Monthly Archives: January 2017

Keep on, keepin’ on

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

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

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

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

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