Naturejobs journalism competition winner Eileen Parkes
Over one thousand scientists attended the Naturejobs Career Expo last week in London. With professional CV checking, exhibitors from academic institutions and companies from around the world, and career-focused talks from Nobel Prize winner Professor Venki Ramakrishnan, science communication expert David Urry, popular blogger and senior lecturer Dr John Tregoning and many more, this was a resource-packed event for researchers.
Spending the day absorbing so much great careers advice left me feeling punch-drunk by the end. Some themes cropped up repeatedly — distilled wisdom on scientific success.
Think outside the box
We all tend to get absorbed in our science, perfecting our techniques and getting to know our field better than anyone else. This, we often think, is the key to our success. This is how we will get ahead.
It is certainly a factor in our success but many speakers suggested we need to think beyond this, and develop skills outside of research. Venki Ramakrishnan highlighted “sociability” as a key skill, leading to success in collaborations and moving our research forward: “In most experimental science, it is highly collaborative. You need to have social skills,” and you need to “be outward looking. Science is not a lone enterprise; it’s a highly social enterprise.” John Tregoning talked of “up-skilling” – developing our talents outside of science. We may not think of ourselves as salespeople but we need similar skills to get our message across: the ability to communicate clearly and quickly. Our ability to lead and work in a team are best demonstrated by skills not learnt at the bench – seek out opportunities to develop these skills and ask your PI to point to development courses.
Don’t give 110%
Not only is this mathematically impossible, it is not the best approach to career advancement. Venki Ramakrishnan suggested giving ourselves 90% to the science, and 10% to developing other skills. It’s up to each of us to find the mix that works for us. Not only will we be healthier, more balanced individuals, we’ll also be better researchers. It’s not just about the science!
I am always struck, on hearing others speak about their career, when they describe their lucky break. Luck does play a part, and this was highlighted by speakers, but they also highlighted how we can create our own luck by making and taking opportunities. Attend talks outside of your field. Collaborate across disciplines. Keep exploring ideas. Be persistent. By opening up our options, networking and giving ourselves chances we can create these “lucky” opportunities for ourselves.
Be a rebel
My favourite speaker (I suspect I’m not alone) was the fantastic Dr Seishi Shimizu. His passion and energetic enthusiasm for research was obvious as he took control of the stage. He openly confessed to being a rebel, searching for truth and expressing controversial opinions. I suspect many scientists (Albert Einstein, Grace Hopper, Freeman Dyson to name a few) can attribute their success to rebelliousness and a willingness to question the status quo. Scientists are the kids who didn’t stop asking “why?” As with all things, rebelliousness works best in moderation, but he reminded us not to suppress our inner rebel and to continue asking questions.
Dr John Tregoning highlighted how often he has wanted to quit science in his career (often). Rejection, or failure, is a big part of a scientific career. By stretching ourselves early in our careers, applying for awards and pitching ideas, we’ll start to exercise our resilience to failure. For many of us, a PhD is the first time we’ve struggled against failure. We need to accept this as normal, that failure is part of academic life, and learn techniques to cope with it and move on. For some of us this could be a drink with friends, or a hug from our children; the sooner we identify and practice our coping techniques the better.
With so many fantastic speakers, I have only highlighted a few gleanings of tips and advice here. I plan to put these into practice in my own career development and work on creating my own “luck”.
Eileen Parkes is a clinical post-doctoral researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, working on exploiting the immune response to DNA damage. Outside the lab she loves spending time with family and using social media to talk science. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.