Competitions aimed at early career researchers fill the gap between a PhD and a ‘real world’ education, says Réka Nagy.
My PhD journey is coming to its end and I am considering a non-academic career. Looking at job descriptions, I know I tick the box marked ‘strong analytical and problem-solving skills.’ However, there are other boxes to consider: ‘Strong time and project management skills.’ ‘A team player with a proven track record of collaborations.’ ‘The ability to communicate clearly and concisely to a wide range of stakeholders.’
I worked in a ten-person research group but I did most of my work on my own – does that really make me a team player? And what does “a wide range of stakeholders” mean, anyway? I don’t have the time or money to pursue further training to gain these skills, and I feel like the four years I spent getting my PhD in Human Genetics were a waste.
Then again, my degree gave me the opportunity to take part in activities that may help tick these boxes.
I’m talking about competitions aimed specifically at early career researchers. These competitions are heavily subsidised by charities, universities or companies, so they don’t cost you anything. They are designed to teach you the skills and provide the experiences you might not otherwise be exposed to as a researcher. They are also excellent networking opportunities — the judges are often important figures in industry, academia or the media, and talking to them will give you a better idea of what to pursue next, and they could serve as key contacts in the future.
There are competitions that cater to a range of interests and personalities. You can participate on your own, or as part of a team. The competition might have a broad scientific context, or it might be specialized to your field. It might require you to present your own work, someone else’s work, or a piece of work that is entirely fictional. You will be judged by children, scientists, industry experts, business moguls, investors, media personalities and science communicators. You can write, design, talk or even dance your way to victory.
The opportunity to win a prize is a great incentive on its own. But competitions also provide a controlled environment in which to take risks, apply yourself and try out new things. You gain another skill that is often overlooked, though: the opportunity to experience failure without repercussions, which prepares you to deal with the let-downs that are a part of life. You really have nothing to lose and much to gain.
Taking part in competitions will allow you to develop yourself and, consequently, your résumé. You’ll have managed several projects with tight deadlines. You’ll demonstrate that you can be a leader and a team player, but also stand out as an individual. You’ll be able to prove that you can communicate effectively with expert or lay audiences. And, should your job application get rejected, you’ll have the skills to deal with that, too.
Science Competitions aimed at students and early career researchers.
Here are some examples of competitions available to early career researchers, primarily in the life sciences. This is meant to be an informative, rather than an exhaustive, list, and similar opportunities may also be available in other fields.
Learn and Collaborate.
International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) is an interdisciplinary synthetic biology competition. The hands-on research is done by teams of undergraduates, supervised by at least one professor and a post-doc.
The Merck BioPharma Innovation Cup provides insight into the process of pharmaceutical development, from discovering a drug to bringing it to market. Science and business students from all over the world work together in teams to develop and present a biopharmaceutical business plan.
The Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (YES) competitions come in Bio, Engineering, and Environmental flavours. Industry leaders teach you about marketing, finance, licensing and intellectual property law. Using these concepts, your team develops a business idea based on fictional but plausible science, and presents it to a panel of investors, akin to Dragon’s Den.
The Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypothesis (BAHfest), held in cities in the US, UK and Australia, has acclaimed public speakers train you to present science in a convincing manner, without the requirement to have any results to present. The aim is to present thoroughly researched, well-argued but completely made-up theories.
Your own work can be presented at the international FameLab or the 3 Minute Thesis competitions. Science communicators and media personalities will show you the secrets to conveying complex ideas in a simple ways. Strict time constraints ensure that you take a step back and consider the broader implications of your work.
If writing and talking are more your thing, try “I’m a Scientist/Engineer, Get Me Out of Here!” Your audiences, consisting of primary and secondary school pupils, are also your judges, and they will ask you about your job, your life, and science in general.
If you like the idea of Three Minute Thesis, but prefer to describe the essence of your research to a lay audience in writing, the Max Perutz Science Writing competition might suit you, assuming you are funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC). The British Society for Cell Biology also advertises a science-writing competition which is available to anyone as long as they are members of the Society.
Aspiring journalists can enter Nature’s “Publishing Better Science through Better Data” or Naturejobs career expo journalism competitions, which are announced through the year. They help you consider aspects of a research career that are not always at the forefront of your thoughts, such as funding, mobility, networking or science communication.
Dance and take photos!
If you are more physically-inclined, you can try to Dance Your PhD. This competition is open to any PhD student in a science-related field. The only requirement is that you are in the dance. That doesn’t mean you need to do it alone, so get some friends to help and develop your team working skills.
The Dance Your PhD 2016 winner. Credit Jacob Brubert, University of Cambridge
There are a plethora of science photography competitions to choose from, most of them are open to scientists from all over the world. For example, the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust and MILSET all run yearly competitions, as do many other research councils and learned societies. If your research involves dazzling colours, beautiful places or impressive-looking machinery, you can show off in Naturejobs’ #ScientistAtWork photo competition.
Réka Nagy is a PhD student at the MRC Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, unravelling how genetics shapes our health using large family-based datasets. When she’s not busy writing scripts and analysing data, she can be found communicating science or using a computer to play video games and design anything from posters to dream homes. You can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.