Universities present a unique working environment. Those primarily concerned with the business of research, measure their success on the basis of their academic achievements, which include peer-reviewed research papers, research income, student results and graduate destinations. In recent times, universities have started to be considered as global businesses, competing to attract international student ‘customers’, focussing on enterprise and generating patents, outsourcing teaching and other ‘services’ whilst paying serious attention to global and national rankings.
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Within this environment, a multitude of research groups operate semi-independently, each led by a group leader who acquires most of his/her research funding from external grants, won or lost under conditions of fierce competition with others in their field. In addition to writing research grants and papers, managing their research group, collaborating strategically, and maintaining and promoting their prominence in their field of expertise, university-based group leaders usually have a teaching load and administrative duties.
Contrary to these tenured institutionally-funded positions, the majority of postdoctoral researchers and PhD students working within these research groups, have a fixed-term contract or period of study, and are funded by national or international grants, scientific charities and other external funding bodies. Many researchers seek the ‘Holy Grail’ of the tenured position, but with few posts available compared with huge numbers of contract researchers, most will end up leaving academia.
Much has been written on the subject, and many organisations and professionals are in the business of helping researchers to take charge of their careers. Support comes in the shape of workshops and one-to-one guidance, dissemination of studies and surveys about labour market trends and researcher alumni, and the publication of case studies, resources and further information. However, no matter how much career support is on offer, the most important action researchers can do themselves is to take the lead in managing their careers. Relying on supervisors alone to find more money puts researchers in a precarious position, perpetuating uncertainty and the feeling of a lack of control over their careers. Even if a supervisor has a researcher’s best interest at heart, renewing their contract may well be out of their hands in the end. More succinctly quoted as, “Only you can be in control of your career, and nobody cares more than you about your future”, by Peter S. Fiske, Putting your Degree to Work.
The Royal Society in the UK recently published a set of guidelines entitled Doctoral students’ career expectations – principles and responsibilities and Vitae (a UK organisation supporting the careers of researchers) has a series of career development booklets for researchers on subjects such as leadership and creativity. These publications offer invaluable advice to PhD students and researchers to encourage and empower them to take a lead on their career. With very few PhD graduates likely to secure an academic post in the long run (ranging from 3.5% to 10% depending on which surveys you refer to), and less than 1% making it to professor, those who decide to embark on an academic research track will need to think strategically if they are to achieve tenure. Meanwhile, with the majority of researchers entering non-academic careers, preparing and planning for this transition, even if only mentally, should be mandatory.
Leadership involves taking a strategic approach, not only at the personal level, but also considering the context in which you are working. Knowing the politics, rules and culture of your working environment can be a real asset, making you aware of what you need to do to fulfil the requirements for progression. Having an insight into the bigger picture can offer advantages, for example, making strategic collaborations, being aware of funding opportunities, identifying what is needed for a high quality publication or making a timely transition to a fulfilling non-academic career.
You can take the lead in many aspects of your life, whether it’s co-ordinating a small project, supervising a student, chairing a session or meeting, organising an event, or planning and designing your experiments. However, whatever you decide to do, whether you want to stay in academia or move to a non-academic career, aim to take a proactive lead in your own career!
Related content: Mind your career!