Find the right path and reach your potential: There are multiple ways
Contributor Esther Cooke
As a PhD student or postdoc, in thrall to lab work or immersed in writing papers and grant applications, it can be easy to forget that pursuing an academic career is seldom solely about the research. The Career paths in academia workshop at the Naturejobs Career Expo 2014 gave early-career researchers an insight into the variety of roles available in academia. Four scientists gave an overview of their careers, and discussed the pleasures and pitfalls of their day-to-day jobs, before passing on some advice on how to succeed in the academic world.
Exploring the options
Not all academic careers need include research. Dr Anita Hall has a teaching-only position as a senior fellow at Imperial College London, having first progressed up the academic research ladder from PhD student to lecturer. Her responsibilities include course design, teaching, assessment and giving careers advice. Despite feeling drained at times, Hall appreciates the rewarding nature of teaching, and says that, in terms of work/life balance, “teaching is much more liberating” than research. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Dr Jim Usherwood of The Royal Veterinary College is heavily involved in research. Although passionate about his work, Usherwood describes a vicious cycle of writing papers to get funding and vice versa.
Many academics plump for the best of both, engaging in both research and teaching. Dr Louise Horsfall, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, finds the combination demanding at times. But she speaks fondly of teaching, saying that it “gives me a broader perspective on the research I’m doing”.
Those with a business mind can also find opportunities at universities. Dr Lorraine Kerr splits her time between managing a research facility at the University of Edinburgh and building commercial relations, establishing partnerships with biotechnology companies. Kerr meets with companies, attends conferences and hosts visits to the university, in addition to her research responsibilities.
All four academics admit that their jobs have downsides. Kerr says that “the job split is always difficult”, in particular dividing her time between the two projects and fitting everything in. Usherwood says that in the past he has faced poor job security and was rejected several times before landing a permanent position at the age of 39. He also points out that in research your time is your own. “You never know when your day is done”, he says.
So, with all of these options in mind, how can you maximise your potential in such a competitive and testing environment? At the end of the workshop, the panellists imparted advice on some hot topics.
Mobility. A change of location can benefit your academic career, providing opportunities to meet people, learn skills and become distinctive. However, Kerr says “there’s no reason you always have to move” — rather, take opportunities if and when they come up. If moving abroad, Hall suggests you stay in the loop with colleagues back home, maintaining relations for your return.
Finding a mentor. Horsfall described feeling increasingly lonely as her career progressed, with fewer people to look up to. Her advice was to find a senior academic willing to invest in your personal development. Horsfall believes you need “encouragement from someone who is outside of your immediate situation”, adding “there are schemes within universities that are set up to give you mentors — take advantage of them”.
Resilience and motivation. You will inevitably face dry periods and difficulties during your research. Where possible, try to have small grants or pots of money to fall back on when funding is scarce. Usherwood also highlights the value of “those friends who will come and have a beer with you” after a bad day at work.
Women in academia. Concerning the additional challenges to women, Hall commented “I don’t think women are good at saying ‘I’m good, I’m worth it’” in competitive situations, while Kerr believes that women have a tendency to hold back from new positions, thinking they’re not ready. This can be a huge disadvantage in a male-dominated environment. The answer is to know what you’re worth and just go for it! Rejection is always a part of academic life, but the only way to succeed is by putting yourself forward. And there is help available; many departments now aspire to the Athena SWAN Charter principles, which advocate fairer representation of women in STEM and support for career progression.
There is no defined route to follow when it comes to an academic career. The key to satisfaction is to find what works for you. Figure out your priorities and think about which aspects of your work you enjoy the most — be it research, innovation, teaching, writing or administration. Decide how much time you would like to commit to each role. Finally, be imaginative. There is plenty of scope to shape your career to fit your needs, if you have the vision to do so.