UCL Researchers
  • Welcome

    The UCL Careers team use this Blog to share their ‘news and views’ about careers with you. You will find snippets about a whole range of career related issues, news from recruiters and links to interesting articles in the media.

    We hope you enjoy reading the Blog and will be inspired to tell us your views.

    If you want to suggest things that students and graduates might find helpful, please let us know – we want to hear from you.

    Karen Barnard – Head of UCL Careers

    UCL Careers is part of The Careers Group, University of London

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    Do academics need an entrepreneurial mindset to succeed?

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 16 July 2018

    Bit of a rhetorical question, this one. The answer is yes, academics benefit when they think like entrepreneurs. If you’re not sure why that is, or you have no idea how to think more like an entrepreneur, check out this brilliantly amazing guest post (ahem – I wrote it) on the even more brilliantly amazing careers blog The Professor Is In.

    What’s academia like in China?

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 25 April 2018

    Last week Professor Limin Zhu from Donghua University kindly gave a talk at UCL about careers for PhDs in China. It was an illuminating session, largely highlighting that academia in China isn’t too different from academia in the UK. Here is what Professor Zhu told us:

    Publish, and publish well: It was no surprise to hear that publications are key to academic success in China. Professor Zhu focused the majority of his attention on the very top universities in China, where he felt you would need a 10+ impact factor publication to be considered.

    Institutions matter: Where you studied will influence your eligibility, with higher prestige institutions in China tending to only recruit those who gained their first degrees and Masters/PhDs from high-ranking universities.

    The benefits are good: We heard that packages for new lecturers – which might include research budget and accommodation assistance in addition to salary – are good, allowing a very comfortable life.

    The pressure can be high: Getting a lectureship position isn’t the end of the process. Every couple of years your performance will be reviewed to assess publication output and research funding generation.

    Foreigners are welcome: Professor Zhu referred to a drive to attract top talent from abroad, saying that high-performing post-docs should be very welcome.

    There are lots of options outside top-tier universities: Although his talk focused largely on the highest-ranking Chinese universities, Professor Zhu told us there are ~2,300 formally recognised universities in China, and many more private universities too. He said the pay doesn’t differ too much between them (although in lower-ranking universities there is less chance of attracting large research grants or bonuses for e.g. Science and Nature publications). And just like in the UK, outside of the highest-ranked research-intensive universities, lecturers may have a heavier teaching load and less time (if any) to focus on research. Accompanying this will be a reduced pressure to publish.

    MRC created a tool to stop you missing funding opportunities

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 25 September 2017

    Navigating the academic research landscape is tough. Knowing what is expected of you at each career stage, and scouting available opportunities, can sometimes feel like it takes up as much time as actually conducting your research! So for medical researchers, the MRC has made a handy interactive tool to help. It categorises career stages, and tells you what you should be up to when you’re in them, like so:

    MRC tool_crop

    On the tool’s funding view, it tells you the type of funding available at each stage. And even more helpfully, it tells you which funders offer each variety of award. That frees up a little more time for you to actually apply for them! Have a play with the tool and see what you think.

    MRC tool_funding_crop

     

    Dr Karen Kelsky told us how to get tenure in the US

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 24 May 2017

    USA

    Last week Dr Karen Kelsky, tenured professor turned careers guru and author of The Professor is in, spoke to our researchers about how to hack the US academic job market. She focused specifically on US ‘tenure-track’ positions, which involve a few years of teaching and research, and then guarantee you consideration for a permanent academic appointment. However, most of her advice was applicable to post-doc roles too. If you couldn’t make it along, here’s a summary of the take-home points:

    – The market is tough. In case anyone is under any illusions, the US is not an easy alternative to the UK. Karen told us the US produces ~60,000 PhDs a year, and a tenure-track opening may attract 200-1000 applications. Just like here, the majority of US PhDs end up leaving academia.

    – The Academic Search Committee are more overworked than you are. The academics sifting through applications are even busier than you are, so Karen estimated they give only ~2 minutes of attention to each tenure-track application. Better make the good stuff easy to find!

    – Know the institution. Karen talked us through US university types – from Ivy League to Community College – and it’s certainly a more complex system than ours. But just as in the UK, when looking at lectureship positions, institution-type influences the pay and teaching/research load. Make sure you’re applying for a role that suits you, and you’re emphasising the right things in your applications. The Fulbright Commission and good old Wikipedia will give you an idea of US university types.

    – Stop thinking of yourself as a student. Karen was very firm on this. When looking to hire new lecturers the search committee are looking for a new peer, not a student. Present yourself as a peer, and have references from people who can speak about you as a peer. Start now. Network with as many people as possible, at conferences and via social media, sharing your outputs and your ideas. Like what? Like a peer.

    – Have a 5-year plan. A future focus in your applications, with a specific and detailed plan, will help recruiters see what an asset you’ll be to their department. And once you’re on the tenure track, sticking to a clear plan will help you meet the tough plublication criteria that qualifies you for tenure.

    – Brits babble on (and other nationalities are too blunt): For a US audience, Karen says we Brits are way too wordy. Don’t write a cover letter that reads like a Hugh Grant script. Present the facts, and get to the point. Karen also mentioned some nationalities write so bluntly it appears arrogant…even to a US audience whom many perceive as unashamed self-promoters! To check how you’re coming across, book a researcher one-to-one appointment to discuss your application documents.

    – (Almost) always negotiate. Once you’ve been offered a position, in the US there’s far more room to negotiate your pay and conditions than here. Karen outlines some rare cases where it may not be appropriate in her book, but for the most part, negotiate away.

    For more useful tips for getting ahead in academia check out Karen’s blog and book, as well as our UK-centred schedule of academic careers workshops, covering career planning, applications, and interviews.

    How do I build an academic career in the US?

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 8 May 2017

    Karen publicity picGood question, right? At UCL Careers, we get asked this a lot: how does the US academic system differ to ours? And how do I maximise my chances of success over there?! If you’ve been asking these questions, you should book a spot on next Monday 15th May’s evening workshop. We’re shipping in an expert on the subject – Dr Karen Kelsky – to share her words of wisdom. And when it comes to progressing in academia in the US, Karen wrote the book. Literally. She’s the author of The Professor is in, “The definitive career guide for grad students, adjuncts, post-docs and anyone else eager to get tenure or turn their Ph.D.  into their ideal job”.

    Karen will be speaking about the current American academic job market and offering tips for how to get on to the much coveted tenure track (as well as non-academic options). The event will begin with an interactive session on interviews by Kellee Weinhold from 5:00pm to 6:00pm, with Dr Karen Kelsky speaking from 6:00pm-7:30pm.

    To find out more and to book a spot, see the Eventbrite page here: http://bit.ly/2quKezt

    Top tips for building research independence

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 10 March 2016

    building blocksHave you seen the new guest blog about how to demonstrate research independence on Piirus.ac.uk? It was published today and it may be the best guest blog a guestblogger has ever blogged!

    Ok. So we wrote the guest blog. But if you’re hoping to build a career in academia, you’re going to want to show funding bodies and academic recruiters that you’re an independent researcher. So maybe check out these tips on how to do just that. And if you’re a UCL PhD or researcher who wants more guidance on this, you can book onto our workshops or one-to-one careers sessions.

     

    Photo from Derek Bridges.

    Are you cut out for academia?

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 20 August 2015

    leave-academia-before-postdocsPeople leave academia for all sorts of reasons. For some it’s an active choice: maybe they want more job security or a better work-life balance, or maybe they’re just not as fond of research as they had once anticipated. For others the decision may be taken out of their hands, as they move from post-doc to post-doc, finding it increasingly difficult to secure the next role or chunk of funding. Dr Shelley Sandiford, ex-researcher and founder of science communication business Sciconic, has written a Next Scientist article to encourage those in the latter group to make the move out of academia before “wasting years in postdocs”.

    The article isn’t for the faint-hearted. As Sandiford sets out the difference between PhD “Student As”, those with potential, and “Student Bs”, those who will never make it, she attempts to send out an early wake-up call to those she says simply won’t succeed in today’s competitive academic sector. These are students who’ve found themselves with disappointing PhD projects in poorly-resourced and/or unsupportive teams, and who haven’t built a respected research profile by the end of their doctoral degree.

    But Student Bs shouldn’t feel too bad, because Sandiford says they’re the norm not the exception. In her opinion, “upwards of 90% (or more) of PhD students SHOULD LEAVE Academia“. Indeed, we know that the vast majority of PhD grads do eventually leave academic research. And outside of academia, the playing field is level; PhDs, whether they’re Sandiford’s Student A or B, are all high achievers with an equal chance of building successful, fulfilling careers.

    So are you a Student A or a Student B? If you’re feeling strong enough (!), give the article a read and see. If it feels a little too cutting in places, remember that Sandiford considers herself to be an ex-Student B, so her harsh words are an attempt to save others from making the same post-docing mistakes she feels she made. If you don’t have the time or the stomach for the full article, why not try out her handy “Do you have what it takes to become an academic?” flowchart, right.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    A professor’s take on academic careers

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 5 June 2015

    Professor Rajini Rao gained her PhD in Biochemistry from Rochester University before moving to Yale to obtain postdoctoral training in Genetics. In 1993, she moved to Johns Hopkins to take up a role as assistant professor in Physiology, and rose through the ranks to full professor in 2004. Currently, Rajini runs a research laboratory, teaches medical and graduate students, and directs a PhD program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. We spoke to Rajini about her career, and how to succeed in academia.

    Professor Rajini Rao

    What qualities do you think academics must have to be successful?

    To be successful in an academic research career, you must think of yourself as an entrepreneur. Your research should not only be productive, as evidenced by numerous peer-reviewed publications in high quality journals, but also innovative and at the leading edge of the field. Research requires funds, and success in fund raising requires persuasive writing skills, and the ability to “sell” your project. Good communication skills are important for presentations at seminars and conferences and in teaching. Networking skills are critical for setting up collaborations and extending the reach of your influence. Because academics work closely with student and postdoctoral trainees, good mentoring and lab management skills are essential.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

    My schedule is never the same from one day to another. That’s what keeps me from being stuck in a rut or losing motivation. In my lab, I interact with my students and postdocs daily, and keep up to date on their research. I travel often, to conferences or other universities, where I am lucky enough to present our work. Some days, I teach PhD or medical students. I may attend a thesis committee meeting, or be an examiner on an oral qualifying exam. Frequently, I advise students in the graduate program I direct, or work on program policy and administration.

    As a member of a journal editorial board I review many papers in my field. I also serve on study sections for the National Institutes of Health where I review grant applications. I organize conferences, and that requires planning and fund raising. I’m active in professional societies where I’m involved in developing opportunities for women and increasing diversity. All of this keeps me busy and I love my job!

    What are the best things about your role?

    The best things about my job are flexibility, the thrill of discovery and the opportunity to innovate. I am constantly learning, and growing my potential as a scientist and person. I keep flexible hours at work and I try to arrange my schedule to accommodate the demands of both work and home. I see my life as a mother, mentor and scientist as one harmonious whole. That’s why I don’t compartmentalize: rather, I try to move seamlessly from one role to another. For example, I’m just as happy to work from home as I am in my lab. I’m always approachable by email or online by my students regardless of the time of day or week. Conversely, I don’t feel guilty leaving work early when my family needs me at home. I recall one incident when my kids were young and my husband was called away to India on a family emergency just before I had to give an important presentation at a national conference. I took my kids to New Orleans, and a dear friend baby-sat them right outside the lecture hall. My talk went off well, and later I soothed my friend’s frazzled nerves over a glass of wine! It’s a system that works for me and I rarely find myself conflicted by multiple demands. Sometimes, family comes first and I drop everything to attend to demands at home. Other times, I may have a grant deadline and I completely ignore the laundry and the kitchen! Fortunately, my family knows me well and seemingly adapt to my schedule without too many complaints!

    What are the downsides of academia?

    What keeps me up at night is science funding. All the work that is done at academic research institutes depends on grants from government agencies or private foundations, which are increasingly competitive. These days, only one in ten grant applications is successful, and too many important research projects are abandoned because they are not funded. Rather than keeping up with technology advances, NIH funding has decreased in purchasing power by 25% over the past decade. It’s a heavy responsibility (not to mention, an ineffective use of my time) to constantly apply for funding not only for our research, but also for the salaries of my students and postdoctoral fellows.

    Where do you see yourself going from here?

    Potentially, I could take on leadership roles in administrative or organizational capacities, although I am not keen on giving up my research career at this time.

    What job do you think you might do if you weren’t a Professor?

    I’ve always wanted to be a scientist. But I love many forms of communication, so I could be a writer or public speaker. Secretly, I’ve wanted to be a stand up comic!

    What tips would you give our PhD students and early-career researchers trying to forge an academic career?

    I would advice them to build a strong support network of family, friends and colleagues, and to seek role models and mentors. They will need to have the confidence to keep a high bar of achievement, and the strength to accept challenges and make hard choices. It’s just as important to work “smart” as it is to work hard, so they should choose their battles wisely. Remember that an academic career is a marathon and not a sprint!

    Rajini is one of the three founders of STEM Women, a blog set up to address gender inequality in science. You can read more about the blog here.

    Sticking up for STEM women

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 22 May 2015

    Displaying Studies show that women leave academic research in larger numbers than men, and are poorly represented at higher academic levels. Initiatives like Athena SWAN have been set up to address the problem, but there are other sources of support out there too. One example is STEM women.

    The site was put together by Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, Professor Rajini Rao, and Dr Zuleyka Zevallos, three women with PhDs who wanted to generate open debate around how to improve the situation for women in STEM. Over the next few days, we will hear from each of these women about their own career journeys. Here, Buddhini tells us a little more about the site.

    How did you first start the website?

    Back in 2012, I think it was on International Women’s Day, someone on Facebook shared a list of female scientists whom you may or may not have heard of. Obviously Marie Curie was in it, and there were lots of other black and white photos of women who were mostly already dead. Great that such a list is being shared, but I figured I should put together a list of more current female scientists to whom people could better relate. I used Google +, which was pretty new at that time and had lots of female engineers and scientists who were posting publicly about their work. So I started compiling a list of their names and ‘shared’ them around, making a group of strong female role models who could inspire people. Off the back of that, I teamed up with two other female researchers and launched a website to celebrate females in STEM, and to comment on the current issues they face.

    What kind of things does your website cover?

    We profile successful female scientists, and host Q&As with them, to help inspire the next generation of female scientists. For example, we featured an amazing woman called Annika O’Brien who runs robotics workshops in disadvantaged areas in LA, and has her own company now. And we also talk to high-profile male scientists to try to get their input in how to improve the STEM environment for women.

    And we call out and comment on current issues that are relevant to women in STEM, such as sexism. As an example, last year the journal of Proteomics published a paper on the sequencing of the coconut genome, and the picture that accompanied a link to the article featured a scantily-clad woman holding coconuts in front of her breasts, which was extremely inappropriate. One of my fellow website authors wrote to the journal’s editor to complain, and she received a less-than-satisfactory response from him, telling her it was all normal, and as a physiology Professor she should be familiar with female physiology!

    The photo has since been taken down in response to a twitter storm involving outraged people like us. But I think this perfectly highlights why a site like ours is needed. Firstly, the picture went up when it absolutely shouldn’t have. But secondly, when it was taken down, the apology was far too wishy-washy; they were sorry we’re offended, but they didn’t really acknowledge what they’d done wrong. Which is why things like this keep happening e.g. The Rosetta-landing shirt controversy. Some people think it’s silly to focus on these things, that at least the situation today is better than it used to be. But these are the microaggressions that make women feel less welcome in the male-dominated scientific space. We want to shine a light on sexism within STEM, to help the women facing it know they’re not alone, and to try to move the field forward.

    Picture courtesy of STEM women, taken from their Nature blog article.

    What happens to Biology PhDs?

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 20 January 2015

    workforce infographic ASCB COMPASS

     If you’re a life sciences researcher wondering where your PhD could take you, have a look at the above infographic created by Jessica Polka for The American Society for Cell Biology. It’s based on US data, but paints a similar (although, to quote the infographic’s author, “not as dire”), picture as previous UK reports: perhaps surprisingly, most Biology PhDs end up working outside of academic research.