Rui Pires Martins, researcher development advisor at Queen Mary University of London, encourages scientists to self-reflect in order to make future career decisions.
Guest contributor Rui Pires Martins
I love cities, especially large, diverse ones. Moving from Toronto to Detroit for my PhD studies in 2000 made me appreciate the importance of the place I live in beyond just ‘somewhere near work’. I took the post knowing very little of the complex socioeconomic history that led to the city’s decline. After almost seven years of tough-love, it became apparent that Motown wasn’t really able to provide “city” at the level that I craved.
Even as starved for “urbania” as I was, my next move in 2007 was more guided by the reputation of the The Gurdon Institute, and of its scientists, than location (Cambridge, UK). The logistics of studying a stage of embryonic development that happened in the early morning hours would soon start to impact my work-life balance. So while my fellowship was a tremendous opportunity for my development, when I began to search for my next post, I set my sights on London. I also focused my search on groups working with embryonic stem cells, thinking I’d have more control over my working hours. In 2009, I took a position as a postdoctoral research assistant at QMUL, where I would work for just over four years.
Location: check. Work-life balance: fingers crossed.
As it turns out, postdocs tend to make career choices guided by personal values anyway, so maybe my reflection-driven decisions were just part of the process. When most of us began on this academic path, we were barely adults. Our notion of, and drive to continue climbing higher in, the ivory tower would change over time, being informed by how our lives had changed since we entered it.
This resonated with my peers, whether in academia or not. Dr Piraye Yurttaş Beim, a former postdoc colleague who went on to form a biotech start-up, stated that her motivations came from wanting to move closer to the translational interface of reproductive biology and medicine. Another peer who is writing up his Dr PH in public health, Will Nutland, said his values shift was making him consider the interface between research and the public, “I want to be doing something worthwhile in the world, and […] I don’t want to spend my whole time crunching data.”
Whatever the motivating factor, begin with reflecting upon your current personal and professional priorities. While many of these values needn’t be mutually exclusive, this exercise provides you with a lens through which you can examine what’s really important to you. For some, this also becomes a ‘should I stay or should I go’ question, especially given the steep climb ahead of them up “Mt. Academia”. However even if you think your idealised path could take you to a new sector, consider the wealth of skills you honed as academic researcher.
Reflection: what did you like?
Reflect upon the parts of your experience that you did like. For some, elements like writing and publishing provide them with opportunities to pursue. Others enjoy the subject matter of their research but opt for a different path than the one set out by academic career progression. This was the case for Beim, who was passionate about personalised reproductive medicine but preferred the entrepreneurial route.
Formulate a timeline and consider available options
Timelines help to focus your search while you consider what’s available. Looking through jobs sites may help to establish a range of options to consider. Indeed, this might also help provide you with a real-world picture of what is available and what you might need to build yourself. In my case, wanting to stay in London, my current big-city-love, focused my search to the options that were available here at the time. Considering what your idealised career might be is one thing, but if mobility isn’t an option, this will impact the range of options open to you.
Consult your Careers Service
If reflecting on it hasn’t helped you to gravitate in any particular direction, then I suggest you consider the support available from your institution’s careers service, as I did. These services may include counselling to help you pin down where your career affinities lie, as well as helping you take stock of your current skill set and how you might be able to market them to other sectors. Beyond this, they may also help you start to network with others who have followed the non-academic route.
Retrain if necessary
If your skill set isn’t a perfect match for your prospective path, there might be a need for additional training and experience. Internship schemes are becoming increasingly available to postdocs, and can be a definite way to gain experience. Changing sectors may be a more complicated move than just trying to re-frame your skills, and for certain jobs, you will likely have to demonstrate more concrete experience or additional qualifications.
After six years as a postdoc in two labs, still marred by issues of work-life balance, I began to look around for other options. I considered positions as lab managers, interviewed for jobs in industry (one of which I withdrew from because the company was a bad fit and the commute wasn’t for me), and interviewed for a job with a journal.
Since I began my academic career, I have developed knowledge and skills in many areas, including a passion for biological and developing systems, a knack for teaching and lecturing, an understanding of how UK Higher Education operates. My passion is now helping drive a burgeoning consulting business that I’ve recently started, having just signed my first contract. The others, when added to my desire to help other QMUL postdocs, made me a very competitive candidate for my current post as a development advisor in the CAPD, which I’ve held since 2014.