Monday, 24 March 2014

Success at interview: 7 ‘Ps’ to the Prize!

Last week I ran a workshop on interview technique for postgraduates, but the rules apply to everyone:

1. Purpose – Keep in mind the purpose of an interview, which is for the employer to find out more about you and vice versa. Meeting you in person will allow him/her to see how well you communicate and whether you will fit into the team/organisation.

2. Plan – Review the job description, company/research group and personal requirements. Find out the details of the interview location and set-up. This should have been specified in your interview letter but, if not, contact the organisation to ask how long the interview will be and who will be on the interview panel. If there is a presentation, who will be in the audience? This will help you to make the content of your answers and/or presentation relevant.

3. Prepare – You are bound to be asked to clarify or expand on much of the content of your application/CV so make sure you can give examples relevant to the employer and bring the content to life. Think of one or two brief questions to ask the interviewer (but don’t ask about salary until you’ve been offered the job!).

4. Predict – As with an exam you can probably predict many of the questions you are likely to be asked. Put yourself in the shoes of the employer and imagine what you would want to know from the applicant. As well as detailed technical questions (depending on the job), they are likely to ask you open-ended questions. For example:
• Why do you want this job?
• What can you bring to the organisation?
• Tell me about any challenges you encountered during your PhD/research? How did you deal with them? What was the outcome?
• (For more senior research posts) If you had a grant of €5million, what would you want to spend it on? (Eg What big ideas do you have in your mind in terms of this research area?).

5. Practice – Try to set up a mock interview or just practice saying some of your predicted answers out loud to yourself. This will help you to familiarise yourself with your evidence and identify any gaps or weak areas in your performance which you can work on a bit more.

6. Perform - Good body language and eye contact is essential to make a good impression. Dress to impress (at the same level of formality as the interview panel) and don’t forget that how you say what you say – the tone and assuredness of your voice – is as important as what you say.

7. Persist – Using these ‘rules’ you should be able to optimise your chances for a successful outcome to your interview. However, if you are turned down don’t take it personally. Ask for feedback, review your performance, move on and persist with your applications – imagine and believe in your ultimate success!

Related content

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Want an academic career? Cultivate people and ideas

"Start to cultivate relationships very early in your PhD” and “Start an ‘Ideas’ folder”. I saw these words of advice written on a blog today, entitled ‘Transitioning from grad school to a postoc’. It was posted on a forum called ‘Tenure, she wrote’, which posts lots of great blogs and is worth looking at when you get a chance. Although it refers to the first stages of a research career path, it’s highly relevant to anyone considering a future academic career.

The reason I say this is that when you look at advertised tenured academic positions, being able to demonstrate independent and innovative thinking is a one of the essential application criteria (usually articulated along the lines of ‘an established or growing international reputation’, ‘proven ability to secure research funding’ or ‘a consistent track record of quality publications’). The university faculty needs to keep moving forward and, ideally, wants to be leading the field in its key areas of research. If you can show that you are an independent innovative thinker, who is prepared to move out from the shadow of your supervisor and take your research in new directions you will stand out from the crowd. Your list of publications may be impressive, but are you ready to be the person whose name is listed last, can you take on the role of corresponding author, will you be able to submit successful funding applications, which demonstrate that your are re-positioning your research away from that of your current professor? Securing an independent research fellowship early in your career will allow you to shape your research interests to prepare you more readily for this transition. Alternatively, your postdoctoral position may have uncovered a niche of expertise, away from that of your supervisor, which you feel confident to pursue at the leadership level.

So, referring back to the start of this blog, two key activities that will almost certainly help lead you towards independence are the cultivation of people and ideas.
Meeting delegates at conferences, discussing your findings, collaborating with others and sharing perspectives are all crucial components to enhancing the scope of your research. You will discover new insights, experience different viewpoints and expand your horizons, probably unexpectedly! People think in different ways, analyse and synthesise information differently, which means you can benefit from their opinions and they can benefit from yours; so it’s a symbiotic arrangement which means it can also be sustainable and productive. You can evidence this from the number of long-standing colleagues and friends your professors have made over the years – this is one of the reasons they love to meet up at conferences and meetings! Ideas are generated from these stimulating interactions, whether in person or over email/social media. Ideas and flashes of inspiration, which may seem trivial or impractical at the time, should be stored away in case they become viable in the future, as you’ll probably forget them in the meantime.   
Current senior academics and professors will have benefited from making strategic collaborations early in their careers and will also have had innovative ideas to take their research in new directions. Even if you look at those ‘on their way up’ you can see that people and ideas are the crucial seeds to cultivate to grow a successful academic career.


Saturday, 8 February 2014

Learned Societies - a party worth joining

“I would like to thank the Society for Experimental Biology and the Company of Biologists very much for supporting my attendance at this very valuable symposium and, in general, for giving young researchers the opportunity to participate in conferences and symposiums.”

Comments such as these from reports of winners of the latest round of SEB travel grants made me wonder how many researchers and PhD students are aware of these types of benefits, widely available to them in the early stages of their careers. Many academic learned societies own journals, which earn quite substantial subscription income and, as charities, they return much of this money to their members and relevant disciplinary communities. Some of the biggest beneficiaries of these returns are early career researchers and students, who can apply for all sorts of awards and receive considerable discounts on conferences. I noticed, for example, that the Society of Biology is offering grants to student members travelling to an Arabidopsis conference in Vancouver in July this year, and its affiliated societies, such as the Society for Experimental Biology, Society for General Microbiology, Physiological Society, Biochemical Society and British Ecological Society, give out a vast quantity of funds between them, which help their members towards travel to conferences or enable them to visit other research groups to learn new techniques.  

Mobility and building up independence is important if young researchers are to succeed in academia. It doesn’t just give you the chance to present a talk or a poster, it’s also a valuable opportunity to network with those working in your area of research. Most conferences feature job boards and, even if they don’t, professors get a chance to see you in person and, if they’re impressed with your work and enthusiasm, may even go a step further. As someone noted in one of the travel grant reports, “I was even offered a job at the conference dinner!”

Getting access to funding for conferences (most of which are organised by learned societies), is just one benefit for those who choose to join a learned society (and you can join as many as you like). Awards, competitions, member newsletters and blogs also help to promote you and keep you in touch with the wider areas of your discipline, such as education, policy and outreach. You can cross national boundaries and join societies outside of your own country of residence – for example half of the SEB’s membership is based outside of the UK.

As one student stated in their travel report, “I gained valuable insights, received feedback on how to improve my research methodology based on the logistical information exchanged and cannot imagine achieving any of these outcomes within the time scales without attending this conference”. Membership fees are very reasonable for students and early career researchers, so why not give your career a boost and join in the party? Ask your supervisor which are the most relevant for you – you can guarantee many of them are current members or have been members in the past.

Related content
Networking presentation



Sunday, 12 January 2014

The Power of Peer Support

Continuing with the theme of my previous blog on motivation, I have been struck recently by the amount of peer support and inspirational comments made on a LinkedIn Discussion group, ‘PhD Careers Outside of Academia’.  A new discussion thread was started last year called, rather fatalistically: “Falling off the postdoc treadmill into the abyss”. It was started by a postdoc who had begun to realise how difficult it is to secure an academic career (see related blog), with the added belief that a PhD would be a hindrance rather than a help to him securing an alternative career path. The subject attracted over 50 comments, with still more being posted in January. I wanted to share some of them (anonymised) with you here, to demonstrate the power of positive peer support:  

“Four years ago I came to the realisation that by specialising in a narrow field, I was heading into postdoc oblivion. I was also a female who chose to have kids late, and so I have taken the opportunity over the last 4 years to reinvent myself. It has taken some time but, as of next year, I will be teaching at a [private school], who value the PhD and real-world experience I have gained over the years.”
“Don't sell yourself as someone who fell of the post-doc tread-mill - in other words, as someone who failed. You did not. Keep a positive attitude and instead consider yourself as someone who's starting a new career. Use positive wording such as "my previous career", "moving on", "exploring new options", "bringing my previous experience as a biomedical researcher (name some skills) to this new exciting path"... Well, I'm sure there is better than that but I hope you get the idea. I hope it helps. Good luck.”
“I am going through the same transition period, still on my exploratory career path after my post-doc. I agree we have to embrace the positive attitude and turn this experience into an excellent new opportunity and vision. I wished I had found this career development plan webpage ( earlier, very very useful. I went through the test and it helped me a lot in recognizing what else I CAN and WANT to do with my PhD beside the traditional post-doc and academia.”
“…if you do not think you want to stay in academia, then definitely start your non-academic job search now. It took me about 18 months to find a position and I started looking about 12 months before my thesis defence, so you can see the gap. Trust me, you want that gap to be as short as possible!”
“I was a in developing rapid methods for rapid detection of pathogens....I have now an office based job and completely different from my field. We can always apply the skills we gained in PhD or postdoc years ....there is definitely many skills we can transfer. It is not the dream job, I agree, but you need to start somewhere until you find the right fit for you. I am still looking for the right fit !!!! All the best and keep going.......”
“I did have some friends who were biostatistics PhDs, neurologists etc who transitioned to data analysis and machine learning companies. It seems the skills that they encountered during their PhDs and postdocs were very favorable to these companies. The point is I think looking outside your domain may be a very good idea especially if jobs in your field are hard or just saturated.”
“I know what you are going through. I understand your feelings: rage, humiliation, disappointment, confusion, despair. My advice, try to find something positive in your situation. It’s not an abyss. It’s a new turn in your life. Then, look around and try to figure out what you love to do in your life.”
“Think about what you really enjoyed doing along to the way to becoming a postdoc and work on that aspect. For me it was teaching. Good luck and remember, it is never too late to change :-)”
Staying positive and motivated can be hard, especially for those who are receiving little or no support in their own institution, or if they are currently unemployed. LinkedIn is one avenue to share your thoughts and to swap ideas and information with like-minded people – see my previous blog on other benefits of LinkedIn. You can also join, or set up, a peer support group of your own. Many graduate student and postdoctoral researcher groups exist in universities, which offer opportunities to get together for career and/or social events. See more on researcher associations.

Related post: What's the point of a postdoc?

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Motivational Talk

Image courtesy of David Aspinall
Back to work tomorrow and what have I done over my two-week vacation (apart from eat, drink and socialise)? Pretty much nothing it has to be said! Well, I guess I needed a rest from work. However, as well as getting on with a couple of other personal projects, I had resolved to write a new blog – which still hasn’t transpired. Lethargy and a lack of motivation seem to have hit hard over the last few weeks and I’m guessing it could be due (at least in part) to the time of year and the weather. Dark, dreary days, low light intensity and rain, rain, rain, appear to have drained my enthusiasm.  It’s not surprising since this is the natural time of year for low energy levels and hibernation (in the Northern Hemisphere), so fighting off feelings of listlessness is difficult. To be honest, January is completely the wrong time of year to be making resolutions!

However, with work beckoning tomorrow, I’ve made a conscious decision to force myself to sit down and write my blog – come wind or rain (or ice and snow). And what better topic to start off the year, but the very subject of motivation. How many of you have already made resolutions for 2014? Who has made a pledge to themselves to ‘get that paper written’, ‘start those experiments’, ‘have a meeting with their supervisor’ or, more generally, to ‘get more organised’? More importantly, how many of you will actually see your resolutions through? Being ‘full of good intentions’ is definitely a good start though! It means we are thinking about doing something positive and that is the first step on the road to action – even though that step may last quite a long time.
In my experience, the key factors for setting realistic goals include:
1.      Breaking down a large project (e.g. writing your thesis) into small specific tasks so that you won’t be overwhelmed by its size.
2.      Writing down what you intend to do – including a deadline. This will focus you and give you an indication of when you need to complete the task.
3.      Giving yourself achievable things to do so you can see the results in the short-term. There’s no point setting yourself impossible tasks that previously you have been unable to complete unless you take a different approach. This may mean devising a new strategy, involving others, attending a course to improve your skills.
4.      Not pressurising yourself with too many goals (or you can get around this by ranking them in order of priority).
5.      Giving yourself a reward when you’ve achieved one of your resolutions (even if it’s just treating yourself to your favourite food or a trip to the cinema).
I’ve written a previous blog about ways to improve your employability, which may give you some ideas for generally enhancing your career, but you will have personal goals of your own too. You can also read more about how to set objectives by looking up the well-used ‘SMART’ pneumonic which stands for SPECIFIC – MEASURABLE – ACHIEVABLE – REALISTIC – TIME BOUND.
Finally, as we also move towards the start of the Chinese Year of the Horse (which begins on 31st January), whether you take notice of astrology or not, it’s worth heeding the ethos for those born in this year: ‘to make unremitting efforts to improve oneself’.  
PS – My first goal of 2014 is now ticked off!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Publish (by the rules) or Perish!

Planning to write a research paper? Make sure you read the journal rules first!

So says Margaret Cargill, whose workshop on ‘Publishing your research’ I attended in November as part of the Society for Experimental Biology’s career masterclass series. Even before you start writing you need to consider which journal you plan to target. This will determine the structure and style of the paper, it will influence the way in which your data are presented, and even the format of your references. So, to avoid a lot of re-working of your paper, or instant rejection by the editor, you can save time and avoid disappointment by paying attention to the aims and scope of the journal, as well as adhering closely to the author guidelines. Choosing a journal may depend on a number of factors, including the importance of your paper’s contribution to the field, the journal’s impact factor and scope. If you aim too high you could be rejected, which will delay publication, so make sure you target your paper well. Reading the ‘Instructions to Authors’ guidelines, usually readily available on the journal website, is highly recommended!

Margaret’s workshop, in which we deconstructed and analysed a variety of journal papers, was a real eye-opener. Did you know there are four main journal structures? See the Figure opposite. Take a look at journals where you’re considering submitting a paper and see which structure they adhere to.
Ø  AIMRaD - the one most commonly used in bioscience journal papers. The paper starts with an Abstract, followed by Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. The width of the each section indicates where you should focus on the breadth of the field and where you should focus on specifics. For example, the Introduction should start with a broad review of the current knowledge of this research field, focussing down towards the end to introduce the aim of your study and the significance of its contribution to the field.
Ø  AIRDaM – this is more commonly used in molecular and chemistry journals.
Ø  AIM[RaD]xC – with a combined Results and Discussion section.
Ø  AIBC – commonly used in mathematical/theoretical journals. The paper starts with the Abstract and Introduction followed by the Body of the paper containing subheadings you choose based on the content of the paper and a Conclusion section at the end. 
Another excellent piece of advice for preparing your paper for publication is to consider the journal referee review form. How will they assess its suitability for publication? For example:
Ø  Is the contribution new?
Ø  Is it significant?
Ø  Do the results support the conclusions drawn?
Ø  Is the paper too lengthy?
Ø  Are all the tables and figures necessary?
Ø  Are the references up to date?
Not all editors and reviewers will read a paper from start to finish in the first instance. They are more likely to skim read it to start with until they decide it is worth a closer look. Margaret presented the results of a recent survey which showed that only 50% of journal editors read the Methods section ‘in place’, with 21% reading it earlier and 29% reading it later. Therefore, this section must be understandable in its own right, without the presumption that the Introduction has already been read. There should be clear links between sections to cater for readers reading in many different orders.
Further Information
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to impart all the invaluable insights and advice Margaret provided during her one-day workshop. This included further detail on effective ways to write each of the sections of the paper, how to write a covering letter, nominating referees, how to deal with reviewers comments and to respond to the editor’s decision letter. However, if you scroll down to ‘Further Reading – Communication’ on my Career Resources website you will find book references to help you find out more, as well as a link to Margaret’s website.
Good luck with your writing and, remember, nothing can beat experience. Read published papers and pay careful attention to the way they’ve been written. Find a good mentor (maybe your supervisor or a more experienced colleague) to help you to learn and hone your academic writing skills in this quite unique and critical area of your research experience.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Blogging: the long and the short of it

Image credit: Pete Simon, Flickr
The following article first appeared in Funding Insight on December 3, 2013 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this visit

I’m always slightly incredulous when I run career workshops for researchers and discover that only 5 per cent of the participants are using social media. Having been around when email came into common use in the early 1990s, it would have been hard to find a single PhD student or postdoc, five years on, avoiding this new communication revolution in favour of posting letters and phoning.

Access to a global network of information, opinion and jobs relevant to a huge range of disciplines, personal interests and careers is just one of the reasons to sign up to social media. More significantly for researchers, I recently heard a professor say in a practice interview session that he wouldn’t consider researchers seriously if they weren’t on ResearchGate or a similar social network such as Mendeley.  

So you can see how potentially detrimental it could be to your career if you continue to avoid getting on with social media.

The Society for Experimental Biology’s recent career master class series included a one-day workshop entitled Social media – communicating your way to a successful career. Well known for her social-media expertise, tutor Anne Osterrieder delivered a highly interactive and engaging workshop aimed at showing researchers the value of social media.
During her workshop, Anne described the wide variety of social-media platforms available, reassuring participants that they need not engage in everything, since this would be overwhelming and too time-consuming. Instead, she walked us through the social media ‘building blocks’, demonstrating which types might suit particular interests and purposes.
Tuned in
This is where I discovered social media sites for specific purposes such as Soundcloud for audio, Vimeo for video and Imgur for photos. The nature of your research will determine the social media that you choose to engage with. For example, does it generate lots of interesting images? Does the discipline lend itself well to public interest?
Equally, factors such as how confident you are to write about your research or express an opinion to a global audience, how often you will realistically be able to update your site, and whether you are looking to promote yourself to potential new employers will all (and more) determine how best to take part in social media to your advantage.
There are four things to take into consideration before you decide what to do.
· Breadth vs depth: Do you want to write about your discipline, your research area or a specific project?
· Focus: Will you present concepts or actual data?
· Access: Will you present published or unpublished research?
· Issues: Intellectual property, copyright, collaborative research, peer review.
Commit yourself
After the morning’s introductory session on the range of social media out there - while acknowledging that within a few years some of them may have disappeared, supplanted by as yet unimagined new ones - Anne moved on to blogging. This social medium has been around since the late 1990s and is usually a commentary on a particular topic by a single author, or sometimes multi-authored. Anne’s own blog, Plant Cell Biology, is a great example of a bright and informative site, and there are many more covering all sorts of topics from policy and careers to personal diaries.
Commitment is required if you decide to set up a blog. Questions to ask yourself include
· Do I have enough to say over a sustained period of time?
· Do I feel confident to talk about this subject?
· Do I have enough time to write 700-1,000 words every few weeks?
· Who is my audience?
However, if you don’t feel ready to devote the time and effort required, you may prefer to try your hand at micro-blogging.
Blog "light"
Micro-blogging will take up much less of your time and in many cases, you can be relatively passive and still benefit from an online presence. This is when I discovered that Tweeting could be considered to be ‘micro-blogging’. Anne believes Twitter is the best example of micro-blogging, allowing you to blog in just 140 characters, amplifying your message with links to other sites or images.
Tweeting also allows you to hear what others have to say on subjects that are of interest to you, as well as linking you to people with whom you would never normally be able to communicate. You can use Twitter and other people’s Facebook sites to make sure as many people as possible see your messages, especially if you have spent time writing a great blog.
Another micro-blog, LinkedIn, connects you with professionals and employers in readiness for your next career transition. These networks are highly diplomatic enabling you to access organisations and personalities that previously would have been outside of your sphere of influence.
Virtual you
As you engage with social media you will find yourself building an online identity. This needs to be consistent and portray you professionally. Whichever platform you are using, make sure that you have completed the majority of the ‘profile requirements’. For example, always use a picture of yourself which shows you at your best (especially on the professional LinkedIn site) and always add an informative profile— you can look around at others to get ideas.
Social media is a great way for you to communicate your way to a successful career. Just bear in mind Anne’s parting warning: Whatever you put on social media can be seen by your boss, your family and your competitors.
Anne Osterrieder is a research and science communication fellow at Oxford Brookes University and tweets on @AnneOsterrieder.