised than more general project management skills so I hoped this would make me more competitive for these roles. Additionally, unlike the other knowledge gained during my PhD, which focused on the Australian health system and policy context, these skills are more readily transferable to a new country.
  2. Research program management: These roles drew more heavily on skills and experience I gained in roles prior to starting my PhD. I applied for roles that required more technical knowledge including areas where I had stronger content knowledge (health care performance measurement) but also in new areas (genomics research).

So how did it turn out?

My months of research, informational interviews and preparing job applications did eventually pay off. After a lot of research, I drew up a short lists of organisations in San Francisco that seemed like a good fit for me. Then using LinkedIn, I looked for people who worked at those companies who I may have a mutual connection with. It was a chance meeting at a conference in Seattle that eventually led me to a connection at the health data analytics company I now work at!

While in many ways, the job search process can seem like solely a process of luck and fortuitous timing (and it does involve a degree of that), I can now look back at how all the work I did (the multitude of meetings and interviews, editing my social media profile and preparing and submitting more than 30 job applications) helped me to secure a position at a company aligned to my interests, expertise and values.

Some important lessons I learnt along the way

Keep an open mind: In a PhD we are trained to focus in on a very specific area of research but the networking necessary in the job search process requires the opposite approach. Take the curiosity you have as a researcher into meetings with a diverse range of people, think about relevant, engaging questions ahead of time and you’ll be surprised how much you learn about opportunities out there and what other roles might be available which you hadn’t thought of before.

Step outside your comfort zone: If you’re like me, it’ll be nerve-wracking the first time you email someone asking to speak to them or for them to introduce you to a mutual connection and there will be times in which you get no reply. However, most people are willing to help, especially as many have been in a similar situation themselves at one point in their careers.

Start early and pace yourself: Looking for a job is exhausting, particularly when it is a side project to completing your thesis! For me, the process took more than 12 months and I found a slow, sustained effort allowed me to build up a network and take on advice offered along the way. I tried to manage it like a project and made sure I scheduled regular activities like reviewing job ads every week and tried to organise a new meeting approximately every fortnight.

Jo Khoo was awarded her PhD from the University of Wollongong in July 2019. Her PhD research at the Australian Health Services Research Institute focused on the private health insurance system in Australia and its role in supporting patients with chronic and complex needs. She now lives in San Francisco where she works in the health technology sector using the skills and knowledge gained during her PhD to contribute to the development of analytic solutions for health care providers. Jo can be contacted on LinkedIn or via Twitter (@jokhooz1).

Thanks Jo – congratulations on your PhD, your new role and your move overseas – we wish you the best with your new role and future career development. 

Jo has written previously for HDR Career Conversations about Identifying relevant skills from your PhD 

Register for HDR workshops and seminars such as ‘Finding Opportunities and Building your Career Network (HDR students)’.   Careers and employer events at UOW offer you the opportunity to meet with potential employers on campus and extend your career network. 

Have you got any strategies to share for securing work after a PhD?  Add your comments and questions below. 

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