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
https://www.linkedin.com/pub/sarah-blackford/10/b72/968
+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 Quartzy.com 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).

Teaching
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 www.myscicareer.com, 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: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/wdrsdn
References
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.