Saturday, 14 March 2015

Don’t plead for your career, take the lead !

Reprinted from the Society for Experimental Biology bulletin, March 2015

Universities present a unique working environment. Those primarily concerned with the business of research, measure their success on the basis of their academic achievements, which include peer-reviewed research papers, research income, student results and graduate destinations. In recent times, universities have started to be considered as global businesses, competing to attract international student ‘customers’, focussing on enterprise and generating patents, outsourcing teaching and other ‘services’ whilst paying serious attention to global and national rankings.  

Mert Toker
Within this environment, a multitude of research groups operate semi-independently, each led by a group leader who acquires most of his/her research funding from external grants, won or lost under conditions of fierce competition with others in their field.  In addition to writing research grants and papers, managing their research group, collaborating strategically, and maintaining and promoting their prominence in their field of expertise, university-based group leaders usually have a teaching load and administrative duties.

Contrary to these tenured institutionally-funded positions, the majority of postdoctoral researchers and PhD students working within these research groups, have a fixed-term contract or period of study, and are funded by national or international grants, scientific charities and other external funding bodies. Many researchers seek the ‘Holy Grail’ of the tenured position, but with few posts available compared with huge numbers of contract researchers, most will end up leaving academia.  

Much has been written on the subject, and many organisations and professionals are in the business of helping researchers to take charge of their careers. Support comes in the shape of workshops and one-to-one guidance, dissemination of studies and surveys about labour market trends and researcher alumni, and the publication of case studies, resources and further information. However, no matter how much career support is on offer, the most important action researchers can do themselves is to take the lead in managing their careers. Relying on supervisors alone to find more money puts researchers in a precarious position, perpetuating uncertainty and the feeling of a lack of control over their careers. Even if a supervisor has a researcher’s best interest at heart, renewing their contract may well be out of their hands in the end. More succinctly quoted on the NPA (the US National Postdoctoral Association) website, “Only you can be in control of your career, and nobody cares more than you about your future”. Peter S. Fiske, Putting your Degree to Work.

The Royal Society in the UK recently published a set of guidelines entitled Doctoral students’ career expectations – principles and responsibilities and Vitae (a UK organisation supporting the careers of researchers) has a series of career development booklets for researchers on subjects such as leadership and creativity. These publications offer invaluable advice to PhD students and researchers to encourage and empower them to take a lead on their career. With very few PhD graduates likely to secure an academic post in the long run (ranging from 3.5% to 10% depending on which surveys you refer to), and less than 1% making it to professor, those who decide to embark on an academic research track will need to think strategically if they are to achieve tenure. Meanwhile, with the majority of researchers entering non-academic careers, preparing and planning for this transition, even if only mentally, should be mandatory.

Leadership involves taking a strategic approach, not only at the personal level, but also considering the context in which you are working. Knowing the politics, rules and culture of your working environment can be a real asset, making you aware of what you need to do to fulfil the requirements for progression. Having an insight into the bigger picture can offer advantages, for example, making strategic collaborations, being aware of funding opportunities, identifying what is needed for a high quality publication or making a timely transition to a fulfilling non-academic career.

You can take the lead in many aspects of your life, whether it’s co-ordinating a small project, supervising a student, chairing a session or meeting, organising an event, or planning and designing your experiments. However, whatever you decide to do, whether you want to stay in academia or move to a non-academic career, aim to take a proactive lead in your own career!

Related content: Mind your career!


Friday, 27 February 2015

Working in industry - Scientific Services

Many science researchers say they would like a job working in industry, but which type of job do they mean? As part of my book, Career planning for research bioscientists, published in 2012, I interviewed 20 former postdocs, many of whom had left academia to work in industry. I wanted to show readers some examples of non-academic jobs, so they could compare them and decide which might be best suited to their particular skills and interests.

One former postdoc I interviewed was Petra, a scientific adviser working in a protein interaction services company. She gave an account of her role and, more interestingly, demonstrated a very creative way of finding jobs and making useful contacts.

The job
“In my role as scientific adviser for customer projects I am primarily office-based and offer advice to our customers face-to-face, over the phone and by email on the best strategic approaches to take for their protein-protein interaction projects. Customers are based in industry, government or academia conducting basic or applied research ranging from plant science through to cancer science. Working in a small team of 3 – 4 people we discuss results, interpret data and relay information between our lab technicians and research scientists. I handle between 30 – 50 projects at any one time which are at different levels and stages of progression. Therefore, it is essential to be organised and to remain calm under pressure as well as being able to multitask.”

Transitioning into industry
“Following my PhD in Molecular Biochemistry on the technical development of protein-protein interactions in Lausanne, I knew I wanted to continue on to a postdoctoral position. In Switzerland you can apply for a one-year fellowship when you complete your PhD so I contacted one of our research collaborators in Paris. I knew he was hiring postdocs to run his proteomics operation and I wanted to change to the more applied end of my field. Although this was not my specific area of expertise I convinced the group at interview and during my presentation that I would be able to contribute fully to their research programme. The project extended a further year during which time I decided I wanted to move into industry as I was not confident that the academic set-up would suit me.  I applied for a number of jobs by targeting company websites – some were advertising posts and others I wrote to speculatively (in this case I looked up the company on PubMed Central to see who was publishing and I directed my CV to the last author who is, by convention, the lead scientist). Although my applications yielded no results to start with, some months later at the end of my postdoc, I received a phone call from one of the companies who was starting to hire but not in research, in the service sector. I had not thought of this side of business but, in fact, it turned out to be exactly right for me. Having made a presentation and been interviewed (in a very similar way to my postdoc interview) I was offered the job and started two weeks’ later.”
What’s different about the job from working in academic research?
“Your work is never finished in service jobs like mine as there are always projects in various stages of completion. However, you no longer have to experience experiments that go wrong! In addition, you don’t have ownership of projects as you work in a team and are providing a service rather than conducting new research. It’s fun having different things to do and I enjoy the variety and versatility of my job. I have contact with lots of people and also attend 3 – 4 conferences per year to promote the company to delegates. The hours are more regular although I do put in longer hours from time to time if required. It’s interesting that having once been afraid of leaving the lab I am not missing it at all. In any case, even if you pursue an academic career you are nearly always bound to leave the lab eventually as you progress.”
Unlike scientific careers in research institutes and universities, where the majority of posts are research-centred, industry provides a whole range of roles for scientists. Depending on your skills, interests and personality, you will find different jobs more interesting than others. Look at job descriptions and see what matches you best. Review what you do and what you enjoy in your research and this will give you clues to where you might want to go next.
Further information:

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Mind your career!

“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.”
W.H Davies


More and more these days, we seem to spend our time rushing around, heads down immersed in work, going from one deadline to another. Stress is a fundamental cause of ill-health, so it’s important to stop sometimes, have a breather and take some time to reflect. Call it what you will - mindfulness, meditation, self-awareness, active consciousness - I do believe there is substance to this philosophy of life and that it also underpins effective personal career management and planning.
This was confirmed to me in a pilot workshop on leadership, which I attended at the start of the year. It was an intensive two days, aimed at postdoctoral researchers, and delivered by Steve Hutchinson and Paul Toombs on behalf of the researcher support organisation, Vitae. One of the major take-home messages from the event was that self-awareness is the most important quality of good leaders and superior performers. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, being aware of your preferred way of doing things, your values, your priorities and those of your organisation, as well as the political landscape within which you operate are the ‘keys’ to unlocking success and enhancing performance. Furthermore, self-awareness and being mindful of your interests, skills and personality can help you to make informed choices about your career, making the transition to your next post less stressful.
You can by more mindful in no time at all. Ask yourself some of the following questions:
Ø  What am I enjoying at the moment and why?
Ø  What’s been my best idea lately?
Ø  What do I find difficult and challenging at the moment?
Ø  What could I do to immediately improve my present situation?
Ø  What are my medium- and long-term term goals?
Ø  How can I strengthen my career as it stands currently and in the future?
Ø  Who could help me with that (internal/external)?
Ø  How do I relax my brain and body and what can I do to improve this area of my life?
If you’re currently feeling stressed about something - maybe you’re stuck on a problem, your experiments aren’t working, you’re having difficulty with your supervisor, you’re anxious about giving a talk, writing your thesis or thinking about your next career move - rather than expending lots of negative energy worrying about your situation or procrastinating, why not do something positive? Step outside yourself and take an objective perspective. This is what Deepak Chopra talks about in his recent book “Self power”. He says there are three levels of awareness (I have added in his words in quotations):
1.       "Contracted awareness" – this is where many of us find ourselves: we become “defensive, wary and fearful” in the face of our problems.
2.       "Expanded awareness "– this is when our “vision extends beyond the conflict, giving more clarity”, so that we start to look at our problems objectively and approach them with confidence.
3.       "Pure awareness" – “this is the level where no problems exist. Every challenge is a creative opportunity….. All that matters is how open we are to the answers being presented.”
Essentially, expanding awareness is about self-coaching, where you try to find solutions through reflection and mindfulness. It’s not always easy to do this and, as with trying to improve your physical well-being such as posture, weight and fitness, your mind-set quickly slumps back to its old ways. There are books which can help to keep you on track and professional careers advisers and coaches can also support you in the process.  Another way is to find a mentor or a supportive friend or colleague with whom to share your thoughts and find ways forward. Whatever you think will work best for you, why not give it a go? It could be the most productive experiment you ever tried.
Related content: Knowing me, knowing you
Related content: Career services and support


Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Caring about Collaboration

At the Christmas market, Heidelberg
I’ve just come back from a Grand Tour of Europe, delivering five career workshops in institutions in Heidelberg, Strasbourg and Lyon over a period of 10 days. I have to admit it was quite exhausting, but it would have been more tiring and less enjoyable had I not been able to meet up, and spend time with, some fellow career advisers whilst I was on my travels. They included a colleague and friend, Barbara Janssens, based at DKFZ, Tina Perssons and Bérénice Kimpe (who wrote the previous blog – Letter to the Christmas Recruiter). Earlier this year we launched a specialist group called ‘CARE’ (Careers Advisers supporting Researchers in Europe). Since then, we have been networking via our LinkedIn group, as well as taking the opportunity to work together and share good practice. We’ve also set up a LinkedIn group for researchers to network with us so please sign up as a member.

Nowadays, collaboration is usually the only way that researchers can be eligible to receive funding, and journal papers reveal more and more people working together. Collaboration is connecting, communicating and networking, and is a valuable activity which can help you to amplify your profile and extend your reach, not only for work purposes but also in your personal life; in fact, in some cases your collaborators can gradually become your friends. When you see professors greeting each other affectionately at conferences, it’s very likely that they first got to know each other many years ago when they were a PhD student or postdoc. Even those who have left academia, like me, have benefited from staying in touch with previous colleagues. When work takes me off to other universities and institutions, as well as foreign lands, the experience is always more enjoyable if it involves the possibility of meeting up with someone I know who is based there, where we can catch up on news (usually over a drink or dinner J).

At the earlier stages of your career you may not have a very large network, but keep building on it, make connections and manoeuver it according to the way your career is progressing. If you’re attending a conference on your own, you only need to identify one or two friendly people in order to hook up and feel more connected. Twitter hashtags, issued before conferences, allow you to communicate with delegates before setting off, so even those you haven’t met will become familiar names when you arrive. Look at the conference programme and consider emailing PhD students or postdocs who are presenting, or likely to be interested, in similar sessions to yourself. Don’t worry about trying to find something in common with them, your subject will serve this purpose, after which your personalities and interests will determine whether the collaboration turns into friendship. 

Skype meetings, speculative emails and other on-line tools can also enable you to collaborate across continents from the comfort of your lab or office. You may need some help with a current problem related to your research, you may be looking for a new perspective to help you to interpret your data. Whatever the reason for connecting with someone, always take a polite and respectful approach and aim for the collaboration to be mutually beneficial. Ultimately, your collaborative ventures may also help with your career along the way, since the more people you meet, the more likely you will be exposed to opportunities.
Pictured right with Barbara Janssens
Happy Holidays, take CARE and see you in 2015!

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Letter to the Christmas recruiter

This month’s blog has been written by Bérénice Kimpe, ABG L’intelli’agence, a colleague of mine who is based in Paris. We’re visiting the University of Lyon this week to deliver a career workshop, demonstrating the differences between German, French and UK CVs. I hope you’ll enjoy her seasonal advice on writing a covering letter with your job applications.

Do you remember the weeks before Christmas when you were a child? The excitement looking through the toys catalogue, writing your wish list for Father Christmas? The list was accompanied by a letter, explaining how good you had been during the year, and that you really were worth all the toys your heart desired. Now, years later, Father Christmas has changed into a recruiter, and your letter into an application letter.

Before writing to Father Christmas as a child, you needed to decide what you were wishing for. You had two options: choose from the toys displayed in a catalogue, or choose from the toys your little friends already owned. Nowadays, you choose from the job offers you might have found on a job board, or from amongst professions you have learnt about during encounters with professionals.

When writing the letter, your objective was to convince Father Christmas to bring you what you yearned for. Your letter was divided into three parts: first you showed interest for the old man in red, and expressed your admiration for taking up the challenge every year; then you told him about yourself and how good you'd been during the year, and finally you suggested a meeting, so that he wouldn't miss your stocking on the chimney.

Your motivation letter has the same structure: it's not completely egocentric, but it must show your interest in the company in question. Talk about the company as well as the position for which you’re applying. It's up to you to explain what stood out in your eyes: Why this position? Why in this company and not another? Your answers can be about activities, responsibilities, values, (work) environment, upcoming challenges or how it fits your career plan. In short, why do you want this job? This is also the part, which will help you to structure the rest of the letter.

In the following section, you'll show your assets, and explain why you're the best candidate when it comes to skills and motivation. It's no use going through all your professional experiences (that's the job of the resume!). Only mention specific experiences, which allow you to illustrate the exact skills being sought by the recruiter. Always ask yourself the following question: "How can I prove that I really have this skill?"

Finally, think of making your motivation, enthusiasm and dynamism stand out using the right communication style. Use short, active and positive sentences! And, to wrap up your letter, finish on a positive note saying you look forward to hearing from the employer or suggesting discussing your profile and the position in more detail.

Just as when you wrote a new letter to Father Christmas every year, write a new letter for every job application. Consider asking someone to look it over before you send it off. Maybe Father Christmas tolerates spelling errors; the recruiter won't!


Sunday, 23 November 2014

Signs of the times

I’ve been struggling this month to think of a subject to write about for my blog, so I thought I’d settle on an observation I’ve made about PhD students and postdocs, which I think will be of interest.

Increasingly, I’ve noticed a rise in the number of workshops and blogs, which focus on the importance for researchers to engage with social media. In fact, I’m even taking part in a Google Hangout on this very subject on Thursday this week (27 November 2014) as part of the #Vitaehangout series. I, myself, have written on the topic previously, encouraging early career researchers and PhD students to get a presence on Researchgate or LinkedIn, write a blog or sign up for Twitter, depending on their career ambitions (see related content at the end of this blog). Social media is not for everyone, although I have noticed more hands going up nowadays, when I ask workshop participants if they are using social media for professional purposes. It can be time-consuming, so it’s important to take care not to spend too much time, or even become addicted to, checking accounts and messages.

However, aside from this relatively new way to raise one’s profile, some researchers are missing more straightforward and traditional methods to promote themselves and make themselves more accessible to others, e.g. their peers, prospective employers and collaborators. In comparison to the emails I receive from academics, those from PhD students and postdoctoral researchers rarely append a ‘signature’. That is, a formal title, with address and any other form of contact after they sign off at the end of their message. For example, my email signature is:
Sarah Blackford, BSc, MA CIEGHE
Head of Education & Public Affairs
Society for Experimental Biology
Bailrigg House
Lancaster LA1 4YE, UK
+44 1524 594850
Your email  signature makes  you visible to anyone who wants to get in contact again and, should your email become redundant, your linkedin profile or other links are still there.
Another more traditional method of promoting yourself is using the humble business card. Although generally unfashionable in the research world, business cards are becoming more widely used at scientific meetings, especially in the US, so I recommend you have a set printed – it’s quite cheap to do these days. You can hand them out when you make a connection with someone, or even put them in a pouch attached to your conference poster for people to take away with them when you’re not there. I was recently at the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) Meeting where a company called had even printed out complimentary sets for poster presenters.
If this all sounds too superficial and cynical to you, remember that networking is not false or insincere, it’s simply about communication. Make it easy for people to find you and you may be the person they choose to invite to give a talk, headhunt for a job, collaborate with or nominate for an award.
And talking of cards, now that I've done my November blog, time to get on with writing my Christmas cards!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

An academic career - do you have the write skills?

What’s your writing like? Do you enjoy it? Are you any good at it? The reason I ask is that I’ve been reading a number of blogs recently about the requirements and skills needed to be a successful academic (e.g. Academic Juggling). I found out that writing – doing lots of it – tends to dominate.

Publish, publish, publish
If you’re serious about an academic career, you’ll be all too aware that you need to publish your findings in good quality peer-reviewed journals on a regular basis to maintain your standing in the field (and your job!). This means you need to get writing and start practising as early in your research career as possible. Ask your supervisor if s/he will mentor you with your academic writing, or ask for help from an alternative ‘friendly’ academic or postdoc. There are courses you can attend at your institution, nationally or on-line to help to hone your writing skills (see my previous blog: Publish (by the rules) or Perish!). You can also offer to write a review on your research topic for a journal as another way to enhance your research profile.

Writing grant proposals
The second most important activity, when you become an academic, is to compete for grants in order to fund your research. These can be large international, multi-national consortia, national governmental grants or private, charitable funds. Writing a grant application is like writing a business plan and requires the investigative insights and knowledge of the research landscape demonstrated in a scientific paper, combined with the ability to ‘sell’ your proposal in the face of very tough competition. No doubt you will need input from your collaborators, which will have to be brought together into a coherent and succinct document. What’s more, you will likely need to include timelines, milestones, budgeting and tick a whole host of compulsory administrative boxes using an electronic system which may ‘go down’ and scupper you just as you’re about to press the submit button! [Maybe you can tell I’ve been through this process myself!] Again, you can get some early practice in, even as a PhD student, and certainly during your postdoc years, by applying for small internal funds, competitive travel grants and even assisting your supervisor with larger applications. Workshops and mentoring are also available to improve your skills (see a very useful document produced by the Human Frontier Science Program).

Many new academics are given teaching duties, which means writing lectures. This can take up a lot of your time - far more than delivering the actual lectures themselves - not to mention the accompanying assessments and student pastoral care. Teaching tools and support from higher education support organisations can help to relieve the load, e.g. Teaching Tools in Plant Biology, Higher Education Academy, American Institute of Biological Sciences. However, for the most part, you may just need to aim to put in a lot of extra hours when you start your job!

Administrative work
On top of your core research commitments, as an academic you will need to take part in the administrative activities of your university department. Academics are assigned various roles such as undergraduate or postgraduate director of studies, admissions tutor, careers tutor, committee member, e.g. ethics, teaching, research and examinations. This will usually involve a lot of paperwork for you to read, submit to meetings, reports to write and so on. This type of writing is very different from that required for academic papers so you would do well, when you take up your post, to take advantage of the staff development courses offered by your institution. These can include topics such as how to chair meetings, write up minutes and manage your time effectively.

Of course, there are other discretionary academic writing opportunities, in addition to these core obligations. For example, writing conference presentations and engaging with social media (tweeting, blogging), which can be as important for your career, helping to raise your profile and keep you well networked. Ironically, it may be your ability to prioritise and balance all of these diverse writing tasks, not the writing itself, which will be the greatest determinant of your ultimate success!