This week we continue our alphabetical A-Z series with a post on J for Jobs in Academia. Shivani and Michela [EDIT lab placement students] talk to academics from a range of different career levels based at the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, King’s College London. Representing the PhD/MSc Level (Meg Skelton), Post-Doctoral Research Associates (Dr Elena Constantinou and Dr Erin Quinlan), two Lecturers (Dr Chloe Wong and Dr Tom McAdams) and a Senior Lecturer (Dr Helen Fisher). Shivani and Michela ask about the different paths that can lead to academia, challenges faced by those in the field, ways to deal with setbacks and get some helpful tips for early career researchers. (For the full biographies of our interviewees please scroll to the end of the post.)
What was the route you took to be in your role?
Elena Constantinou: I guess I took a rather unconventional route. After finishing my PhD in Health Psychology in Belgium, I decided to move to the UK and shift the focus of my research slightly. I started working at the SGDP as a research assistant, applying the skills I acquired during my PhD in a new field. A research assistant position was a good way of introducing myself to a new place and field of study. At the end of that contract, I was lucky to be able to continue on the same project as a postdoc.
Tom McAdams: I did my MSc and PhD at the University of Sheffield, during which time I started collaborating with people at the SGDP (where I am now based). After my PhD I moved to London on a wing and a prayer to do some fairly unrewarding RA work while I applied for fellowships in the hope of moving to the SGDP. Fortunately I was awarded a 12-month ESRC fellowship to do just that, and to learn more about behavioural genetics, something I had touched on in my PhD and wanted to pursue. During my fellowship I was offered a postdoc to stay and work with Thalia Eley [Edit Lab director] for 3 years, which was a great opportunity (and a huge relief!) and gave me time to learn lots of new skills and establish my publication record. After that postdoc I got the Henry Dale fellowship I am now on.
Meg Skelton: After finishing my BSc in Psychology, I was fairly sure that I wanted to do a PhD, but wanted to get more experience in different areas of research to explore my interests, develop my skills and double-check that this was the life for me! I had several research assistant positions at the university I did my undergraduate degree in before hunting around for the perfect course. The research taking place at the SGDP caught my attention and the 1+3 option is ideal as it’s allowed me to gain a lot of new skills and knowledge that I can bring to the PhD.
What are you most excited about in your job at the moment?
Helen Fisher: The opportunity to work with individuals from a wide range of disciplines. My favourite collaboration involves artists and young people who have personal experience of hearing voices. Together we have created an immersive art exhibition on hearing voices and other unusual sensory experiences to provide the public and clinicians with a better understanding of what these experiences are like and reduce the stigma surrounding them.
Elena Constantinou: Along with the FLARe team, we have been collecting data for more than a year now using an experimental paradigm to examine anxiety-related processes. We are currently at the phase of analysing the data and interpreting the findings. It’s such an exciting moment, when after all this work, you can finally answer your questions (if you are lucky to get an answer that is). The buzz of discovering something is what keeps it all going.
“The buzz of discovering something is what keeps it all going.”
What do you find the most challenging thing about your role?
Elena Constantinou: I suppose the most difficult aspect of the post-doctoral phase is the uncertainty that comes with short-term contracts until something long-term works out. It is a stressful period as you try to keep up with the demands of your current position and at the same time think about and prepare for your next step.
Erin Quinlan: Time management and priority sorting. You’d think after a PhD one would be an expert in time management but there is always room for improvement. As I wear two very different hats; managing a project and lecturing, I have to constantly set and rearrange priorities to meet competing deadlines.
How do you cope with setbacks in your career?
Helen Fisher: One year I had 9 grant applications rejected in a row, which was definitely a low point! What kept me going was a lot of tea, a large amount of chocolate, and most importantly, the support of fantastic friends and colleagues who listened sympathetically to my constant moaning and continued to believe in me. In the end I won the 10th grant I applied for which just goes to show that sheer determination pays off eventually!
Meg Skelton: Honestly, the best thing you can do is refuse to view anything as a setback! If I hadn’t been successful on getting the 1+3 I would have applied for more research assistant jobs, which would only have increased my skills and strengthened my CV for the next application, or I may have discovered something else I loved doing, or even just something to definitely cross-off the list of potential research areas. I also think that knowing setbacks are normal and not a reflection on you really helps; realising that even the most successful of individuals has experienced failure can be reassuring. This wonderful ‘CV of Failures‘ by a Princeton academic went small-scale viral a few years ago, and definitely gave me some perspective!
“…the best thing you can do is refuse to view anything as a setback!”
For an early career researcher, what do you think is the best way to meet new people and network?
Helen Fisher: Attending conferences and chatting to people during the poster sessions as the poster gives you something to talk about initially to break the ice. I’d also recommend following top researchers and those with similar research interests to you on twitter as often they follow you back and may comment on your tweets and contact you to ask more about your research. It also increases your visibility which can be extremely useful when you’re applying for jobs.
Erin Quinlan: For a quasi-introvert the initial meeting of people is never easy. But being not only in a new position but also new country, I knew I had to make a concerted effort to meet people so I joined the YouR [Young Researchers] Network Committee and became the Post-doc Rep to the Exec Committee.
Chloe Wong: I highly recommend signing up to networking events both inside and outside of your institute and comfort zone! This allows you to connect with academics that are on similar career track as you but also provide prospective and opportunity to learn from others that are growing in a different environment.
What are your top tips for an aspiring academic?
Helen Fisher: Take it slowly! Don’t say ‘yes’ to everything! Focus on publishing decent papers, obtaining small pots of money (travel grants, small research grants), and apply for awards. Above all make sure you always find time for activities that you enjoy and make the most of the flexibility and travel opportunities that academia provides!
“…make sure you always find time for activities that you enjoy and make the most of the flexibility and travel opportunities that academia provides!”
Chloe Wong: Be a keen learner and a generous sharer, and remember to keep it fun as happy mind => higher efficiency and productivity.
- I think that it is important to be willing to risk failure, and not be put off by the possibility of rejection. This is true whether submitting a paper for publication, or applying for a job. Sometimes that means aiming high and accepting that doing so increases the likelihood that you will be rejected. Even if you are rejected you may well learn something valuable that you can use in the future. It is worth bearing in mind that even the most successful academics will have experienced more rejections than successes, but in the long run that really doesn’t matter.
- Collaborate. It doesn’t matter how good your ideas are, or how clever you might be, your work will always be improved through the input of others. Beyond that, it is increasingly difficult in an era of big data and international consortiums to do anything substantial on your own. Make connections, make friends, and work together.
- Seek out and heed the advice of others. The great thing about academia is that you are always surrounded by very intelligent people, many of whom will have far more experience than you, so ask their advice and pay attention to what they say. Obviously this applies to your research, but equally your colleagues can be a great source of career advice.
Dr Helen Fisher (Senior Lecturer)
Helen is a Senior Lecturer at King’s. She leads a multidisciplinary programme of research to better understand the onset and persistence of psychosis and depression in young people.
Dr Elena Constantinou (Post-Doctoral Research Associate)
Elena is a post-doctoral Research Associate in the EDIT lab. She is currently working on the FLARe project. A project that aims to model the processes underlying the development, maintenance and treatment of anxiety disorders and post-treatment relapse.
Dr Chloe Wong (Head of the Psychiatric Epigenetics Group at the SGDP)
Chloe heads the Psychiatric Epigenetics Group at the SGDP. Her work is primarily focused on exploring epigenetics, the biological mechanism that underlie the interplay between genes and environment, in mental health. She also chairs the departmental MPhil/PhD Program as well as molecular Genetics Module Lead of our MSc GED PP program.
Dr Tom McAdams (Associate director of the EDIT lab and Honorary Lecturer)
Tom is a lecturer and a Sir Henry Dale Fellow, which was awarded to him by the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society, to establish his own research programme. Tom is also a PhD supervisor and is involved in one of the MSc courses as the Deputy Programme Leader, Admissions Tutor, and a Module Organiser.
Dr Erin Quinlan (IMAGEN Project Coordinator/Postdoctoral Researcher)
Erin is the Project Coordinator on the IMAGEN study. She is also carrying out her Postdoctoral work as part of the London IMAGEN team. She is currently transitioning to lecturer.
Meg is currently a master’s student on the Genes, Environment and Development in Psychiatry and Psychology course. She is interested in understanding the factors that predict response to psychological therapies. After completion of her master’s she will continue on at the centre to do her PhD.