Getting the most out of conferences

In the weeks leading up to a conference, you are probably focused on preparing what you will present to the attendees, but don’t forget that attending a conference can be a great opportunity to develop your network and facilitate your next career move.

Some research in advance into the delegates attending, the organisations exhibiting and the location of the conference can pay dividends.

If you are trying to develop a career in academia

Are any of the delegates people you would like to employ you (as a postdoc or PI) or host you (as a fellow)?  Reach out to them in advance and try to set up a meeting at the conference.  If you are presenting a talk or poster, let them know.  A quick chat can be easier and more fruitful than a carefully crafted email, particularly if you are looking to change subfields.

If you will be geographically close to any groups or departments you would like to join, try to arrange a visit before or after the conference.  They might like you to give a talk about your work.

Trying to come up with independent research ideas?  At our Fellowship event, Prof George Malliaras suggested attending talks outside your immediate field.

If you are trying to move into R&D in industry

Do any of the delegates work at companies of interest?  Contact them in advance and try to arrange a meeting at the conference.  You could ask a GradLink at the same company to forward an email, or you could reach out through LinkedIn – just make sure your own profile promotes you well.

If you are trying to move into a non-research role

Are any of the exhibitors doing roles that interest you?  You are likely to find journal editors, people working for professional bodies such as the Royal Society of Chemistry, and application specialists for lab equipment and reagents.  Don’t hesitate to ask the presenters about their own careers paths. You will often find former researchers at conferences who can share their own experiences and tips for moving into a non-research role.

Further tips? Last year Claudia Bonfio, a postdoc at the LMB, wrote a great post for The Biochemist Blog on ‘How to be better at networking at conferences’

Sally Todd, postdoc career adviser

From scientist to interactive journalist

Anna Lombardi tells us how she made the transition from postdoc to interactive journalist

Anna Lombardi

Please give us a brief career history

Despite my purely scientific background, I’ve ended up working as an interactive journalist at the Times and Sunday Times. The path I’ve followed to get here has been anything but linear.

After completing my PhD in Physics at the University of Lyon (France) in 2013, I moved to Cambridge, where I joined the NanoPhotonics Centre in the Physics department as a postdoc.

I had the chance to work in an extremely dynamic and stimulating environment, deepening my knowledge of light-matter interaction at the nanoscale and plasmonic sensing.

Despite enjoying the work in the lab, after three years I decided to rethink my career path to pursue my passion for science communication.

Aware that I needed more technical tools to move into this field, I enrolled in a two-year Master in Science Communication at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste (Italy) where I first learned about data journalism and visual storytelling.

While studying, I tried to gather experience in as many fields as possible: from science festivals to science publishing,press office activities and event organization. But I soon realised data journalism was something that intrigued me the most, something always in the back of my mind. This is when I started looking for jobs and, in August 2018, I applied for the one advertised by The Times.

Why were you attracted to this role, how did you find it?

The one tdatahing that has never changed throughout my career is a deep passion for numbers.

As a researcher I was used to reading through big sets of data and visualising them in the clearest possible way for publication; no surprise that, while studying science communication, I got particularly interested in the field of data journalism and visual storytelling.

When I came across this job opportunity advertised by The Times online, I immediately applied. As soon as I read the job description, I thought that it would be the perfect match between my scientific and communication skills.

What aspects of your postdoc experience were most useful in securing the job?

My scientific background has been considered a plus throughout the recruiting process.

Analytical thinking and problem solving were highly valued, as well as coding and writing proficiency. These are all skills I have developed and improved as a postdoc.

What do you do in your current role – what is an ‘average’ day ?

On a day to day basis, our interactive team helps reporters analysing and visualising data to
go with their articles.

We realise maps, charts and interactive tools to contextualise a story,to provide extra bits of information, to engage with readers and guide them through complex data, to incorporate live or location data, to create reader-focused datasets.

All these tools are added to the online edition of the paper. We often collaborate with journalists to find stories within big datasets by scraping and coding, and we sometimes write data-based stories ourselves.

What do you enjoy?

We cover several stories every day. I love learning about different topics through data, something that journalism and science have in common.

I also enjoy designing (often through coding) interactive charts and bespoke digital tools that aim at challenging and moving an often too static view of the world.

Any aspects that you don’t enjoy?

The fast pace of a newsroom is certainly thrilling but it can also be overwhelming sometimes for an ex-researcher, used to a much slower paced environment.

What are the main skills you use on a day-to-day basis?

Data analysis, few bits of statistics, as well as coding, communication and visualization skills.

What is your one tip for postdocs who might be considering a move to this sector?

Science and journalism have more in common than you might think: good journalism, as good science, relies on precision, method and clarity. There isn’t much difference between a good chart/graph going into a top peer-reviewed journal or printed in a daily newspaper: they both need to be self-explaining, complete and visually compelling.

Addressing the general public instead of your scientific peers is even more challenging for me, as you can never assume “they should already know” part of the story.

If you are passionate about data but also enjoy telling stories and deepening your knowledge of the world, journalism could be your next destination.

Can we make competition a positive force for science?

As someone whose list of passions in life is topped by science and sport, I was delighted to see Liz Nicholl, Chief Executive of UK Sport, on the bill at a conference on the culture of scientific research. And she wasn’t alone in drawing on the sporting world for inspiration, as Prof Leanne Hodson and her PhD student Pippa Gunn gave an inspirational talk comparing the running of a lab with a rowing eight. All this got me thinking about the parallels between these two worlds, science and sport, especially around the themes of competition and teams. What could we learn from sport to make positive changes in research culture?

relay raceCompetition was a big theme throughout the conference, and among the majority it seemed clear that for science it’s considered a Bad Thing. A culture which prizes the individual glory of a very few was seen to be a major contributor to high stress levels, bad behaviour, and to many young researchers feeling undervalued in their work. But sport – professional sport at least – is unashamedly competitive. We play to win. We also celebrate individuals – the top goal scorer, the gold medallist, the yellow jersey. What makes this more acceptable in sport than in science?

My sense is that it comes down to how we value the team. In team sports, this is clear. An individual might deliver a brilliant performance, but we recognise that he or she did that with the support of their team. And the whole team, including the supporters, share in the result and the glory. ‘Man of the match’ is something for the individual to aspire to, but probably means much less to them than winning the cup or league with their team. Even those competing in individual sports effectively do so as part of a team – team GB for instance. And these teams are recognised, valued and celebrated, as much as the individual, in some cases more. If we think back to our success in the last two Olympic Games, we might remember a few brilliant individuals, but what we really celebrate is the total medal haul of the team.

rowing teamHow does this compare with science? We talk of teams of researchers, striving for shared goals, but in fact a research group is much more a collection of individuals, all working to their own objectives, mainly because they will always be judged as individuals. In navigating the career ladder, it’s all about presenting independent, personal work, and ultimately any big prizes go to an individual or individuals, not a team. When a scientist achieves a major breakthrough, we know there are likely to be many others who have contributed to that work in many different ways. They might be lucky to get acknowledgement from a prize winner, or share in the excitement of having been part of something big, but ultimately reflected glory doesn’t carry much weight on the job market, which is where it needs to count. Like the domestiques of science, postdocs may well end up toiling away for the glory of their lead rider.

So does it make sense to get rid of competition in science? We know that many a major advance in science has been accelerated when multiple research groups have been focused on the same question. But would this aspect of research culture be more palatable if the success could be shared more across the team, as it is in sport? Let’s start giving prizes in science to teams – something that wouldn’t be too difficult to introduce. A bigger culture change, but one we should aim for, is to establish ways to make sure we give credit to everyone who makes a contribution to an outstanding piece of work. This was an idea we heard again and again at Changing Expectations, but if we could really make it happen, the research team finally becomes a real team. If we can do this, we needn’t fear competition, and then like any sports team, we can all play to win.

 

Liz Simmonds

Postdoc Careers Adviser, University of Cambridge

(originally published in ‘Research culture: changing expectations’ – conference report, The Royal Society)

Tips and tricks for building your LinkedIn profile for postdocs

Many postdocs maintain an online presence through a personal website or their research group’s website.

Often, sites such as LinkedIn are perceived as useful only for those fresh out of undergraduate studies or looking for business roles.

However, as the largest job social media site, LinkedIn is becoming more and more critical for those seeking roles outside of academia.

A LinkedIn profile is more than an online CV, it is a major networking tool and online job board. In fact, it is becoming more common for postdoctoral and academic-related roles to be posted through LinkedIn.

LinkedIn can be a powerful tool for exploring and reaching the next step in your career, but first you must take the time to build a good profile.  Luckily it won’t take too long – below are some keys tips for making your profile really stand out.

Top tips:

  • Headshot – A good headshot will not only make you seem warm and approachable, but LinkedIn statistics show your profile is ~27 times more likely to be viewed if you include a photo. It doesn’t have to be formal, but don’t dress distractingly or have a busy background. Don’t forget to smile!
  • Compelling headline– The headline is 120 characters to summarise yourself. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t have to be your job title. I can be comprehensive and doesn’t need to include full sentences. Remember LinkedIn uses search engine algorithms to match your profile so think about what keywords you want to include in your headline to make your profile searchable.
  • Succinct summary – This is a slightly longer summary (up to 2000 characters) where you can also include what you are looking for in a role or your career overall. Remember to use relevant keywords here as well!
  • Personalise your URL – it just takes a moment, and makes your profile link more memorable for you and for others.
  • Experience – You probably already have most of this section written as it will most closely resemble parts of your existing CV.
  • Connections – The more people you connect with, the broader your network. LinkedIn works on a degrees of separation (1st, 2nd, 3rd).
  • Groups – Join any alumni groups of universities you have attended, as well as any professional groups that match your interests. Bonus tip: You can directly message someone who is a member of the same group as you – regardless of what level connection they are to you.
  • Media – You can upload presentations, press releases, etc. directly to your profile. There is no need to upload all your publications or your PhD thesis, but if there are key articles or works that you would like to share, these can lend credibility to your skills.
  • Activity – as with all social media, more activity means more input from other users Again, don’t feel compelled to write blog articles and comment on every notification that comes your way, but as with all social media, the more you use it, the more your profile will get promoted.

Find out more in our video

By Sonali Shukla, Postdoc Careers Adviser

R&D in industry: which job title is right for me?

Seeking an R&D position in industry but not sure which level you should be applying for?  Let’s take an example.  Looking  at the One Nucleus website (biotech jobs, in the Cambridge/London area), the following job titles appeared on my screen:

Scientist, Senior Group Leader, Research Associate, Research Scientist, Senior Scientist and Principal Scientist

So, as a postdoc, how can you tell which of these are the right level  for you?

Read the job requirements

The job titles a company uses may be fairly arbitrary. But they should at least be a little clearer in the job description. For example, many of you currently have the job title ‘research associate’, so you might assume this would be the right level.  But when I read the job requirements, I found this role only expected a BSc/MSc.  In fact it was the ‘research scientist’ (at the same Cambridge University spin-out!) position that asked for a PhD and postdoc/industry experience.

A ‘senior scientist’ position – at a different organisation – specified at least three years in industry.  The ‘scientist’ position was vaguer, talking about experience in a ‘drug discovery environment’.

Apply now button

So what can you do to make more sense of job titles?

Do some research.  Looking on LinkedIn, I could quickly find how much industrial experience people tended to have when appointed as ‘scientists’ in this organisation. LinkedIn also revealed a great deal about the ‘senior group leader’ position, where the job requirements said ‘Science based Degree or PhD with significant experience in a product development/ laboratory environment and proven managerial experience’.  One current senior group leader at this organisation joined with an MSc and another a BSc, but both already had years of experience managing large teams.  Admittedly, it is five years since the more recent joiner was recruited, but postdocs with only minimal management experience might decide against prioritising an application at this level.

I couldn’t use LinkedIn to find out more about people doing the senior and principal scientist roles because I didn’t know the company name – they were being advertised through a recruitment agency.  I tried my trick of taking what looked like a unique piece of text and pasting it into Google – quite often you can find the same job being advertised on the company website.  But this didn’t work as the company is in Poland, and they may well have used Polish there!

In summary, job titles vary from company to company, so don’t make assumptions.  Do read the job requirements/person specification carefully, try to find out which companies recruitment agencies are representing (by pasting a unique phrase from the advert into your browser), and look at the experience of current jobholders on LinkedIn.  This should help you to focus your application efforts on roles where you have the best chance of being shortlisted.

 

by Sally Todd, Postdoc careers adviser

Too late to change direction?

Can you postdoc for too long? It’s a question I’ve been asked many times by clients trying to negotiate their career path. You can break their concerns down in to two further questions: How many years should you postdoc before securing an academic job becomes unlikely? And: How many years can you postdoc before employers outside of academia are no longer interested in you?

I love a nice graph, so I’ve attempted to use one to represent the assumptions I think a lot of postdocs make about these questions:

 

 

We can probably agree that during the early part of your postdoc career, you need to take time to build your research track record and reputation in order to make yourself attractive for permanent academic positions, but after an unspecified period of time you might find it harder to get more independent positions as you become ineligible for early career fellowships or selection panels question why you haven’t yet obtained a permanent position. We’re also assuming that during this time you’re becoming increasingly unattractive to employers outside academia as you become so highly specialised. These are sweeping generalisations, of course, but the strategic question is valid: at what point do you know when to stop trying one path so you can maintain your ability to switch to a different one?

If you’re in the first few years of your postdoc career, then my message for you is ‘get planning’. If you’re a little way further along that t-axis, my message for you is ‘don’t panic’. In either case, we’re here to help you.

If you’ve got time on your hands and you can still see an upward trajectory for your academic career, keep up the good work, but don’t neglect your other options. At this stage, you don’t need to commit to any other career path, but if you have a bit of a sense of what you could do outside of academia, it will help mitigate the panic if things don’t work out quite the way you had planned, and it can help you make the most of your time by signposting you to useful activities and networks that could help you to access these roles in the future. Our previous blog posts about deciding your direction will help you with this.

If you’re a little further along the postdoc path, don’t worry, we have lots of examples of postdocs who have made a career change after several research contracts. They key to success here is creating a positive narrative about the change – what’s motivating you? It may well be that you’ve realised that academia isn’t going to work out, and you feel like this change is being forced on you, but an employer isn’t going to see that as a valid reason to recruit you. You need to demonstrate genuine enthusiasm for the role, and this means doing your research beforehand, finding out about the employer and the sector, and what the hot topics are. If you’ve taken the time to do this, through wider reading and speaking to people in the sector, you’ll convince employers that you really want to make this change.

Career change can be challenging at any stage; accepting you need to make a move and working out what you might do next takes some thought. The Postdoc Careers Service is here to help you with any aspect of that process – come and see us if you’d like to talk it over. We can absolutely reassure you that it’s never too late to change direction.

 

Liz Simmonds, Postdoc Careers Adviser

 

Telephone and Skype interviews – how to prepare with short notice.

Help! I’ve been called for a telephone (or Skype) interview tomorrow, and there’s no time to see a careers adviser. Can you help me prepare?

It’s one of our most common enquiries, and it’s also typical that postdocs get very little notice for these first-round ‘screening’ interviews. So we thought we’d put together some top tips to help you, if you find yourself facing a remote interview at short notice.

A short telephone or Skype interview is frequently used in all sectors – for lectureships and jobs outside academia – as a time and cost-efficient way of meeting candidates and deciding whether to invest in taking them further in to the process. As a result, they tend to be quite broad in scope aiming to assess in some way each of the elements that will be addressed in detail at a later stage.

So time is short, and the scope is broad – what should you focus your preparation on?

Find out who’ll be interviewing you. This could give you some useful clues about what to expect. For example, if you’re being interviewed by someone in an HR function, the questions will probably focus on your career path and CV, but if you’re going to be interviewed by someone in the team you’ve applied to, the questions may well focus on knowledge needed for the role or sector. If it’s a lectureship interview, knowing the research interests of the people you’ll be talking to will help you decide at what level you need to pitch your answers.

Anticipate some questions, and plan your answers.

In lectureship interviews, the questions are usually quite predictable, and you can see an extensive list of examples in our Quick Guide. Be ready to talk about your current research, major achievements, and future plans, as well as your teaching experience, and how you hope to contribute to the University or institution you’ve applied to.

If your interview is outside of academia, it’s harder to generalise, but you should always be ready to answer the question ‘why do you want this job?’, and to talk about the skills and experiences you think you can bring to the role. Check back to the job description for clues about what skills might be most important to emphasise, and have at least one example, preferably more, to show how you’ve demonstrated each skill. It’s also a good idea to read a bit about the company that’s interviewing you – what issues are they currently facing? What recent achievements are they proud of? What’s happening in the wider sector that’s relevant to them?

Be specific

Where a lot of people fall down in interviews is by being too generic in their answers. Your goal in an interview is to show how you stand out from other candidates, and to do that you need to make your examples personal to you. For instance, if you’re telling the interviewer about your experience giving presentations as an example of your excellent communication skills, don’t talk in general terms. ‘I regularly give presentations to a variety of different audiences’, makes you sound just like every other candidate. Instead talk about a specific presentation, and furnish the example with detail. What was the presentation about? Where was it, and for whom? Did you do anything different to address this audience? How was it received? What did you learn from it? By making the example your own, it becomes much more convincing.

Rehearse but don’t script!

You need to be confident in delivering your answers, but you don’t want to sound like you’ve scripted them. It’s a tricky balance, and if you’re nervous or English isn’t your first language, it can be tempting to learn answers off by heart. Instead, try to jot down two or three key points that you’ll cover for each question. Practice saying the answers out loud by following these points – perhaps even record your answers and play them back to see how they sound.

Find a good place to have your interview.

Find somewhere quiet for your interview where you won’t be disturbed – the last thing you want is a colleague walking in on you, or your baby crying next door… If it’s a Skype interview, make sure there’s nothing messy on the wall behind you, dress smartly, with no distracting patterns, and aim to look at the camera when you speak (a good trick is to put the screen with your interviewer right at the top of your screen, under your camera). The advantage of remote interviews is you can have your notes accessible to jog your memory, as long as this doesn’t become distracting. The downside is that you lose some of the useful non-verbal cues that show your interviewer understands you. Don’t be afraid to use phrases like ‘Have I answered your question?’ or ‘Would you like me to talk more about that?’.

Have a question to ask.

Finally, think of a question you’d like to ask them. It’s practical at this stage to ask about when you’ll hear about the outcome of the interview, but it’s also a good opportunity to ask questions about their organisation or the role that show you’re genuinely interested in the job.

By Liz Simmonds, Postdoc Careers Adviser

 

 

The elevator pitch: giving your funding application a lift

At the recent Postdoc Careers Service fellowship event many of the speakers talked about ‘elevator pitches.’  So, what exactly are they?  And how can travelling in a lift help you get the funding to turn your fellowship idea into reality?

The term ‘elevator pitch’ originates from the US business world.  It imagines that a budding entrepreneur is riding in an elevator with a possible investor.  Time is money, so our nervous business person only has the duration of the ride to the next floor (typically under 1 minute) to describe the benefits of their idea and spark the investor’s interest.  The lift door opens and the question arises – will the potential backer be inspired by what they hear and continue the conversation – or will they walk away?

New York elevatorAll of which sounds interesting – but what has this got to do with your funding proposal?

Well, funders are very similar to the investor in the scenario above.  They have limited time and a lot of people wanting their money.  Like the fledgling entrepreneur, making a brief but persuasive case for your research early on in your application will increase both the chances of the funder reading further, and securing that precious funding.

So what makes for a ‘brief but persuasive case’?  Professor Steve Russell, event speaker and funding panellist with 15 years’ experience, says that you need to clearly and compellingly outline a) what’s the question, b) why it’s important, c) what you will do and d) how will you advance the field.

It sounds easy.  But how do you put this advice into practice when time/word counts are so tight?

  • Make it easy to understand

Don’t be afraid to express your key ideas in uncomplicated language – it won’t mean that your research is ‘too simple.’

  • Be ruthless

Slim your sentences and make every word count.  Even though there may be parts of your proposal that have taken time to write and you feel proud of, cut anything that doesn’t rapidly build a case for your research.  Dr Farzana Meru, event speaker and early career fellowship holder explains: ‘Less is more, you don’t have to talk about everything you want to do, you just need to tell a good compelling story.’

  • Explain clearly

Don’t presume that your reader understands your area of research as well as you do.  Including unnecessary jargon and assuming a level of knowledge creates barriers to understanding that will send your proposal to the bottom of the pile.

Try to get as many non-experts to read your work as possible.  Afterwards, check that they can convincingly describe the four key elements of your research proposal – the question, why, what and how?  If they can’t, it’s time for a rewrite.

  • Be upfront

Keep that one minute journey in mind.  Check to see that you haven’t hidden a key aspect of your research somewhere down the page.  Imagine the entrepreneur taking 70 rather than 60 seconds to make their case for funding.  Taking too long to explain the benefits means they’re left talking to an empty lift whilst the investor walks away.

Get inspiration from successful research proposals. Ask people you know for examples of their lay summaries in their proposals. 

  • Elevator pitches can be useful elsewhere.

Elevator pitches take time to get right – but they will become an invaluable part of your researcher’s toolkit.

Several fellowship holders at the event stressed the importance of contacts to the success of their funding applications.  From formal networking events to spontaneous chats in cafes, having an answer to the inevitable ‘and what do you do?’ question will help you make important connections with people who could support your work now – or in the future.

Although memorising a script isn’t recommended, it is well worth having some words that outline the question (or problem) you want to look into, that explain why your research is important, how you plan to investigate and how your work will advance the field.

So, next time you’re putting together a research proposal, remember the elevator and raise your game.

Check out the video of speaker top tips from the Fellowships: What you need to know event

Fellowship and funding information

By Heather Smith, Postdoc Careers Service Team

 

The PI as entrepreneur

Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

I was thinking the other day that we do postdocs a disservice when we talk about ’staying in academia’.  It makes it sound as though moving into industry or non-research careers is a career change, but that the move from postdoc to PI is not.

In fact the skills required to be a successful PI are perhaps closer to those needed to be a successful entrepreneur than those you have developed as a postdoc.  Your ability to carry out research will be less important, as you will have postdocs and PhD students to focus on that. Instead you will need to raise your profile, to network and to persuade others that your unique research ideas are worth funding. You will have to inspire great researchers to join your ‘start-up’ group.

‘PIs as boundary spanners, science and market shapers’ Journal of Technology Transfer, 39(1):1-10 found that successful PIs are strategists with a clarity of purpose and a clear vision of their scientific mission over the long term.  They are loyal to their vision, not their institution, and so are mobile, making strategic moves.  They are collaborators, spanning traditional boundaries between disciplines and increasingly between academia and industry.  And they are leaders, setting the direction for their research group.

If this isn’t how you see your career developing, don’t despair – there will be different career paths to suit you, but ‘staying in academia’ long-term might not be right for you.  If, however, you are keen on being a PI, start observing how the PIs you know deploy their entrepreneurial skills.

By Sally Todd, Postdoc Careers Adviser

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