Monthly Archives: October 2014

An academic career – do you have the write skills?

What’s your writing like? Do you enjoy it? Are you any good at it? The reason I ask is that I’ve been reading a number of blogs recently about the requirements and skills needed to be a successful academic (e.g. Academic Juggling). I found out that writing – doing lots of it – tends to dominate.
Publish, publish, publish
If you’re serious about an academic career, you’ll be all too aware that you need to publish your findings in good quality peer-reviewed journals on a regular basis to maintain your standing in the field (and your job!). This means you need to get writing and start practising as early in your research career as possible. Ask your supervisor if s/he will mentor you with your academic writing, or ask for help from an alternative ‘friendly’ academic or postdoc. There are courses you can attend at your institution, nationally or on-line to help to hone your writing skills (see my previous blog: Publish (by the rules) or Perish!). You can also offer to write a review on your research topic for a journal as another way to enhance your research profile.

Writing grant proposals
The second most important activity, when you become an academic, is to compete for grants in order to fund your research. These can be large international, multi-national consortia, national governmental grants or private, charitable funds. Writing a grant application is like writing a business plan and requires the investigative insights and knowledge of the research landscape demonstrated in a scientific paper, combined with the ability to ‘sell’ your proposal in the face of very tough competition. No doubt you will need input from your collaborators, which will have to be brought together into a coherent and succinct document. What’s more, you will likely need to include timelines, milestones, budgeting and tick a whole host of compulsory administrative boxes using an electronic system which may ‘go down’ and scupper you just as you’re about to press the submit button! [Maybe you can tell I’ve been through this process myself!] Again, you can get some early practice in, even as a PhD student, and certainly during your postdoc years, by applying for small internal funds, competitive travel grants and even assisting your supervisor with larger applications. Workshops and mentoring are also available to improve your skills (see a very useful document produced by the Human Frontier Science Program).

Many new academics are given teaching duties, which means writing lectures. This can take up a lot of your time – far more than delivering the actual lectures themselves – not to mention the accompanying assessments and student pastoral care. Teaching tools and support from higher education support organisations can help to relieve the load, e.g. Teaching Tools in Plant Biology, Higher Education Academy, American Institute of Biological Sciences. However, for the most part, you may just need to aim to put in a lot of extra hours when you start your job!

Administrative work
On top of your core research commitments, as an academic you will need to take part in the administrative activities of your university department. Academics are assigned various roles such as undergraduate or postgraduate director of studies, admissions tutor, careers tutor, committee member, e.g. ethics, teaching, research and examinations. This will usually involve a lot of paperwork for you to read, submit to meetings, reports to write and so on. This type of writing is very different from that required for academic papers so you would do well, when you take up your post, to take advantage of the staff development courses offered by your institution. These can include topics such as how to chair meetings, write up minutes and manage your time effectively.

Of course, there are other discretionary academic writing opportunities, in addition to these core obligations. For example, writing conference presentations and engaging with social media (tweeting, blogging), which can be as important for your career, helping to raise your profile and keep you well networked. Ironically, it may be your ability to prioritise and balance all of these diverse writing tasks, not the writing itself, which will be the greatest determinant of your ultimate success!  

Postdocs: Be careful what you wish for!

Statistics, surveys and anecdotal evidence tell us that the majority of postdocs aspire to become an academic, even though few will achieve this career goal. Having graduated from a PhD, they have chosen a research career path and many are aiming for a permanent position, not in industry, not in government, possibly in a research institute, but mostly in a university. But do they really know what kind of life awaits them as a lecturer or professor? Are they fully aware of how different the life of an academic is, compared with the role of a postdoctoral researcher? Recently, I’ve noticed a few blogs appearing on the subject of being an academic, so I thought I’d share three of them here to illustrate some of the many challenges and varied duties expected of an academic. This way, postdocs wishing for this career will be going in with their eyes open!

First up, “The many hats of the academic researcher ”, by Andrew D. Hollenbach, which is featured  on the ASBMB site, lists 11 roles he has to play as associate professor, some of which caught him by surprise. Unlike being a postdoc, focussing on research and its associated tasks, as a professor Andrew found out very quickly he had to, amongst other things, be a teacher, a writer, a politician, a performer, a mediator and, sometimes, even a therapist. Duties such as chairing departmental committees and mentoring students can take up a lot of time and, he advises, a supportive department is crucial to help you to manage your workload.

One newly appointed academic once told me, “What with research, teaching, reviewing papers, writing grants, forming and nurturing collaborations, as well as writing papers, my working week is long and includes evenings and weekends”.  I must confess, from my own experience, I find that the best time to get the attention of an academic is to email them at the weekend – you can usually guarantee they’ll be catching up on work, including checking their emails. With few other distractions while they’re away from the institution, you are more likely to get their attention (if their children don’t get there first of course!).

My second example is Jim Smith, a professor at MRC. His advice about how to succeed as a biomedical scientist is recorded by Simon Hazelwood-Smith on the Naturejobs Blog, following his talk at their annual careers expo in London. His account of his academic career focusses on the challenge of finding a niche for your research so that you can establish yourself in a particular research field. It’s not enough to move in the shadows of your previous supervisors, you need to find and own your area of research expertise. He says: “You need to fall in love with your subject and be engrossed by it”. He adds a list of personal qualities and tips on how to succeed as an academic, including learning to take good notes, creating and using networks, and taking control of your career.

Finally, here’s some advice from an academic who made it to the very top of the university career ladder, featured on the Financial Times blog: Professor Nancy Rothwell is the University of Manchester’s first female Vice Chancellor. She talks about the challenges for female scientists, even those without children, including long hours in research labs and international travel. She says the reason why women are in the minority of senior positions can be due to a range of things, including family commitments, a lack of self confidence and a lack of role models.

So there you have it, the harsh reality of the life of an academic. Do you still yearn for it, despite the many challenges and stresses? If so, it could well be the career for you!

Related content: What’s the point of a postdoc?