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How do I build an academic career in the US?

SophiaDonaldson8 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

SophiaDonaldson10 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?

SophiaDonaldson20 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

SophiaDonaldson5 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

SophiaDonaldson22 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?

SophiaDonaldson20 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.

How to become a lecturer

SophiaDonaldson12 January 2015

Last month saw the publication of Getting the First Lecturing Job. Careers experts, including UCL’s very own Dr Calum Leckie, surveyed academic staff across 22 UK universities and several research disciplines to gather information on what’s needed to make the jump from early-career researcher to lecturer. The resulting report provides valuable insight into how academic employers think, with quotes on topics ranging from the value of teaching experience to the potential challenges of career breaks. It’s well worth reading the full 57-page version when you have time, but we’ve summarised the main points below.

Research, research, research

Unsurprisingly, demonstrating an “independent research profile” emerged as key to obtaining a lectureship. But quite what that means depends upon the discipline. Academics from the biological and physical sciences are likely to expect potential lecturer candidates to have publications in high quality journals, and to provide evidence that they can win funding through independent fellowships or joint grant applications with senior researchers. There are fewer opportunities in the arts and humanities to gain publications and funding, and this is reflected in a lower expectation for these achievements in lecturer candidates. However, publications and book deals are still desirable.

Candidates from all disciplines should be able to articulate clear research plans and ideas that are independent of their supervisor, and they should be able to convey how their future direction might fit against the backdrop of a target university’s current research. So when applying for lectureship roles, it’s important to investigate what’s already going on in the department and wider institution. Are there opportunities for interesting collaborations? Are there research gaps that your work could fill?

Teaching

Teaching forms a key part of most lecturer positions, so teaching skills are valued highly. But this doesn’t necessarily mean candidates have to have a wealth of in-depth teaching and supervisory experience, and a higher education teaching qualification is by no means essential. You can demonstrate an understanding of teaching in a variety of ways, so seeking out opportunities to mentor undergraduates or to act as a tutor in small tutor sessions or lab sessions could be enough. An enthusiasm for teaching, and a willingness to take on new topics, is extremely important. So again, do your research. What would you like to teach, and how? Is there something missing from the current curriculum? Your PhD/research subject could be your unique selling point, but in most cases you’ll need to show a willingness and ability to teach broader topics too.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the amount of time dedicated to teaching versus research can vary hugely between different lecturer roles, so make sure you fully understand what’s expected from each academic position before you apply (for more info, check out this blog on the rise of teaching-focused academic jobs).

Personal attributes

Academics expect potential lecturers to display certain ‘softer’ skills, namely good communication skills, excellent teamworking skills/collegiality, passion, commitment and enthusiasm. These qualities are perhaps less tangible than ‘research’ and ‘teaching’ skills, and candidates may have a tougher time working out exactly how to get them across. In terms of commitment, passion, and indeed collegiality, doing your research on the role, the department, and the wider institution, and understanding how you could fit in, work with others, and improve things, always helps to show your dedication, and it’s something we find candidates frequently forget to do.

Interestingly, academics don’t expect candidates to have previously performed many of the peripheral duties involved in being a lecturer. For instance, experiences of public engagement, forming collaborations, people management, and administration, all emerged as ‘non-essential’. They were of course considered a nice bonus. And they may be great ways to demonstrate some of the personal traits academics do consider to be essential, such as commitment, communication and teamworking.

The Royal Society wants us all to take responsibility for your career

SophiaDonaldson9 January 2015

UCL careers booklet picAt UCL careers, we’re pleased to see a growing recognition of the career development needs of PhDs. This is exemplified by the Royal Society’s recent publication of ‘Doctoral students’ career expectations: principles and responsibilities’. It’s clear that there are many more PhD students than there are academic jobs, so getting a PhD doesn’t necessarily set you up for an academic career. With this in mind, the Royal Society’s report sets out how PhD supervisors, and higher education careers professionals like us, can best help students prepare for the path ahead; universities have a duty to make PhDs aware of their options, and help them develop, recognise, and market skills that will be useful both inside and outside of university research.

But the report also outlines the active role that PhD students themselves must have in the process. There’s lots of information, advice and guidance available to most students, and it’s important that individuals make the time to seek it out. With quite specific and practical advice, such as “students should assess their own understanding of their skills and achievements every six months and discuss their aspirations with supervisors”, the short report is well worth a read, whatever your career stage.

You can access the full document here, and an interesting blog from one of the authors here.

What do PhD graduates do?

ManpreetDhesi21 October 2013

If you are thinking about possible career options after your PhD, and would like to know what kind of jobs are available for doctoral graduates, then check out Vitae’s labour market  information resources, which provide:

  • an analysis of the main employment sectors for doctoral graduates; including the roles doctoral graduates commonly occupy in these industries, an analysis of future skills needs, and opportunities in these sectors
  • profiles on some of the most important occupations for doctoral graduates, including numbers of doctoral graduates entering these jobs and their disciplinary backgrounds
  • advice on using labour market information to assist with career planning

PhD graduate careers case studies     

In addition to the labour market information, careers case studies can help to illustrate the wide range of career options available to you after graduation. You may also find that they provide useful advice, and give you a valuable insight into day to day life in different job roles.

  • UCL Careers was commissioned in 2010 to survey the career destinations of UCL research students who graduated between 2004 and 2008. 115 graduates were successfully interviewed. You can examine the results in the downloadable documents here (arranged by faculty). A summary of the overall findings are also available as a Powerpoint presentation
  • We also have a selection of great resources  to help you access information  covering topics from academic career planning to networking and job hunting
  • You can also check out Vitae’s comprehensive library of PhD careers case studies

There is considerable variation between disciplines, between institutions and between different academic roles. It is a good idea to talk to academics and to those trying to secure academic posts in your field about their career stories so far, and assess how closely their experiences match your own situation. Don’t forget that you can also access support and guidance from UCL Careers.  Research students have access to a specialist Careers Consultant in twice weekly sets of appointments. These last 30 minutes and you can discuss any career related issue.  Find out more about Availability and Booking.