Author Archives: Sarah Blackford

Flying High

mo farah

www.thesundaytimes.co.uk

As research scientists, you will know the excitement of success, not least of all the moment when you passed your PhD defence. For more seasoned postdocs, that may be some time ago, for PhD students, it’s a future pleasure to look forward to. However, staying in the present, see if you can recall your most recent achievement. It can be anything that makes you feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.  It doesn’t have to be a paper in Nature, an international collaboration or successful funding bid. These revered equivalents of Olympic gold, silver and bronze represent some of the most recognised attainments amongst the research community. However, as the sports teacher of double-gold medal winner, Mo Farah, pointed out in an interview during the Olympic games in Rio, it’s easy for us to become obsessed with medals and distracted by league tables, whilst neglecting all those who have managed to qualify and take part, which is an outstanding achievement in itself.

Positive thinking

So, think again. What is your most recent achievement? It can be anything that makes you feel good about yourself, something that provokes a sense of satisfaction when you think about it. It could be a professional or personal accomplishment, something major or relatively small. It has taken a lot of talent and effort to get this far in your career, so whether you’ve recently generated some new results, completed your analysis, started to write your thesis, given a great lecture, written a blog or even juggled a family event or run your personal best, take some time to reflect and revel in your achievement.  Focusing on the positive can help you through the dark days when your experiments aren’t working or your paper has just been rejected. Recall something that you have done well and look to the future to boost your confidence. Write it down and then get on with working on tomorrow’s achievement.

Positive action

Researchers and PhD students have many opportunities to apply for awards, fellowships and a variety of competitions. For example, my organisation, the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB), each year recognises four early career leaders in the fields of education, plant, cell and animal biology through its ‘president’s medal awards’. It also hosts a Young Scientists Award session and poster prizes during its annual conference, as do many other scientific meetings. This is a great way to add additional evidence of your research excellence to your CV. However, belonging to learned societies and professional bodies and attending conferences and meetings can also help you to gain a sense of achievement: It might be making links with other bioscientists leading to a lab visit or even a job offer, it could be winning a travel grant to attend a conference, an informal chat which opens up a new line of thinking, or simply experiencing an international scientific meeting for the first time.

My own personal achievements range from publishing my first book, which took me about two years to write, through to everyday stuff such as writing a couple of articles for our society magazine and completing the programme for a one-day conference I’m involved in organising. I even count this blog as an achievement, since I set myself a goal of writing one per month and I’m two days ahead of my February deadline.

Think about what you’ve achieved at the end of every day and you may well surprise yourself!

Keep on, keepin’ on

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What do you do when you love being a postdoc, but you know you’re living on borrowed (contract) time? Here’s 8 ways to keep on, keepin’ on.

This month I’ve been organising a one-day career workshop for bioscience mid/senior postdocs, which is scheduled to take place at the end of February in London. Workshops aimed at postgraduate students tend to be more straightforward as everyone is ultimately aiming for the same goal – a successful PhD defence or viva leading to graduation and the coveted doctoral prize. Following on from this, graduates follow a number of career paths; most leave for non-academic careers, however a significant number, especially those in science, choose to remain within academic research (universities and research institutes). Once a postdoc, career goals become more diverse and include: aiming for a permanent tenure-track academic post, an enviable list of publications in high impact journals, making ground-breaking discoveries, intellectual stimulation and even the Nobel Prize. These are highly aspirational aims, but as many academics will tell you, you need to be highly determined, competitive and even lucky if you are to be one of the few who “make it”. And few they are, compared with the numbers who embark on the initial postdoctoral career path, ultimately culminating in the long-term or ‘serial’ postdoc situation which befalls many.

Sometimes unwittingly, but in many cases, very much open-eyed, postdoctoral researchers embrace the opportunity to “keep on keepin’ on” with their contracts, even though they suspect they will never secure a permanent post. The lifestyle is good, comfortable and rewarding – I call it the “velvet rut” – but as much as it is a nice place to be, it will disappear one day. I have seen this happen to people in their 40s who end up taking jobs in the local book shop, government office or departmental stores at the university. They compromise their careers in favour of their personal goals to remain in the local area, keep their kids in the school just around the corner or in order to stay with their friends or support their partner or wider family. Unless this is where you see yourself in a few years’ time, here are some suggestions and career strategies:

  1. For every year that passes, and every postdoc position that you take on, always consider your own personal and professional development. Ask to do more; take on more responsibilities, write papers and apply for funding applications; initiate new collaborations; take on a teaching load, supervise masters students, manage aspects of the lab such as resources, budgets, people; give conference talks, etc. In other words “act up” in the role of an academic, even if you’re not one. You never know where it may lead.
  2. Identify your own Unique Selling Point – USP(s). What are you good at? What are you known for? E.g. a research specialism, technical skills or tools, innovative teaching & learning, etc. Whatever it is, try to improve and keep up to date with its development through courses, workshops, lab visits or collaborations. Learn new ways of doing things and stay in touch or ahead of the game!
  3. Consider research opportunities away from your own field of interest. Some areas of research are on the rise, attracting more funding and moving across into them could open up new and more obtainable opportunities.
  4. Look for on-line remote-working type jobs, e.g. in publishing and communication. There is an increasing need for journal editors (proofing and editing) which might be ideal for those who enjoy home-working. Similarly, websites need science writers who can provide copy and bring visitors to their sites.
  5. If you’re happy to move across into the management/administrative side of the university or institute, many of your organisational, analytical and project management skills will be an asset when you apply for internally advertised posts. It means changing roles, but enjoying the same work environment.
  6. Consider targeting small companies, rather than the larger more well-known ones, as these are more akin to the working environment of a research group, with flatter management and the opportunity to problem solve and multi-task. [LinkedIn can help you to locate them as they have ‘number of employees’ as one of their search criteria].
  7. Use your networks and social media such as LinkedIn to track down people doing the types of job you would like to do, especially if they are PhD alumni of your university or any others with which you’re associated, as they will be more willing to help you. The more networking you do, the more people who know about you, the more opportunities will come your way. An on-line presence can especially help to boost your profile, e.g. Researchgate, LinkedIn or Twitter.
  8. Try to get help and support if it is available in your institution, or contact someone like myself for individual coaching and advice. Even find a supportive empathetic colleague in whom to confide. Sometimes all you need is someone to help boost your confidence and to help empower you to say to yourself “Yes, I can do that!”

I hope you found this (rather long) blog useful and maybe I’ll see you at one of our postdoc workshops in the future 🙂

Looking for a new job? Keep your acquaintances close!

tipping-point

http://www.marksdailyapple.com

When it comes to finding out about new jobs – or, for that matter, new information, or new ideas – ‘weak ties’ are always more important than ‘strong ties’. This is not surprising when you think about it – whilst your friends are closely associated with your personal network, your acquaintances tend to occupy quite a different world to you, so that they are more likely to know something or someone that you don’t. In this way they make great ‘connectors’, linking you to new information and people, new jobs and employment networks.

This research finding, originally conducted by sociologist, Mark Granovetter, in 1974 was reported in Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”, a book I was reading over Christmas, whilst also digesting rather a lot of high calorie food! Subtitled, “How little things make a big difference”, the book demonstrates how concepts such as “the law of the few” and “the power of context” can lead to escalated effects such as epidemics, successful mass media campaigns and increased social power.

Many people, when they look back over their life and tell their ‘career story’, quite often mention a turning point; something that happened such as a chance meeting or piece of information which transformed their lives, changed or boosted their career direction. Such events can act as a ‘tipping point’, defined by Gladwell as one dramatic moment when everything can change all at once. People also refer to these instances as their ‘lucky’ moment. They say things like, “I just happened to bump into someone who told me about a great job opportunity” or “I attended a conference I’d found out about on Twitter, where I met my current supervisor” or “I attended a career workshop where the tutor put me in touch with one of her contacts and from there I managed to find my first job in science communication”.  That last one was me – I was the workshop tutor who acted as the ‘connector’ to help one of my workshop delegates to get connected to the science communication community.

Social media, especially Twitter [currently], are vast networks which often get into the news as the perpetrators of viral stories (good and bad) – they can cause information epidemics very quickly and are a powerful example of how one tweet can escalate globally, depending on factors such as who posted it, the topic and the controversy. Within this global network, more specialised sub-communities exist where people follow each other and tweet a variety of fascinating and useful information (including jobs) connected with their particular interests. All of our connections on social media are potential ‘connectors’ – the fact that they are engaging with these networks means they are likely to be conducive to approaches from people in their circles, so I recommend that you join one or two of them, depending on your career plans.

So if you look a bit closer, you’ll probably find that people are usually the makers of their own luck. They have put themselves ‘out there’ by being proactive, being in the right place at the right time, instigating semi-formal introductions and initiating interactions with acquaintances or ‘strangers’. One or more of their many ‘connectors’ are likely to have put them in the path of a person or piece of information which has acted as a tipping point in their career, acting as their lucky moment, and leading them to where they are now.

Related content: 10 ways to find your next job

Patently obvious careers

November’s blog showcases Patent Examiner, a popular career choice for researchers [note: not to be confused with Patent Lawyer/Attorney]. “Miguel” works in the European Patent office and explains his role and what it takes to get into this profession.

Patent examiner, European Patent office

Job Description

The minimum requirements for the role of patent examiner at EPO is an undergraduate degree. However, in reality, most (if not all) of the 300 examiners working in the biotechnology cluster have a PhD and postdoctoral experience. The reason for this is that the job requires highly critical analytical skills and the ability to have meaningful in-depth scientific discussions with the patent applicants. The information and analysis is highly specific and you need to be able to de-construct the details of the application to determine its value and contribution to the advancement of a particular technology.

Only 30 – 40% of patent applications are accepted per year and the process, from start to finish, lasts several years. I work in a team of three but our work is carried out individually. Each of us works on our own applications. I research databases, examine all the information, analyse the contribution and build up a dossier. I write a report highlighting the strong and weak points of the application and give my opinion on the patentability of the invention. I then negotiate with the applicants through an exchange of letters until we reach an agreement or their application is rejected, in which case I meet with the applicants, their lawyers and supporters at a hearing with my other two colleagues to make the final decision and to close the case.

In addition to scientific expertise and a highly critical analytical mind, language skills (English, French and German) are required by the EPO. You need to have excellent knowledge of two in order to apply but a third is usually desirable. If your language skills are not good enough they will ask you to go away and improve on them before you can are accepted for the job. The majority of employees here are from France and Germany but smaller countries where language skills are more important such as Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland are well represented. Notable under-represented large countries include the UK, Portugal, Greece, Italy and Spain.

Background

Towards the end of my PhD in molecular genetics at the Università Autonoma and CSIC in Madrid I started looking for postdoctoral positions. I wasn’t convinced of aiming for a career in academia; during my PhD I had seen many highly talented researchers striving for this only to be unsuccessful due to the very strong competition.  Therefore I focussed on research posts in industry and secured a position in a small start-up company in Germany – a spin-out company from the Max Planck Institute. The job was ideal – it was a permanent post and I felt more valued than in academia; I led a small team and could delegate more routine tasks so I could focus on reading, experimental design and analysing data. After two years, however, it was clear the company was not really taking off so I started to look at other options. As well as again looking for research posts, I saw an advertisement for a patent examiner in Nature which caught my attention. I had never considered this as a career before. I had been on the other side of the process as a patent applicant but I could never understand a word of the legal aspects of the document. I decided to apply to see what happened and as I looked more closely at the job and working conditions, I became more interested. I was attracted by the prospect of being at the forefront of technological developments and being privy to the very latest breakthroughs. Also, now that I understand the legal side of the job, I find I enjoy it as much as the science!

The Career factors:

Examine jobs in detail

With such a range of jobs being advertised it’s difficult to know what would suit you. Even if you decide to leave academic research you still tend to consider research but instead in an alternative organisation. This is probably because most of us haven’t any idea of what else is on offer or whether we would enjoy it (or be good at it). When I applied for the patent examiner post I didn’t take it seriously to begin with – I had just seen that it was science-related and would involve a visit to The Hague for interview which seemed quite appealing.  However, if you look more closely at the detailed specifications of vacancies, rather than only considering the specific subject knowledge and qualifications, you start to get a much better idea about the job. Employers want to know you can do the job and if you’re a bright person with the ability to learn new things they will happily take you on if you have the right skills and potential.

COMMENTARY

Clearly this is a job for someone who is comfortable working with highly complex scientific information across the field of biotechnology and who has very well developed analytical skills. Furthermore, this is quite an isolated role with people working individually on their own projects with limited interaction with others in their team. This prospect will be appealing to some but not to others and will depend on personal factors; your personality and the skills you enjoy using are more important when choosing your career than your specific subject discipline. When you examine job descriptions look at the skills and personal attributes they require and don’t dwell too much on specific subject knowledge.

Further information

European Patent Office www.epo.org/about-us/jobs.html
US Patent and Trademark office https://www.uspto.gov/jobs/join-us
Chartered patent attorneys        http://ipcareers.co.uk/

This career profile is one of 20 case studies showcased in my book “Career planning for research bioscientists”

The right way?

Which career is ‘right’ for you? Many researchers recognise the need to consider careers other than those based in academia due to a shortage of tenured posts. However, have you ever thought that you may be a better ‘fit’ for an alternative career? Your personality, skills and personal agenda may not suit the rigours of academic life. You may be happier working in a small research company, in an advisory role or in a more team-orientated environment. Blogs and careers information posted on others sites feature alternative careers which you could seriously consider, but how do you know you will be suited to them, or that you will enjoy them?

“Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is enlightenment”, Lao Tzu.

Self-awareness features in most theoretical models of career planning along with more practical activities such as job-seeking, networking and making applications. And while the latter activities are important, it is self-awareness which is really fundamental to the process. It underpins your ability to make informed decisions about your career, assess which jobs might suit you and where your strengths lie. Self-awareness can also help you to make decisions about your personal development and even improve your performance at interview.

SELF-AWARENESSIn the context of career planning, self-awareness can be defined by a range of personal factors including (amongst others) interests, knowledge, skills, personality, values, intelligence, personal situation, gender, cultural and social background. The two factors with which most of us define ourselves (especially in work) are knowledge and interests. They are also perhaps the most influential in terms of career choice. As researchers, your interest in and knowledge of your academic subject and the particular research specialism you have chosen is what has, most probably, brought you to your current position. However, basing your career solely on your knowledge and disciplinary interests can limit your options. Deep career thinking requires a broader awareness of ‘you’ so that you widen your career perspectives and broaden your options. Research tasks and other activities may more accurately reveal where your career interests lie: you may enjoy planning and designing your research over practical work; perhaps problem-solving and analysis is what truly interests you or maybe communication is your real passion. Job descriptions are packed full of skills which vary according to the type of job being advertised. Being able to recognise the skills you possess and, in particular, those you enjoy using or would like to develop further, can provide clues to the type of jobs and roles to which you are most suited.

Your motivational values are at the heart of your ‘self’ and will influence decisions you make about the kind of work which attracts you, your preferred professional role and working environment (e.g. commercial, charitable or educational). Values can alter during the course of your lifetime depending on your situation. In addition, awareness of your personality can also increase your personal effectiveness in many areas of your life including career planning. As well as helping you to make informed career decisions, it can have a more subtle influence such as improving your understanding of others and thereby your personal and professional relationships. Being aware of your personality type and your preferred way of doing things can help you to organise your time and workload more effectively and reveal areas for personal development.

So, if you’re wondering which career might be ‘right’ for you remember to consider factors such as your skills, personal qualities and values to help you to make an informed decision. To find out more about self-awareness, try the following publications: ‘What color is your parachute’ and ‘The art of building windmills’. The Career Choice Indicator is a useful tool linking interests with career options and my book, ‘Career planning for research bioscientists’ contains three practical exercises (skills, personality and values), relevant to all postdoctoral researchers.

 

 

Fluid Career Dynamics

What do the following have in common?

Collaboration and conferences, access to technology, flexibility, mobility, creativity and problem solving, project management, networking, peer-to-peer discussions, having intellectual freedom, working in an international environment and learning something new every day.

IMG_1731

http://www.rheinfall.ch

These are just a few of the opportunities identified by PhD students and researchers during my recent career planning workshops, all considered to be ways to help improve their job prospects and move their careers forward. We were taking a positive look at ways to navigate the rather fluid career path of today’s academic research scientist. Unlike the career path of their older supervisors and other academics in their department, modern-day students and postdocs are sailing their careers in much more choppy and unpredictable waters. Competition amongst fixed-term contract researchers is high, with very few permanent islands of academic career stability. This is where capitalising on personal strengths, as well as identifying and creating opportunities, will help you to steer a course towards a more sustainable career destination.

Having career insecurity is not the domain of academic researchers alone. Many other occupations experience the same precarious employment conditions; even ‘permanent’ posts are not permanent. The good news for PhD students and researchers is that they have a unique set of skills and opportunities which can hold them in good stead for keeping themselves as employable as possible. Aptitude and talent is not necessarily the issue for scientists, it’s being aware of these attributes and appreciating how they can be transferred into other career sectors, as well as making progress towards an academic career.

Employers love scientists: Having a can-do attitude, being unafraid of technology and new developments, as well as problem solving and initiating new ways of doing things are all highly attractive to companies and businesses, who are operating in a global and fast-paced world market. Keeping ahead of their competitors is crucial and they rely on innovative and enterprising staff to demonstrate creativity and entrepreneurship as well as flexibility and a willingness to learn.

Collaboration and conferences, working in an international environment and having the opportunity to work in different countries also provide academic researchers with fantastic opportunities to demonstrate cooperation and multi-national and cultural experience. Having an international outlook, being able to communicate with a wide range of people and generally broadening your horizons go a long way to ‘going a long way’ in your career.

So, as science researchers look to your current strengths and consider how you can expand on them by taking as many opportunities to develop, learn and progress as possible. Look back over the past year and ensure that you are always doing new things and building on your experiences. In this way you are more likely to be able to sail your career in a favourable direction.

10 ways to find your next job

I recall it was a friend who found my first job for me, when she alerted me to a research post she’d seen advertised in The Guardian newspaper. Three years later, I changed jobs into scientific publishing, having applied for a few posts, which had been advertised in the New Scientist. That was over 20 years ago before the days of the internet and social media, but also in the days when there was less competition for jobs. I’m sure not many people scour hard copy magazines and other publications when looking for a job nowadays, preferring instead to search their websites. Old fashioned networking is still the best way to secure a new job – with (anecdotally) less than 30% of jobs being advertised this is not surprising – but face-to-face encounters are not so necessary when the world can be accessed at the touch of a few keyboard buttons.

The job market has changed over my working lifetime and continues to evolve. Technology, economics, social and political pressures drive these changes; the pharmaceutical industry is a classic example of a sector which used to employ huge numbers of employees in all areas of its business, including research, manufacturing and production, human resources, clinical trials and communications. Not only has it been moving its core manufacturing and production into Asia in recent decades, it has also broken up its business and now outsources many of its needs to specialised smaller companies such as contract research organisations (CROs), recruitment companies and medical communications. This makes it harder to find jobs in these areas since smaller companies are less well known and don’t recruit new employees on a large scale.

So how can you make sure you can gain access to the widest range of opportunities available to you according to your career interests? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Investigate websites and recruitment agencies which are advertising in the career sector you are targeting. For example, specific academic job sites such as www.jobs.ac.uk, www.academics.com, http://www.intelliagence.fr and www.postdocjobs.com advertise postdoctoral and tenured academic posts, whilst lists of companies and jobs in industry can be found on dedicated sites such as www.pharmiweb.com, contract research organisations, www.kellyservices.com, www.environmentjobs.com and www.earthworks-jobs.com.
  2. Don’t rely on keywords and RSS feeds to find a job as these will limit your search. Similar jobs can have very different titles these days, even postdoctoral research posts, so be more creative or you could be missing out on dozens of opportunities.
  3. Subscribe to discussions lists. Not only do they post useful information from members, they advertise jobs too. For example, I’m signed up to a science communication list.
  4. Use your network. People are work, work is people – it is people who will either directly or indirectly open doors to your next job. You are surrounded by a network of people who, in turn are connected to others. All these people could help you with your transition by passing on information about possible openings, advising or mentoring you, directly employing you, recommending you, and so on. Don’t limit your network to your immediate work colleagues, but consider those you have worked with in the past, as well as friends, family and others – who knows what gems of wisdom, inside information or contacts they may have to help you on your way.
  5. USE SOCIAL MEDIA. You can expand your network exponentially by engaging with social media for professional purposes. Use Researchgate if you are aiming for an academic career and/or LinkedIn for company jobs. Twitter is invaluable for keeping in touch with other professionals and finding out about latest interest stories, as well as job opportunities. Twitter is also great for conferences.
  6. Join one or more learned societies. These charitable organisations provide benefits to researchers and students, such as reduced registration to conferences, travel grants, competitions, a newsletter, networking and mentoring opportunities, even the chance to get directly involved in their activities.
  7. Make the most of conferences: Unless you use these events to ensure you get some face-to-face contact with people, you are wasting an amazing opportunity. Look at the programme before you go, target people you want to speak to, try to get into the spotlight by presenting a paper, talk to exhibitors (many of whom have a PhD and moved into industry).
  8. Expand your horizons by finding out about opportunities available in other countries. If you are mobile and happy to move abroad make use of websites such as Euraxess which will help you to make the move. This service is available in all countries across Europe and they also advertise jobs. Other organisations and websites exist for  jobs outside of Europe, for example Contact Singapore and Australia.
  9. Take a wider interest in your field: read around the subject through broader interest publications, social media networks and learned societies. Get involved in outreach activities with the public or schools, write a blog or set up a departmental journal club. Establish closer links with people in industry with whom you are collaborating or those nearby within the university campus or on a nearby science park.
  10. Write speculatively to potential employers, or those working in the industry which you want to move into, either enquiring about future job opportunities or to ask for information. Try to set up a visit or phone/Skype call. Don’t ask for a job directly, be more subtle and ask if you can have 10 minutes of their time to ask about the research group/core business, are there likely to be positions coming up in the near future. If you are changing careers ask about their own career path, for example, how they make the transition out of academia, do they have any advice for you.

The strategy you take for your next career transition will depend on you, your experience, ambitions and many other factors so there is no one solution to the best action to take. Hopefully the 10 suggestions above will give you a good starting point.

 

Are you a leading researcher?

You may not realise it, but PhD students and early career researchers often take a leading role and are the star performers during the creative production of “academic research”. Taking command of the stage and your audience can mean quite literally that when you get the chance to present your work at conferences and meetings; you are in the limelight, leading the script and influencing your listeners. Similarly, when you write and publish a paper – or any piece of writing for that matter – you are at the forefront, reporting on your results, offering your interpretation and giving your perspective.

Slide1

Recently, I ran a career workshop on “Leading and managing your career” at a scientific meeting held in Prague in which the PhD student and early career researcher participants identified their own leadership attributes and activities – see their results in the instagram showing personal disposition at the centre connected to people- and project-centred activities. You can probably offer your own examples to add in to the mix.

Leadership is a team activity, with the leader playing their role, whilst others take on theirs. Your position as leader is likely to be a temporary situation so make the most of any opportunities when they arise. You may be managing and supervising students, mentoring them and taking responsibility for the success of their dissertation. You may have some teaching duties alongside your research, where students are looking to you for inspiration, encouragement and other attributes which constitute that of a leader. Meanwhile, you will most likely be taking advice and instruction from your supervisor and working within your research group in a variety of ways depending on the situation: Belbin identifies nine distinctive team roles; you might be the ideas person, the specialist or the implementer at various times during the course of research post or PhD studentship.

No matter how minor or short-lived an experience of leadership might be, it adds to your personal profile and demonstrates your growing professionalism and expertise, as you develop. Depending on your particular situation, you will have differing opportunities to take the lead within or outside of your research role. Volunteering to get involved in activities such as meetings, sports, social events and departmental committees, for example, can help you to enhance your leadership profile and enrich your CV, especially if you are aiming for a non-academic career.

Related content: Don’t plead for your career, take the lead

Principal ways to become a Principal Investigator

christine-helen-foyerHow likely are you to become a research group leader or principal investigator (PI)? This was a question posed by Christine Foyer, professor of plant biology at Leeds University, UK, during the Women in Science lunch at the FESPB/EPSO conference in Prague this week. As this year’s invited speaker, Christine related her career story to an audience of 40 delegates, describing her route to becoming a PI as being quite haphazard, with little strategic planning involved: “I spent eight years as a postdoc”, she said, “until the money ran out, and I became unemployed for six months. During this time I considered all opportunities that came my way; I had a family to support and so I looked for a permanent job that would ensure my family security”. Whilst, fortunately, this led to Christine securing an excellent permanent position at INRA, France, which led on to a string of leadership positions, she admits that , these days, competition for permanent academic posts is much tougher and it’s very useful to know what is required if you’re hoping to “make it to the top”.

On this note, Christine referred to a study by van Dijk, Manor and Carey (Current Biology, 2014), who carried out a quantitative analysis to predict who is most likely to become a PI. They found that success in academia is predictable and depends on three main metrics: (1) number of publications, (2) the impact factor of the journal and (3) the number of papers that receive more citations than average for the journal in which they are published. However, two other qualitative factors figure in the equation: the academic institution and the scientist’s gender also play a significant role in the academic hiring process.

For those who keep up to date with women in science issues, this latter factor won’t come as much of a surprise. The low number of female PIs is a controversial issue and, although policies and practices are attempting to address the imbalance, it remains the case that men are more likely to be hired as a PI than women, even when they have the same publication record. Furthermore, the authors suggest that, currently, journal impact factor and academic pedigree are rewarded over the quality of publications, which may dis-incentivise the communication of findings, collaboration and interdisciplinary collaborations.

van Dijk et al developed a model to calculate your likelihood of becoming a Principal Investigator: www.pipredictor.com, and for those whose score doesn’t look very promising, there are lights at the end of the tunnel: the authors advise that those researchers who take longer than seven years to become a PI have more citations per paper than those who become PIs more quickly, suggesting that scientists who publish more important papers in low impact journals can still become PIs, but that this route takes more time.

Christine concluded her highly engaging talk by adding some further recommendations to improve your current academic profile: get a good mentor (whether within or outside of your institution), who will give you helpful advice and support you – they can be invaluable for raising your awareness and confidence levels; arrange research visits and collaborate with scientists at more prestigious institutions – this will help to raise your academic value; learn to write well – have a vision of the story you want to tell and fill in the detail later; finally, and most importantly of all, keep things in perspective, stay positive and don’t take criticism personally – after all, it’s only a job!

SWOTTING UP ON YOUR CAREER

What does it mean to be a PhD student or researcher in career terms? Are you aware of your strengths? What are the skills and aptitudes you have acquired to offer your next employer? Conversely, do you know where your weaknesses lie? How could you improve your situation? Perhaps a strength in one career sector, such as being highly specialised, could be considered a weakness in another. Are you aware of any opportunities available to help you to overcome your weaknesses or improve on your strengths? Perhaps there are factors beyond your control which threaten to scupper your chances of success or barriers which present challenges to you moving on in your career.

Recently, I’ve been using a new ‘tool’ in my career development workshops. The SWOT analysis is an assessment tool used by organisations to review their business and to determine strategies and decisions to take the company forward. However, I’ve found out that it can also be used very effectively at the personal level to help researchers to plan and manage their careers.

SWOT stands for: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Fundamentally, strengths and weaknesses relate to ‘internal issues’ and opportunities and threats relate to ‘external issues’. Once completed, the SWOT analysis can help individuals to determine what they need to do to accomplish their objectives, and what obstacles must be overcome or minimised to achieve desired results.

During the past few months I’ve been running this session with postdoctoral researchers and have summarised the results of their SWOT analyses of a postdoctoral researcher below:

SWOT

You may have other examples to add to these lists but, as an individual exercise, why not try choosing 3 – 5 of the most relevant to you under each of the SWOT categories. It may help you to recognise and focus in on the positive aspects of your research experience (strengths and opportunities), as well as using these to overcome the weaknesses and threats. Interestingly, you can see from the grid that, for some, an opportunity is seen as a threat (e.g. travel), and a strength can also act as a weakness (e.g. being specialist/detailed).

Depending on your career goals and other personal factors, such as your values, personality and interests, your own SWOT analysis can help you to build a positive action plan, e.g. identifying which skills you need to develop further, exploring career development opportunities to enhance your employability and address personal weaknesses, taking action to overcome or minimise external negative issues, such as improving your network.

Related content: Self leadership

Note – apologies if you have already read this post – I’m re-posting this updated version, after it recently fell off my blog 🙂