Do you find it challenging when choosing your academic specialism? Have you got lots of ideas but may be concerned about which one to commit to? Choosing your academic specialism can be a big decision and it is important to get it right. In the following article, I have selected some questions you could ask.
Most of us would agree that reflection is a good idea. However, very few people devote time for regular reflection. Meeting with a coach or a mentor is a good start. However, you might find it helpful to reflect on some of your challenges and possible solutions. You could block out at least 30 minutes in your diary every week and treat it like an important meeting. Many people find journalling most beneficial because it helps them to crystallise their thoughts. You could draw mind maps or even jot down bullet points if you like.
Here is a list of questions you could ask yourself:
- How do you want to make a difference as an academic?
- How do you know when you are successful in your field?
- What do you feel the most passionate about?
- What are you best at?
- What have you enjoyed working on in the past?
- If you could specialise in any field, what would that be?
What are your interests?
When you work in a career which genuinely interests you, you will shine. You will find it easier to overcome the challenges, and others will quickly notice your dedication and your enthusiasm. You might however be overwhelmed by having too many interests and you could find it challenging to select one specific field. Try to imagine your career in 3-5 years in the future. What would you be doing on a day-to-day basis? Would you be working overseas? What would make you happy about your work?
If you struggle to come up with some interests, you could make a list of tasks you do not wish to do. You could start selecting some academic fields that you do not want to be involved in and this could help you to reduce the number of your options.
Plan the location
Would you like to gain some international exposure and work overseas? Living in a foreign country could be challenging initially however it could contribute to lots of personal and professional growth. As you will be interacting with colleagues from different cultures, you will be able to develop more cultural awareness. You could gain access to an international network of researchers working in academia. The more ideas you are exposed to, the more you can develop creativity around your field and see things from fresh perspectives.
Discussions with your Supervisor
Working with your supervisor can be one of the best ways to develop clarity. Research shows that the act of expressing our thoughts out loud frequently brings clarity to our thinking. A skilful supervisor has strong listening skills. They can understand your challenges and give you some helpful guidance based on their experience and observations. Your supervisor may be able to make professional connections and introduce you to others who could help further your career.
Alternatively, you could work with a coach or a mentor to develop a bespoke career plan for you. They could give you feedback on how to build on your strengths, how to tackle some of the improvement areas and help you decide what specialism would suit you best.
It is never too early to start networking. Networking can be very useful as you will be exposed to different people, ideas, and academic fields. You can network at conferences, workshops, seminars, courses, industry events and of course via social media. LinkedIn, one of the largest social networking sites, is designed for individuals to make meaningful connections. If you have never really dipped your toe into the area of professional networking, LinkedIn could be a great place to start. You could find research and educational conferences helpful depending on your career aspirations. At these events, you could meet other scholars, learn about their research field, and create collaborations and partnerships with academics from all over the world.
Use constructive feedback
If you are currently working as an early career researcher, you could use feedback from your manager and your colleagues to help when choosing your academic specialism. If you have a supportive line manager, you might like to share your aspirations with them. Feedback from your colleagues could be constructive. For many people, it could be challenging to receive guidance on what they need to improve on. It can be hard to hear that we lack skills and that we should do better. Constructive feedback is based on evidence, and it is specific. It is based on specific examples and the feedback refers to what you do (as opposed to you as a person).
Assess your personality
There are a range of career development tools and questionnaires that you might like to try, such as Career Maze. If you would like to receive an assessment of your strengths, you could complete Gallup’s Strengthsfinder assessment. These tools could help you find your career path and make the right decision.
‘Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect’, said one of the most influential English writers, Samuel Johnson. Curiosity means that you can see the world from different perspectives. You stop labelling things as boring or irrelevant. You welcome the diversity of people and life situations. Be open to new ideas, trends, and experiences and seek to broaden your knowledge of the world continuously.
It is essential that you do not hurry and make quick decisions. Do avoid following your peers without considering your skills, strengths, and future aspirations. Selecting a specialism is a significant decision which might require lots of reflection, research, and discussions. The more you take time to explore different avenues, the better decision you are likely to make.