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?

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.

Related blogs:
Flying High

Unpaid work – does it pay?

Is your PhD value-added? Will you be able to sell your ‘assets’ to potential employers in a competitive job market? Whilst your PhD will certainly give you an advantage in particular career areas, are you paying enough attention to improving your employment ‘capital’. The majority of PhD-qualified scientists leave academia sooner or later to take up non-academic careers, with only a small percentage continuing to a permanent faculty position (ref blog). Either way, it’s vital to consider your personal and professional career development strategy along the way to boost your employability and ‘future-proof’ your career.

Many PhD students and postdocs keep themselves up-to-date and employable by learning fast-evolving methodologies and technologies necessary for their research. Training might be through Summer schools, lab visits or on-line courses. You may have access to career development classes at your university or institute or there may even be opportunities to take part in training during conferences. However, as well as formal learning and certificated courses, there can be much to be gained through unpaid work, where you get hands-on real-life experiences, whilst incidentally developing your interpersonal skills. These voluntary posts, in the employ of others or initiated and driven by yourself, can be invaluable, and even necessary, to upskilling and networking your way into your next career (ref blog). 

In my former life as Head of Education and Public Affairs at a scientific charity, I took on a PhD student intern every year for a period of four weeks to assist me in communicating our delegates’ research, which was being presented at our annual scientific conference. Over the years, I employed over 15 ‘press assistants’ who would write press stories for three weeks ahead of the meeting, and then attend it for the whole week to manage media interest. None of the students were paid for this work, which was often the subject of controversy when I advertised the position each year on discussion groups and websites. However, my defence for this was always unapologetic: the students received mentoring and training in a real-life setting; they could work remotely, and all their expenses were covered including accommodation, travel, meeting registration and meals during the week-long conference. In addition, they gained access to a new network of journalists, science communicators and other professionals, received a reference from me when applying for paid jobs and, without exception, realised a very successful transition into a non-academic career following their PhD graduation.

I have known many PhD students and postdocs who have relished their unpaid work, enabling them to get involved in activities for which they have a passion: “I had the luxury of being able to do unpaid work when I was studying for my PhD”, says one student. She had approached a parliamentary advisory group to ask to be involved in their work, giving her the experience, insights and contacts that she needed to make an immediate transition into a policy-related career at the end of her PhD. Another student describes how the knowledge he gained about the drug development process during a short research internship in a pharma company, as well as the reference he received from his line manager, helped to propel him into his first medical science liaison post. Other doctoral students and postdocs have chosen more local initiatives, joining or starting up entrepreneurship clubs, organising events, setting up journal clubs, launching their own departmental magazines, sitting on advisory panels and getting involved in local community projects, depending on their interests. You can get more ideas by looking at the profiles of PhD students, researchers and young professionals on LinkedIn to see the types of extra-curricular activities others are involved in.  In fact, the opportunities are boundless if you don’t ask for payment; it affords you the advantage of choosing to do more-or-less exactly what you want to do and is a great enabler to transition into your next career.

So does it pay to do unpaid work? Overall, I would say yes, but you need to be careful and do your research so that you make the most of your limited available time. It can be tempting to get involved in too many volunteering opportunities, distracting you from your PhD, so ask yourself:

  1. What kind of unpaid/voluntary work will be most valuable to help me to build on my current skills towards my desired career?
  2. Who will I be working with and what kind of role will I have?
  3. Will this experience give me access to a new network or extend my current network of contacts?
  4. Does this work complement my career goals and add value to my CV?
  5. Will this company provide me with meaningful work experience and introduce me to a new network of professionals that will help me to gain access to this career sector?
  6. Should I inform/ask permission from my supervisor (in cases of a more lengthy commitment) and, if so, how can I make a convincing and positive argument to offset any fears he/she may have regarding my temporary absence?
  7. As a postdoc with limited flexibility and time, is it worth using my holiday time or weekends to develop the skills and gain the experience I need for my career?

Overall, think ‘quality’ not ‘quantity’ – a one-week internship, one-day’s work-shadowing, organising a seminar series or being involved in an outreach event can sometimes be enough to convince yourself and employers of your aptitude and enthusiasm for a particular career (or not, as the case may be). From my own perspective, volunteering at the university career service many years ago made me realise that helping students with their careers was more rewarding to me than doing research – the rest is history!

Keep your perspective

What’s going on with work right now ? What are you doing today and what are your plans for the week ahead ? Are you working through your to-do to list ? Maybe you’re doing data analysis or preparing for a talk or poster presentation. Perhaps you have a large experiment lined up. For me, I’m currently writing this blog, working on a proposal and preparing for a workshop, as well as doing less compelling but necessary jobs such as sorting out my admin and re-organising my office.

However, amongst the clutter of everyday tasks, in the back of my mind there lingers a small but significant voice telling me to remember to keep in mind the bigger picture. Last week, this voice was given some unexpected air time when I met with a colleague and we got into a discussion about the career development landscape as a whole and the context for doctoral and postdoctoral training. It was a really energising conversation, resulting in some creative ideas and reminding me to consider the ‘long game’, rather than spending all of my time in the ‘here and now’.  

In English we have the expression, “Can’t see the wood for the trees”, meaning that someone is so focussed on the details of what they are doing, they are not paying attention to the context and bigger picture. I’m sure there are plenty of similar expressions in other languages which mean the same thing because this is a very common state of affairs for people in all walks of life.

So what are the disadvantages of missing out on the bigger picture for doctoral and postdoctoral researchers ? How can you avoid the pitfalls of getting too focussed on the detail and ignoring the wider context of what you are doing in terms of your research, career and personal life? Here are five ideas to help you to keep your perspective (I’m sure you will have some of your own too):

  1. Read and listen: At this level, you are expected to be a knowledge professional who gathers, assimilates, adapts and uses learning in a sophisticated way. If you focus only on your lab work, without engaging with the research strategy as a whole, you are not operating at the PhD level and may miss out on future opportunities. For example, as a PhD-qualified professional you can apply many high-level skills, such as investigative, problem-solving and analysis to a wide range of jobs, where you will be expected to use your investigative thinking and understand the broader research context. Make space for reading and hearing about other’s work and thoughts. For example, reading journal papers and reviews (within and outside of your area of interest), attending seminars, conferences or public engagement events, even listening to general science programmes and reading popular science books – many are really fascinating. In other words, don’t work in isolation, both physically and mentally. Placing your own very detailed and focused project into a wider more interdisciplinary context is likely to reap rewards and even result in unexpected advantages.
  2. Talk and discuss: If you don’t communicate it, it hasn’t happened! As well as hearing about other’s news, you need to tell people about what you’re doing too. Publishing your work in academic journals and presenting it at scientific meetings is integral to most researchers’ work, however widening the scope and reach of your communication will help to expand your impact. More than ever, science is a participatory collective activity. Nowadays scientists have the opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary, industry and cross-border collaborations, disseminate everyday and more significant news on social media platforms and are even getting involved in citizen science projects involving the public. Communicating with a wider range of people who have differing opinions and views helps you to gain a wider, more global perspective in relation to your own research and also to the wider world, making for more interesting and informed conversations.
  3. Learn about higher policy issues: Your science and the future of research and education are in the hands of policymakers and senior decision makers, so it’s important that you are aware of the political landscape at the local, national and international levels. For example, policies affecting science funding, academic freedom, Higher Education developments and even researcher career development, such as the Concordat are highly relevant to you and your research future. There are few PhD-qualified scientists working in government, so if scientists aren’t aware of, or don’t engage with, these high-level decision-makers, unfavourable rulings might be put into place which affect your own future and the wider research sector. For example, what areas of research receive government funding, how educational success is measured and even public regard for scientists. There are some excellent organisations for this purpose, e.g. CASE, Euroscience and AAAS, and the internet, newspapers and specialist publications provide a rich source of everyday news and developments.
  4. Pay attention to your career: A classic example of not seeing the wood for the trees is when doctoral students and postdocs only start to think about their next career move after they’ve written their thesis or during the final three months of their contract. As a career adviser, I always recommend getting career support early so that you can prepare yourself in good time. For example, when you are starting your PhD, there may be ways to enhance your employment prospects: engaging with your university’s career development programme; joining a learned society; getting involved in science communication or policy activities; volunteering or joining social media platforms (see 10 simple rules for finishing your PhD). Postdoctorals looking for a career in academia will benefit from learning about funding opportunities and building collaborations to help them secure an independent research fellowship and academic position. Meanwhile, for those aiming at a non-academic career, widening your knowledge of careers in industry, business and not-for-profit organisations will help you to be more informed about job opportunities of interest so that you can prepare well ahead of your leaving date. Read my own blog for more ideas on how to take care of your career, as well as others such as NatureCareers.
  5. Keep a healthy life:work balance: Mental health is a major concern in academic institutions, with staff and students reporting depression, anxiety, stress and other issues. Many of these problems are brought about by the work environment itself and the pressure placed on individuals who, more often than not, have no powers of delegation or are working within a limited time-frame. The work environment is hard to change (although you can try to influence policies – refer to point 3), but you can help yourself by changing your behaviour and attitude. Whilst acknowledging that we all have times when we must put in a 24/7 effort, this type of intensive workload should not be the norm. Working ‘smart’ rather than hard is recommended in one of my previous blogs, and taking a step back to review and change your work schedule will pay dividends in the long run. The exhausted body and mind work inefficiently and even small breaks can revitalise them. It’s useful to talk with others if you’re feeling that your life:work balance needs fine-tuning. Turn to your colleagues, supervisor, friends, careers advisers or other professionals, who you feel may be able to help you to get things into perspective.

And on that note, having completed my June blog and taking heed of my own advice, I’m off for to the pool for a swim!

10 quick CV tips!

Looking for some quick advice on how to write an effective CV? Then you’re in luck! NatureCareers has published my rapid-fire CV talk, which I presented at their CareerExpo in London last year. At the start of the presentation, I mention that the slides are on Slideshare, which you can access here. I have also distilled out 10 key pieces of advice (!) to help you to make a start on, or refine, your CV:

  1. Making applications is a competition! You are in competition with others, so you need to show yourself at your best and to the correct audience. Much the same as when magazines compete for customers in a shop, you have to display yourself so that your target audience (the employer) will be impressed by what you have to offer them and choose you over and above others.
  2. Time is of the essence! The application process can be quite long and complex for employers who have to write the job description, advertise and then choose who to select for interview. They allocate time to peruse the submitted CVs and covering letters so if there are 100 or even 50 applicants, you can imagine they can’t spend much time on each one (perhaps 20 – 30 seconds). Remember, this is the first screen. If your CV makes it onto the “Yes” pile, they will spend longer reading for detail; again, much the same as when your eye is caught by the front cover of a magazine or newspaper, you’ll then take it off the shelf and skim read it first to make sure you’ve made the right choice.
  3. Put yourself in the shoes of the employer! You need to consider carefully the person reading (or even just glancing at) your CV. What will impress them? Imagine someone in a marketing department trying to sell a product – they need to know who their customers are and what they want, otherwise they may not hit the right audience. The same goes for your CV – academics advertising for a postdoc will be interested in research and technical abilities, evidence of successes (e.g. publications) and other academic-related information. Meanwhile, non-academic employers will look for particular skills and abilities relevant to their organisation, usually including personal competencies such as communication and team working.
  4. Target your application according to the job description! Think of the job description as you might an exam or essay question. You have limited space/time to provide impressive and targeted information so don’t feel you need to include everything; prioritise your evidence according to those of the employer, who will generally list their requirements in accordance with their importance to the job. And bear in mind, the employer’s requirements are a wish list, so don’t think you need to satisfy them 100% – focus on the ‘essentials’ and then ‘desirables’, aiming for around 60%, whilst reassuring the employer you will be able to grow and develop into the role (if you think you can, of course!).  
  5. Provide evidence! Examples are everything. Saying “I’m a great communicator” is not enough. Take time to review your experiences starting with the most recent and relevant. For example, if you have had experience of working in a team or setting up a collaboration during your postdoc, list this example first. Follow this with another maybe from your PhD and then perhaps include a research-related or more personal example. Lists of skills don’t have to be in chronological order as with lists of your job roles and education, so position the most impressive and relevant ones first. Note that if you can’t think of any examples, maybe you are not suited to the post or you need to increase your experiences to convince yourself and the employer that you are motivated by this type of role.
  6. Consider content and context! Keeping in mind, again, the employer’s needs and who will be reading your CV, make sure the content is as interesting and relevant as possible. Your content and its context demonstrate that you understand the job, what it involves and how you will be able to contribute to the organisation. Hiring is a risky business for employers, who not only want to feel confident about their new employee’s abilities, but also their commitment and understanding of the core business, whether it is academic research or a general managerial position. The order in which you place your information and the examples you use will show them how ‘tuned in’ you are to their work sector and culture. Usually, if you have had directly relevant experience this is likely to be a bonus. [Here are ways to improve on your employability depending on your career plans].
  7. Use their language! As with all effective presentations, oral or written, the golden rule is to speak a language which can be understood by your audience. If you use ‘club’ language, abbreviations and academic-speak, the employer may feel disconnected from you and sense you would not fit into their work environment. Reflect the words they use in their job description, on their website and social media platforms. Research the organisation, look at their profile and employees on LinkedIn and really try to get to know what is important to them. This will be time well spent, not only for writing your CV, but also later on during the interview.
  8. Targeted not chronological! Many people use a reverse chronological CV, where they list their experiences from the present back to the past. This can be appropriate when applying for posts very closely related to what you are doing currently – it demonstrates that you are developing into, and preparing for, an academic role, for example. However, even for academic CVs, I think it’s a good idea to divide your experiences into key sub-headings and then bring the information together from all of your roles within and associated with your research and other work experiences (paid and unpaid). By doing this, you are saving the reader from having to scan the CV to find all the relevant information. For example, you may have used a particular research technique during your master’s project and PhD in which case, rather than repeating yourself, you can bring this together under a single heading of, say, ‘Research and technical experience’. The same goes for teaching, outreach and other activities. In some cases, where you have all the relevant criteria, a research profile at the top of the page or, for non-academic applications, a ‘Key capabilities’ profile highlighting your skills and experiences will catch the eye of the reader immediately and, hopefully, impress them to place you swiftly into the “Yes” pile.
  9. One size does not fit all! I have given you a general list of advice here, but there are exceptions depending on particular countries and companies. For example, French businesses tend to require only a one-page CV, in Germany you should include a photograph and in Scandanavia it’s quite common to tell the employer about your personal circumstances, even the number and birth dates of your children.
  10. Don’t take it personally! If your CV is not selected for interview, it’s unlikely you will receive feedback at this stage as there are too many applicants to make this viable time-wise for the employer. Instead, review and reflect yourself on how you could improve your CV for the next time, seek help from a professional careers adviser and consider how to fill any gaps in your experiences to help build and strengthen your CV.

For more information and examples of CVs go to the following links:

More CV advice

CV examples

Covering letters

Breaking good

“If you work too hard you’ll keep going in the same direction. When you take off the pressure, you start to imagine new things”: These are the words of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and head of the Francis Crick Institute. But taking a break from work isn’t just about quantity, it’s about quality too.

With examples of burn out, work:life imbalance, 24/7 working, mental health issues and stress featuring more and more frequently in articles describing the experiences of PhD students, researchers and academics, I was interested to hear about how taking breaks from work, especially short breaks, can help to alleviate some of these pressures. Founded on wide ranging research, the advice is remarkably similar in terms of the nature and frequency of breaks needed to refresh and de-stress you and your brain. Interestingly, the key factors appear to lie with two polar opposites: physical activity and sleep (more precisely, napping).

Here are three examples:

  1. In his webinar, hosted by BrightTALK, Daniel Pink, author of “WHEN: The scientific secrets of perfect timing”, explains the power of breaks and summarises what he sees as the most effective and restorative kinds of 10- 15 minute breaks as follows:
  • Something beats nothing – even a micro-break is better than continual work;
  • Moving beats stationary – this means any kind of physical activity from vigorous exercise and sports to a relaxing stroll;
  • Social beats solo – better to spend time with someone having a non work-related conversation [or, as I used to do, walking your dog];
  • Outside beats inside – seeing nature is restorative, even if it’s just looking up at the sky or trees and grass in an urban environment;
  • Fully detached beats semi-detached – leave your phone behind!

Pink also recommends the ‘nappuccino’ – drinking a strong coffee before taking a 10 – 15 minute nap*. He proposes that the combination of a short nap and caffeine injection is just enough to refresh and restore energy levels and avoids ‘sleep inertia’. However, finding a peaceful environment required for this kind of (in)activity is probably quite challenging for most PhD students and researchers.

2. In their paper entitled “Embracing work breaks, recovering from work stress”, Fritz et al (2013) review different types of breaks ranging from long vacations, weekends and work breaks. They looked at the relationship between work-break activities and employee health, well-being and performance outcomes. Their conclusions are similar to those of Pink: activities such as walking and reading, physical exercise, psychological detachment from work and social activities all resulted, to a greater or lesser extent, in an increased positive mood, sense of vitality and vigour, overall well-being, decreased burnout, as well as increased performance. Furthermore, sleeping and napping resulted in decreased fatigue and increased work motivation.

3. My final piece of evidence for the ‘breaking good’ protocol is drawn from Patience Schell (THES, August 7, 2014). In her article, “Work less, do more, live better” she cites the behaviours of historical figures to back up the case for short breaks and physical activity: “fuelled by strong coffee, Ludwig van Beethoven worked from first light until mid-afternoon, breaking up this working time with walks. Afterwards, he walked again, taking pencil and paper to note down ideas. … Walking and thinking seem to go together so naturally that perhaps it’s walking that made us thinkers. Aristotle famously taught while walking along the colonnade connecting the temple of Apollo and the shrine of the Muses.” On the subject of napping Schell goes on to say: “Albert Einstein, Bill Clinton and Winston Churchill all joined the nap-taking fraternity. Some companies actively encourage their workers to nap: Nike offers employees spaces for napping or meditation, while Google offers napping “pods”. Again, this is not something that’s likely to happen in universities, although finding a quiet spot in the library might serve just as well.

With an autonomous and relatively independent work culture within the academic community, it’s even more important to factor in your own system of breaks. Granted there will be times when work pressures demand hard graft, but try not to let ‘academic freedom’ mean the freedom to work 24/7 the whole time.

*I’m not sure this translates for tea drinkers like me, but I find that a short nap without coffee serves just as well.

Fritz C, Ellis AM, Demsky, CA, Lin, BC and Guros, M. 2013. Embracing work breaks, recovering from work stress. Organizational dynamics, 42, 274 – 280.

Related content:

Communication and salvation – a route to PhD salvation?
How past times help you to score in science

Communication and Socialisation – a route to PhD salvation?

“The present review paper aims to offer deep insight into the issues affecting doctoral students by reviewing and critically analyzing recent literature on the doctoral experience. An extensive review of recent literature uncovered factors that can be readily categorized as external and internal to the doctoral student; external factors include supervision, personal/social lives, the department and socialization, and financial support opportunities, while internal factors motivation, writing skills, self-regulatory strategies, and academic identity.”  Sverdlik et al.

I came across this review paper recently on my favourite social media platform, Twitter. It’s published in a journal I wasn’t aware of, so thank you to @AcademicsSay for sharing! The research effort associated with this literature review is extensive and intense with the lead author sifting through and selecting huge numbers of empirical research publications associated with the PhD experience. It is openly available for those wishing to read it in full.

For the purposes of this blog and in my role as a career practitioner, I’ve selected key factors from the paper associated with communication and socialisation, which influence the satisfaction, psychological well-being and motivation (or not) of PhD students. This is then followed by suggestions to enhance or counter them (I’m sure you can think of many other ideas too):

  • “Departmental structures play a major role in facilitating student agency; this is mainly through student socialization and the opportunities that departments make available.”

Suggestion: If there are no social areas or gatherings in your department, why not set up your own with the help of fellow students and postdocs. It could be a career seminar series, journal club, or even a more structured association with a budget (negotiated with your head of department). Many departments support PhD students and postdocs in this way and there’s even an international organisation, iCORSA.

  • “Open, supportive, and frequent communication with supervisor was found to be essential for student success and satisfaction.”

Suggestion: This is more tricky, depending on your supervisor’s management style, personality and a variety of other issues. Ideally, agree expectations with your supervisor at the start of your PhD. Otherwise aim to formalise your interactions by agreeing a convenient time to meet, emailing a short agenda of what you want to discuss and including a precis of your data or ideas to get his/her attention and interest. Try to influence lab meetings to be more engaging and interactive with scope for balanced discussion. One academic told me recently he has factored in an occasional ‘appreciation session’, in which only positive comments are given air time to help lift and maintain morale. Depending on your relationship, suggest social get-togethers such as a weekly lunch, coffee break or an after-work drink along with other members of the research group. [I realise the latter two suggestions may seem quite radical!].

  • “Collaborative writing is associated with more optimal self-regulation, higher motivation, more positive emotions, better writing quality, and higher completion rates.”

Suggestion: Some people find writing easier than others but, even so, it’s still useful to spend time writing or giving feedback with your peers on aspects such as structure and flow of an argument, even if you don’t understand the exact content. Writing is a lonely business and can be exhausting, so factoring in these kinds of regular get-togethers will keep you motivated (and if you include coffee and cake, can be even more compelling!).

  • “Academic identity develops through engagement in academic activities (e.g., writing, conferences, research, etc.). Informal activities (e.g., peer interaction) were found to contribute more to identity formation than formal ones.”

Suggestion: You could combine these two types of activities (formal and informal) during conferences, by setting yourself the goal of connecting with at least one or two delegates who have similar interests to you. Side-programmes aimed at PhD students and early career researchers are usually more conducive to networking and can help to increase your circle of peers. Joining one or two learned societies will open up new networks associated with your discipline, with opportunities to meet new peers and even to apply for funding and awards. Asking a question on Researchgate can also increase your interaction with international peers.

  • “Work/life imbalance was found to be the strongest predictor of psychological distress in PhD students.”

Suggestion: “If you work too hard you’ll keep going in the same direction. When you take off the pressure, you start to imagine new things”: These are the words of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and head of the Crick Institute. To ensure you follow his advice, write social and personal activities into your diary or calendar and treat them as an appointment with yourself and your well-being (make sure to honour the arrangement!). You could attend a time management course (universities put on many of these types of courses, which are open to staff and students) and ithinkwell provides some great planning aids for you to use.

For more accounts of the PhD and postdoc experience, see NatureCareers which covers a variety of topics on the subject.

Keep learning to keep earning

Your PhD graduation marks the end of a long educational journey; the pinnacle of an intellectual adventure built upon previous master’s and bachelor degree qualifications, diplomas and school certificates. But far from signalling the end of learning, your PhD badges you as a person of learning, someone who is highly skilled in using research to find answers to questions, reveal new ways of doing things and to discover novel innovations. For those who continually embrace new learning – or “personal and professional development” as we in the careers advisory sector call it – an interesting and rewarding career with sustainable employment prospects is likely to lie ahead.

Here, I provide examples of personal and professional development strategies applicable to four career areas of interest to many PhD students and researchers. The Venn diagram indicates the learning zones A, B, C and D that apply to the transition between your current academic research role and each new career area. If you are considering other careers, use this information to help you to formulate your own career learning plan.

 A – Research scientist in industry

Learn by networking – Use LinkedIn to find people who are working in research and companies that are hiring PhD-qualified scientists into research posts. Consider small and large companies and think about the pros and cons in terms of aspects such as management structure, your role, stability and flexibility.
Learn by doing – Try to gain some business/industry experience through internships and placements or by selecting a more applied postdoctoral position based in or collaborating with industry.
Learn new skills – Attend courses to improve and widen your technical and research skills. Join in activities to improve your interpersonal skills such as team working, organisation and leadership.

B – Academic post

Learn by networking – Join relevant learned societies and attend conferences to gain access to more specialised networks, including research groups within your field of interest. Offer to give a talk or poster and approach people within your own sessions and others of interest to discuss your research and potential opportunities. Take business cards with you and make sure to follow up any new contacts and potential collaborators and mentors afterwards. Use Researchgate and Twitter to post information and to ask/answer questions to increase your visibility and enhance your impact. Tweeting about your publications can also increase their citations.
Learn by doing – Apply for fellowships, grants and other funding to help you to discover your niche area of research and to start to gain independence. Keep publishing and try to increase your output through collaboration, side projects and co-authored reviews and articles. Take an active role in one or two learned societies, e.g. committees, session organisation, contributing to their newsletter.
Learn new skills – Negotiate with your supervisor to give you more responsibility, i.e. writing and reviewing papers, assisting with funding applications, contributing your ideas to the research project, supervising students and/or getting teaching experience.

C – Project manager

Learn by networking – Project managers are employed in a wide variety of businesses and industries so use LinkedIn to find people and companies who are working in or offering project management positions in the kinds of sectors of interest to you; for example, the research/education sector including universities and institutes, scientific companies, large corporate or smaller businesses. Identify any alumni you could approach for advice and contacts. Attend career events and visit your career service to find out about forthcoming career fairs and company visits. Note: Make sure your LinkedIn profile is looking professional and up to date, reflecting your career ambitions.
Learn by doing – All PhD students and postdoctoral researchers are project managers, but some embrace this side of their work, whilst others just see it as a means to an end. If you fall into the first category, look for other ways to improve your project management skills by getting involved in relevant activities within your institute or university to increase your experience of organising other projects. Take on responsibility and leadership roles, such as supervision and committee representation or even go further by setting up your own PhD or postdoctoral association. Some such organisations are given a budget by their departments to invite in professionals or to enable company visits.
As with other careers in business and industry, an internship or short placement can give you insights into the role, as well as access to a new community with contacts and even references to put on your CV. You can organise your own internship by making contacts via networks such as alumni, LinkedIn or through your friends and family. Some companies offer an initial 3 – 6 month internship that turns into a permanent position, so don’t be put off by short-term vacancies when you see them.  
Learn new skills – Project management courses are offered by universities as a master’s degree or postgraduate diploma, or you may see shorter professional courses delivered as a workshop or on-line. If you are considering registering for one of these courses be careful to ensure that it is money well spent – see my recent blog for further information.

D – Scientific writer

Learn by networking – Use Twitter and other networks such as the psci-com jiscmail discussion list, the Association of British Science Writers, Euroscience, British Science Association and AAAS to network with, get support from and find out about opportunities within a highly active and creative community of science communicators.
Learn by doing – Write! Build up a portfolio of articles through your own self-motivation and compulsion to write, as well as volunteering with other organisations. Your own institution, scientific conferences, learned societies and journals all offer fantastic opportunities to convert academic science into more accessible articles aimed at broader and more public audiences. Offer to write articles for their publications or blog on their websites. You could even start your own blog. The press office at your university or research institute may agree for you to work shadow and learn more about their science writing and media work.
Learn new skills – Writing practice is the best way to improve your skills but it’s important to try to find a mentor or to ask editors for whom you are writing to give you feedback and advice on how to improve. Writing courses can also help you, from the relatively informal, through to master’s qualifications (see ABSW for information).

I hope this has given you some useful learning strategies to apply to your own career and wish you a fruitful, and not too steep, learning curve!

Related content: Think ‘Skill’ not D.Phil

Beating the wintertime blues

View across Morecambe Bay

Who better to advise on how to shake off the wintertime blues than the good people of Sweden! When I visited the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm last year, I wasn’t surprised to see that they put in a lot of effort into helping students and staff to offset SAD (Seasonally Affected Disorder) syndrome and general feelings of lethargy and tiredness during the cold dark winter days. The Light Room was a surprise though. I have friends who have a Light box for this purpose, but I’d never heard of a whole room dedicated to warding off SAD. This specialised remedy for beating the wintertime blues is not available to most of us, but other physical and nutritional remedies, including getting exercise, spending time in the sunshine, doing yoga, taking Vitamin D and generally eating a good diet are also listed on Karolinska’s website. 

Our Biological clock can affect our energy levels throughout the year and even throughout the day – I’m sure those of you working on circadian rhythms would have lots to say on this subject. But without the help of a Light Box, what else can we do to remain functional and effective? Since writing my January blog post on reflection, I’ve been reflecting on previous postings I’ve written since setting up my website and one that seems especially relevant is “Carpe PM!”, published in 2011. It was during winter and I was talking about the lethargy and lack of motivation I was feeling about writing my careers book. It made me smile as nothing has changed over the past seven years (although the book is published!); I still suffer from despondency and low energy levels from time to time, even in the Summer. So I’m sharing some tips with those of you who feel the same way and perhaps you can suggest some of your own on my Twitter hashtag #wintertimeblues

  1. Work out which is your most productive time of the day (mine used to be from 8pm until around 2am when I was young, but it’s shifted to 8am until 2pm) and try to use this time to do things that require the most effort and motivation.
  2. Make a list or a mind map of all the things you need to do. Prioritise them in whatever ways will help to get you moving – it could be a mix of difficult tasks and relatively easy tasks so that you can tick off the substantial work along with quick wins.
  3. Break up your time between doing practical, administrative, creative and thinking tasks to help to ring the changes. We all have our favoured tasks so try not to focus too much on these, whilst neglecting those which you find boring or repetitive.
  4. Work with others, even remotely, to discuss what you’re doing and agree a time to ‘meet up’. This creates a deadline which can act as a motivator for you to work towards.
  5. Set yourself a time slot for a particular task of say one or two hours. Aim to focus solely on this task during that time with a suitable reward at the end of it, such as favourite food, a walk, film, sports etc.
  6. Give yourself breaks that are timetabled into your schedule so that you structure your day into manageable chunks of work and ‘play’ times. I make dates to meet up for a cuppa,  lunch or even a Skype with friends at least once a day, but you may find that something else acts as an enjoyable respite from rigorous brain activity or concentration.

Addendum: For those of you in other parts of the world, whose winter is actually hot and sunny, who are wondering how this blog can be relevant for them: Well, you never know, your next post may take you to a more northerly country so you’ll be well-prepared! And, of course, don’t forget to bring a big coat and sturdy umbrella with you 😊

Reflections …

As each year comes to an end, we are all encouraged to look back over the past 12 months and reflect on what we’ve done: To recall highlights and achievements, challenges and accomplishments, to review our current situation and to envisage a successful year ahead. Some people are even known to write this out in a ‘round robin’ letter that they send out to family and friends in their Christmas and greetings cards. I see this to be an achievement in itself as, for me, it’s a challenge to recall what I’ve done during the previous week, let alone the last year, not in detail anyway.

This may not seem too important from a personal and social perspective: like me, very probably you have images of your most happy and interesting moments captured on digital media or posted on Facebook and Instagram. However, from a career perspective, it’s unlikely that you have photos to remind you of key moments related to your professional and semi-professional work, although there are always exceptions; I recently spoke to a PhD student who is recording her scientific life and posting it on Instagram to illustrate what she does for the benefit of her family and friends.

Completing a reflective learning log is not everyone’s cup of tea and is usually unpopular with student and researcher communities – and many others. But it’s easy to forget what you’ve done as the months and years go by. This means that when, for example, you find yourself being asked in a job interview to highlight a recent achievement, you may struggle to find an impressive answer. Interviewers, especially those in non-academic companies, regularly interrogate candidates with questions requiring a specific example of an occasion in which they felt a sense of accomplishment, overcame a challenge, solved a problem or worked with others to complete a goal. Furthermore, you can forget other important happenings such as people you have met, ideas you have had or even projects you have completed. Adding achievements and latest developments to your on-line profile(s) can also enhance your reputation, improve your employability and help you to move on to your next job.

For me, recalling the last 12 months of my professional life is causing a bit of a dilemma at the moment: I need to complete a reflective learning log as part of my continuing membership of the Career Development Institute for which I’m a registered careers adviser. Luckily, however, I have my trusty A5 week-to-view diary to hand in which, turning back the pages, I can see some of my more significant activities scribbled in amongst the regular career workshop entries. For example, I can see that in January a joint proposal I submitted with other European careers adviser colleagues was accepted, which meant we were able to meet up in Toulouse in July to deliver some excellent career sessions to PhD students and researchers at ESOF 2018, as well as have some fun networking and watching the World Cup. In March I published a review paper on networking for Microbiology Letters, which had taken me a full year to write and revise, but the feedback I received and my sense of achievement made it worth the effort. In July I started learning German (although I have only achieved beginner level so far) and in October I delivered a CV workshop at the Naturejobs career conference in just 30 minutes! Finally in December, only a few weeks ago, I managed to sell my car and officially become a pedestrian and user of public transport.

So whether it’s your diary (digital or otherwise), an official learning log, your CV or on-line profile that serves as a reminder of your latest successes and achievements, try to record them somewhere so you can capitalise on them one day. And if you think you don’t have enough or the right kind of experiences to match your career aspirations, this exercise will also help to guide your continuing professional development.

Related links: Flying high
How to be a STAR performer