GROUP WORK

On a scale of 1 – 10, how easily do you feel you can turn to others for meaningful support when you need it? Expressions such as “Birds of a feather flock together” and “Safety in numbers” tell us that it’s advantageous to associate yourself with people with shared interests and that, as humans, we tend to gravitate towards those who have things in common with ourselves. This is probably why there are so many clubs, societies and associations in the world! No matter how specialised or rare the interest, it’s likely to be represented in one or more groups at the local, national or international levels.

Everyone’s support network is diverse, consisting of close family and friends, work colleagues, mentors, acquaintances, loose associates and beyond. Networks are not static entities; people move in and out, get closer and move further away. For example, how many people are as close to their school friends as they were when in their teenage years? You’ll need help from different people at different times and for different reasons as you progress through your life (and note that this isn’t ‘using’ people; it’s a mutual association, since you will also be part of other people’s support networks).

With regard to your career, you are more likely to need support from a work associate or mentor than a close family member, depending on their background and experience. This type of professional support can be really crucial, especially for PhD and postdoctoral researchers, who are subject to relatively precarious working conditions and contracts. Professional networks can sometimes help you to get through the more difficult times in your life, to offset negative experiences such as losing funding, being rejected for a job, having to relocate to another country, or experiencing a personal crisis. On the other more positive side of the coin, being part of a like-minded community can also expose you to new experiences and ideas, allowing you to follow your passions and enhance your career opportunities.  

Maybe you are already part of one or more professional groups. PhD and postdoctoral researchers can benefit from joining groups that reflect their interests and that can also offer them support. However, as I said before, your support network is dynamic and so there’s always room for refinement. Groups that you joined a while ago may not be as relevant to you now, whilst other groups may exist that are more closely aligned with your current career interests. Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at the types of groups you’d like to be part of.

Here, I have listed a few ideas for groups which may be worth investigating further in terms of supporting you with your career:

PhD and postdoctoral researcher groups
Over the past decades, due to increasing pressures on researchers, many mutual peer support associations have been set up at the institutional, national and international levels. Usually coordinated and run by PhD and postdoctoral researchers themselves, their activities range from informal social get-togethers through to the organisation of more formal career conferences and scientific meetings. Find out if there are any organisations in your own institution or associated with your funding body (e.g. Marie Curie Alumni Association), or consider joining a national or international association, e.g. ANDES, National Postdoctoral Association, iCORSA

Research specialist groups
Many researchers take a particular interest in specific aspects at the core of their research. For example, it may be the research discipline itself about which you are passionate, or it may be the techniques and tools you are using that are more aligned with your interests. In this case, you would benefit from joining groups allied to your disciplinary interests, such as specialist discussion groups or learned societies, or more technical groups such as those associated with techniques, data analysis and programming, e.g. Github. This is the ideal arena in which to discuss your work with fellow researchers and academics within your field, as well as hearing about relevant conferences, funding and job opportunities. It’s particularly valuable to those aiming for an academic career. 

Research associated groups
During the course of a PhD or postdoctoral contract, many researchers get involved in extra-curricular activities, such as science communication, teaching and policy. In many cases, researchers can become more passionate about these activities than they do about the research project itself, and even decide to place them at the centre of their next career role. If you’re in this position, you can get support in progressing your career by joining associated organisations or participating in discussion groups, that are now well-established and recognised within and outside of academia. For example, teaching organisations include the European Association of International Education and AdvanceHE (which also has a fellowship scheme). Science communication is well represented at the national level in most countries, such as the British Science Association, as well as internationally, e.g. Euroscience. A catch-all discussion group for science communicators is psci-com, hosted by the Wellcome Trust and the most well-known policy organisations are Eurodoc and Sense about Science. Alternatively, or in addition to being a member of a more formal group, there may be more localised groups within your institution that you can join, including innovation and entrepreneurship, management and leadership.

‘Researchers without borders’ groups
Academia compels many researchers to be mobile and to travel the world in order to experience different research groups and to progress their careers. It can feel isolating when moving to and residing in another country and many groups have been created to help displaced researchers to keep in touch with their native countries. These groups can be very localised within the institution itself, or they may be organised at the national level. There are some great examples of diaspora groups, such as the Portuguese Native Scientist, the German Ukrainian Researchers Network, Polish Researchers Network and the Society of Spanish Researchers.

I hope this has given you a taste of the kinds of groups that might suit your career needs and help you to keep your personal and professional scaffolding robust and resilient. However, if you can’t see anything of interest, why not set up your own group?

Related content: Join the club
Career development – it’s personal

Get Engaged!

‘Social Engagement’ model, re-presented from an original model for networked career development, proposed by Tom Staunton, University of Derby, UK

Let me ask you a question: Are you engaging with social media? I mean, really, are you actually engaging with it?

The point I’m trying to make is that engaging with social media is more than just connecting with people. Imagine you’re at a conference, you don’t just walk up to a delegate and ask for their contact details. Rather, you get involved in the conference programme and social events, attending talks, visiting posters, asking questions, making presentations yourself, taking part in casual conversations or arranging more formal interactions. Some of the outcomes from these meetings are intended and part of your networking strategy, whilst other outcomes are the result of chance encounters. Either way, a successful outcome will see you leaving with a few new contacts to follow up when you get back to your home institution.

This is exactly how social media works – you need to do more than simply follow and connect with others. The ‘Social Engagement’ model (a re-presented version of an original model for networked career development, proposed by Tom Staunton, University of Derby) sets out four key activities that can help you to engage successfully with social media, especially LinkedIn and Twitter:

CONTRIBUTE
Many researchers post news about their research, such as recent data and findings, or they might highlight a publication or viva success. Posting up a slide from a recent presentation or showing a key figure from a paper will draw interest, which can be further enhanced with a link to more detailed information.

Many have outside or associated interests such as public engagement, project management and entrepreneurship that influence the types of postings they share on social media. Not only this, some PhD and postdoctoral researchers, who are involved in support or policy organisations regularly inform social media about latest developments, whilst empathising with those who might be struggling with their current situation. Twitter, especially, provides this type of personal support, as well as acting as a humorous and light-hearted medium to engage with others during the pandemic, whist we have all been isolated physically from one another. Even if you’re not confident to publish your own news on social media, commenting or liking others’ posts also makes you more visible and demonstrates your own interests, which can result in potential opportunities.

CURATE
Of course, you only have so much of your own information to share with others, which limits the number of posts you can contribute. However, you can overcome this limitation by posting up information or news that you hear about from others. Again, it could be a publication you’ve come across, an upcoming conference people in your network would be interested to hear about, it could simply be some news item you’ve heard about or a video, etc.

If you’re planning for a career outside of academia, sharing posts from professionals and organisations in sectors of interest will help you to identify and associate yourself with these new industry/business communities. Always make sure to acknowledge and copy in the original author and any other people or organisations associated with the information. For example, for a recently published paper, you could copy in the key authors, their institution and the journal. You might also use hastags # to help people who are searching for particular keywords. This is likely to attract the attention of those with similar interests to yourself, leading to requests to join your network.

LEARN
Once you start to build your network by engaging with social media in this way, you are more likely to start seeing posts from others who share your interests, helping to increase your knowledge base. This is especially useful if you are planning a non-academic career; by following the posts of those already working in your career areas of interest you’ll hear about their latest news and find out what’s important to them, as well as understanding the culture and language of the organisation. Furthermore, you’ll be more exposed to posts recommending learning opportunities relevant to your sphere of interests, with links to webinars, YouTube videos, TED talks, training events, articles and micro-credential courses.

LinkedIn itself has a subsidiary LinkedIn Learning website offering courses delivered by industry professionals to help improve skills. These days, I receive much of my news via social media and, as well as keeping up to date and informed about my own careers profession, I also pass on a lot of opportunities I hear about relevant to my PhD and postdoctoral researcher connections.

LINK
Last but not least, we come to the linking part of the Social Engagement model. Speaking with PhD and postdoctoral researchers, I sometimes witness a real reticence to approaching people to ask to connect with them. I understand the sense of intrusion or the feelings of awkwardness associated with this reticence. However, I see it differently. In these days of globalisation and remote working, it’s so liberating and efficient to be able to harness social media to bring us together into common networks, such as those associated with our disciplinary, personal, professional and cultural interests.

By contributing, curating and learning, we make ourselves more visible so that others are more likely to link with us. There are many like-minded researchers actively engaging in social media communities, so if you’re not quite sure how to get started, do your research and learn from what others are doing.

Your social engagement strategy will differ according to your career intentions and associated career development needs. Don’t feel compelled to build a huge network; it’s more about quality than quantity. Take your time to develop your social media presence and once you have established yourself and made some connections, you’ll feel more confident to start to convert and leverage your new network contacts to help you to transition to your next role, or to grow within your own academic field.

It’s 10 years since I myself took the plunge and joined social media. I had just published my book, Career planning for research bioscientists, and was advised to start writing a blog and engaging with social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn by my then ‘supervisor’, the former editor of the New Scientist, Alun Anderson. Since then, I’ve not only accumulated nearly 4000 connections/followers, but, more importantly, I’ve also been posting articles, sharing my monthly blog posts and those of others, as well as tweeting, linking, following and building a productive on-line network.

Please feel free to engage with me 🙂

Related content: Social Media – so shall I?
Doing more with LinkedIn

Feel the fear and do it anyway

I did something for the very first time at the weekend. I went kayaking! Not that amazing, I hear you say. But it was exciting for me, as I’d never done it before. I had to learn a lot of new skills, such as how to launch the boat into the water, getting in and out of it (stylishly), as well as mastering the art of synchronised paddle technique. It’s not often that I do something new and it did feel a bit scary, but that’s what happens when you move out of your comfort zone. As Susan Jeffers says in her famous book: “Feel the fear and do it anyway”.

In terms of career development, we all need to keep growing and learning new skills to sustain our employability. Even during and after a PhD, there’s a constant need to keep updating knowledge and capabilities, especially in these times of constantly evolving technologies, globalisation and unanticipated calamitous events, such as the pandemic. In this blog, I will set out three ideas that illustrate the concept of career growth:

Figure from https://positivepsychology.com/comfort-zone/
  • ‘Leaving the comfort zone model’. This model illustrates how, in order to grow, we must first leave the safety of our ‘comfort zone’, overcome our fears and then submit ourselves to the zone of learning. Stepping into the fear zone is the first and most scary step and can involve feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability. However with learning and practice comes confidence and a new purpose as we grow and develop.

Recently, I ran a career development workshop, in which I introduced postdoctoral researchers to activities and skills associated with effective networking. Some of the participants were hesitant and wary to start with – they were venturing from their zone of fear into the learning zone. However, by the end of the workshop, armed with new knowledge and resources and having had the chance to do some interactive rehearsals, they were more confident to put their learning into practice for real. Post-workshop feedback showed that many had already entered the growth zone, saying they had identified new networking opportunities, refreshed their LinkedIn profile and were already making new contacts!

  • Planned Happenstance. This is a career planning model that sets out how to harness chance events to our career advantage. Proposed by a well-renowed career academic, John Krumboltz, the key behaviours associated with harnessing chance and creating ‘luck’ moments include, being positive and proactive, being flexible and adaptable and being willing to take a risk. By ‘risk’, what the authors of the Planned Happenstance theory mean is doing something that is uncertain and potentially unsafe, i.e. stepping into the unknown. It’s this more risky area that can yield great results.

When I was trying to break into the careers advisory sector, I was unexpectedly offered a 3-month position as a university careers adviser. Even though I already had a very secure permanent role in publishing at the time, I chose to step out of my comfort zone and take the risk to grab this chance opportunity. I believed (rightly as it turned out) that even if it didn’t extend to a permanent position, the experiences gained would help me to apply for similar career posts in the future. These happenstance moments, which are usually referred to as ‘luck’, are often the turning point in people’s careers – it certainly proved to be so in my case and the rest is history as they say …..

  • Be a lobster! In this video, Rabbi Dr Abraham Twerski uses the metaphor of a lobster shedding its shell to demonstrate the feeling of needing to change one’s situation as it becomes unbearably comfortable. During the lead up to a career transition, the prospect of change can be very daunting, especially if there’s a sense of being pushed out. However as the stresses and strains increase, this fear is overridden by a very real need to move on, as demonstrated in the transition figure above. The so-called ‘shedding’ process makes one vulnerable at first, but as the hard shell forms a new life begins, with a new sense of expansion and growth.

Transition can be a difficult process, especially for long-term researchers who have been in the academic system for many years, and who are now aiming to move into industry or business. It can seem a daunting prospect, with associated feelings of denial or even depression. However, as the situation becomes more uncomfortable and untenable it acts as an incentive to make the move. Career guidance and support can assist researchers moving out of academia, offering help with aspects such as self-presentation, job seeking strategies, information about employers and interview technique. The good news is that the vast majority of researchers who leave academia report that they are enjoying their new and rewarding non-academic careers (e.g. see PhD Career Stories).

As for me, I hear that our kayak can cope with grade 4 white water rafting, but that may a bit too far away from my comfort zone for the time being!

Related post: Keep learning to keep earning

The Business of Knowledge

Translating ‘knowledge’ into careers

How would you sum up the central purpose of academia in one word? As a doctoral or postdoctoral researcher, what is your core business? The answer, I would venture, is KNOWLEDGE.

Academic researchers are knowledge professionals whose fundamental role is to answer a question, or to discover something new that no-one knew about before. To achieve this, you design research protocols, employ or devise new technology, interpret your findings, reach conclusions and disseminate them to others. As a knowledge professional, publications are the mark of your productivity and success*.

In addition to these core activities, there are many other responsibilities that support the knowledge process, such as: learning about others’ research, collaborating, teaching, supervising, managing, problem-solving, outreach, creativity, finding funding, being collegiate, considering the bigger societal perspective, and many more!

In my infographic above, I’ve split these academic ‘knowledge activities’ into three major categories to demonstrate the range of skills associated with each of them and how they can translate into a variety of careers:

CREATE – COMMUNICATE – CONVERT

CREATE: Creating knowledge is at the heart of a PhD or postdoc project and includes the processes connected with research, such as generating a hypothesis, devising methods and designing experiments to test it, using ethical and objective approaches. The data generated must be analysed and interpreted in relation to the knowledge landscape associated with this discipline, and then translated into communications, such as journal papers, conference presentations, general interest articles and even as the subject of media stories. The skills developed from these experiences lend themselves to a variety of research and analytical roles, both within and outside of academia.

For example, if you love doing research, and have lots of new research ideas, you might prefer to continue within academia to secure a fellowship or permanent position, ultimately establishing your own research group. Depending on the research institute or university, you may have a teaching obligation, be expected to conduct multi-disciplinary projects, or apply for international research grants. All of these complementary activities will count towards your application success to one degree or another, according to the institution’s priorities.

Depending on the areas of research you prefer, you may decide to develop further your enjoyment of technology and apply it to research and technical careers within industry, or even combine it with a love of teaching into emerging roles, such as digital learning and educational technology. On the other hand, you may prefer to direct your career to the multitude of other career sectors that welcome experienced professional researchers, for example, working in sectors such as policy and think tank governmental or private organisations, the media and finance.

COMMUNICATE: Many PhD researchers enjoy communicating their science in more creative ways, beyond the prescribed academic journal format. During the last few decades, more and more opportunities have arisen for researchers with a penchant for creative communication to get involved in all sorts of initiatives alongside their core research. This can range from helping out at local school visit days, through to external activities such as volunteering in a science centre or museum, creating interactive displays at Summer science festivals or producing on-line videos for the world to see. I have witnessed some amazing creations by PhD students who find these more creative endeavours a welcome release from some of the more routine tasks associated with their research.

Relatively recent, more formal initiatives, have enabled researchers to learn how to communicate science in an engaging way, such as ‘Falling Walls’ and the 3-Minute Thesis (3MT). Organisations such as Euroscience, the British Science Association and Pint of Science provide a platform for researchers to disseminate their science, and there are even initiatives to allow researchers to do outreach in their own native language. For some (many, even), this experience ignites a desire to pursue science communication as a career – and there are a multitude of options to choose from: presenting, writing, interviewing, blogging, creating videos, infographics and podcasts, to name but a few.

CONVERT: The majority of big research funders, nowadays, require academic researchers to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of their research beyond the academic community, such as its wider communication and also as technology transfer in the form of products, materials, mechanisms, services, biotechnology and methodologies. Many PhD researchers are interested in the more enterprising side of science and are stimulated by the idea of producing something tangible from research beyond a journal paper. They are inspired to move out of academia and into business and industry to put their entrepreneurial aspirations into action.

However, the transition can be quite challenging, since many researchers do not get the opportunity to actually demonstrate their enterprising skills during the course of their PhD. Having said that though, there are ways and means for researchers to engage in associated research activities that will add value to their CV. For example, connecting with their university management school, attending in-house and external courses/events and getting real-life experience through an internship, networking with alumni, or by applying for structured business-academic partnership projects, such as Code-Switch Consultants and YESBiotechnology. In this way, researchers can really test out their research innovation potential, with a view to forging a new career path for themselves.  

I hope this (rather longer than I had intended) blog has given you some useful ideas about how to put your professional KNOWLEDGE skills and experience to good use, whether it’s to remain in academia or to move into business and industry.

Footnote: *although indicators, such as the H-index, are coming under scrutiny as a limited measure of a researcher’s quality and potential.

Related blog: Knowledge is Power

Micro-Awards : Macro-Rewards

Image credit: Unsplash

“One of my favourite hobbies is to learn new skills”, a PhD student told me recently, during an individual careers interview. She was impressive: very proactive and positive about her career, with the clear aim of finding a role that would combine both her science and her interest in business. To this end, she’d been getting involved in lots of side-projects during her PhD, for example, working in teams and organising activities, done two short internships, and had taken some on-line courses related to business. Now, at the end of her PhD, she had positioned herself well to be able to transition out of the lab and into a commercial role; her CV demonstrated well her scientific expertise, relevant interpersonal skills and a commitment to business, evidenced by credentials she had acquired as a result of short on-line courses she had attended.

‘Micro-credentials’, ‘mini-qualifications’ and ‘nanodegrees’ are a new type of vocational training course designed to upskill a person so that they can demonstrate a level of knowledge or skill in a niche subject or capability. They’re not necessarily accredited and you don’t always get a certificate at the end of the course, however they are gaining traction across many areas of society, allowing people to upskill themselves in line with the requirements of their current job, or to break into a new career or role. According to the European Commission: “A micro-credential is a qualification , evidencing learning outcomes acquired through a short, transparently-assessed course or module. They may be completed on-site, online or in a blended format.” With increasing numbers of these short courses emerging onto the education market, and with a surge in on-line provision, the EU recently launched a public consultation on 20th April to seek a common definition for ‘micro-credentials’ to ensure quality and cross-border parity.

As a PhD or postdoctoral researcher, you can also benefit from these types of short courses to help enhance your PhD qualification and experiences. Your career aims will determine your choice of course, for example:

Career aim Relevant micro-credential courses *
Academic career EMBO Lab leadership course
Grant writing – various courses offered on-line
Teaching recognition
Science specialist Summer schools, e.g. Lab skills
GOBLET – Bioinformatics training
Clinical Research Associate
Enterprise/entrepreneurship Entrepreneurship (DKFZ)
YES Biotechnology
Business/Management Summer schools (e.g. EIT Health)
SoSMSE – scientists into business
Science communication Nature Masterclass
University courses in Europe, e.g. UWE, Potsdam

*Note that I have no vested interest in any of these courses, which I have chosen at random to illustrate the subject of my blog.

You will most probably have heard of MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Courses). These are free on-line courses that cover a wide range of topics. For example, I searched for ‘Bioinformatics’ and came up with seven courses including, “Introduction to genomic data science”, “How to analyze a microbiome” and “Essentials of genomics and biomedical informatics”. Coursera is a well-known MOOC provider, partnering with universities and other organisations to offer courses such as “University teaching”, “3D data visualization for science communication” and “Clinical data science”.

So, whatever your career plans, in addition to engaging with extra-PhD activities that will enhance your employability, why not consider the opportunity to gain ‘micro-credentials’ to help professionalise these experiences, with the reward of being able to convince a prospective employer of your commitment to this new role.

Related blogs:

Keep learning to keep earning
Think ‘Skill’ not DPhil

Reflections on a virtual year

This time last year, on the 31st March 2020, I delivered my very first interactive virtual career workshop. Using Zoom and other on-line learning tools that, only a few weeks before, I had never even heard of, and together with an education technology co-host, whom I had only met ‘virtually’ during the same period, I engaged PhD and postdoctoral researchers in a series of presentations, breakout discussions, exercises, reflection and even peer coaching.

With positive and encouraging post-workshop feedback from the participants, and with a spring in my step (well, in the hands on my keyboard), I took a leap of faith and ‘pivoted’ all my subsequent workshops to online. So, here I am 12 months later with what feels like a lifetime of virtual experience and exponential learning that I have gleaned through webinars, trial and error and informal discussions with career and education development professionals. Having formerly considered myself to be settled in my routine of in-person workshop delivery, I am now a fully-fledged e-career development adviser and coach!

And what about you? What’s your story? What changes did you have to make to enable you to adapt to the sudden and life-changing pandemic? How have you coped? I heard today that one of the UK’s major funding councils has issued the following statement for those applying for grants in the near future: CVs can be used to describe personal COVID impacts; peer reviewers will be encouraged to consider the impacts of COVID on researchers and their careers.

It’s likely that other funders will act similarly, inviting researchers to justify their alternative activities during periods of restricted lab access. I would not be surprised to see employers doing the same, both within and outside of academia.

For every downside of a situation (and we’re talking about a very big downside in the case of Covid-19), there are also positives to be gained. Our collective experience of the pandemic perhaps enabled us to more readily empathise and understand the difficulties that we’ve had to endure during the past year, with people differentially affected in terms of work, finances, emotional support, caring duties, mental health and more. For PhD and postdoctoral researchers, this has meant a combination of interrupted (and sometimes ruined) experiments, delayed research progress, reduced communication and contact with peers, lower levels of supervision and support from PIs – who have had to switch to on-line lectures or turn their attention to safeguarding their department or institution – coupled with increased personal commitments, that have all taken their toll to some degree (reported by, for example, in a survey conducted by Vitae, 2020; in primary papers, Myers et al, 2020; Weiner et al, 2020 and a mix of personal accounts from PhD students Khan 2020, some of whom included some positive experiences).

Are you able to identify any upsides in the past year? Have there been changes for the better that you’d like to see remain in place in the future? Here are some of my thoughts on this matter, derived from my own professional and personal experiences. You are very welcome to add yours:

  • One major upside for me is to have been able to take part in, and contribute to, conferences I would never normally have been able to attend as they were too far away, too awkward to get to, or didn’t fit in with my working schedule. In previous times, I have exhausted myself trying to juggle meetings, organise transport logistics and book hotels. Now it’s all done on the computer in my home office. Not very exciting, it’s true, but much more convenient.
  • Many conference registration fees have been drastically reduced or even offered free of charge, making these meetings far more accessible to those operating on limited budgets. What with this and the virtual accessibility of meetings, I have witnessed a much-enhanced diversity of participants. Having been involved in many equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives in a former role, our new way of operating has certainly opened up opportunities and welcomed the world into a new virtual space, beyond previous expectations.
  • Networking in person has virtually disappeared (quite literally) in the past 12 months, however e-networking has gone some way to replace it. And whilst physical interaction has always been considered to be the preferred type of engagement, e-networking has allowed for other types of communication to come to the fore. For example, interacting in small virtual breakout rooms, sharing publications, new ideas and other information on platforms such as LinkedIn, Researchgate and specialist discussion groups, or contacting people more directly by email or phone.
  • On-line job interviews via Skype, Zoom and other media has increased the accessibility of new job opportunities, and the on-line interview has its benefits: the interviewee is often in a more comfortable and familiar environment, with the possibility to feel more relaxed and even to create advantages such as having access to prompt cards, out of view of the interviewers during questioning.
  • Work:life balance for some has been a positive experience, reducing stresses such as commuting long distances, exposure to pollution and the vagaries of public transport. Furthermore, for some, spending more time with family has been an unexpected bonus.
  • Social media such as LinkedIn and Twitter have, from what I have seen, acted as havens for some members of the academic community to share experiences, offer support to each other and even include lighter and more humorous moments to help get through the bad times. Those of us who have helped to provide support in whatever way we can, have also benefited from sharing information and advice with our own communities.
  • More miscellaneous social media posts have acted as interesting distractions, with people posting pictures of their pets, scenic evening walks and also random questions, such as how do you sign off your emails? Responses to this particular enquiry included “Best wishes”, “Kind regards”, “Cheers” and “Sincerely yours”, depending on the familiarity of the communication. Nowadays, perhaps a more appropriate example would be “Virtually yours”.

And on that note, I will sign off and wish you all good physical and mental health.

Picking a postdoc

Not all postdocs are the same

Choosing the ‘right’ postdoctoral position can be critical to career success and even to the mental health and well-being of early career researchers. I remember at the start of a career counselling interview, a postdoc once telling me that she felt less confident as a postdoc than she had as a PhD student. During the hour-long session it emerged that the work environment, research topic and location of her postdoc were all contributing factors to her current state of mind. If she could have her time again, my client said she would have chosen differently.

Research from surveys of doctoral destinations (e.g. European Science Foundation 2017; Vitae 2008/10) show that a high proportion of PhD students in the Life Sciences (and other disciplines) continue their careers within the academic research sector as postdoctoral researchers. The reasons for this are many and varied but, fundamentally, graduates say they have enjoyed their PhD research and are keen to extend this experience as a postdoctoral researcher and, of course, for many, to go on to secure a permanent academic position. Perhaps this applies to you too.

Postdoctoral research positions are relatively easy to secure compared to moving into industry, due to the familiarity of the work culture, network connections and specific research knowledge, as well as being able to demonstrate directly relevant experience and skills in applications and interviews. Most non-academic employers welcome applicants with postdoctoral experience, especially into research-related posts, if the applicant can demonstrate associated interpersonal skills alongside their research and technical abilities.

Doing a postdoc after a PhD can be a very good career decision for doctoral graduates. The issue isn’t whether or not to do one, it’s making sure to pick the ‘right’ postdoc to suit you and your career aspirations. Here, I list four key questions to consider when making your decision:

WHY?

Consider first your motivation for continuing on to do a postdoctoral post. What do you want to achieve from it and how will it contribute to your continuing professional development? What will it add to your current skills and experience and how will this contribute to your securing your next job, whether within or outside of academia? If you’re aiming for a permanent academic position in a University, you might look for a postdoctoral position that allows you to develop new avenues of research to gain your independence or that involves a student focus to help you to build up your teaching and pastoral portfolio. If, however, you intend to move into industry after your postdoc, you might benefit from a research project that is more applied, that helps you to build and develop the skills you will need in your future industry-based career. Perhaps the research group is collaborating with a company, a hospital or start-up enterprise or maybe the research programme offers the opportunity to get entrepreneurial training or to do an internship.

Of course, a research career outside of academia is not wholly reliant on postdoctoral experience so, on reflection, you may decide to bypass this option and move directly to investigating and applying for industry/business research opportunities. And, if it transpires that research is not at the heart of your career ambitions, you may want to reconsider your motivation to take up a postdoctoral position when you could be moving ahead and gaining experience within your chosen career of interest.

WHAT?

Some PhD graduates continue to pursue their current research interests within another research group in a similar field, or even within the same group. It’s important to be motivated, and even passionate, about your research topic, but bear in mind what new learning and experiences you’ll develop in your new post that will take your career forward. Using the same techniques and working with the same people will not extend your horizons in terms of your research profile, network and employability. Moving outside of your current field of interest may be a challenging prospect, but consider how your skills will be of value to another research field, as well as networking with them to gain their confidence.  

You may wish to continue to develop your research-associated experiences such as outreach, enterprise or organisational activities with which you’ve been engaging during your PhD. Some postdoctoral positions offer these types of opportunities and may even be partnering with, for example, a charity, non-governmental or policy organisation as part of the research project. If your long-term career goal is to transition into these kinds of organisations, this type of postdoctoral experience will help you develop your skills, expertise and network relevant to the sector.  

WHERE?

I advise and deliver career workshops on academic mobility – should I stay or should I go? It’s a dilemma for many PhD students and postdoctoral researchers as they progress in their careers. The key question to ask yourself is not whether or not you should move, it’s why you should move. Is it to gain experience, access to particular research facilities or insights from another leader in the field and their research group? Is it because there are more opportunities to undertake your research in another country? Do you really need to move far away for a long time, or could you stay locally and do short visits and build collaborations remotely instead? Applying for your own postdoctoral fellowship, where you can choose your host research group, can give you more control over this decision, so that you are not reliant on the availability of advertised posts. In many cases, academic mobility involves compromises to work:life balance, personal and professional relationships. It’s a decision that is peculiar to each person’s own situation and can be influenced according to their life/career stage.

HOW?

  • Do your research. Adapt your research project skills towards researching your next postdoctoral position.
  • Start early and familiarise yourself with types of postdoctoral posts, research groups/institutions of interest.
  • Get advice from your current supervisor, postdoctorals and/or collaborators.
  • Do your homework in detail – academic research groups are very visible on the internet via their own webpages, Researchgate, LinkedIn and Twitter. Find out what they are doing, read about their research, investigate who’s in the group now and the destinations of former group members.
  • Consider what you could add to their research that complements or extends their capabilities with potential to create new data and new avenues of research, leading to publications.
  • Network with relevant people during conferences, on social media or even via a direct email to a research group leader (recent research from EMBL shows that the majority of postdocs secured their first post by writing speculatively).
  • Focus on your own current research expertise and figure out how you could improve your profile, e.g. by learning or building on research skills, extending your network, filling gaps in your experience and perfecting your CV and interview technique to present yourself at your best.

If you know the ‘why, what, where and how’ of your career decision to do a particular postdoctoral position (or any job), you will likely be more successful in your applications, more genuine and knowledgeable about your motivations to take up the post, as well as more confident and happy in your new-found role.

Wishing you success!

Career development – it’s personal

As we enter a new year (after a seemingly never-ending January), many of us will be reflecting on our progress so far in 2021. If, like me, you’re poised to renew your yet-to-start New Year Resolutions, maybe it’s a good time to reflect on your intended goals in terms of what’s possible and what’s realistic.

It’s easy to overload ourselves with a long list of aspirations, trying to make up for end-of-year December lethargy and distractions. However, if you look back at your achievements in the previous year, do you really feel disappointed with your accomplishments? These days, just getting through the month can be a success in itself, let alone expecting high-level productivity, whatever that may mean for you personally.

So, how can you set out a realistic personal development plan over the coming months so that you don’t overload yourself? How can you improve on your employability to help you to transition to your next role, even if that’s months or years in the future? We all have gaps in our experience and skills that need to be filled to increase our chances to secure our next job or to win promotion, but we need to balance that with the everyday activities in our current role.

As a careers adviser and educator, I help PhD students and researchers, individually and in groups, to consider the kinds of activities they can do to help increase their employability depending on their career ambitions. Due to research obligations and time limitations, it’s important that personal development is targeted to the right kinds of actions so that they’re fruitful and improve employment prospects.

With this in mind, I recently adapted my PhD Career Choice Indicator (PhDCCI), replacing current skills and interests with future activities that link with career objectives. At its heart, the framework includes the more generic career planning and management essentials, such as self and labour market knowledge, networking and interview technique that are fundamental to making a successful career transition. On the periphery, the six categories distil out the individualised personal development needs targeted to different types of careers.

Based on the original theory of John Holland, the six categories of the PHDCCI – Functional, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising and Management – are described in my blog: “Decisions, decisions”, and demonstrate how enjoyment of particular skills and interests can provide clues to careers in which many of them are employed. By mapping this concept onto personal career development instead, PhD students and researchers can easily identify for themselves possible actions to assist them in enhancing their employability relevant to their career intentions.

For example, for those who are interested in a career in academia, activities associated with ‘Investigative’ and ‘Enterprising’ are important to assist them to develop their intellectual, collaborative and curiosity-driven capabilities and associated networks, helping them to build productive networks and relationships. On the other hand, those interested in more teaching-orientated academic positions might want to enhance their ‘Social’ teaching/support experiences and seek recognition or further professional qualifications.

Personal development activities such as those associated with ‘Functional’ and ‘Management’, will be of value to those considering a move into industry as a specialist scientist or researcher, where technical/programming skills coupled with proven management/teamworking experiences will be an asset. Furthermore, for those of an ‘Artistic’ disposition, who enjoy science communication, visuals and infographics, building up a portfolio of outreach or writing experiences will afford entry into associated professions such as public engagement and policy careers.

In addition to these types of activities, targeting particular social media and professional organisations helps to focus attention on just a limited number of communication outlets so as to avoid overload. LinkedIn tends to be a catch-all these days, although how you present yourself will differ according to your intentions. More specialist networks exist for most professions and it can be advantageous to connect with them to reach out to current professionals and hear about latest news, policies and even training opportunities and vacancies.

I hope you find the PhDCCI a useful additional tool to help with your career development. For my own part, I have a few training webinars lined up this year to refresh my coaching skills and tomorrow marks the first day of my “Dry February” (moved back from the originally intended Dry January). 😊

Job Entitlement

What is the difference between a researcher, a research analyst, a data analyst, a research engineer, a research scientist and a research associate? This was a question posed by one of the PhD participants of a career workshop I ran this year. It’s a good question, and not an easy one to answer! Recently, a survey conducted on the destinations of postdoctoral researchers was particularly frustrated by the variety of job titles bestowed on this role – I think they identified over 20!

In my former days as a university careers adviser, we had to track the career destinations of our graduates using a standardised list of job titles. This had been a logical strategy up until around the 1990s when new and more elaborate job titles began to emerge, including a wide range of ‘manager’ posts. This made our tracking system more and more obsolete until it was eventually updated with more modern job titles replacing the old ones (such as radio operator and bank clerk). I imagine this operation is still a difficult undertaking, especially when you consider new roles that now exist such as quant analyst, MSL, medical affairs, blogger and influencer. A favourite job title of mine that I came across a few years ago is “Maker” – someone who designs and builds exhibitions for museums and science centres. I also know someone who had a colon in her job title (Programme manager: researchers). If you try out a quick ‘people search’ yourself on LinkedIn, for example, you’ll find a cacophony of roles* yourself.

So how do you distil out the key activities and job requirements of these roles so that you can make sense of them and decide whether they are potential career opportunities suited to your interests and skills? Going back to the original question posed in my workshop, how can you decipher between the role of a research engineer and that of a research analyst, data analyst or researcher? Well, I would say that the answer lies in the question: research – research – research ! Just as you need to be creative in your literature searches during the course  of your scientific research to identify papers of interest and relevance to your own research, so you need to do the same for your job search. A limited keyword search limits the breadth of results you obtain in any research exercise, and it will also stifle your job search strategy.

Returning to the original question concerning job titles, my first quick internet search has revealed the following:

*Interestingly, if you do a search for ‘Scientist’ on LinkedIn, the majority of people who identify as a scientist work in business and industry, whilst those working in academia tend to identify as postdoctoral researchers, postdocs, research fellows, assistant and associate professors. Remember that question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As children, we were almost all faced with this question at some time or other. But how many current PhD researchers answered “Postdoc” or “Academic”? I’m guessing none. So, when you title yourself on LinkedIn and other social media, why not consider returning to those childhood dreams and use job titles such as Scientist, Research Scientist, Biomedical Scientist, Ecologist, Plant Scientist, etc. With a good profile, this may help companies, head-hunters and recruitment agencies to find you and who knows where that may lead …

Certainly, I never answered “Careers Adviser” when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up (I don’t know of anyone who did). I wanted to be a vet, but only much later did it occur to me that the underlying impetus for this career aspiration was to help, do good and improve quality of life. Many years later and after an initial Bioscience-related career, I started my transition to where I am now … but that’s another story and job title 😊

Related blog: https://biosciencecareers.org/2019/12/new-year-new-career.html

Steer your career

Is your PhD driving you crazy? Does it sometimes drive you up the wall and round the bend? Well, don’t worry. Just like learning to drive, you are behind the steering wheel of your PhD driving towards that day when you graduate and receive your certificate. Once that day comes, as with your driving licence, your doctorate will be yours for the rest of your life – no one can take it away from you!

So, when the going gets tough, such as your experiments aren’t working or you’re having a difference of opinion with your supervisor, imagine it’s a difficult driving manoeuvre such as a three-point turn or parallel parking. Keep your eye on the prize and remember these three analogies:     

  1. When you start your driving lessons, it’s hard to manage all the controls, look at the signs, check your speed and watch out for pedestrians. As you progress you get more adept at managing all of these tasks, so that by the time your driving test comes you are ready to go solo. Equally, your PhD is a learning process in which you are progressing over a 3-4-year period to gain enough knowledge, skills and expertise ultimately to go out on the big roads, whether it’s in the direction of an academic or non-academic career. So, don’t be hard on yourself when you’re going through difficult times and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your PhD is an apprenticeship during which time you can take advantage of all sorts of opportunities to help you build up skills and experiences to navigate your way to becoming a professional researcher.
  2. Like your PhD supervisor, your driving instructor is in overall control of your training and whether you get on with them or not, it’s up to them to help steer you to attain your ultimate goal – to pass your test. I remember my quite elderly and rather bad-tempered driving instructor being hard of hearing, so that any retorts I made to his remonstrations when I made an error fell, quite literally, on deaf ears. It meant I had to endure his criticisms knowing that anything I said in my defence would go unheard. It was a lesson in patience and endurance! On the upside, both my two brothers and I passed first time under his instruction. Whatever your relationship with your supervisor, good or bad, remember we all have our own personalities, strengths and weaknesses and the secret is to find a way to compromise, find common ground and to come to a resolution.
  3. Whatever driving school people choose, it’s likely they have had no prior experience of the company, just as you may not have had any experience of the department, university or research institute in which you are studying your PhD. Every institution has its own culture and work environment, some aspects of which you may enjoy and relish, whilst others may not be so fulfilling. For example, if you’re at a research institute and would prefer to be doing more student teaching and supervision, consider postdoc-ing at a university after your PhD. On the other hand, transfer into business or industry for a more applied, goal-oriented role or, choose something in communications if you’re a more people-centred person.

With your driving licence in hand, you can throw away your L-plate; the world of motorways, highways and autobahns is yours for the taking! Equally, your doctoral certificate will open up a whole variety of career routes to you. So, if your PhD is currently driving you to distraction, bear in mind that once it is completed you will be free to choose your own road to drive down. You can take a map, turn on the satellite navigation and plan your route, or just sit back and let your car(eer) take you wherever you want to go.

Related content: Making career choices