Monthly Archives: February 2014

Want an academic career? Cultivate people and ideas

“Start to cultivate relationships very early in your PhD” and “Start an ‘Ideas’ folder”. I saw these words of advice written on a blog today, entitled ‘Transitioning from grad school to a postoc’. It was posted on a forum called ‘Tenure, she wrote’, which posts lots of great blogs and is worth looking at when you get a chance. Although it refers to the first stages of a research career path, it’s highly relevant to anyone considering a future academic career.

The reason I say this is that when you look at advertised tenured academic positions, being able to demonstrate independent and innovative thinking is a one of the essential application criteria (usually articulated along the lines of ‘an established or growing international reputation’, ‘proven ability to secure research funding’ or ‘a consistent track record of quality publications’). The university faculty needs to keep moving forward and, ideally, wants to be leading the field in its key areas of research. If you can show that you are an independent innovative thinker, who is prepared to move out from the shadow of your supervisor and take your research in new directions you will stand out from the crowd. Your list of publications may be impressive, but are you ready to be the person whose name is listed last, can you take on the role of corresponding author, will you be able to submit successful funding applications, demonstrating that you’re re-positioning your research away from that of your current professor? Securing an independent research fellowship early in your career will allow you to shape your research interests to prepare you more readily for this transition. Alternatively, your postdoctoral position may have uncovered a niche of expertise, away from that of your supervisor, which you feel confident to pursue at the leadership level.

So, referring back to the start of this blog, two key activities that will almost certainly help lead you towards independence are the cultivation of people and ideas.
Meeting delegates at conferences, discussing your findings, collaborating with others and sharing perspectives are all crucial components to enhancing the scope of your research. You will discover new insights, experience different viewpoints and expand your horizons, probably unexpectedly! People think in different ways, analyse and synthesise information differently, which means you can benefit from their opinions and they can benefit from yours; so it’s a symbiotic arrangement which means it can also be sustainable and productive. You can evidence this from the number of long-standing colleagues and friends your professors have made over the years – this is one of the reasons they love to meet up at conferences and meetings! Ideas are generated from these stimulating interactions, whether in person or over email/social media. Ideas and flashes of inspiration, which may seem trivial or impractical at the time, should be stored away in case they become viable in the future, as you’ll probably forget them in the meantime.   
Current senior academics and professors will have benefited from making strategic collaborations early in their careers and will also have had innovative ideas to take their research in new directions. Even if you look at those ‘on their way up’ you can see that people and ideas are the crucial seeds to cultivate to grow a successful academic career.


Learned Societies – a party worth joining

“I would like to thank the Society for Experimental Biology and the Company of Biologists very much for supporting my attendance at this very valuable symposium and, in general, for giving young researchers the opportunity to participate in conferences and symposiums.”

Comments such as these from reports of winners of the latest round of SEB travel grants made me wonder how many researchers and PhD students are aware of these types of benefits, widely available to them in the early stages of their careers. Many academic learned societies own journals, which earn quite substantial subscription income and, as charities, they return much of this money to their members and relevant disciplinary communities. Some of the biggest beneficiaries of these returns are early career researchers and students, who can apply for all sorts of awards and receive considerable discounts on conferences. I noticed, for example, that the Society of Biology is offering grants to student members travelling to an Arabidopsis conference in Vancouver in July this year, and its affiliated societies, such as the Society for Experimental Biology, Society for General Microbiology, Physiological Society, Biochemical Society and British Ecological Society, give out a vast quantity of funds between them, which help their members towards travel to conferences or enable them to visit other research groups to learn new techniques.  

Mobility and building up independence is important if young researchers are to succeed in academia. It doesn’t just give you the chance to present a talk or a poster, it’s also a valuable opportunity to network with those working in your area of research. Most conferences feature job boards and, even if they don’t, professors get a chance to see you in person and, if they’re impressed with your work and enthusiasm, may even go a step further. As someone noted in one of the travel grant reports, “I was even offered a job at the conference dinner!”

Getting access to funding for conferences (most of which are organised by learned societies), is just one benefit for those who choose to join a learned society (and you can join as many as you like). Awards, competitions, member newsletters and blogs also help to promote you and keep you in touch with the wider areas of your discipline, such as education, policy and outreach. You can cross national boundaries and join societies outside of your own country of residence – for example half of the SEB’s membership is based outside of the UK.

As one student stated in their travel report, “I gained valuable insights, received feedback on how to improve my research methodology based on the logistical information exchanged and cannot imagine achieving any of these outcomes within the time scales without attending this conference”. Membership fees are very reasonable for students and early career researchers, so why not give your career a boost and join in the party? Ask your supervisor which are the most relevant for you – you can guarantee many of them are current members or have been members in the past.

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Networking presentation