Weathering the storm

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …..”
The opening lines of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens

The best of times for me recently: A 4-day holiday in the German Allgau from Thursday 29th May until Sunday 2nd June. I was planning to see the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, as featured in the film, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ (which only people from my era will remember!) and visit the Austrian Tirol.

The worst of times: We did not expect the weather to be this bad and the queues for the castle meant we couldn’t go inside.

HOWEVER, we made the most of things and managed to enjoy our holiday anyway: We ate lots of nice food, did some shopping, went on a boat trip and kept warm in the thermal baths, of which there are many in this area.

So, what has this got to do with careers I hear you ask…. Well, as much as we can plan to enjoy our careers and imagine how great our jobs will be, there’s always going to be bad times, as well as good times. Times that may last for just a few minutes or hours, or that go on for days or even months.

PhD and postdoctoral researchers, especially, relate stories of bad times on their social media posts, in my workshops or individual coaching sessions. They talk about experiments not working, unsympathetic supervisors, rejected papers and uncooperative collaborators. When time is limited and deadlines are coming up, this can be particularly frustrating, and I know many researchers feel powerless to change things.

The reality is that most of these things really are out of your control – you can’t force your experiments to work, you have little influence over your supervisor or collaborators and you can’t change deadlines.

However, you can change your own behaviour – you do have influence over yourself. This might be changing something physically, psychologically, emotionally or mentally. For example:

1. Communicate – don’t keep quiet about problems or difficulties that you’re having. Don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed – you’d be surprised how many others are having similar issues. You can speak with your peers, a career professional like myself or even your PI. I’ve known researchers to be afraid to open up to their supervisor, only to find that they are sympathetic and eager to assist them.

2. Connect with others – there are many early career researcher and postgraduate groups that you can join, either at the institutional level, nationally or even internationally. These groups might be social or even career-centred, they might be policy or discipline oriented, such as learned societies. You might not want to share your issues with them, but the sense of belonging can be restorative and energising, giving you back the confidence and optimism you need.

3. Use social media platforms – LinkedIn, X (formerly Twitter), Researchgate, Instagram, etc. might not be to everyone’s taste, but I know many early career researchers and PhD students who have benefited greatly from sharing their situation on social media. They’ve not only experienced unprecedented support and encouragement, it’s even opened up other career avenues for them, especially beyond academic careers. Social media can be time-consuming, so choose the platform that works for you and stick with it. For me, it’s LinkedIn because it’s a fantastic ‘people’ database, which allows you to reach out and communicate with a whole world of professionals.  

4. Treat yourself – I write this blog having eaten two apple strudels today! Tomorrow, I plan to do a bit of shopping. Whilst I’m not saying that eating and ‘retail therapy’ is the answer, it’s important to get away, take a breather and be nice to yourself. It’s probably quite usual for us to be our own hardest critics, to get bogged down in the situation and lose perspective. I remember when I was having a hard time in my previous job, I would take my dog out for a walk and after about 20 minutes, I could feel the angst and heavy weight of my ‘problems’ ebbing away.

5. Get things in perspective – As a PhD student or postdoctoral researcher, you’ve perhaps been used to getting things right, getting great grades and being top of the class. This could mean that you’re particularly sensitive to when things go wrong and aren’t perfect. I’m not saying this is true for everyone, but I read a great article recently entitled, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research” by Martin A. Schwartz, an established academic at the University of Virginia, in which he argues that it’s important not to be afraid to be ‘stupid’ in science, because research is hard and problems are difficult to solve.

So, perhaps, the more willing we are to wade into unknown territory and experience ‘bad times’, the more likely we are to experience the good times. As someone said recently when replying to a post on X: “If it wasn’t for her bad luck, she wouldn’t have had any good luck at all!”

“What is your greatest weakness?”

Here’s a question that everyone dreads at interview, and even wonders why it is being asked. It seems so negative – encouraging you to do the opposite of what you’re supposed to do in an interview, which is to say positive things about yourself.

So, how do you answer this negative question? What tactics should you use?

Well, to be honest, it’s not just a case of tackling this question at interview – it’s actually a useful question to ask yourself anyway: It’s all about self-awareness.

What are you not good at and, more importantly, how are you dealing with it? With any ‘negative’ behaviour that impacts your ability to do your work or manage yourself effectively, you need to have the awareness first of what your weaknesses are, so that you can combat them with conscious positive behaviour.

Self-awareness is something we are not always aware of! Sometimes we need to think hard to try to discover ourselves. In fact, other people – close friends, family and colleagues – may know us better than we know ourselves.

So, do you know what your greatest weakness is/weaknesses are? If not, try these exercises:

Answer the question – what’s your greatest strength? This is easier to identify – what are you good at?

For example, for me, it’s having lots of creative ideas. Sometimes, I feel as if I have a volcano in the top of my head that keeps on exploding with a colourful and creative lava of ideas. It’s fun and can give rise to amazing results.

However, the downside to this idea tsunami is that I can get overwhelmed with all the opportunities and possibilities that I think up, so that when it comes to making a decision, I can’t decide which one to choose. This means, I tend to procrastinate and can come across to others as being indecisive.

That’s my weakness – procrastination.

Consider what habits you have that annoy you personally. You may not admit them to others, but you know you have them.

For example, it annoys me that I’m not very good at detail. I like the big picture, looking for patterns and connections, but this means I struggle with detail, so that I may have to go over something a few times before I get to the specifics. I’m also not very good with lists, protocols and recipes, missing important items out by accident (which was why I decided lab work wasn’t for me!). It also means I hate doing my tax accounts at the end of each year and poring over all the details.

That’s my weakness – I’m not great at detail.

So, these are my answers to the question “What’s your greatest weakness?” Can you use these techniques to identify yours too?

Once you’ve identified and demonstrated examples of your weakness/self-awareness, that’s just the first part of your answer. Next, you have to show how you’ve overcome your weakness – that’s called personal self-development.

For me, to combat my procrastination, I set myself earlier deadlines or I team up with someone more pragmatic, who wants to work with an ‘ideas’ person, and will be happy to act as the time-keeper.

To offset my detail weakness, I put more time aside to do tasks that require me to deal with minutiae and I also keep my records as up to date as possible through the year (on a spreadsheet and in a Word document) so that, when the time comes, I have already done much of the work. [In terms of recipes, I have to admit I’ve given up making cakes, since missing out key ingredients such as eggs means they usually flop, quite literally!]

So, how do you offset your weaknesses? Yours might be to do with perfectionism, time-keeping, team-working, networking, making presentations, confrontation, speaking up at meetings, managing workload or any manner of things.

But before deciding on the weakness example to give at interview, I have one more piece of advice: Don’t choose something that is at the core of the role you’re applying for. For example, for me, a job where I need to make big and fast decisions or where I need to copy edit manuscripts.

It’s OK if your weakness is only a small part of your work, but if it’s at the heart of the job requirements, not only will you struggle to do the work (even with training), you probably won’t enjoy it and you’ll be outside of your comfort zone most of the time. Choose something peripheral and genuine, nothing too personal and show how you are aware of it and how you’ve developed ways to offset it.

Related blogs: How to be a STAR performer
Interviews: Prepare yourself
“Tell me about yourself”

Researcher Development

You’ve heard of Research & Development (R&D), but what about Researcher Development?

It’s all too easy to think that once you’ve qualified to postgraduate level, gained experience or have reached a certain age, further professional development isn’t really necessary. And while that’s true up to a point – you don’t necessarily need to undertake formal training and courses, with certification and qualifications – it’s important in these days of fast-paced change to keep up to date with new technology, methodologies, theories and innovations.

Having said that, with a multitude of publications, social media posts and other communications hailing new findings and trends in this, that and the other on a daily basis, it can be somewhat overwhelming to stay ahead of the curve!

My monthly newsletter from the Career Development institute (CDI) popped into my email box today (see above), reminding me about keeping up to date with my own professional development. With regular newsletters, free courses and an invaluable network, membership of the CDI has been well worth the money, not to mention their formal register of career professionals, which means I can reassure my clients of my professional status and adherence to an ethical code of practice.

Most research disciplines and professions have a membership association, institute or society with a website, social media presence, newsletter and/or discussion list, that can assist you with your current personal development or help you to find out more about another profession or career sector. They sometimes even offer recognition of your professional status, for example you can apply to the Royal Society of Biology and the Higher Education Academy (AdvanceHE) for Fellowship status.

Before I became an independent PhD career consultant, I worked for a learned society. These are academic ‘clubs’ which cater for a whole variety of different disciplines, from Biochemistry to Anthropology, Microbiology to Ecology, Physiology to Physics. They are (usually quite wealthy) charities with a very reasonably priced membership fee, whose mission is to support academic researchers with their personal and professional development. Whether it’s organising an international conference, giving out awards or offering members the opportunity to get involved in outreach, policy or other research-associated activities, learned societies can help researchers to develop their careers in all sorts of ways, whatever their career ambitions. In my learned society, I witnessed many of our early career members benefit from the advocacy and informal mentoring  they received from more senior and established academics, which helped them to secure permanent positions.

Summer schools are a great source of professional development. Usually organised and hosted by universities or research institutions, they sometimes offer bursaries to attend and cover a wide range of subjects. If you’re a member of a learned society, you might be able to apply for funding to attend these courses. Ones I’ve seen recently include ‘Advanced Proteomics’ at the CRG in Barcelona, the LERU PhD Summer school and there’s a regular programme of courses run by EMBO. More informal lab visits can also be a great way to upskill if you want to learn a particular methodology or technique or make use of facilities that aren’t housed at your institution, with the added bonus of connecting and networking with the host research group.

Many universities offer external online courses, which are either free or very reasonably priced. These can be especially useful if they are centred around programming, bioinformatics, machine learning, AI and other non-wet-lab skills. On the other hand, learning about totally new topics that will help you to transition to a non-academic career sector might include regulatory affairs, quality assurance, clinical trials, patent law, finance, etc. These theoretical courses won’t be enough for you to become a professional, but the fact that you’re making the effort to get an insight into the profession can demonstrate to a potential employer your commitment and interest.

So, the next time you’re developing your research, don’t forget the researcher too!

Related post – Keep learning to keep earning

Transfer and Translate

Pivoting from the UK to Germany

Have you ever lived in another country? It’s common practice for researchers to move around either on a short-term or long-term basis. It’s almost embedded into the research culture.

However, until you’ve done it yourself, you don’t ever really appreciate the challenges associated with transferring and translating everything from your own country, culture and language into a new one.

When I moved to Germany (over 5 years ago now), it was a daunting prospect. Not only had I never lived in another country, I knew nothing of Germany or its language. When I was at school (many years ago), we’d had the choice of learning two languages – I chose French and Latin. As it happens Latin has been more useful to me than French or even English in learning German, what with its complex cases such as the accusative and dative, and the preference for placing verbs at the end of many sentences!

And it wasn’t just the language. Coming from the UK, I had to learn to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Again, a daunting prospect that I put off for about four months, until cabin fever took over and I finally took the leap and got into the driver’s seat. Actually, it wasn’t so bad after all (although I still avoid motorways as much as I can). Even my language skills have now improved to the point that I managed to pass my B1 German exam (equivalent to half an A-level) last year.

Very interesting, I hear you say, but what’s this got to do with careers?

Well, the point I’m trying to get across is that if you can do something in one setting, the likelihood is you can do it in another. OK, you may need time to settle in and get used to your new environment and you may need to get some extra training, but basically if you can learn something in one setting, you can usually learn it in another.

Everyone’s heard of transferable skills, but you also need to consider translating those skills into the language of your new employer. Just as you have to adapt to the culture and ways of a new country, so you will need to adjust to your new work environment and the people within it.

But before you even get to experience a new work culture, you need to get the job in the first place! Usually this is by applying with a CV and covering letter, which, if successful, will take you to an interview. Of course, as many researchers, who have successfully secured jobs in industry and business, will tell you; researching the career sector, companies and employees is crucial to help you to capitalise on your transferable skills and to translate your academic terminology into your targeted employer’s language. Take a look at LinkedIn and you’ll find lots of posts and advice about this (e.g. Matteo Tardelli and Ashley Ruba).

Here’s two example CVs (below) to show how a researcher specialising in biofilm research has translated her academic CV (top) into one that’s targeted to a biofilm position in industry (she got the job by the way!).

You’ll see how the content, language and even the layout changes to align with the employer’s job description (not shown here). Words such as, “delivering scientific content”, “preparing project progress reports” and “analysing large data sets to convert into deliverable results” have replaced the usual academic descriptions of these activities.

It’s not a perfect CV (no CV is), but I hope it gives you a flavour of how to transfer and translate your skills, experiences and achievements into a new language that is understood by your potential new employer. It shows that not only have you understood the job requirements and matched yourself to them, you are instilling confidence that you will also be able to adapt yourself to your new work environment and culture.

So, the next time you see a non-academic job of interest to you, underline the key words in the job description, take a look at the company website and see what types of words and phrases they are using. If you connect with the organisation on social media, you’ll see what’s important to them, as well as their latest news, and you can even link with employees and ask for an informational interview. That way, you’ll be fully armed to make a successful application, as well as assessing if this new ‘land’ is right for you.

Related blogs:

Think ‘Skill’ not ‘DPhil’
Put your skills to work
Skills and Thrills – what motivates you?

Are you conference ready?

When you’re a researcher, information can be gathered in all manner of ways – reading papers, browsing websites, engaging in social media, email exchanges, conversations and attending conferences. This last avenue of information – conferences – is usually a heavy investment in terms of time and finance, but many researchers under-prepare and under-use this potential source of information, new connections and even career opportunities.

Whether it’s in-person, online, large, small, local or international, any conference worth attending is worth preparing for, so that you get the best return on your investment of time and money.

My advice for avoiding wasting time and money is to get conference ready! Here are some tips to help you:

  • Choose wisely – there are many interesting conferences organised each year, some large, some small, some nearby and some in distant lands. Consider why you want to attend, what do you want to achieve? Will you benefit more from a large conference, or a smaller one? Does the programme look compelling? Who’s speaking? Are there opportunities for networking? Take advice from your supervisor, collaborators and peers, as well as considering your own motivations.
  • Write a great abstract! One of the best ways to get noticed at a conference is to present a poster or, even better, give a talk. Writing a compelling abstract will help to get you noticed and attract people to attend your talk, especially when there are many parallel sessions. Use Google (or attend a workshop) on how to write a good abstract. Here’s one example from a previous blog.
  • Enter your abstract for a competition, such as a ‘Early career researcher’ best talk/poster award. Even if you don’t win, it’s a great experience to practice promoting yourself and your research.
  • Examine the programme and identify sessions of interest to you. You should aim to use your time wisely at any conference, so, much like preparing for a holiday, plan your itinerary so that you can navigate the conference efficiently, as well as factoring in flexibility in case of those (very likely) happenstance encounters.
  • Identify speakers or delegates of interest in the programme or attendance list (if they have one) that you’d potentially like to connect with. Consider contacting some of them ahead of the meeting, if you think it’s appropriate – you can do this by email or social media. Say you’re looking forward to hearing them speak/meeting them.
  • Follow the #. The majority of conferences will create a # for their meeting, which you can follow on X (formerly Twitter). Many of them also have a Facebook page that you can connect with (you can always create a new FB profile for professional purposes in case you don’t want to link your personal page).
  • Sign up for pre-conference or side-programmes, such as career workshops and other sessions that will bring you into contact with delegates in a more informal setting. Many of these types of events are smaller and interactive, with more opportunity to meet your peers and get to know other delegates.
  • Sign up for social/networking events. You don’t have to attend them all – consider staying for an hour and aim to meet one or two people. Standing events can more amenable than seated ones and, if there are tall tables to stand and eat your lunch with 3 – 4 others, this can be quite a nice way to get chatting with others.
  • Do your research – if you’re interested in speaking with someone in particular, read up on them beforehand or attend their talk and then aim to approach them with a question about their research or a favourable comment about their talk – people love to talk about themselves.
  • Prepare your pitch! Any good conversation is a two-way process, so be prepared to talk about yourself and your research. To avoid bombarding people with a 5-minute monologue, think about what you will say within about 30 seconds – that’s enough to oil the wheels of the interaction and your conversation partner can then ask you further questions to find out more.
  • Examine the exhibitor list – there may be some exhibiting organisations that are of interest to you in terms of your research and even your career. Many companies are represented by staff who have PhDs and are even former postdocs. It can be interesting to do some research about how they transitioned into this line of work and what the role is like.
  • Check your online profile! Make sure it’s in good order – up to date, fully completed, looking professional and consistent with your career aims. It’s likely that when you meet people at the conference, they will look you up online and even invite you to connect with them, so you want to look your best!
  • Get some business cards printed – it may sound a bit commercial and even old-fashioned, but many delegates at international conferences carry business cards with them and offer them to other delegates. It’s not necessarily a ‘must’, but it’s easy and cheap to produce them nowadays, displaying your name, position, contact details, institution and logo.
  • Prepare to dress to impress. You don’t have to be formal and you may feel confident and relaxed in your jeans and T-shirt. However, if you want to ensure you’ll be taken seriously by more senior delegates, choose something smart-casual, as your supervisor might dress. You never know, you may even have the opportunity to be interviewed for your next position during the conference!

Two extra tips that deserve special attention:

Note 1The BAD news!
Beware predatory conferences! (and journals too for that matter). These are exploitative meetings with the sole aim to make money from the academic community. Google ‘predatory conference’ for more information, but here’s one explanation from Wikipedia.

Note 2The GOOD news!
Many conferences are organised by learned or professional societies, which also have a large membership. If you join them, they will give you a discounted registration to their conference, and they may also have lots of other membership benefits that you can enjoy throughout the year, so make sure to take a closer look at their website and even consider joining longer-term.

Having worked for a learned society myself for almost 20 years, where we organised one large international and smaller meetings each year, I’ve witnessed many in the academic community – PhD students, postdoctoral researchers and even professors – benefit from the experience, whether it was giving a talk and getting noticed, making connections with other delegates, having useful discussions with more other scientists, or even being offered to have more involvement in the society by taking part in their events or joining committees. Attending conferences can be both time consuming and expensive, so be sure to make the most of these great opportunities to meet and connect with others. Most of all, of course, have fun and see the world!

Related content

The invisible delegate
Learned societies

Analyse You

Researchers are great at analysis – you scrutinise research papers, you analyse methodologies, you deep-dive into complex data sets, you evaluate conclusions and you use a wide and sophisticated set of tools to achieve all of these analytical activities.

But what about you, the researcher? How about your self-analysis? Are you investigating yourself and wondering where your researcher journey is headed? Are you curious to know what types of careers will be best suited to you, your values, interests, skills and personality?

Taking time out of your research to analyse yourself and find true purpose in what you are doing might be the hardest research project you ever take on. Despite the challenges faced when carrying out your PhD or postdoctoral research, designing and conducting experiments, drawing conclusions, publishing your findings, etc., the art of self-discovery is a much more tricky and subjective process.

I say ‘subjective’ and this can have more than one meaning: First, many researchers wed themselves to their research subject of interest, ignoring the very personal aspects that constitute their true and authentic selves. Secondly, self-analysis can be very difficult to do when you’re inside yourself. Sometimes, others can see things in you that you cannot see yourself. This is why career counselling, guidance and coaching professionals can help you to figure out where your strengths and passions really lie, as well as helping you to achieve your aims. In addition, there are a variety of assessment tools that can assist you individually to reflect on your  

On that note, I thought I’d share with you two self-analysis tools that I use to help researchers to recognise aspects of themselves beyond their subject interests, so that they can apply this knowledge to creating a fulfilling career for themselves.

If you wish to try them out, it may help you to consider a wider range of career options or confirm to you what you already were thinking with regard to potential careers of interest.

SKILLS AND INTERESTS

Adapted from Holland’s theory of career choice, my PhD Career Choice Indicator pictured above consists of six skills/interest categories: FUNCTIONAL, INVESTIGATIVE, ARTICTIC, SOCIAL, ENTERPRISE and MANAGEMENT. Depicted as a hexagon, each of the categories has a descriptor that allows you to understand more fully what each of them means. The assessment is very simple – you just need to rank the categories in order of preference, in terms of what you enjoy doing. Your top 3 choices will start to give you an idea of what really interests you, as well as the types of tasks and activities you want to take with you to you in your next role. The least enjoyable category will also show you the kinds of work you might want to minimise as far as possible in your next job.

Have a go and see what you think – it’s really just a starting point, as it only considers skills and interests, however it can help you to start focussing your options more accurately, and some of the descriptors can also be useful to use as keywords when searching for future roles, whether within or outside of academia.

VALUES

I use an abridged and adapted version of an original values assessment created by Edward Schein and published in his book ‘Career Anchors’. I’ve altered the questions and descriptors to make them more relevant to doctoral researchers and made use of the questionnaire that I published in my book, ‘Career Planning for Research Bioscientists’, along with another assessment focussed on personality, adapted from the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) – not included here.

Some of the values that Schein includes in his assessment map quite nicely onto the skills in my PhD Career Choice Indicator, such as FUNCTIONAL and GENERAL MANAGERIAL COMPETENCES, whilst others, such as SECURITY/STABILITY and PURE CHALLENGE, are more related to lifestyle and preferred ways of working. To see more about the Values Assessment and to take the test go to my Googledocs for the pdf.

There are many other assessment tools, such as MyIDP and the Vitae RDP, so why not spend some time over the holiday period on you, so that going into the new year you’ll feel more confident and assured about where you want to take your career next. And don’t forget, this is just a starting point that only takes account of your skills, interests and values. A career professional will be able to help you with your self-analysis more fully, as well as supporting you with other parts of the career planning process.

Related content:

Decisions Decisions

Skills and Thrills – What motivates you?

The Skilled Researcher

Value Added Careers

Working Friends

“Today, I was able to spend time with Sarah Blackford – an early start train trip was definitely worth the journey 🙂 LinkedIn and online professional development webinars might have connected us professionally during the pandemic, but they have also helped us to keep in touch and become friends.” Jenn Barfield  

And what a great day out in Würzburg we had! It was a chance conversation over LinkedIn that made us realise that we live close enough to actually meet up in person, rather than just messaging online.

This is one example of a formerly remote and unknown contact who’s now become a friend. I have many more examples! Some are people that I’ve worked with, some are delegates of conferences I’ve attended and some, like Jenn, are people that I’ve only known through social media. Obviously, it’s not something that happens with everyone in your network – nor should it be, otherwise you’d never get any work done! – but it’s a really nice experience when you not only connect with someone professionally, but socially too.

And, of course, it can also be very rewarding in terms of setting up, developing and maintaining collaborations. I recently ran a career workshop for young academics, where we were discussing how to create and make the most of collaborative opportunities. One of the academics had been considering inviting an expert data scientist to collaborate with them, however on reflection she decided to approach a research group with which she’d already built up a good relationship, following a research visit. She had concluded that working with people you like and with whom you have a good rapport is more likely to be successful than taking a chance on a stranger – and it would be more fun too!

Maybe she was right, we will never know. However, when you’re at a conference and you see your professor and other senior ‘more seasoned’ academics shaking hands, hugging, smiling and inviting each other out for dinner, etc., you’ll appreciate that having collaborators that are friends is a definite bonus. And remember, they started where you are now as an early career researcher, with no network of any consequence – these things take time to build so it’s never too late to get started.

Research is an international endeavour, with researchers in the same field based all over the world, which is why it’s important to reach out and make contact. Whether it’s remotely, with in-person visits or meet-ups at conferences, these connections are vital towards you developing your own academic profile. If you read the biographies of academics, you’ll see them referring to various people with whom they’ve worked over their career and I’m sure if you asked them, they would probably count many of them as friends. This is why academic mobility is so important to research – sharing ideas, discussing data, mulling over problems with experiments and, yes, forging, sometimes life-long, friendships.

I recently delivered my ‘Power of Networking’ career workshop, in which I identified the wide range of people with whom you can build relationships throughout your career. Using a spider’s web to illustrate this, I put family and friends at the centre, with acquaintances, peers, mentors and work colleagues, former work colleagues and alumni further away and, at the very edge, those on social media. Depending on your career aims, you’ll want to create connections and build your network accordingly. For example, for me, as an international career consultant, I have many contacts, acquaintances and friends in my professional network. People I’ve met online, include my digital co-partner, Virginie Siret, who manages all my online career workshops – We have never met in person (although I am hoping to one day, as she lives in a very nice part of France), but, having worked together now for over 2 years, I would definitely count her as a friend. Similarly, many members of a LinkedIn group I co-created for PhD career coaches with Barbara Janssens have become firm friends over the years.

One of the questions at the end of my recent networking workshop was around how to build relationships with the contacts in your network. I replied that for most of your career you’ll only build close relationships with a few people, but that you can stay in loose contact with people more easily nowadays using social media, simply by liking or commenting on their posts and showing a virtual presence. If, like Jenn, you see an opportunity to get closer, then it’s up to you both to agree to set up a meeting (virtual or in-person) to have a quick chat or something longer like we did – spending a day out including coffee and cake followed by a walk and talk and a shop till you drop, as well as agreeing to find ways to work together in the future 🙂

For related content go to my blog archive and search in the Networking column: https://biosciencecareers.org/blog-archive

The hidden keys to academic success

Guest Blog alert! 

We don’t hear much from professors when advising on careers, so it’s with great excitement that I introduce my guest writer for this month’s blog – Professor Dale Sanders (former director of a major UK research institute).

Much has been written about securing a permanent academic position, not to mention surveys, statistics, podcasts and career stories, for example this blog from The Node. So, if you’re very talented and/or lucky enough to land one such post for yourself, how do you make a success of your new academic career?

Last week, I ran a session for junior academics in which we discussed the challenges of pivoting from a largely autonomous and hands-on role as a postdoctoral researcher, into a leadership position in which you are responsible for activities of which, generally speaking, you have no experience. In addition to the challenges of managing your time so that you can accommodate a variety of new collegiate responsibilities, such as recruitment, administration and committee representation, you remain under pressure to demonstrate your productivity in the form of publications and funding (for which, in many cases, you will be ‘measured and judged’).  

In my workshop session, the junior academic leaders identified a whole host of personal and professional ‘hidden extras’ that are key to academic positions. They are never advertised, but they are vital if you’re to succeed – without having some kind of meltdown! Having coached many junior leaders and witnessed the stresses and strains of the academic world, I feel I have a good objective sense of what these hidden extras are – as portrayed as an iceberg above.

However, on the basis that it’s always really valuable to receive mentoring and advice from experienced academics, who have witnessed the changes and challenges of academic life first-hand, I hope you will find the following guest blog a very useful guide to some of the ‘hidden extras’ that are not articulated in job advertisements, but that will be helpful in your achieving and maintaining a successful academic career.

________________________________________________________________________

GUEST BLOG: Professor Dale Sanders
(former Director, John Innes Centre, UK)
10 Key Skills and Personal Qualities that can help you to be Successful as an Academic in Science

I have listed 10 of these key skills below. Ability to write great research manuscripts and grant applications is essential, of course, and is subsumed at various places in the list below that relates more generally to inter-personal attributes. 

This list is not prioritised in any sense – all are important and indeed are inter-related.  And, of course, the list is not intended to be exclusive: many other skills and qualities could be addressed.

Collegiality. The days of a one-person lab-leader and their little group are long gone; thinking big about research nearly always involves collaborating with others to address the issue you are investigating. This applies within your own research field nationally and internationally. For those with whom you do not collaborate, you need to keep in touch with what they are doing, so keep them as friends even if you disagree at an intellectual level. And at home, it is just as important to be collegial with the many other academics in your department who work in different fields. Remember this is in your own interests: support others within your department to achieve collective excellence to make your department world-renowned. Departments don’t run by themselves, and good ones require democratic participation of their academics. Perhaps think about how you can help by improving standards in teaching and more generally the way your department is run.

Tolerance. We are all social animals, and it is inevitable that colleagues (whether within your research group, your institution, or wider in your national or international communities) will occasionally irritate you – or worse, offend. When this happens (it will!), you can take a step back to ask where they are coming from and to try to understand, even if you do not agree with their position. You might find that if you open up a discussion you will find common ground and they will not irritate you so much after all!

Inclusivity. The best academic activity – whether this is teaching or research – gets done by seeking wide opinion for decision-making. Our inherent biases will sometimes prevent diverse input. We need to recognise that each of us has those biases and enable that recognition to accommodate new thinking that might appear a first sight to be contrary to your instincts.

Resilience. You will have periods of low self-esteem. Perhaps a grant application or a paper get negative reviews or students feed back with negative comments on some lectures you have given? There is not an academic this hasn’t happened to. But coping with external negativity is part of your job. Try to de-personalise this and then question objectively where this negativity comes from. If you then feel comments are justified, you can act. If you still feel that comments are unfair, you can discuss with colleagues to get advice.

Big Picture Thinking. You were hired in a competitive environment because of your amazing achievements. Don’t lose sight of that in the day-to-day of running a lab and interacting with the rest of your department. Ask yourself: what are the major research problems I can solve? Can I develop a testable hypothesis? Who will I involve? And, if appropriate, how can I improve human health of the environment we live in?

Recruitment. You will want to recruit the very best and most committed grad students, research assistants, and post-docs to your lab. Ensure that you have your vision right when you recruit: it’s not just about the science the interviewee has done, but about their interpersonal skills. At this stage it is always useful to get second, informal opinions with respect to recruitment.

Mentoring. This will become part of your job. You owe it to those that you recruit, almost all of whom will be either students of researchers on fixed-term contracts, to help them develop their careers, whether this be inside or outside of science. Remind them when appropriate that there is a world outside of research science, and that the analytical skills that they learn as part of their role are transferrable to so many other areas of society where they can contribute to their careers as well as more general contributions.

Communication. You will need to communicate with your students, your lab, your departmental peers and externally to your institution even less frequently.  The key to good communication is to remember your audience: where are they coming from and what is their baseline knowledge? What are their expectations of you? This doesn’t mean telling people what they want to hear of course: you can, as a scientist challenge, beliefs. But be respectful and clear. Know exactly what you want to say before you say it.

Willingness to learn. You will make mistakes: all of us do. This can be at the level of appointing an inappropriate graduate student or saying something you later regretted.  Temporarily, apologies can retrieve a situation. But in the context of wider thinking, it is never too late to self-question: did I get that one right? 

Motivation. It’s OK to question every now and then why you ever thought to get into academia in the first place. “Was this just something I fell into given some excellent scientific results?” After all, positions in government, the commercial and charitable sectors might be similarly attractive.  It helps sometimes to look around at what else is on offer – and then perhaps re-invigorate yourself that you have one of the best jobs in the world: inspiring young minds and pushing back the boundaries of discovery.

Related blogs: It’s all academic
Principle ways to become a Principal Investigator

Post-postdoc: What’s next?

A selection of previous career workshops and events

If you hadn’t noticed, it was National Postdoc Appreciation Week (#NPAW) last week. Held each year during the third week in September, all kinds of initiatives and activities are organised to highlight and celebrate the invaluable contributions made by postdoctoral researchers and to support them in their careers.

You only need to do a Google search or enter the hashtag into social media platforms, such as LinkedIn to find a whole cacophony of events taking place in recognition of the crucial role played by postdocs the world over. Perhaps you’ve been involved in such an event.

As we enter this new week, post-NPAW 2023, it’s clear that the plight of the postdoc is still very much an issue in terms of the career challenges faced by contract researchers. So, for my September blog, to acknowledge this fact, I’ve decided to focus my blog on postdocs, who will at some point in their careers be facing a future ‘post-postdoc’.

Your post-postdoc ambitions

Whether you’re a postdoc considering your career trajectory towards a permanent academic career or you’re a postdoc thinking of moving into business or industry, one thing’s for certain: You can’t postdoc forever.

There will have to be a crossing point in your career when you move into other roles. I say roles because it’s likely that you will not remain in your first post-postdoc role for the duration of your career. You’ll get promoted or you’ll move sideways or along and across and into other positions, as you find your ideal career path.

Try not to grieve too much for the postdoc that you leave behind when you finally move on. Did you grow up wanting to be a postdoc? Did you aspire at school or even university to be one? I doubt it very much. Perhaps you were curious, inquisitive about the world, you wanted to make a difference, were inspired by scientists on TV. You most probably wanted to be a scientist.

Whenever I look up ‘Scientist’ on LinkedIn with the ‘People’ search, the results I get hardly ever include scientists working in academia, only those working in industry. Scientists in academia call themselves postdocs or research associates, lecturers or associate professors.

You don’t have to badge yourself in the outside world as a postdoc – you can title yourself something more meaningful such as Bioscientist, Evolutionary Biologist, Astrobiologist, Developmental Biologist, Biomedical Scientist, Bioinformatician, etc. You can even add in other descriptors of yourself such as creative, solutions-oriented, technology-focussed, resourceful problem-solver, etc.

Think about a more suitable title and then add it to your LinkedIn profile.

Your post-postdoc transition

I see a lot of postdoc CVs and many of them are not fit for purpose. Don’t get me wrong, they usually contain loads of great experiences, technical skills and achievements. The problem is that when you are applying for a new position, you need to present yourself not as you are in your current role – a postdoc – but as the person you’re aiming to be next.

For example, if you’re aspiring to be an independent researcher – include information about your research ideas, where you see yourself creating a new research niche as an emerging researcher in the field of XXX, focus on funding successes and collaborations, rather than listing your technical skills. For permanent academic posts, do the same but include collegiate activities, such as resource management, committee representation or reviewer responsibilities.

On the other hand, you may be looking to become a senior scientist in a biotechnology company. In this case, change your language to match the industry, tell them about your experiences relevant to their job requirements, leave out long lists of publications and teaching (or just add in a link). Make sure to mirror their job requirements, especially including examples of your interpersonal skills, personal qualities and experiences.

If you’re moving to an entirely different type of role, such as science administrator – you will need to re-organise your CV quite dramatically. Your scientific knowledge and skills need only be mentioned briefly and more broadly to show that you are an experienced scientist. More central to the application will be managerial, communication and organisational skills. Perhaps your attention to detail, ability to meet deadlines and write reports.  

If your CV is successful and you are called for interview, continue to present yourself in terms of your future role so that you’re taken seriously by your prospective employers.

Imagine yourself already being a post-postdoc.

Your post-postdoc addition

Looking at post-postdoc roles can be a bit daunting when you see that perhaps you don’t ‘tick all the boxes’. Don’t be put off by this though. Employers don’t expect you to be able to satisfy more than perhaps 50 – 60% of their criteria. What they’re looking for is someone with the right attitude who will fit into and contribute to their work culture and community.

For some jobs, however, you may need to up-skill and get some career development in areas that are central to the position. In this case, look for opportunities to bolster your CV with whatever outstanding experiences or expertise is required. And if you can’t manage this, then look for jobs that interest you and make use of the skills that you most enjoy using and want to develop further.

Whatever you do, you can look forward to a bright post-postdoc future by considering getting support from a qualified career coach or adviser. Beware of paying too much – if the fee seems to be too high look elsewhere; there are plenty of reasonably priced or even free services and courses for you to make use of. Better still, contact the research support centre at your own institution, which may host career development workshops (such as my own) or offer funding to support researchers with their professional development.

Related blogs:

My Archive contains many useful blogs, including the following:

It’s all academic

Appreciate your career

Keep learning to keep earning

Think Skill not DPhil

Learned Friends

Some memorabilia from the recent Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) centenary meeting kindly sent to me by Dr Teresa Valencak (SEB President’s Medallist 2009).

Are you a member of a learned* society or academic organisation?

Maybe you are, maybe you’re not. Or maybe you are, and you don’t know it!

When I ask this question in my career workshops, usually only one or two hands go up. However, on further questioning, it turns out quite a lot of researchers belong to some kind of learned society, even though they don’t immediately realise they do!

Why is this?

Learned societies are academic ‘clubs’ that have memberships ranging from a few hundred to many thousands. They are associated with particular academic subjects of interest, for example, the Biochemical Society, the American Society of Cell Biology, the Genetics Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry. Some of them are very old and have even recently been celebrating their 100th birthdays.

Depending on your own academic research field(s), there is bound to be one or more learned societies that match with your interests. In fact, you’ve probably attended one of their conferences and were offered a reduced registration fee if you joined as a member. The membership then usually lasts for a year, after which you can continue to pay your subscription fee or not.

This is how many researchers become learned society members, but soon forget that they are ‘in the club’.

Advantage Club membership!

My advice is: Keep your membership going, especially if you plan to stay in academia. In fact, look around and see if there are other learned societies that you could join.

Why? Because learned society membership is usually very good value, both financially and, more importantly, professionally. Your outlay is more than compensated for by the following advantages:

  • Access to funding
    Many learned societies offer PhD and postdoctoral researchers the opportunity to apply for travel grants (e.g. 500 euros or more) to research conferences and lab visits. This can help to expand your networks and horizons. It also gives you a degree of independence, as well as practice at writing for competitive funding.
  • Awards
    Poster and talk presentation prizes, best young scientist, writing, photo and other media competitions give you opportunities to showcase yourself and your research and to highlight your achievements;
  • Networking
    A learned society generally comprises students and early career researchers through to distinguished professors, as well as research stakeholders such as industry, NGOs and publishers. Unlike in your own academic research institution or university, where there are few researchers working in your particular field, a learned society brings together all manner of people who have an interest in your research field. It’s a prime opportunity to connect, engage, network, share ideas, create collaborations and even find your next position.
  • Communication
    This is a BIG one! Many large learned societies get their funding from the journals that they own. Because they are charities, they re-invest the profits from their journal subscriptions back into the organisation. This means that they have the means to organise subsidised conferences, where their members and other researchers can present and discuss their research. Many of them also run education, policy and career programmes, offer academic mobility opportunities and invite members to join their committees.
  • Mentoring and patronage
    Having worked for a learned society myself, as the head of education and public affairs (for nearly 20 years), I have witnessed many early career scientists benefit from interactions with other more senior members. Because learned societies are so specialised, members have lots to talk about and it’s inevitable that useful discussions take place, such as suggestions about your research, being exposed to role models and even being offered a position.

And if this hasn’t yet convinced you of the benefits of being a member of a learned society (and, better still, getting involved in some way), the new narrative CV** includes a section about your contribution to the wider research community; guidance suggests that you provide evidence of, for example, being involved in a learned society, organising a meeting, being a member of a committee or initiating a collaborative project.

So, think about learned societies as your learned friends. Whether you’re aiming for a career within or outside of academia, the benefits are there for the taking. I took on one early career researcher science communication intern per year whilst working for the Society for Experimental Biology, all of whom went on to forge amazing careers. Equally, I know of other researchers who have benefitted from internships in policy, conference organisation, journal editing and publishing, to name but a few!

*Note that ‘learned’ is pronounced as if it has an accent on the second ‘e’ – ‘learnèd’. Or imagine that it as a hyphenated word: Learn-Ed.

** If you want to find out more about narrative CVs contact me to discuss my trainings

Related blogs:

Learned societies
Learned societies – a party worth joining