How many of the following questions can you answer?
- What is the subject of your research?
- Who is funding it?
- Why are they funding it?
- Who else is working in this field?
- What are your neighbouring research groups working on?
- Who organised the last conference you attended?
- If you couldn’t continue in academic research, where else could you work?
If you can answer all these questions, congratulations! I say this, not from my own perspective, but having seen a recent Tweet from a professor saying that he was surprised at how little many early career researchers know about the bigger picture associated with their research. This included many of the aspects mentioned in my questions above.
Why should you be interested in the bigger picture? Well, I would say that it helps you to take a more strategic approach to your career and be more aware of how to take advantage of some of the great opportunities available to you.
For example, knowing where funding sources come from is crucial to academics, as this is how they develop and grow their research groups. It’s also how they enhance their profile within their research field and institution. For early career researchers, who can’t access certain funding sources, there are plenty more to be found in the form of small equipment, travel or professional development grants.
Knowing what others are doing in the field, whether it’s in the lab next door or in a far-flung research institution, can help you to put your own research into perspective, spark new ideas and increase the interdisciplinarity of your research. It could form the basis of your own research proposal and help you to secure an independent research fellowship.
Attending conferences, whether in person or online, is always a great opportunity to meet others and form new collaborations, even secure your next position. However, many early career researchers don’t take full advantage of these experiences. Being prepared, knowing who will be speaking and identifying people you want to speak to will help you to make the most of the experience. Many learned societies organise conferences, offering PhD students and researchers preferential discounted registration rates, the opportunity to apply for competitions and even providing specialised events for them. If you join these societies, you will even become eligible for their membership benefits, such as travel grants, outreach internships and executive roles on some of their committees.
During your time as a PhD student or early career researcher you can also take advantage of the many activities that take place in your own institution or within your own doctoral training programme. These can include social events, retreats, journal clubs, seminars, outreach to local schools, career events, sports, etc. Whatever interests you, it’s useful for your own professional and personal development (and sometimes, just for the fun of it!) to get out away from your core research and extend your reach and influence to the wider academic world.
All of these examples, and there are many more, not only give you lots of interesting experiences, they also help you to develop more skills and bring you into contact with a wider range of people. This can lead to ‘happenstance’ events that help you to grow your career and also give you a richer more interesting CV to present to employers, whether within or outside of academia.