SMALL companies, BIG opportunities

What’s it like to work in a small company? The majority of companies fall into the category of ‘small and medium sized enterprises’ (SMEs), so ignore them at your peril ! My previous blog gave three tips on how to find them, this time I’m highlighting the career of a Product and R&D Manager working in a small company based in Sweden. Copied from my careers book – which showcases 19 other career stories – you’ll see that flexible working practices, a creative attitude and a ‘flat’ management style make them an attractive option for many researchers: 

juggling girlWhen you work for a small company it is important to be flexible and to be able to take on a number of diverse roles to keep the company developing so it retains an advantage in the market. A small company faces greater risks than a larger one so a versatile attitude is essential. I was taken on in order to utilise my expert knowledge in plant science which I gained during the course of my research. Although I have many roles to play within the company it is communicating with researchers as well as coming up with new ideas and being able to see them through to a final product which I enjoy most.

When my postdoctoral position was coming to an end I applied for a research grant which was rejected and I knew this was a turning point in my career; I made a conscious decision to leave research and move into industry. It seemed an easy decision at the time – I had started to become slightly frustrated with research and was thinking of a career where I could still use my plant science training but where I would see more immediate and tangible results with obvious utility and application. I wrote around 10 – 12 companies to find out what they were doing as part of my job search. As it happened my current company was considering employing an expert to help develop the company so my email arrived with perfect timing and I was offered a job which has since become my own, i.e. I have been able to steer the job and take ownership of it. 

Many people consider small companies to be a bit risky and target large ones instead. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with working in a large company, it doesn’t suit everyone and may feel restrictive to some. For me, I like autonomy and being able to see my ideas right through to the end product. I also like the close-knit team in which I work and the sense that we are ‘all in it together’. My advice to those thinking about small companies would be to search out those with around 5 – 30 employees, preferably with a forward-thinking boss. If you do approach companies in the way I did, my advice is to come at it from the side rather than head-on; that is, enquire about the work of the company which gives you more scope for an opening rather than asking for a job directly which could be turned down flat with no room to negotiate further.

Also, don’t be afraid to show who you really are when you approach companies or when you attend interview. If you aren’t your genuine self and pretend, for example, to be knowledgeable or capable of everything you may come across as being false. The important thing is to have the right can-do attitude which will instil confidence into a company director who will be relying on your input far more than a company of thousands.

Generally speaking, small companies cannot afford to employ people who can’t be adaptable and turn their hand to a range of tasks. That’s not to say you would be expected to be able to do anything and everything; I would not be able to programme a computer but I can offer extra input in marketing and advertising, others may be able to assist with the technical or financial side, for example. Dedication and commitment is crucial!

Related content:

Less is more

Working in industry – Scientific Services

Less is more ….

… where companies are concerned. With the break-up of many large pharma industries into smaller contract research organisations (CROs) and an increasing number of specialist industries, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) represent a major source of jobs in the science sector. So, if you are considering moving out of academia and into industry, you will be severely limiting your job search if you ignore these guys. But how do you track down these less well- known companies to find out what they do or to make an enquiry or application? Here are three ways:

Screenshot 2016-03-31 09.38.46

  1. If you search “Biotechnology”, as I did, on LinkedIn (see image), you’ll see that there are a lot more small companies ‘out there’ than large ones. LinkedIn is a great place to do your research: You can investigate industries which are relevant to your field of interest and discover the type of work they do, services they provide or products they make. You can track down some of the people who work for these companies and, from there, find out their backgrounds and even make a polite approach. If you are keen to target a particular location, you can refine your LinkedIn search and even add in your own institution to try to pull out any research alumni, who are now working in companies of interest to you. They might be more likely to help you if they see a connection between you.
  2. Another way to find small companies in the science sector is to identify science/research parks, where lots of small companies are located. A comprehensive directory of science parks in Europe is listed on the UNESCO website and you can see a worldwide list on Wikipedia. Don’t only rely on these two lists as I noticed that some parks are missing from them. A search on Google may help to fill any gaps if you can’t see anything in your preferred location.
  3. Finally, try signing up with a recruitment agency which specialises in the biosciences. Many companies make use of these agencies nowadays to help them with their recruitment, especially at the initial stages, so you may be missing out if you don’t engage with them. If you build a good rapport with them they can be very helpful in finding suitable vacancies for you. Tina Persson, a former recruiter herself, has some useful advice on this subject, featured recently on the Naturejobs blog.

That’s all for now folks! I’ll follow my own advice and sign off with a shorter blog this month. I’ll leave you with links to a couple of previous blogs I have written on this subject and you can also take a look at my resources page.

Do I stay or do I go?

I’m a scientist [don’t] get me out of here!

 

Decisions Decisions

PhD career choice indicator_Page_2Career choice can sometimes be a real dilemma for PhD students and early career researchers. When you have spent most of your life in education and research in an educational or research institution, your horizons can sometimes be restricted to just a few limited career ideas. You may be wondering whether to pursue a career in academia or to consider other options. Even though you are in a professor-rich environment, competition for academic posts is very harsh nowadays, with vastly more temporary postdoctoral research posts compared with permanent university and research positions. Knowledge of the job market is usually limited within the confines of the academic research world, but so too is researchers’ awareness of their work preferences and which jobs might suit them.

Aim

The PhD Career Choice Indicator is designed to help you to navigate the job market and to start to formulate some preliminary career decisions. It won’t give you ‘the answer’ but it may provide clues about the types of jobs which might suit your interests and skills.

Background and theory

Based on John Holland’s Theory of Career Choice, first proposed almost 50 years ago, the PhD Career Choice Indicator makes use of his fundamental assumption: If people work in environments which are similar to their personality, allowing them to express themselves in terms of their skills and interests, they will have greater job satisfaction and be more successful. Holland categorised these personality types and environments into six groups:

REALISTIC – Practical, technical, systematic, applied, mechanistic

INVESTIGATIVE – Research, discovery, curiosity, interpretive, conceptual

ENTERPRISING – Inventive, resourceful, leadership, entrepreneurial, promotion

ARTISTIC – Creative, imagination, design, original, performance

SOCIAL – Supportive, instructive, advisory, cooperation, counselling

CONVENTIONAL – Administrative, management, organisation, executive

An ‘investigative type’ will be most suited to jobs in an investigative work environment, an ‘enterprising type’ to jobs in an enterprising environment, and so on.

Methodology

The PhD Career Choice Indicator lists and categorises typical tasks which are likely to be carried out by bioscience researchers and students during the course of their research, from data collection and experimental design to outreach and writing papers; you may have other tasks to add to the list.

Using Holland’s theory and an associated generic career assessment instrument (Strong Interests Inventory), three top typologies can be identified and then mapped onto jobs in corresponding work environments. Note that the suggested jobs have been selected as they are closely or distantly related to the biosciences, however many researchers want to consider non-bioscience careers, in which case there are more generic career assessment instruments available that may help to expand horizons further.

Results and Conclusions

The PhD Career Choice Indicator has received very positive feedback during my workshops. Whether it will work individually on-line remains to be seen – I hope you will find it useful as a starting point in your career choice process. Why not give it a go and see for yourself. I would be interested to hear your views: sarahblackford16@gmail.com

Your future in your hands

New technology and big data helping small producers take on the big food suppliers, citizen-led medical healthcare and universities taking on the major global challenges – these are just three of the Top 10 predictions for 2016, published 2016 blogby innovation charity, NESTA.

If you had to make a similar list of predictions for 2016, but focussed on your career, what would be on it? What plans (big or small) do you have this year that could have a positive impact on your future? Maybe a Top 10 list is too much to compile in one go, so how about your Top 5 to start off with? Making plans doesn’t mean you have to stick to them, but it’s useful to have a flexible personal strategy. This will help you to keep in mind what you’d like to achieve for your career, as well as making progress with your research project.

Here are some example resolutions that came to my mind during this first week of 2016 (but note these ideas may be only partially relevant to your situation, so feel free to ignore and make your own list):

  1. My primary resolution for 2016 is to try to stop ‘faffing about’ and ensure that most days I’m being productive. It’s easy to get distracted with trivia or checking emails, so I aim to stay focussed on the things that matter and prioritise the most important tasks.
  2. Procrastination and putting things off affects most of us and can become an ever-present background distraction if not dealt with. For my part, I intend to sort out and paint my house this year, something I’ve been meaning to do for ages. I plan to start small and eventually the whole house will be done (this is probably going to be a year-long project!). Clearing out your physical clutter can help clear your mind too (according to Feng Shui philosophy).
  3. Looking ahead to the coming year, it can be useful to break it down into months or weeks to give a more detailed picture of your short- and medium-term plans. Insert key immovable events (e.g. meetings, courses, events and even holidays) around which you can pencil in your everyday plans. A hardcopy or electronic diary can help you to view the year ahead and add in events as they crop up – I add in personal and social activities, which are all too easily overlooked such as departmental lectures, training, sport and even lunch dates.
  4. Consider your career strategy for the coming year – what can you be doing to enhance your employment prospects? Looking beyond your core research activities will help you to extend your professional profile. Is there a paper or grant proposal that needs writing? Are there events you could be getting involved with? What about useful courses you could attend to increase your knowledge or skills (some of which have grants and scholarships to attend). Take a look at my career calendar as some of the events may be of interest to you.
  5. Being part of relevant communities helps us to extend our knowledge and professional networks. I’m a member of quite a few different communities relevant to science, careers, women in science, education and science communication as these are central to my job. Think about building on your own current research community and expanding into others (research and non-research) that may be useful to you in the future. You can do this via personal and professional contacts, reaching out to people in professions of potential interest to you, joining social media networks, volunteering to run events, getting involved and interacting with others, communicating your work through publications, presentations and other platforms.`

So, to conclude my first blog of the year, I’ll leave you with this list and the promise of a second instalment in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, I’m off to put some dates in my diary and choose some paint for my house. Happy New Year to you all – may it be successful and productive!

Have you got your CV covered?

If you ask me what I think is one of the greatest challenges in the hunt for jobs these days, I would say “competition”. With many more PhD-qualified people ‘on the market’ and, with fewer permanent academic posts on offer, there’s a real need to skilfully market and sell yourself over and above this competition. That means not only competing against other researchers for lectureships and professorships, but also beating off the competition for non-academic jobs. Entering industry and other career sectors does not necessarily require a PhD for many of the jobs on offer, so how do you promote your experience and skills across this divide?

covering letterWith very little to go on, many employers have only the CV and covering letter to select the best candidates from an avalanche of applications. Whilst networking is a great way to get yourself noticed, it’s not always possible for all jobs so you will need to stand out from the crowd ‘on paper’ using a well-targeted and effective CV and covering letter. This is not easy; unlike in an interview, written words cannot make use of body language or tone of voice to get your message across. And whilst it’s important to structure CVs strategically so that they convey your information as powerfully as possible, it’s the covering letter which can be the ‘make or break’ of a successful application. This is where you can really show your enthusiasm and knowledge of the job, matching specific experience to the job role and person specification. It sounds straightforward but many people fail to use this opportunity to enhance their chances of making it to interview.

12 tips to improve your covering letter:

  1. The layout of the letter should be formal, even if it’s being sent via email. Place the name and address of the employer on the top left hand of the page, date underneath, followed by the job reference. “Dear Sir/madam,” letters should end “Yours faithfully”, but if you name the person (e.g. Dear Professor Jones), you should sign off with “Yours sincerely”. Sounds very picky but this attention to detail and formality shows respect and professionalism.
  2. Covering letters need only be one page long. Their aim is to convey knowledge of the employer/research group, to match key information from the CV with the job/role and to demonstrate your value and what you will contribute.
  3. Cut to the chase – get to the point straight away. Make every word count – don’t waffle about generic information which will be common to most of the applications, get your stand-out uniquely impressive skills and expertise into the first part of the letter.
  4. If you are applying for a research group, look at the website, read recent papers and refer to them in your covering letter. Link their work with what you are doing now and tell them what you can bring to the research group/faculty that builds on and develops the work further.
  5. For jobs outside of academia, research the organisation and ask yourself what it is that attracts you to work there (e.g. their work environment and culture, products, services, ethics, track record, reputation). Link your most relevant experience and transferable skills to the job role.
  6. Making applications is a matching exercise so underline three or four of the key essential requirements specified in the job and person descriptions and make sure you highlight your suitability in the covering letter. This should entice them to read your CV in more detail (and hopefully invite you to interview).
  7. Don’t put anything negative into the covering letter. If the job doesn’t specify a PhD, you don’t have to mention it in your covering letter if you think it may make you appear over-qualified. Instead you could say (e.g. for a data science job), “During the course of my research, I have developed excellent data management and analysis skills, using a wide range of statistical tools.” By the time the employer sees the level of your qualifications on your CV they should already have a positive opinion of you and be more open to offering you an interview.
  8. For speculative letters, the process is more difficult as you are trying to get the attention of a potential employer and you don’t have a job specification to work from. Generally speaking, don’t ask for a job directly as this can only result in a “yes/no” answer. Instead, talk about your knowledge and interest in the research group/organisation, set out your expertise and skills relevant to them, and how you want to develop and build your career further (again, in line with what they are doing). Mention politely whether there’s a convenient time to discuss their work in more depth and about future opportunities.
  9. End on a positive note, e.g. “I hope I have convinced you I have the skills and enthusiasm you require for this post and very much look forward to hearing from you.”
  10. The purpose of your covering letter is to introduce your CV so to ensure it is read first when you send it by email, convert it and your CV together into one pdf.
  11. Ask someone else to read the letter and then tell you what stood out to them. If they can’t remember or pick out the more relevant information, review what you’ve written and maybe reorganise it or make it even more superlative. This is no place for being modest, neutral or low key. What might seem to be ‘boasting’ will come across as genuine enthusiasm to the employer.
  12. Don’t be tempted to use the same CV and covering letter, even for similar posts, as it will be quite obvious to the employer – match and highlight the most relevant experience (employers always put their most important requirements first, so make sure these go into your covering letter). However, if after many applications, you receive no interview requests, review your CV and covering letter and, ideally, ask the opinion of a careers professional (or someone in the business you are applying to). Is it your applications that are letting you down or do you need to take further action such as improving on your skills, qualifications, portfolio, etc. or even re-considering your career plans.

Related content: CVs ; Slideshare presentation

 

“I’m a scientist! [Don’t] Get me out of here!”

Do you experience procrastination when it comes to making decisions about your next career move? Are you avoiding doing anything practical about addressing your future career? Perhaps you are even feeling fearful of the prospect of moving out of academia.

If this is the case, rest assured that you are not alone. It is well recognised in the careers advisory business that the process of decision making and career transition tends to be a ‘slow burner’. People need time to come to terms with the prospect of leaving a job which, to all intents and purposes, has become their identity.

How many of you have responded to questions like: “What do you do?” or “Tell me about yourself” with “I’m a scientist” or “I’m a researcher”? Many former researchers still include their scientific background or refer to it years after they have moved on to non-research careers. In fact, I even do it myself to some degree, retaining part of my former biologist identity through working for a biological organisation and focussing on research bioscientists as my major client group.

slow burnerFor those researchers who regard the prospect of moving out of academia stressful, and even unimaginable, I came across the following career theory recently, which may be helpful in demonstrating recognised processes that we all go through when faced with the prospect of taking on a new career and, by association, a new career identity. The theory of identity development, proposed by James Marcia in 1996, describes how our commitment to a new identity can influence our motivation to explore and accept new career possibilities. Although his theory is aimed at adolescents choosing their initial careers, it is relevant to researchers who, in moving out of academia, will need to accept a changed career identity and start to come to terms with a new work role. Marcia identified four stages in this process where we move from low commitment through to high commitment and how this ultimately results in identity achievement so that we are motivated to explore new career options (see Figure).

On a scale of 1 – 10, how committed are you to your identity as an academic research scientist? To what extent are you investigating other career options? How ready are you to make a transition into a new career or work environment? What could you do to ease the process? Professional careers advisers, like myself, can help individuals to reflect on and manage their careers (whilst helping each other with our own careers too!). But it is a gradual process – a slow burner. So if you’re currently procrastinating and hesitating about your next career move, take heart in the knowledge that your actions (or lack of them) is normal behaviour in this situation. However, take heed of the fact that even if your commitment is low, exploring and addressing your career in one way or another, thinking about and testing out new possibilities as well as seeking support should help to start to ease you through the process.

Related content: The skilled researcher ; Mind your career

 

How to stand out in a crowded (academic) world

glassonA few things have come my way this Summer to prompt me to focus this month’s blog on how to make a positive impression when applying for an academic research post or PhD studentship. First, I received a message from a PhD graduate in India, asking me for advice on how to apply for a post in the UK. Secondly, I attended a session at the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB)’s main meeting in Prague, entitled ‘Meet the Academics’, where a panel of professors gave early career researchers an insight into what they look for in applicants. Finally, Julie Gould from Naturejobs published a podcast in which she interviewed Chemistry Nobel Prize winners on their views about what makes a good impression on them, when they are looking for researchers to join their research groups.

Unlike many graduate jobs, which seek candidates who can demonstrate excellent team working, organisational and communication skills, research posts and PhD studentships require an emphasis on a rather different set of capabilities. Academic research is highly specific and demands a high level of concentration and dedication to an on-going question or conundrum. Therefore, academics looking for new people to join their research group, as a postdoc or PhD student, want to see evidence of focus, dedication and a particular passion for getting to the root and essence of a singular problem.

A strong publication record is still a vital component of the assessment process but, as Prof Patrick Hussey (Durham University, UK) revealed during the SEB Meeting session, it’s important not to judge candidates mainly on their papers: “What I look for is personality and enthusiasm”, he said and this was backed up by Prof Craig Franklin (Queensland University, Australia) who advised candidates to make the most of covering letters to express their ideas and creativity and to ‘sell themselves’.

In her podcast, Julie Gould’s questions produced some very valuable advice from Professors Martin Chalfie (University of Columbia), Venki Ramakrishnan (Laboratory of Molecular biology, Cambridge) and Arieh Warshel (University of Southern California), summarised here:

Don’t just send in your CV, relying on your references to speak for you – you need to take charge of your application. Make sure you provide a good reason why you have chosen a particular research group; research what your target lab is doing and read up about their work. Convey to the research group leader what you want to do and express your own ideas. Demonstrate how the lab’s infrastructure and profile will fit with what you want to do. It’s not just about scientific knowledge, it’s to do with you demonstrating motivation and an interest in solving hard problems. You have to show you can take your own initiative and ‘stand on your own two feet’.

And what about the future? During the session at the SEB Meeting, one delegate posed the question, “When is the right time for a researcher to apply for their first tenured academic position?”, to which Prof John Love (Exeter University, UK) advised: “You get a kind of itchy feeling that you want to do something more”, he said. “But one of the difficult things about the transition is realising that you are no longer working just for yourself and your development – now you have to work for other people and your students, to develop their careers and ideas. You may have to let go of certain things…it’s a real growing up process”.

Finally, although an ability to communicate and present yourself and your science is vital nowadays, don’t be tempted to oversell yourself in your application. Be authentic and realistic – remember, whatever you say in your CV, may need to be defended or expanded upon at interview.

The invisible delegate – how to be at a conference without being there!

#plantbiology15 is coming to an end after a fabulous week of sessions, talks, workshops and social events. For thoseScreenshot 2015-07-26 01.27.08 of you who use Twitter, you’ll know that I’m referring to a conference (actually, it was the American Society of Plant Biologists Meeting 2015, which took place in Minneapolis). For those of you who are not signed up to Twitter, you probably guessed it was a conference, but you won’t be privy to the ‘parallel universe’ that exists during conferences and meetings these days.

The reason I attended the meeting was to run a career workshop and take part in other areas of a very extensive conference side programme. My workshop was well attended, with 80 PhD students and postdoctoral researcher delegates who heard about a latest survey of plant scientist career destinations, then took part in a SWOT analysis of a plant science researcher and finally practised their communication and networking skills in readiness for the main conference. With my two co-presenters, Ian Street and Molly Hanlon, being enthusiastic advocates of social media, our delegates were very much encouraged to join Twitter and start making the most of this social media tool straightaway. Many of them did and are now following us (and vice versa).

With its community of ‘Tweeters’ posting soundbites from speakers’ talks, this alternative side of conferences also provides delegates with practical information, colourful photos and useful links to additional data. Even the occasional video and joke is posted from time to time. I say these tweets add an extra dimension for the delegates attending conferences, but for those not able to attend, it acts as a remote window into a conference, building up a story of the whole event (usually turned into a ‘storifed’ post-meeting super-tweet). Often you can see tweets on the conference hashtag# from non-delegates back in the lab saying how jealous they are of those attending, since the tweets usually paint a colourful picture of the meeting highlights, both serious and social. That said, they are usually appreciative of the nuggets of information being disseminated to the Twitter community from the session talks and posters.

Of course, the other side of the new ‘Twittersphere’ to bear in mind is that if you are speaking at a meeting (or even dancing at the final party!), your words and actions may be being broadcast to a wider audience, so be careful not to say or do anything you might not want to ‘go public’.

Well, another session is about to start so I’d better get off now so I can start tweeting about it. If you’re still in doubt about trying out Twitter, please refer to the picture opposite, which I saw when visiting a fellow collelife bginsague in Sweden and which was the final slide of my career workshop at #plantbiology15.

PS. My Twitter handle is @Bioscicareer if you want to follow me.

 

The Skilled Researcher

Last week, I ran a career workshop at a research institute in the lovely city of Vienna. The participants were doctoral students keen to find out about the kinds of careers they could consider after their PhD. I asked them to come up with a list of careers where a PhD is (1) essential; (2) optional; and (3) not required.

It’s interesting that whenever and wherever I do this workshop exercise, participants usually come up with very few job options in each of these categories. This is partly because there are very few professions in category 1, where a PhD is essential (mainly research jobs), which restricts the number of jobs on the list. For categories 2 and 3, although there are far more jobs where a PhD is either optional or non-essential, doctoral students and researchers usually find it harder to think of examples. This is not surprising, since they are working in research, usually focussed on research-related careers and also have limited interaction with people in non-academic careers.

My own list below illustrates this point, i.e. it has a small number of professions at the top, where a PhD is essential, with many more choices appearing towards the bottom of the list, where a PhD is not required. Clearly the list is very limited, but it reflects the more popular career choices, which tend to be science-related.

list of jobs

Finding out about the range and types of non-academic careers available is one thing, making yourself a ‘marketable commodity’ of value to potential employers to these professions is quite another. For those jobs at the top of my list that require a PhD, associated academic research skills are a must, i.e. excellent laboratory skills, knowledge of biological systems, analytical and interpretative skills, not to mention writing, publishing, acquiring funding, teaching, supervising, etc. However, as you move down the list, away from the research and technical fields and more towards the PhD-optional type jobs, these kinds of specific research activities become more valuable in demonstrating personal and transferable skills, rather than to show knowledge of the latest gene for controlling drought tolerance in an obscure weed or the intimate goings-on in yeast.

The good news for PhD students and researchers is that you will have acquired plenty of these skills during the course of your research and, even if you can see skill gaps, there are usually opportunities to fill them by applying for summer schools and courses, getting involved in extra-research activities or even doing an internship. In this way, you can add to the repertoire of skills and capabilities required for particular professions (read job specifications to find out what’s on the menu) and also promote them in your CV (that’s another story!).

In my career workshop in Vienna, the PhD students audited all their work activities and then allocated them into skill groups. They were surprised by the number of skills they had acquired through their research work, and found it useful to compare with their peers. If you look at the range of work activities in the figure below, you’ll see tasks such as, ‘sharing expertise’, ‘planning experiments’ and ‘trouble-shooting’. Of course, these activities, and all of the others too, involve doing a whole lot more than these simple words on a sticky note can express. Breaking them down into further sub-tasks conveys a much more accurate picture of the skilled researcher: building relationships and collaborations, liaising with colleagues, explaining complex concepts, determining problems and using creative solutions to overcome them, investigating resources and designing new protocols. To name but a few!

skills2

You can do this exercise individually. Brainstorm all the work activities you do in your PhD or postdoctoral research, as well as associated activities and even personal interests if they are of relevance. You can then allocate these into skill groups such as those shown here. If your university is a member of Vitae, you can also make use of their learning log, the Researcher Development Framework, to help guide you in your personal and professional development.

As a skilled researcher, you have many career options to consider, and the skills you’re enjoying using right now will provide clues to the kinds of jobs which may be of interest to you. Use this knowledge to research potential careers, promote the information strategically in your applications and then be prepared to talk about it at interview.

 

 

 

vision-2Band-2Bgrowth

Don’t plead for your career, take the lead !

Reprinted from the Society for Experimental Biology bulletin, March 2015

Universities present a unique working environment. Those primarily concerned with the business of research, measure their success on the basis of their academic achievements, which include peer-reviewed research papers, research income, student results and graduate destinations. In recent times, universities have started to be considered as global businesses, competing to attract international student ‘customers’, focussing on enterprise and generating patents, outsourcing teaching and other ‘services’ whilst paying serious attention to global and national rankings.  

Mert Toker http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-784093p1.html

Within this environment, a multitude of research groups operate semi-independently, each led by a group leader who acquires most of his/her research funding from external grants, won or lost under conditions of fierce competition with others in their field.  In addition to writing research grants and papers, managing their research group, collaborating strategically, and maintaining and promoting their prominence in their field of expertise, university-based group leaders usually have a teaching load and administrative duties.

Contrary to these tenured institutionally-funded positions, the majority of postdoctoral researchers and PhD students working within these research groups, have a fixed-term contract or period of study, and are funded by national or international grants, scientific charities and other external funding bodies. Many researchers seek the ‘Holy Grail’ of the tenured position, but with few posts available compared with huge numbers of contract researchers, most will end up leaving academia.  

Much has been written on the subject, and many organisations and professionals are in the business of helping researchers to take charge of their careers. Support comes in the shape of workshops and one-to-one guidance, dissemination of studies and surveys about labour market trends and researcher alumni, and the publication of case studies, resources and further information. However, no matter how much career support is on offer, the most important action researchers can do themselves is to take the lead in managing their careers. Relying on supervisors alone to find more money puts researchers in a precarious position, perpetuating uncertainty and the feeling of a lack of control over their careers. Even if a supervisor has a researcher’s best interest at heart, renewing their contract may well be out of their hands in the end. More succinctly quoted on the NPA (the US National Postdoctoral Association) website, “Only you can be in control of your career, and nobody cares more than you about your future”. Peter S. Fiske, Putting your Degree to Work.

The Royal Society in the UK recently published a set of guidelines entitled Doctoral students’ career expectations – principles and responsibilities and Vitae (a UK organisation supporting the careers of researchers) has a series of career development booklets for researchers on subjects such as leadership and creativity. These publications offer invaluable advice to PhD students and researchers to encourage and empower them to take a lead on their career. With very few PhD graduates likely to secure an academic post in the long run (ranging from 3.5% to 10% depending on which surveys you refer to), and less than 1% making it to professor, those who decide to embark on an academic research track will need to think strategically if they are to achieve tenure. Meanwhile, with the majority of researchers entering non-academic careers, preparing and planning for this transition, even if only mentally, should be mandatory.

Leadership involves taking a strategic approach, not only at the personal level, but also considering the context in which you are working. Knowing the politics, rules and culture of your working environment can be a real asset, making you aware of what you need to do to fulfil the requirements for progression. Having an insight into the bigger picture can offer advantages, for example, making strategic collaborations, being aware of funding opportunities, identifying what is needed for a high quality publication or making a timely transition to a fulfilling non-academic career.

You can take the lead in many aspects of your life, whether it’s co-ordinating a small project, supervising a student, chairing a session or meeting, organising an event, or planning and designing your experiments. However, whatever you decide to do, whether you want to stay in academia or move to a non-academic career, aim to take a proactive lead in your own career!

Related content: Mind your career!