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Net Working to Net a Job

Applying for advertised posts is a well-known and well-used strategy for securing a job and may be an approach that has served you well previously. However, if you rely solely on publicised vacancies as you move forward in your career, you are very likely limiting your exposure to job opportunities. Positions are not always advertised, are invariably hidden from general view or haven’t yet been created.

As Robert Alford rightly says in his quote above, you need to prepare well before the end of your PhD or contract so that you are armed with strategic information, contacts and the tools to make a successful transition. Networking is a key tactic when exploring your options; just as you peruse the literature and investigate the research of other labs in your pursuit of new ideas and research avenues, so you need to do the same in your job search.

Using the internet to research the job market, people and companies can yield some very interesting results and help pave the way to your next position, whether within or outside of academia. Here are five ideas for you to try out:

  1. To expand your knowledge of the job market, search company employees to investigate their range of job titles. For example, I have made a list below from a well-known pharma company by searching people on LinkedIn that work for the company:

I must admit, I’m not sure what some of the job titles mean or what their roles entail, but you can investigate these further by researching the profiles and backgrounds of those in these positions. If it turns out you’re keen to pursue this career, make contact with some of those in this role. If you’d prefer to work for a smaller company (SME) look for people working in your area of interest, note who are their employers, and investigate these companies further on social media or by visiting their websites.

2. Once you’ve established the type of post(s) of interest to you, instead of ‘cold calling’ people, you can try to find people with whom you have some commonality. They are more likely to respond positively to you. One method you can use is to investigate alumni or previous employees from your current or former university or research institute, who are working in this role. For example, you can do a very easy search using the ‘alumni’ button on university profiles on LinkedIn and then doing a keyword search. Once you have identified one or more relevant people, you can introduce yourself as someone who also attended or worked at the same institution.

3. Many companies have a presence on Twitter nowadays, broadcasting information about their latest news and developments, as well as responding to others within their circle of interest and influence. Information such as this is invaluable when researching potential future employers and, furthermore, you can see who is following them – very likely many of their employees. They, in turn, will be following others based in associated industries, relaying their news and interests, and so on. This research may well lead you to interesting places and to new and surprising discoveries, so that, just as with your scientific research, you come across unexpected information (e.g. courses, jobs, contacts, funding) previously hidden to you.

4. For those of you aiming for a career in academia, use specialist forums and communities that are associated with your research interests. Researchgate is one of the best platforms for academics to display their research profile and publications. Asking and answering questions can spotlight you and bring you to the attention of others. Discussion lists and forums provide news related to your interests and are populated with people who could be potential collaborators or even future colleagues and employers.

5. Conferences are one of the best ways to network in academia, however with many of them cancelled or postponed in these challenging times of lockdown and social distancing, there are fewer opportunities to engage face-to-face. On the upside, many conferences are now being offered on-line as a series of webinars in place of in-person events. For some people this can actually make them a more viable and accessible prospect, with expenses such as travel and accommodation reduced to zero and registration offered at a much lower rate. Take advantage of these on-line gatherings, not only to hear from speakers, but to connect with participants by email, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc., as you would do if you met someone interesting at a regular conference.

I hope these five ideas have given you a flavour of how to make the Net work for you and wish you success as you network your way to your next job!

Related content: Five PhD Networking Strategies
Hashtag your way to a job

The why, how and whom of your career

In these turbulent times of ‘Lockdown’ it is becoming clear that the success, and even the very existence, of employers such as small businesses and large organisations, educational establishments and charities is precarious. The interconnectedness of the employment sector is evident, relying as it does on a constant flow of customers, services and money – it’s what makes the world go around.

A sudden and immediate halt to all of this, as happened in March, with no clear ending in sight, has thrown this delicate balance into disarray within a matter of weeks. Similarly, the closure of universities has put staff and students’ work on hold, with additional possible future consequences, such as their very economic viability and financial sustainability1,2,3.

So, where does this leave PhD students and postdoctoral researchers? You will all be in various stages of your PhD and research work and affected in vastly different ways depending on, amongst other things, the nature of your research project and your lockdown circumstances. You may also be concerned about your future career and what opportunities will be available to you in the short- and longer-term. Unlike these issues (and many others), over which you have little or no influence, personal qualities such as self-reliance and self-understanding, are under your own control and can help you to stay positive in the face of adversity. They can empower you to be more resourceful and influence how you manage yourself under various conditions – good and bad, certain and uncertain. In times of great stress and uncertainty, they can be your best friends.

Let me introduce you to the intelligent career. Based on career theories proposed by a well-known figure in the careers field, M.B. Arthur4 and his collaborators, in an intelligent career world “having personal goals and choosing employment that helps us to fulfil them is fundamental to all of us. It is also the key to long-term employability…”. In the context of what Arthur terms the boundaryless career (i.e. not bounded or tied to a single organisation), individuals who pay attention to  the three key ‘ways of knowing’ – knowing-why, knowing-how and knowing-whom – are likely to be more self-reliant and fulfilled in their work.

Knowing-why refers to the personal drivers that are central to our motivation to do the work we do, our values, personality, temperament and preferred work:life balance. So, for example, if you reflect on what it is that excites and enthuses you and that gives meaning to your current work or PhD project, this can help you to understand what types of work will most inspire and motivate you in the future. Think about how you can carry these motivators forward into your next job. Perhaps you prefer to stay within the academic research field, maybe you want a specialised functional role, more contact with people, something more closely associated with helping society or you see yourself managing multiple projects. See related blog.

Knowing-how refers to the skills and expertise (e.g. technical, professional, interpersonal) you have acquired during your current and previous roles, directly related to, or indirectly associated with, your research. The types of skills you enjoy and prefer to use should complement your current career. Which ones you choose to build on will be determined by your career ambitions, so that they contribute towards enhancing your employability for future positions of interest to you. There are many routes into different career sectors, so use your personal development time productively. For example, during this period of self-isolation more on-line courses seem to have become available, so see if you can find one that suits your interests. See related blog.

Knowing whom refers to those with whom you have a relationship. This could be your current and former co-workers, PhD student colleagues, alumni, collaborators, other professionals, friends, family, etc. Building and expanding your ‘social capital’ is not about using people, it’s a two-way process of getting to know new people who are interested and engaged in activities that are of interest to you. Those who show interest in others, and who are well-prepared and professional, are usually well-received by those more established. As an ‘up-and-coming’ enthusiast, you may even be courted as a potential new employee or collaborator. On-line networking can be fruitful, enabling you to move into a community and even to assist with your transition to your next post, especially outside of academia. See related blog.

The intelligent career proposes that ‘knowing why, knowing how and knowing whom’ are inter-related and influence the investment that we put into our careers. Arthur concludes in one of his co-authored papers, “The rewards we look for [in our careers] may well be personal, intrinsic rewards, rather than extrinsic ones like status or money. The important point is to be empowered to have a choice in the kind of work we take, the careers we pursue, and the purposes our careers serve.”

  1. https://www.iie.org/en/Why-IIE/Announcements/2020/03/IIE-Releases-Survey-on-Effects-of-COVID-19-on-International-Students-and-Study-Abroad
  2. https://www.studying-in-germany.org/the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-higher-education-in-germany/
  3. https://www.iie.org/en/Why-IIE/Announcements/2020/03/IIE-Releases-Survey-on-Effects-of-COVID-19-on-International-Students-and-Study-Abroad
  4. See for example,  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/43507907_The_development_and_application_of_the_intelligent_career_card_sort https://www.amazon.com/Intelligent-Career-Taking-Ownership-Your/dp/0190494131

Desiderata: “Things desired”

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann

Desiderata, published in 1927 by American poet, Max Erhmann, was sent to me via a friend/colleague this week as part of an uplifting poetry exchange through Women Leaders. I hope you found it as enjoyable as I did. Perhaps you have something positive and inspirational to share with your friends and colleagues to give them a boost during these times of separation and isolation. Wishing you good spirits and contentment.

The heart of the matter

On this Valentine’s Day spare a thought (or feeling) for your heart when making decisions. Otherwise known as your intuition or ‘gut feeling’, the sense of right or wrong and yes or no that you experience when making important decisions can sometimes better inform you than the logical process associated with ‘thinking with your head’. Whilst weighing up the advantages and disadvantages, referring to facts and data, and taking advice from others should definitely be a consideration, your heart can tell you what you really feel about a situation, helping you to feel more confident and self-assured about tackling your more difficult decisions.

For example, many years ago I was considering getting a dog. I spent many months mulling over the practical implications, worrying about what could go wrong. However, once my heart and instincts took over, I decided to take a leap of faith and it ended up being one of the best decisions I ever made, culminating in 10 years shared with the most wonderful companion. Another time I was offered a job and, although instinctively I felt it wasn’t right for me, having weighed up the pros and cons and the reality of needing a salary, I took it. However, after just over a year I had given it up! It had served me well in terms of new experiences, but it was not for me – my heart had been correct. Following that landmark decision, scarey as it was at the time, my career took a turn for the better and I have never looked back 😊

When making career decisions, it can sometimes be overwhelming and even frightening to consider new types of careers about which you know very little, apart from what you have read and heard about. If it’s a career that’s quite different from what you are already familiar and the job itself is in a far-flung location, removed from your colleagues, friends and family, the apprehension can be even greater. Most PhD students and researchers will end up in careers outside of academia, so it’s important to consider what kinds of jobs might suit you in the future in preparation for your transition. Many universities and external organisations offer support for this purpose, such as providing information, statistics, career stories, events and counselling, but ultimately it is you who must make the final decision.

Using your knowledge of the present and past can help to inform your future, so an important component of making career decisions is to consider what has given you pleasure and a sense of satisfaction in the past and, now, in the present. For example, when I was young, I wanted to be a vet. At the time, I thought my interest was fuelled by an interest in Biology and Physiology, but in fact it was my desire to help animals. As my career progressed, I realised that ‘helping’ was core to my career satisfaction and ultimately culminated in my current profession as a careers adviser.

So, with your heart, gut feeling and intuition in mind, try considering what you are enjoying now and what has inspired you in the past. Reflect on the tasks, people, work environment and things you do in your everyday personal life and dig deep to discover those aspects that you know make you feel good about yourself and give you a sense of fulfilment. Then, using this information, let it guide you towards potential careers of interest. My PhD Career Choice Indicator can assist you in identifying and investigating different types of careers, with the aim of finding a job you love.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

2020 Vision

Here’s a question: How’s your eyesight? Many of us wear glasses or contact lenses because we don’t have 2020 vision, i.e. perfect vision. We need help to bring into focus objects that are either far away or close up, so that we can see clearly to manage and navigate our lives effectively.

Here’s another question: How’s your ‘i-sight’? In other words, how well focused are you on yourself? Do you have a clear vision for 2020 and the decade ahead? What plans do you have for your near and future career?

To maintain good eyesight, you need regular visits to an optician who can use their special skills and equipment to keep you focused. In the case of your career, the situation is more complicated: The type of help you need to improve your ‘i-sight’, and from whom, depends on the circumstances you find yourself in and the network of support on which you can call upon. Perhaps it’s a short-term problem that requires some instant specialist advice (e.g. analysing some data, writing a paper), a medium-range goal such as learning new skills and techniques or maybe it’s a long-term plan for your career for, which you need to prepare and research before you take action. See Table below for examples:

Help needed Examples of possible support
Planning and managing
your career
Career consultant, mentor, supervisor  
Analysing your data Specialist data analyst, supervisor,
courses, peers, collaborators
Writing a paper or
applying for funding
Supervisor, peers, collaborators,
professional consultant, self-help books
and courses.
Making career choices   Career consultant, case studies, alumni,
information, tools and techniques
Writing a CV & covering letter / Interview
technique
Career consultant, professional in your field of interest, HR, examples and guides
Self-presentation and
networking
Career consultant, media/marketing/brand
specialist, science communicator, mentor
Innovating your
research
Enterprising, tech transfer or innovative
specialist, supervisor, courses, books
Finding out about
specific professions
Professionals in careers of interest, alumni,
career consultant, career stories
Enhancing your
employability
Career consultant, professionals in careers of
interest, company/business contacts, alumni

For the majority of examples listed, apart from the more specialist academic activities, you’ll notice that I’ve included ‘career consultant’ as a source of support. Career consultants are a very useful starting point for most of your career needs, especially helping you to make career decisions. Working to an ethical code of practice, we use specialist skills, knowledge and techniques to listen and guide you initially, helping you to reflect and review your situation, ideas and plans. This can be done in individual interviews (face to face or on-line) or as educational workshops where you learn techniques, engage in discussions and take part in self-reflective exercises to help you to gain a clearer vision of what you need to do in the short and longer term, in order to achieve your immediate and future career goals. We may also signpost information and resources, assist you in practical aspects such as perfecting your CV and interview technique, or refer you to other professionals who can give you further expert assistance. You may have noticed we like to use metaphors too 😊

Wishing you a forward-looking and visionary year ahead !

To find out more about my career services including talks, career workshops and 1-2-1 career interviews visit: https://biosciencecareers.org/career-support

New year, new career ?

What a difference a year can make: Looking back at PhD students and postdocs who made changes to their careers in 2019, there seems to be no end to the variety of jobs and locations to which they have moved1. Some have left academia to take up jobs in sectors such as science communication, medical science liaison, data science, policy and research, whilst others have remained in academia but moved countries. Some PhD graduates have even gone back to study for a business master’s or diploma degree.

As we enter a new decade (or leave one, depending on your perspective), what are your plans for your next career move? Where will you be this time next year? Maybe you are in the midst of your PhD right now, or still have a few more years before your postdoctoral contract comes to an end, so you feel it’s not the right time to be thinking about your career. For others, the time frame may be rather more urgent. In any case, it is never too early to be thinking about your career and wondering where you want to go next. Even if you find yourself in a permanent position in the future, there will still be decisions to be made about the direction, flexibility, focus and seniority of your role as you progress. For example, one junior academic may prefer to build up a large research group, whilst another may decide to focus on teaching and pedagogy; those who enter industry in a research role may ultimately decide to redirect their career trajectory into regulatory, marketing or executive functions, depending on their interests.

It can be difficult to make choices about what types of career might be a good fit for you in the future, especially when research takes up the great majority of your attention. However, you’d be surprised how many different things you do within your PhD or postdoctoral role that are driven by your interests and provide clues to potential careers of interest. These interests can be broken down into six career categories, as shown in the figure2 above, and can help you to start homing in on possible future roles. Which three categories do you think you would choose as your favourite? Reflect on the activities you enjoy doing most, what you look forward to or even voluntary work you engage with to help satisfy these interests. For me, I enjoyed investigative work, helping people and the creativity of data presentation, rather than lab work (plus I was always quite bad at organisation). This led my career into scientific publishing first and then careers work. For you, perhaps functional technical work is your number one interest followed by investigative and entrepreneurship. Maybe you like the managerial side of your research and would like to make this a greater part of your role in the future? These clues can be helpful not only to guide you towards your next career transition, but also to signpost skill gaps and areas for personal career development that will enhance your chances of securing your next job, whether it’s within or outside of academia.  

More information and ideas for careers are available on my “Making career choices” page, where you will be able to link your interests with types of careers.

  1. You can find out about career destinations of PhD students and postdocs by reading blogs such as NatureCareers and PhD Career Stories, looking at posts on LinkedIn and Twitter as well as annual surveys such as those conducted by Nature and AdvanceHE.
  2. This figure is adapted from Holland’s Theory of Vocational Choice to be more relevant for careers requiring a PhD.

Join the Club!

“I refuse to belong to a club that would have me as a member”, so said legendary comedian Groucho Marx in one of his many famous quotes. He wrote it in a fake resignation letter which he sent as a joke to the Friars Club of Beverly Hills, the private show business club of which he was a member. Other members included Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Hope, Judy Garland and Dean Martin so he was in good company.

In actual fact, the value of being a member of a professional club is no joke and should be considered very seriously. Having worked for a learned society for over 20 years, I probably know more than most the benefits of membership for those in the academic community, especially students and early career researchers. For a relatively small fee, these charitable organisations offer services such as discounted conference registration fees, awards, travel grants, a newsletter, mentoring, career support, opportunities to get involved in activities such as blogging, committee membership, outreach, event organisation and much more. These experiences add value and bring advantages to those who get involved, giving them access to personal and professional development as well as a privileged network.

Dozens of learned societies exist, especially those associated with the biosciences: the Microbiology Society, Biochemical Society, Physiological Society, British Ecological Society, American Physiological Society, American Society of Plant Biologists to name but a few. International in their membership, the big ones are usually funded by their journals, which generate very large annual incomes used to fund staff, act as a communication platform for science dissemination and provide benefits to members. To read more about these societies visit my webpage.

Learned societies are particularly valuable for those wishing to pursue academic careers. However, if you’re looking to move into a non-academic career joining professional bodies and networks associated with a particular career sector can be more fruitful and rewarding. For example, as a career professional I am a member of several organisations associated with my professional interests, including the Career Development Institute (CDI), the Higher Education Academy and the Association of Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS).

Students and researchers interested in a career in science communication might benefit from membership of Euroscience, as well as other organisations such as the Association of British Science Writers, the Science Entrepreneur Club and networks like BIG and STEMPRA. Meanwhile, those considering a research career in industry might consider joining organisations such as the European Federation of Biotechnology, Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries (ABPI) or the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (ASPS).

For some organisations such as the Royal Society of Biology and Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM), there are different grades of membership depending on the seniority of your current role and your competency level, whilst others such as the Medical Science Liaison Society and TOPRA welcome complete newcomers aiming to break into MSL and regulatory affairs roles, respectively.

The International Society for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics (ISCB) has student and postdoctoral membership categories and membership of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) includes an early career and a limited-access networking and engagement category. For those associations that are closed to non-professionals or who only offer organisational or partner membership, such as Europbio, BioDeutschland and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EPFIA), it can still be worth visiting their websites to learn about their work and latest news to enhance your knowledge of the industry.

So, if you’re not currently a member of a professional club think about joining one or two relevant to your present and future career ambitions. For any profession you can think of you’re likely to find an associated organisation by simply plugging it into a Google search (I looked up ‘Oil Pipe Association’ on a whim to prove this to myself and sure enough one exists!). Why not give it a go yourself? Once a member, make use of the information and networks and even see if you can play a more active role – who knows where it could lead and who you might meet along the way?

Related content:
Five PhD networking strategies
Learned societies – a party worth joining?
Social media – so shall I?

Fear for your career

Courtesy of Dr Anne Osterrieder

Halloween is here again celebrating all that is scarey, frightening and spooky. Horror movies are showing, children are ‘trick or treating’ and things are going ‘bump in the night’. It’s all just a bit of fun and a great excuse for us Westerners to dress up, eat sweets and have parties. Like rollercoasters and other funfair attractions, many people seek the thrill of fear from time to time, it heightens the senses and reminds us we’re alive.

Putting fear to positive good use can be empowering and even enjoyable. On a rather less dramatic note, recently I accepted an invitation to present a talk at a conference aimed at management academics. I hesitated before I said yes, fearing that I would be away from my normal area of expertise and out of my comfort zone. However, having researched the field a little and thought things through I decided to accept, as I figured that with plenty of preparation I could deliver something useful to the audience, plus the experience would bring me into contact with a new community from which I could also learn more. Turns out I was right! The outcomes far outweighed the feelings of fear and trepidation.

Another example I happened to see today is even more poignant from science reporter, Vic Gill, who tweeted the following ….

…. the more fearful the greater the sense of achievement!

This is true when it comes to signing up to present a paper at a conference as opposed to a poster, when deciding whether to put yourself forward for a public engagement event, deciding on whether to sign up for a course on programming which may feel difficult and challenging, etc. On the downside, fear can manifest itself in a negative way, such as fear of failure, fear of change or fearing a lack of career progression. However, embracing fear and doing things that seem hard can help you to grow in your career. Here are three things that can help you to overcome your fears:

Proactivity – Looking for ways to improve your current career can help you to grow and progress. Do you need to sign up for a course, write a proposal, apply for some work experience, make new contacts, etc.? You may have been putting this off as it feels difficult or uncomfortable. Overcoming these feelings can be liberating!

Preparation – To offset feelings of trepidation, make sure you research and prepare for your challenging situation to ensure the best possible result.

Philosophy – As a D.Phil – doctor of philosophy – you’ll be familiar with the concept of being logical and theoretical about things – the fear of failure can be a barrier to trying out something new, but as many people are currently espousing, failure helps us to learn and fear of failure is nothing to be ashamed of. One PhD student even defended her PhD dressed in a skirt made up of rejection letters:

For my part, I set myself the goal of writing this blog each and every month of the year, which is quite scarey as I need to make sure it’s done by the end of each month. It’s been touch and go for October but with just 4.5 hours to go I made the deadline!

Academic mobility: The long and the short of it

Is it essential to move research groups, institutions and even countries in order to achieve an academic career? This is a question sometimes posed to me by PhD students and postdocs whose career plans are to secure a permanent academic position. In particular, it comes up during my academic mobility courses in which participants ponder their career aims vs their personal situation, weighing up what kinds of compromises they’re prepared to make in the short and longer term. Even those without family or partner obligations can sometimes struggle with the prospect of uprooting themselves for the sake of their career, with the accompanying challenges of having to find new accommodation, adapt to a different culture and foster new relationships.

So, my answer to the question, “Is it essential to move?”, generally speaking, is: “No, it’s not essential, but If you look at the evidence, it sure does help!” Consider this: When you read or hear the career histories of current academics, the majority will chart a career path from their PhD full of stories of travelling from one lab to another, working alongside well-known figures in their field, either via postdoctoral positions or, more favourably, having secured competitive funding for one or more research fellowships. These ‘mentoring’ encounters serve many purposes – experiencing a new research environment, being exposed to new perspectives and ideas, as well as demonstrating genuine curiosity for discovering novel mechanisms. Applied to scientific research, ‘mobility’ serves as a metaphor for open-mindedness, novelty and exploration, and confirms your ambitions for independence and the possibility to lead your own research group.

However, for many researchers awareness of these advantages comes too late, as explained by Ioannis Legouras (Vice Head, Department Strategic Cooperations and Research Funding; Head of International Programs, Max Delbrück Centre) in a recent EMBL Careers Blog (22 August 2019), “In my experience as a grants manager there are many limitations in the eligibility for postdocs applying for fellowships. So there is a very favourable period 1-4 years after the PhD; when this is combined with field change or international mobility, a postdoc has a multitude of opportunities. Without international mobility, without change of field and after a few years after PhD completion, the fellowship opportunities for postdocs are virtually zero. Perhaps it will change at some point in future, but at the moment that is the reality. In my experience, postdocs are not always aware of this at the right time. Quite often postdocs are then in the position that they are too old in terms of years after PhD for the postdoc funding but too young in terms of papers for PI positions. This is a very uncomfortable situation for postdocs.”

Research is an international endeavour so it’s not so much a case of “Should I be mobile?”, rather “Which research groups, departments and institutions are doing the kind of research that complements my interests (and will employ me as a postdoc or be a host for my fellowship)?” In the main, it’s very likely they will not be in your own department, institution or even your country, hence the need to move to be exposed to, and stimulated by, those who share your interests. Research and surveys on academic mobility demonstrate the positive impact of mobility to researcher’s careers and long-term academic prospects, including the likelihood of securing an academic post, number of citations and improved networking opportunities. And, of course, for many people they also represent an exciting scientific and life adventure!

So, what if you want an academic career, but long-term periods spent living away from your current location/country, family etc are not attractive or even feasible? In these cases, I suggest that you try to build a strong and focussed network of leaders/future leaders in your field and actively participate in short-term research experiences. Whilst this may not supplant the advantages experienced by those who commit to more ‘full-on’ mobility, it may be enough to help you to gain the research independence you need to realise your academic career ambitions. Here are six tips to get you started:

  1. Choose your postdoctoral position carefully ensuring that your supervisor will be supportive of your career aims, i.e. giving you a level of autonomy to pursue your own research interests through side projects; allowing you to actively engage with other researchers through collaborations, conference attendance (ideally as a speaker), lab visits and making funding applications.
  2. Seek out and apply for smaller grants, e.g. for equipment, travel, conference attendance, etc. This will help to enhance your research and academic profile and show evidence of a proactive and independent attitude.
  3. Join learned societies that reflect your research interests – they are full of academics and researchers with whom you can network at their conferences and symposia. There are usually opportunities to get more involved by applying to organise a session or join a committee, with the prospect of other advantages such as patronage, mentoring and sponsorship.
  4. Network and connect with research group leaders or senior postdocs in potential ‘host’ labs to ask if you can spend time in their lab to learn from them and to offer the benefit of your expertise.
  5. Apply to take part in professional and personal development activities such as Summer schools or field trips – these events represent very useful networking opportunities where you spend a limited but intensive period of time with like-minded and possibly influential researchers in your field. Courses in your own institution that help you to improve your academic skills, such as writing, leadership, teaching and mentoring are also a bonus.
  6. For those looking for academic posts in more student-centred institutions, mobility may not be as important as evidence of teaching, in which case getting involved in undergraduate teaching programmes, ideally including curriculum design, delivery and assessment, as well as gaining formalised qualifications or enhancing your professional status through fellowship of bodies such as the Higher Education Academy will be an advantage.

Finally, bear in mind that academic mobility in the early part of your research career can be advantageous when you apply for academic positions or research fellowships, giving you a greater breadth of choice later on when you are targeting posts in your preferred location. Some fellowship schemes, such as the Human Frontier Science Program, even build in a return element in the final year to bring you back to your home country.

For more information on research and resources, pros and cons of academic mobility go to my blog page.

Career success. What does it look like?


Do you consider yourself to be successful? Is your career a success?

During my career workshops and 1-2-1 coaching sessions, students and researchers sometimes ask the question or reflect on what they can to do to achieve career success. Leaving academia is considered by some to be a failure. In other instances, people feel they have failed to succeed because of a lack of progression and seniority or because they’re not earning as much as they think they should be. But what is career success? And how do we know when we’ve achieved it?

In a review paper I published last year (Blackford 2018), I included a definition of career success derived from the work of Gattiker and Larwood (1989), who distinguished between different perceptions of career success: ‘Objective career success refers to observable career accomplishments that can be reliably judged by others, such as pay and ascendancy. Subjective career success is more concerned with individual appraisals of one’s career success. This subjective judgement is not only influenced by objective criteria, but also by individual aspiration levels, social comparisons to relevant others and situational constraints such as opportunities for advancements in the profession.’

We all tend to measure ourselves against each other, weighing up our own comparative successes. Some of those who have left academia to pursue careers in areas such as industry, management, communication and enterprise may have thought their careers were unsuccessful at some point along the way (perhaps assessing themselves in terms of publications). However, research studies, surveys and personal career stories tell us that the vast majority don’t feel that way once they have experienced life on the ‘outside’. However, very likely, in their new non-academic careers, they start to measure their success against new criteria within that organisation and alongside a new group of peers. And not only that, the weight of expectation from family, friends and society can also add further pressure to ‘succeed’.

This is where the “should” word comes in. It’s the burden we place on ourselves to reach for goals that we feel will prove our success, giving rise to anguished statements such as : “I did a PhD so I should aim for professor, otherwise it was all a waste of time”; “Now that I’m over 35 I should strive for a top management position”; “I should be mobile and change countries to be successful, even though I will have to live away from my family”; and so on. You get the picture. You probably have your own “should” conversation going on.

These are all ‘objective’ perceptions of career success, where we aspire to reach for aspirations such as advancement and status. However, taking a ‘subjective’ perspective of career success can help to release us from this burden and bring us back to a more genuine and honest appreciation of our achievements. In my career workshops and coaching sessions, students and researchers reflect on what they enjoy doing in their work and in other associated activities. This helps them to determine what is most important in their everyday lives. Underpinned by values and what matters most to them, they usually discover a deeper sense of what career success means to them. Examples have included: having variety, a good work:life balance, helping others, working independently, the opportunity for personal advancement, having security, being able to use specialist skills and being appreciated. Even pragmatic factors have figured, such as being able to cycle to work or wear casual clothes.

Factoring in these more subjective views when making career choices shifts the focus from simply assessing jobs in terms of their job title, status and salary to consideration of more in-depth aspects of the role linked to personal values and motivations. It may be that an academic career is a perfect fit for some, where generation of research ideas, publications, awards and funding are considered as the primary measures of success (Bowden 2012). For others, career success may mean building on current skills towards becoming a technology specialist, being able to apply science for practical solutions, expressing science creatively as a science communicator, organising and supporting the scientific community through science management and administration roles or teaching and inspiring students to become the next generation of scientists. Some might turn down a job or promotion because it doesn’t align, for example, with their wish to remain a specialist, their desire for autonomy or because it would mean less time spent with their family.

In reality of course, both objective and subjective career success criteria determine our career decisions and sense of achievement. What’s important is to get the balance right.
So, what does career success look like to you?

References:
Blackford S. 2018. Harnessing the power of communities: career networking strategies for bioscience PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. FEMS Microbiology Letters, 365(8):1-8.  
Bowden R. 2012. How Would You Define a Successful Career in Science? 2012. Naturejobs blog.
Gattiker UE, Larwood L. 1989. Career success, mobility and extrinsic satisfaction of corporate managers. The Social Science Journal 26:75–92.

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