Aled’s fellowship story…at a glance

Dr Aled Parry is a Welcome Trust Sir Henry Wellcome fellow at the Babraham Institute.  In his short podcast with the Postdoc Careers Service, Aled talks about his journey from PhD to fellowship holder.  Although Aled’s PhD is from CRUK-CI, his first degree was at Bath.  Aled describes the process of finding a suitable idea to work on, identifying funders who might be prepared to back it and the time and commitment  it took to finally secure his fellowship

Dr Aled Parry describes his journey from PhD to fellowship holder

Aled’s podcast is one in a series making up The Fellowship Sessions – a mix of on-demand content, virtual live panels with fellowship holders and senior academics, and a virtual Funders’ Fair which only happens every 2 years.  To hear more, visit the playlist on the Careers Service’s YouTube channel.

Aled is a guest panellist at a live virtual panel on 14th January on early career postdoc fellows, book now to join him and fellow panellists.

Academic Recruitment: Tricky interview questions

 

Academic recruitment: tricky interview quesitons

Interviewing for group leader/faculty positions – what are your selectors’ concerns?

At a recent workshop on interviews for group leader/faculty positions, STEM postdocs were asked to share any tricky interview questions they had been asked or had heard about.

Participants came up with the following questions. For the ones that had most interest, I have tried to address why an interviewer might ask this, and what preparation you could do to be ready for something similar.

How will you contribute to the university outside of your research?

UK higher education is a marketplace. What are the university’s priorities right now and how can you help them achieve them? Get insights by looking at how the university presents itself (on its website) to prospective students.  Are they still trying to fill places?  Are they keen to increase diversity or to support students with mental health difficulties?  For UK universities, find out more about their students’ typical educational backgrounds and what they like/dislike about their course (for example, whether they feel they get timely feedback) from the Discover Uni website.  Once you know the context, you can come up with examples to show how you could engage with the university’s top concerns.

What is your mentoring approach for Master or PhD students?

They are asking this because they want you to be able to support your students and for them to submit on time and pass (important for future funding).  Think about any mentoring you have done to date – what worked and what didn’t.  If you have never mentored others, what has your experience (and your peers’) been as mentees?

What are your plans for attracting research funding in this role?

They want to know you have already thought about this.  Know what your first (and second) grant application would be and where (and when) you would apply.

If you have been shortlisted, they must have seen something in you

How will you ensure that your research will be impactful?

Recognise what impactful might mean to them – refer to the job advertisement.  In the UK, familiarise yourself with the REF definition and look at a range of REF case studies in this institution and others who may be doing related work in your field.

Who are your main competitors?

They want to know that you are familiar with the field but have a niche.  You should be able to say something like: my current supervisor’s focus is on x and Dr B at 1111 is also working in my field but with an interest in y, but my own work will address z (which needs to be sufficiently distinct from x and y to attract additional funding).

New lecturers often struggle with the load of teaching in their first year. How will you manage this?

Try to find out before (or in) interview what the expectation is (often reduced for appointees new to lecturing).  The key word is ‘manage’ – how do you manage conflicting pressures currently?  Is there anything you could drop to focus on grant applications and teaching?

You have not published many original articles in the last year. Why are you a strong candidate?

If you have been shortlisted, they must have seen something in you.  Your answer should reflect your value to them – are you bringing new methodology, can you generate lots of undergraduate projects?  You may be able to point to exciting unpublished results that are waiting on further experiments/collaborators/patent applications – update the panel on any new outputs since you applied.

Interviewers will be impressed if you are up to speed with the latest challenges facing them

What do you understand by leadership?

They are asking this because they want to recruit someone with leadership potential.  Think about people you admire for their leadership.  What qualities have they shown? (use traits that you can also demonstrate in yourself!)  If you have had leadership roles beyond the lab, think about how you could transfer the skills, for example, if you have experience of coming up with a strategy for an outreach activity, or motivating and encouraging sports team members, you may be better placed to lead your research group.

Would you encourage a student to pursue a formal complaint of sexual harassment?

They may have had a recent issue and be testing whether you are aware that policies should exist and need to be followed.  You need to show appreciation that this is a serious matter, that you would listen to the student but also seek advice from senior staff and/or HR and refer the student for appropriate support for example, student union, counselling.

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Keep up to date with topical issues to impress at interview

Interviewers will be impressed if you are up to speed with the latest challenges facing them. Cambridge University postdocs can use the University’s subscription to the Times Higher Education magazine to keep abreast of issues in Higher Education.  New, topical, concerns for academics include:

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I’ve posted some other popular questions below. Why not use the Comments box below to share why you think an interviewer might ask this, and what preparation you could do?

Have you had any conflict in your last position? How did you manage it?

If offered, would you accept this position?

Given that you lack formal management experience, how would you approach managing and motivating a research team?

What would you do on your first day in the job?

How would you motivate first year undergraduate students in your discipline?

By Sally Todd, Postdoc Careers Adviser

Academic Recruitment: Chalk Talks

Academic Recruitment - Chalk Talks

You’ve been asked to give a chalk talk as part of the interview process for a long term academic role.  Your mind is probably buzzing with questions – how do I structure it? what should I include? how long should it be? and what is the point of including it anyway?

To help answer these questions, Prof. Jason Carroll, a speaker at a postdoc event, gave a talk addressing these common concerns.

Why a chalk talk?

Although the chalk-talk isn’t always required, it is an important part of the recruitment process in many institutions.  You need to prepare for it as fully as the research seminar and other parts of the interview.

The panel will be observing how you respond to getting your work pulled apart constructively.  When you are interrupted, do you get flustered?  Can you think on your feet?

It is a chalk talk, not a Powerpoint presentation

Don’t turn up with a slide deck – you will be using a whiteboard and marker pens or a blackboard and chalk. It might sound informal or an afterthought but it’s not. Jason said it’s tough, even for group leaders, referring to it as: ‘The dreaded chalk talk’. He was careful to stress, though, that no one does it perfectly. So, If you are feeling nervous, you are not alone.

Talk about your future plans…

Don’t dwell on your story to date, the panel want to know about your future project and how you will carry it out.  Outline your five year plan clearly and succinctly.

Ensure that you get your key messages up front

Knowing that you will be interrupted means that you need to stay at a high level.  Ignore the specifics, such as details of the experiments that you intend to run.

Jason suggests an opening such as ‘I am going to be looking at x in the context of y, and here are my three goals.’  He suggests that the three goals should be broken down into safe, medium and higher risk objectives.  These goals should not be interdependent – if one goal fails you should show that  plans will be flexible enough for your research to continue.

Don’t dwell on your story to date, the panel want to know about your future project and how you will carry it out.

Make sure that these aims are realistic within the timeframe. Also, ensure that the plan fits with the remit or goals of the institute/department.

Don’t come across as dogmatic.  As the project progresses and the scientific landscape changes you need to be able to show to the panel, through contingency planning, that you will be able to adapt to these inevitable changes.

Worried about forgetting information?  You can use a cheat sheet to remember key figures.  Just don’t copy it out onto the whiteboard.

Remember that you are going to be leading projects for multiple people

Make sure you can justify the composition of your lab.  Why do you need a clinical fellow, technicians or a lab comprised solely of postdocs?  How will this change during your research?

Think about the questions you might be asked and practice answering them

These may include:

What is you first project going to be?

Why you?

Why this institute?

Who are you going to work with from within the institute?

How will you measure success?

Where are you going to get grants from?

What differentiates you from your Postdoc supervisor?

Can you bring your research with you or will you be starting from scratch?

Be excited

Be enthusiastic about your work and what you can offer the institute.  Understand your audience.  Also think about what the institute can offer you.

You need to come across as a good fit.  In addition to good research, the panel want to select the best colleague – you will probably be spending a lot of time together.

Chalk talks are not just for interviews

In fact, the chalk talk in front of peers is often a regular and important exercise for group leaders at an institution even though, as Jason says, it doesn’t feel like it at the time!  You’ll get brilliant minds offering you input on your work,  So, it is a useful skill to have if you are planning an academic career.

For more info on academic careers

By Heather Smith

Working as an academic at a teaching focused university

Working as an academic at a teaching focused universityWe recently hosted an inspiring speaker – Jim Sullivan –  a former Cambridge postdoc who worked as a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, a senior lecturer and now a Director of Studies at our neighbouring Anglia Ruskin University (ARU).  Jim gave some great insights on what it’s like and how to get in.  Here are some highlights.

Teaching ‘focused’ unis might not want to see themselves this way

At the Postdoc Careers Service we bandy about terms such as ‘research focused’, ‘research intensive or led’ and ‘teaching focused’ unis. While these terms have their use as broad brush definitions when you are researching future employers, our speaker pointed out that teaching ‘focused’ unis might not want to see themselves this way. While they are teaching focused—they literally have a lot of taught students relative to researchers–these institutions aspire to be more research led. So take care using our indelicate definitions when talking to future academic employers.

Over the last couple of decades, teaching was perceived as a poor relative of research, but the arrival of the Teaching Excellence Framework gave it a ranking boost

Teaching’s profile has increased

Over the last couple of decades, teaching was perceived as a poor relative of research, but the arrival of the Teaching Excellence Framework gave it a ranking boost. Suddenly universities’ teaching was being formally assessed and graded nationally, a situation that schools have long lived with. As a seasoned lecturer, Jim said that he has seen a shift in the recognition over the past years. The true value in good university teaching is being recognised, and that’s rewarding for the committed lecturer.

Teaching experience is important but it’s not always a deal breaker

At lectureship entry level, formal HE classroom teaching experience isn’t a must but the potential to be a good university teacher is. This is assessed at interview so make sure you pitch your practice lecture for 2nd year undergrads if that’s what they asked for, not for 3rd or 1st years. Experience of lecturing and giving tutorials is a definite advantage and for senior lectureships, experience in course design is required. Being able to disseminate your knowledge of teaching practice and methods is key too. So if you have designed or done something new or different related to teaching – even if it’s not an official course–don’t keep it to yourself, share with colleagues and gain evidence that you’ve done this.

HE teaching qualifications come in different shapes and sizes

Your new employer will expect you to do a higher education teaching qualification when in post. School level teaching qualifications or a fellowship at the Higher Education Academy are acceptable alternatives. Check out the opportunities to gain HE teaching qualifications and experience while you’re at the University of Cambridge.

Research skills can inform teaching and you can propose new modules based on your research expertise.

You will bring valuable ideas with you too

You may feel that you’re too research focused. Jim stressed that you will be bringing valuable ideas to the table. Your research experience will be appreciated if it fits into the institution’s research agenda. Research skills can inform teaching and you can propose new modules based on your research expertise. Research into good teaching practice – pedagogy – is sought after and might be a nice change from your current research field. Don’t forget you will have student projects related to what you teach on the go–undergrad final and masters –which will help push your research agenda.

Jim sees academic roles being a tripartite of research, teaching and administration.

University employers will love your inner administrator

The stereotype of the chaotic academic belies the importance of strong admin skills and how attractive they are to academic employers. ARU were very interested in Jim’s admin experience in health and safety at Queen Mary, and not long after he joined ARU, he became the biological safety officer writing uni policies in H&S. Another recent speaker Catarina Gadelha of the research led University of Nottingham agrees. Catarina has tons of teaching experience but you know what made the difference in her opinion? The ‘unusual’ –unglamorous teaching admin. She trained new tutors unfamiliar with the tutorial system, supported open days, attended committee meetings. “Those activities really impressed the Nottingham panel”, she said, “because teaching administration is much more important to a university! “

Not all lectureships are the same in the same institution

Jim sees academic roles being a tripartite of research, teaching and administration. Indeed a lecturer role in his institution can be based on varying proportions of any of the three e.g. 75% admin, 25% teaching. Promotions happen across all combinations and are not solely aligned to research output. Not that those years training are wasted if you don’t do much research. Jim finds his research skills – information finding –strengthens his effectiveness in academic admin.

How to get experience and a foot in the door

Owing to its organisational complexity, getting lecturing experience isn’t easy at the University of Cambridge, so looking at ad-hoc lecturing at other institutions is an option worth considering. ARU have associate lecturer roles – teaching on fixed hour contracts or marking assessments. They’re rarely advertised so you are advised to send a CV to the relevant head of School. And don’t let short-term contracts, eg maternity cover, put you off. It’s a foot in the door which usually leads to longer term options

If you don’t like it, you can leave

A teaching focused job might feel like a radical move from a postdoc at a research focused uni. If you think you’ll like teaching and all the rewards and complexities it brings, try it, says Jim. If you decide you don’t really like it, you are not stuck there.

By Anne Forde

Handshake – a guide for postdocs

Postdocs, meet Handshake

As a postdoc, you might be wondering how to utilise Handshake Cambridge – the new digital platform recently launched to connect with the Careers Service.   
Whether you are thinking of pursuing academic research or looking for opportunities beyond the ivory tower (or both!), we wanted to make sure you were on track to making the most of this innovative careers development platform. 

In a hurry? You can book an appointment and complete your profile later… 

Do you have an interview looming? Or maybe you need urgent help with a fellowship submission?  Perhaps the deadline for a job application is fast approaching? 

Do you have an interview looming? Or maybe you need urgent help with a fellowship submission?  Perhaps the deadline for a job application is fast approaching? 

When you first activate your Handshake account, you will be prompted to fill in your profile, which may seem daunting, and in ways, irrelevant to academic careers. 

Don’t worry.   

You can skip this step by simply pressing the “EXIT” in the top righthand corner, and then access the Careers Centre from the top menu bar, where you can book appointments, workshops and events. You can always return to filling out your profile later by clicking on “My Profile” under your initials.  

Access postdoc careers workshops and events  

We continue to offer a great range of workshops and briefings specifically tailored to researchers for careers in academia and beyond. Booking now takes place for all these activities through Handshake  

Academic careers on Handshake  

Handshake might look like it’s only for career options outside academia but it’s not. It’s a gateway  to a rich range of academic career  resources  to give you the best chances to you present yourself. 

Handshake might look like it’s only for career options outside academia but it’s not. It’s a gateway  to a rich range of academic career  resources  to give you the best chances to you present yourself. 

Through Handshake, you can quickly access our CV and Cover letters guide for PhDs and postdocs to help you prepare for interviews in academia and beyond . We’ll continue to add curated resources for you. 

See what’s on offer outside academia and start connecting with employers 

Interested in exploring ideas for careers outside of academic research? 

Handshake Cambridge is an powerful tool to help you consider this.  

As more people and organisations join Handshake, the opportunities to connect directly with employers and fellow postdocs and find jobs increaseAnd, of course, the more complete your profile is, the better chance you have of making relevant and useful connections.  

Filling out your interests on your profile is also key to letting us, the Careers Service, know what areas you are interested in so that we can send your information about opportunities and information in the sectors you like (similar to the CamCareers emails in our old system.) 

Be mindful of uploading an academically focussed CV as Handshake will autofill your profile using this information.

Be mindful of uploading an academically focussed CV as Handshake will autofill your profile using this information.  Building a profile that highlights key elements of your research career and includes relevant activities and interests outside of your primary research focus is key to utilising Handshake to transition out of academic research.  

For a step-by-step guide and tips, check out our blog post on building a great profile for students.

Register for Handshake now

Don’t hesitate to contact us through postdocs@careers.cam.ac.uk – our team is always ready to help you on your career journey.  

Our Postdoc Careers Advisers are standing by to help you with your career.

Postdoc careers advisers

 

Pictured from top to bottom are Diane Cardwell (AHSS), Anne Forde and Sally Todd (Life Sciences), Susan Gatell and Sonali Shukla (Physical Sciences).    

The Postdoc Careers Service has launched Handshake today!

Postdocs, meet Handshake

 

Jenny Blakesley, Director of University of Cambridge Careers Service, shares an update about the launch of Handshake Cambridge.

What is Handshake?

A new digital careers platform called Handshake to provide you with an up-to-date, mobile-friendly way to engage with us. With this system, you can book appointments and careers events, access our tailored resources and find opportunities.

Handshake has replaced most of current web systems and offers you many great new features in a personalised and interactive experience

Handshake has replaced most of current web systems and offers you many great new features in a personalised and interactive experience, including:

• Book careers appointments, workshops and events, and sign up for our Postdoc Careers Service newsletter
• Create a personalised profile and receive tailored information relating to your areas of interest
• Discover the best opportunities that match your experience and ask fellow users and employers questions
• Find the answers you need – learn more about industries and job roles to see if they’re right for you; get an inside look at employers with reviews; message employers with your questions
• Access a rich range of our tailored in-house resources for careers in and out of academia from the Postdoc Careers Service
• And more…

We want to reassure you that the Careers Service still exists in every other way, and we are excited to bring this new platform in to enhance our services.

If you are registered with us, you will have received an invitation from Handshake inviting you to set up your profile. If you are not registered yet, you can go directly to Handshake and select the University of Cambridge to join, or click the link at the side of this blog.

We strongly encourage you to do so, and look forward to welcoming you to the platform.

As always, please contact us at postdocs@careers.cam.ac.uk with any questions.

Taking on a fellowship interview panel from your home

Fellowship interview panesl

Despite a national lockdown, some funders are still going ahead with fellowship interviews remotely.    Anne Forde gives some tips for defending your proposal from home

Postdocs tell us it’s intimidating entering a fellowship panel interview in the hallowed halls of the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust, the Research Councils and other funders.

Despite the lockdown and public health emergency we’re living through, some funders are still going ahead with fellowship interviews remotely. Last week we’ve been working with postdocs to help them prepare.

So what do you do if you have to defend your proposal from home?

Here are some tips we hope will help in our brave new online world. Some of the advice applies to face to face fellowship interviews too.

Make every minute count

Fellowships interviews are short. Most are done and dusted in 30 mins so make every minute count.

Find out what platform the funder is using and practise using it. Your ‘venue security’ is important too.

Everyone who gets to a fellowship interview has an excellent proposal.

What counts at the interview is getting the panel excited about your research questions. It’s impossible to be memorable if you don’t look or sound like you believe in the work. With stress levels understandably high, you may come across as dry or uninspiring.

Introverts fear not, you don’t need to fake an upbeat personality. Try to imagine how happy you’d be doing this work and making your discoveries… so look like you actually want to do the work.

Practise the tech

This will ease your nerves on the day.  Find out what platform the funder is using and practise using it.  Your ‘venue security’ is important too.

Try to do everything humanly possible to make sure you are not interrupted at home during the interview (mobile phones, deliveries etc).

Practise your talk with someone who’s in a different location, get them to record it on the platform and listen afterwards.

Sound check – don’t sound like you are talking to dolphins

Practise your talk with someone who’s in a different location, get them to record it on the platform and listen afterwards.

You may have sounded great in your room but your connection might not be doing you any favours.

I had a practice session last week with a postdoc going for a Royal Society University Research Fellowship. With a great project and an articulate and convincing candidate, what could go wrong?

The connection was poor on the postdoc’s side so about every 5th word dropped on my end and this detracted from an otherwise great delivery. Have pity on the panel members who say interviewing all day is exhausting. Video interviewing is even harder work for them. If you lose their understanding, however briefly, their energy and interest levels will drop.

Using a decent style headset and a microphone will go a long way. No one likes listening to a distorted voice which sounds more like you are underwater talking to dolphins.

Aesthetics and poise matter

In our world now turned upside down, this seems superficial and trivial but it matters. Stand up when you give your talk. This is a natural way to present and you will look and feel more confident.

Put a big arrow at the webcam so you remember to look at it, rather than always gazing at the sea of panel members’ faces.

You can look at the interviewers while they speak, but focus on the webcam when you reply. I’d recommend answering their questions standing too. It’s hard to get a good visual angle sitting down, and many people look like they are just about to go downhill on a rollercoaster, or unwittingly rock back and forth as they answer questions which can make the viewer feel unnerved or even seasick.

Don’t have a messy background.

The panel are distinguished but even intellectuals can be irritated by a view of an untidy bedroom or distracted by your intriguing book collection. If you would like to have notes, limit it to key words and consider using post-it notes near the camera. Otherwise, you could end of shuffling papers or reading notes during the interview, which will be obvious to the interviewers.

Put a big arrow at the webcam so you remember to look at it, rather than always gazing at the sea of panel members’ faces.

Keep your talk to time

Do not dare overrun on the intro talk.

The funder will give you an allowed time limit. It’s better to have less content and be under time. Panels are notoriously irritated by people who run over. Don’t incite their wrath or give them the opportunity to cut you off.

Get a grilling from academics and peers

90% of the questions will be project specific so ask people in your dept and those outside your specific field to give you a tough online practice.

It probably won’t be fun but you’ll be primed if the panel start to pick holes.

Book a practice with the Careers Service Postdoc team

We’ll push you on the broader questions of ‘so what’ and ‘why you’.  Activate your Handshake account and book an online session with us and we can practise on the platform you need to use. We also have a hoard of specific feedback and interview questions from most of the fellowship schemes. Email us and we’ll send these and you can browse the perennial fellowship questions online.

It’s over and you’ve survived

When it’s over, make sure your video and sound links are off before you do whatever you need to do to relax. When you’ve recovered, we’d love to hear how it went.

Good luck.

What we know as of 30 March: Royal Society is interviewing using Zoom. The MRC were proposing online interviewing but have changed to the interview candidates providing written feedback on referees’ comments.

Anne Forde, Postdoc Careers Adviser

Weighing up job offers – how to make the best choice for you

photo of balanced stones

Sally Todd, postdoc careers adviser, discusses the factors to take into account when considering job offers.

The other week I saw a postdoc who had the good fortune to have a number of job offers.  In case you ever find yourself in a similar position, I thought I’d share some of the criteria (not all of equal weight to her) she was using to help her decide which was the best next step for her.

Would she enjoy the job and be likely to succeed in it?

The postdoc I met was weighing up a lectureship, an in-house fellowship that would lead to a tenured position and a prestigious, fixed-term fellowship.  They were at different types of institution in different countries.  She was considering:

  • Would she be able to do the research she wanted?
  • Was there suitable infrastructure in place?
  • Could she access the data she wanted?
  • What sort of colleagues/collaborators would she have?
  • Would she be able to attract good staff/students?
  • How much teaching would suit her?

If you’re comparing jobs outside academia, consider which components of the job really attract you, and what circumstances and support you would need to do it well. For example, for a job in science communication, would you prefer more written or verbal communication?  How well you could communicate the science might depend on access to source material and deadlines.

When you are making a choice, it’s worth thinking about where you want to be further down the line.  What will you gain to help you secure the next job or promotion?

Would the job help her career in the longer term?

  • Would she be able to fill gaps on her CV/ acquire new skills/ make herself more employable?
  • What training would she be able to access?
  • Would she be able to raise her profile?

When you are making a choice, it’s worth thinking about where you want to be further down the line.  What will you gain to help you secure the next job or promotion?

Person standing on arrow on ground
Find out more about careers options for postdocs on our website

What were the terms and conditions of the job?

  • Would she (and partner/children accompanying her) like to live in that location?
  • How much job security was there at the end of the probationary period/fixed term contract?
  • What were the salary and other benefits?

T&Cs are not just fine print, they can have a profound impact on whether a job is right for you.

What else would be important to you?  Do add a comment!

 

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