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!  

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Postdocs: Be careful what you wish for!

Statistics, surveys and anecdotal evidence tell us that the majority of postdocs aspire to become an academic, even though few will achieve this career goal. Having graduated from a PhD, they have chosen a research career path and many are aiming for a permanent position, not in industry, not in government, possibly in a research institute, but mostly in a university. But do they really know what kind of life awaits them as a lecturer or professor? Are they fully aware of how different the life of an academic is, compared with the role of a postdoctoral researcher? Recently, I’ve noticed a few blogs appearing on the subject of being an academic, so I thought I’d share three of them here to illustrate some of the many challenges and varied duties expected of an academic. This way, postdocs wishing for this career will be going in with their eyes open!

First up, “The many hats of the academic researcher ”, by Andrew D. Hollenbach, which is featured  on the ASBMB site, lists 11 roles he has to play as associate professor, some of which caught him by surprise. Unlike being a postdoc, focussing on research and its associated tasks, as a professor Andrew found out very quickly he had to, amongst other things, be a teacher, a writer, a politician, a performer, a mediator and, sometimes, even a therapist. Duties such as chairing departmental committees and mentoring students can take up a lot of time and, he advises, a supportive department is crucial to help you to manage your workload.

One newly appointed academic once told me, “What with research, teaching, reviewing papers, writing grants, forming and nurturing collaborations, as well as writing papers, my working week is long and includes evenings and weekends”.  I must confess, from my own experience, I find that the best time to get the attention of an academic is to email them at the weekend – you can usually guarantee they’ll be catching up on work, including checking their emails. With few other distractions while they’re away from the institution, you are more likely to get their attention (if their children don’t get there first of course!).

My second example is Jim Smith, a professor at MRC. His advice about how to succeed as a biomedical scientist is recorded by Simon Hazelwood-Smith on the Naturejobs Blog, following his talk at their annual careers expo in London. His account of his academic career focusses on the challenge of finding a niche for your research so that you can establish yourself in a particular research field. It’s not enough to move in the shadows of your previous supervisors, you need to find and own your area of research expertise. He says: “You need to fall in love with your subject and be engrossed by it”. He adds a list of personal qualities and tips on how to succeed as an academic, including learning to take good notes, creating and using networks, and taking control of your career.

Finally, here’s some advice from an academic who made it to the very top of the university career ladder, featured on the Financial Times blog: Professor Nancy Rothwell is the University of Manchester’s first female Vice Chancellor. She talks about the challenges for female scientists, even those without children, including long hours in research labs and international travel. She says the reason why women are in the minority of senior positions can be due to a range of things, including family commitments, a lack of self confidence and a lack of role models.

So there you have it, the harsh reality of the life of an academic. Do you still yearn for it, despite the many challenges and stresses? If so, it could well be the career for you!

Related content: What’s the point of a postdoc?


Sunday, 7 September 2014

Doing more with LinkedIn

Recently, I’ve noticed that more and more researchers and students are joining LinkedIn. I say ‘joining LinkedIn’ rather than ‘using LinkedIn’, since many say that they’re on it, but they’re not actually doing anything with it. This may be the same for you. You may have been advised to get on LinkedIn in case you miss out on anything – in fact, one of my previous blogs “Get Linked In!” does just that – but then nothing happens. So, it occurred to me I could give you some further help to get more out of this social media platform, by giving you a few more insights into its functions. Take note however, that I’m no expert and my suggestions are limited to my own experience of using it. So here goes:

Use the groups. There are thousands of groups on LinkedIn covering a wide range of subjects. You can join any number of them – some are closed, some are open. Search for groups relevant to your subject discipline and career interests, where you’ll see discussions to which you can also contribute, as well as starting your own. You can even set up your own group. Three groups which are dedicated to helping PhD students and researchers are:
c)    CARE – Careers Advisers supporting Researchers in Europe (and beyond)
Use it for research purposes You can research companies on LinkedIn. It’s especially useful to find out about small companies, which are not well known. You can search by specific countries or regions, and even search according to the number of employees in the company. You can also look for people in careers of interest to you. It’s useful to see their background and education to give you an idea of what you can do to enhance your own skills and experience.
Use it to contact people Taking things a bit further, you can use LinkedIn to connect and then contact people to ask them about their work. You need to approach them politely and diplomatically, since they don’t know you personally. However, if they’ve agreed to link with you, people tend to be more amenable to being asked for a job information interview.

When you’re ready to apply for positions, you can sign up for job alerts and actively look for positions being posted by companies and in groups. Many organisations are using social media as their primary place to advertise their jobs, so consider others such as Twitter (using the #) and relevant professional Facebook sites to enhance your search.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Careers - the planned and the downright unplanned!

Naturejobs and Vitae are currently running a survey aimed at postdoctoral researchers who have left academia and are enjoying an ‘alternative’ career. They are inviting them to tell their career story and offer advice to those who are also considering leaving academia. A snapshot of the initial results posted on the Naturejobs site is already revealing some interesting experiences and advice from researchers, who have entered non-academic employment sectors. With the final results being showcased at the International Researcher Development conference in Manchester in September 2014, they will be a welcome addition to the information available to help researchers to transition out of academia - and with less than 5% ultimately realising a permanent academic career, this applies to a lot of people (see my previous blog “What’s the point of a postdoc”).

Planning to leave academia is not an easy choice to make for many researchers. In fact, career planning itself is not a straightforward process. With ‘luck’ playing a large part in many people’s career journeys, how do you plan for that? If you look at two well-used career planning theories (Figure 1), you’ll see that a combination of planned and unplanned activities provides a great strategy for finding your ‘dream job’.

Figure 1
DOTS Model blended with Planned Happenstance theory, illustrating the need for a combination of structure and flexibility in the career planning process (reprinted from Blackford, 2013 “Career planning for research bioscientists”).
First, the DOTS Model (proposed by Bill Law and Tony Watts in 19771, and refined in 19992), illustrated as the yellow boxes, consists of all the important factors which need to be taken into account when choosing and searching for a job suited to your skills, personality, abilities etc. It is shown as a step-wise process comprising Decision-making, Opportunities, Transition and Self. However, the reality is that, usually, all of these activities are happening at the same time. The trap most job seekers fall into is that they focus solely on looking at jobs (O), and writing their CV (T), whilst ignoring self-analysis, so risking bad decision-making (S and D). In my professional opinion, I suggest that the most important part of the DOTS model is S – knowing your SELF (see my previous blog on this subject: “Knowing me, knowing you”.
Moving on to the other career theory, ‘Planned Happenstance’ (proposed by Mitchell et al in 19993), this is the ‘luck’ part of the career planning process. Planned happenstance is based on the notion that life happens to us and that we have little control over it, except to harness and capitalise on events and circumstances that we sometimes find ourselves in, and which may be helpful to our careers (although, note that the 'O' networking part of the DOTS Model can be invaluable for generating 'chance' circumstances). Mitchell et al, identified the key behaviours, which can assist in harnessing chance moments, as being Curiosity, Risk-taking, Flexibility, being Positive and taking a Proactive approach.
Looking at the initial nuggets of advice on the Naturejobs website, as well as other career stories such as those on, it seems clear that these two career theories are still very relevant to today’s career planning strategies. Remind yourself of them when you view the published career stories and see if they apply to your own, or perhaps you can see a way of using some of the tactics for your own career plans.
If you are a researcher who has moved into a new employment sector outside of academia and you would like to take part in the survey go to:
1.      Law, B & Watts, AG (1977) Schools, Careers and Community. London: Church information office.
2.      Law, B (199) Career-learning space: new-dots thinking for careers education. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling 27 (1), 35 – 54.
3.      Mitchell, KE, Lewin, AS and Krumboltz, JB (1999) Planned happenstance. Constructing unexpected career opportunities. Journal of Counselling and Development 17 (2), 115 – 24.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Where are the jobs?

See the powerpoint slides from my 'Job seeking strategies' session
Having just returned home after running career workshops galore at the recent Society for Experimental Biology’s annual main meeting in Manchester, I thought I’d share some of the careers information with you. The workshops covered a wide range of training including professional development: tips on writing journal papers and using bioinformatics tools, and personal development: career planning, making career choices and how to find a job. These sessions are always useful to attend when you’re a PhD student or early-career researcher delegate as they serve two purposes: 1) you learn about new techniques to help with your research and/or wider career aspirations and 2) you get to know some of your peers, since most of these sessions are interactive with exercises and discussions. This means not only do you go away more knowledgeable, but ideally you will have also increased your network.

In one of my sessions, I discussed with delegates various job search strategies. We brainstormed and came up with two types of job market: the ‘visible’ and the ‘invisible’. What does this mean? Many jobs are advertised by employers on specialist websites and discussion lists or using recruitment agencies. However, the majority are not and are mostly found through word of mouth and contacts. How many PhD students or postdoctoral researchers did not have to apply for their position, but were offered it directly by a professor in their department or whom they met at a conference? Similarly, this can happen in other career sectors, which means that if you are to be effective in your job search you must try to raise your profile and capitalise on your network as much as possible. Networking places such as conferences and social media play a large part in extending your network and enabling you to find people who may be able to help you with your career. More and more, job alerts are posted on LinkedIn and Twitter. See below for further advice and information.


Monday, 16 June 2014

Professional & personal career development – getting the balance right

Have you been on a career development course recently? Career development for PhD students and researchers is becoming more and more popular in universities, offering the chance to broaden skills and increase personal effectiveness. The Concordat, HR excellence award and the European Charter for Researchers have encouraged universities to acknowledge that, due to fierce competition for very few academic posts, the majority of researchers need to be well prepared for their future careers, whether within or outside of academia. They are offering courses, retreats and workshops for their students and research staff to help equip and up-skill them for their next career move. A strategic and mindful approach by a PhD student or researcher, cognisant of the behaviours and skills needed to succeed in particular careers, is more likely to yield results.

But, with limited time and resources, which development training should you choose? Basically, you have two main choices: professional and personal career development.
Professional career development
Dr Carmen Gervais (HFSP) tutoring
on a SEB funding workshop
Professional career development is associated with learning new skills and improving your expertise to enhance your effectiveness within your chosen career, or to help you transition to another. It is closely allied to those professional skills which employers specify on their job advertisements and may also be formalised with a qualification or certificate. The training examples below show how professional training might help you if you are looking to secure an academic career. These activities are offered by universities and other organisations to help you gain expertise in research techniques and associated academic activities. They can also help you transition to a research or technical post in industry or another science-related career.
Research funding: e.g., how to write a funding application, locating funding schemes
Writing and publishing: e.g., how to publish a paper, thesis writing, overview of the scientific publishing business, overcoming writer’s block
Research project management: e.g., managing your research project, supervising students
Technical workshops & summer schools: e.g., synthetic biology, mathematical modelling
Research methodologies & analysis: e.g., Nvivo, SPSS, bioinformatics tools
Associated training: e.g., Endnote, health & safety, LaTEX, Photoshop
Teaching techniques: e.g., e-learning, innovation in teaching, assessment and evaluation
Impact factors: e.g., how to deal with the media, science communication, making presentations, building effective collaborations
Personal career development
PhD students (Max Planck Institut) during a recent careers retreat
Personal career development is associated with self-development, and is not specifically targeted at enhancing career prospects and effectiveness (although in many cases it achieves this indirectly). There is usually no formal qualification associated with this type of development training, as it is primarily aimed at personal growth and raising self-awareness (although some personal career development provides practical advice and information to help transition into a new career, e.g., CV writing). If you want to identify and build on your strengths, if you need support to help you choose a new career path, or if you’re looking for ways to improve your personal effectiveness these types of activities will help you to achieve this.
Self-awareness: e.g., analysis of personality, values, skills, interests
Networking & communication: e.g., using social media, getting the most out of conferences
Career choice: e.g., alternative career talks, analysing the job market, making effective career decisions, volunteering, workshadowing
Career transition: e.g., making applications, writing an effective CV, successful interview technique, assessment centres, psychometric testing
Personal effectiveness: e.g., improving self-confidence, managing your time/workload, leadership, team building, entrepreneurship
So which activities should you choose to do? I recommend a combination of both types of career development, professional and personal. The balance will depend on your current situation, level of skills and expertise, as well as your career plans for the future.
Related content:
Career services and support
Education, policy and career meetings
NPA postdoctoral core competencies toolkit
Vitae RDF planner