Planning your Next Steps

Written by Donald Lush, Careers Consultant, King’s Careers & Employability

If you’re a researcher on a fixed-term contract you’ll be aware of how quickly time flies and the pressure on you, while you’re doing your research, to work out what you should do when it ends.

The best advice to prepare for the end of your contract is to reduce the stress by thinking and planning as early as possible. The biggest question you’ll face is whether or not you want to stay in academic research. In the months prior to your contract end date, ask yourself what’s important to you, reflect on your skills and experience and think about the kind of life you want to lead. Very practical issues, such as salary, employer location and job security may be an important part of this consideration.  You may find the careers resources on the Vitae website helpful.

If you’re leaving academia, you’ll find your skills are highly valued by a huge range of employers and there are many opportunities open to you. There’s an excellent resource to help you think here. If you’re researching careers outside academia, everything you could want to know about any job can be found here.

If you’re staying in academia, use that last year of your contract to publish, attend and present at conferences, devote time to research funding opportunities and make sure your personal contacts know about you what you’re looking for.

Whatever you do, it’s a great idea to get yourself out there and make new contacts in your preferred area of work, research information and get your Linked In (and any specialist social media) profiles up to date. Linked In and Twitter can be really useful for both your own career research and making yourself visible to others.

Finally, seek advice and support.  This is especially true for people venturing into new fields or sectors. Your careers service can help with this, with everything from a discussion about your options through to job hunting, application and CV writing and interview preparation.

Why the Use of Fixed-Term Contracts in Research?

Written by Dr Kathy Barrett, University Lead for Research Staff Development, CRSD

According to your responses to the Careers in Research Online Survey in March 2017 92.3% of you are employed by King’s on fixed-term contracts (FTCs), with 61.4% of you holding that contract for between 1 and 3 years.  Most UK universities employ their research staff on FTCs, with an average figure across the UK of 72% employed in this way.

What are the reasons for taking this approach?  King’s policy, and also of most UK universities, is that fixed-term contracts should only be used when there are legitimate reasons for doing so.  Legitimate reasons include when the project expires after a specific term.  As research is typically funded in fixed-term periods and often the grant is not renewed, this will mean that the project will be finite.  It stands to reason then that the contract held by the person carrying out the project will also expire, leading to redundancy regardless of whether it is fixed-term or open.

FTCs do not justify, according to King’s policy, less favourable treatment in comparison to staff on open contracts, so you get the same annual leave, parental leave, sick leave and training development opportunities as your colleagues.  You also get time off towards the end to look for another job, which your colleagues on open contracts would not have.  That sounds like a perk, so what then is negative about the FTC?  If you’re applying for a loan, you might find the finite nature of your contract will detract from your credit-worthiness in the eyes of the lender.  This can be an issue if you want to get a mortgage.

After four years on a fixed-term contract you are legally entitled to be transferred to an open contract, which will give you the option of getting a mortgage.  The only problem is, if your funding runs out you will still be facing redundancy and not have time to look for that new job.

What then is the answer to this conundrum?  If the funders want to support the best research carried out by the best researchers then running the projects for a fixed term makes sense.  It follows then that making the funding open-ended is probably not the answer.  I was at the BME Early Career Researchers Conference at King’s back in April listening to a talk by Chi Onwura, Labour MP for Newcastle Central, in which she said the Labour Party wanted to abolish FTCs for researchers.  When I asked her afterwards how they are planning to do this she asked me for ideas.  Clearly this question also vexes the minds of more influential people than me.  If you have any ideas then feel free to send them to her, and also to me!

King’s guidance on FTCs can be found here.

Time Well Spent

Written by Dr Amy Birch, Research Staff Development Consultant

Getting the most from your Fixed-Term Contract

While on a Fixed-Term Contract (FTC), you have a brief window to accomplish significant results, both creating high-quality, publishable research and developing the skills needed to advance your career options. Therefore, it is important for you to consider how best to maximise your current opportunities in the time that you have.

Create a Development Plan

Your time is previous, and you are likely to have a variety of responsibilities; therefore, it is crucial to plan and prioritise your actions. As the saying goes, to Fail to Plan is to Plan to Fail. Consider the complete picture when creating your plan – a strategy for how you will use your time effectively during your FTC will help make career aspirations a reality.

Creating a development plan will help you to identify your career objectives and professional development needs. In addition, having a plan is a useful communication tool between you and your line manager. This can form part of your Performance Development Review. Identify both short- and long-term goals, and consider what tools you will require to pursue these goals and improve your current performance. Stay focused on these goals by reflecting at the end of each day (or week) – what actions have you done to advance your goals?

Build your Network

It is important to get yourself noticed in the limited time you have. Don’t pass up any opportunities to present your work,  or attend conferences and meetings. If you aren’t asked, reach out to colleagues or peers in your current network and offer to give seminars. This will increase your profile and broaden your network. Similarly, don’t be afraid to network outside your immediate research experience.

New connections can lead you to other researchers you wouldn’t otherwise meet, or career paths that you have not considered. You may feel awkward about networking, but it is this is an expected part of any role and particularly important while on an FTC. Check out our other blogs for more information on different ways to network.

Engage with Professional Development Opportunities

A professional career in academia is about more than research! While your research output is undoubtedly important, there are other issues, which may be less obvious. In addition, if you are considering a future beyond academia, your professional development is even more important. The Centre for Research Staff Development aims to assist you in identifying and addressing these issues. We offer a variety of professional development courses and one-to-one support. If you are considering a different role within King’s, there may be an opportunity for Work Shadowing to help you to gain insight into that role, or as a networking tool and to share best practise.

Learn to Say No

As you become more engaged and develop your profile, you may find colleagues offering more opportunities to you. While on an FTC, remember that your time is your most precious commodity. Before considering taking up an opportunity, think about how this opportunity will build your CV or maximise your chances at achieving your long-term goals. It is important to be able to highlight your experience to future employers; however, it important to not lose sight of building your research profile. For example, if you have already gained up to 30 hours teaching in one year, think again before agreeing to more teaching. Developing a variety of new skills is more important than showing considerable experience and knowledge of one new skill.

Don’t forget to say goodbye

The world of academia is small, and it’s important to maintain the connections that you have created with ex-colleagues throughout your career. You should reach out and let them know that you have appreciated any past advice and feedback, and that you hope to stay in touch. You may be able to contact them when looking for future opportunities.

Managing your Fixed-Term Contract

Written by Nudrat Siddiqui, Research Staff Development Officer, CRSD

As a member of research staff you are probably well acquainted with the precarious nature of working on fixed-term contracts. Knowing that your contract has an end date in the near future means that during this crucial period of your career when you are saturated with working on establishing yourself as an independent researcher while juggling commitments in your personal life, you are likely to have the added responsibility of constantly thinking about your next role and applying for jobs. The current contractual system is not particularly accommodating for research staff and there have been many voices petitioning for the introduction of more secure, stable contracts of employment. However, for the time being, fixed-term research contracts continue to be the norm across the higher education sector in the UK and in many other parts of the world. In fact, temporary contracts aren’t unique to universities. Several other sectors, including the arts and culture and health and social work sectors offer fixed-term and zero-hour contracts.

Image source: Office for National Statistics

While the uncertainty that comes with fixed-term contracts can be a test of mental and physical endurance, there are ways in which you can manage your contract and keep your situation in perspective:

Re-evaluate your Expectations

If you are aiming to secure a permanent academic role, speak to colleagues in such positions to get a sense of how long it may take to achieve this, then reflect on how long you are willing to invest time and effort into aspiring towards this goal. Are the two timelines compatible? While for some people it can be a straightforward path, for many others it can take years of navigating fixed-term contracts before landing a permanent academic position. Are you open to the idea of working on temporary contracts for as long as it takes or do you have a cut-off date based on the extent of effort you put in: e.g. after having X number of publications, teaching on Y number of modules, and participating in so many public engagement and impact activities, if I have not obtained a permanent contract I will explore other options. These might be difficult, probing questions to ask yourself, but they can offer clarity for your future plans.

Don’t let Rejection Defeat you

You will achieve multiple milestones during this period of your career, but you are also likely to face rejection along the way. Rejection in the form of papers not accepted for publication or unrelentingly mangled during peer review, grants not awarded, and unsuccessful job applications and interviews. It can be bruising and might make you question your intellectual worth. Remind yourself that rejection is an unavoidable part of navigating the highly competitive waters of academia and is a process that all your colleagues, including senior academics, have gone through. Dwell on your many successes instead of on the occasional failure. Managing fixed-term contracts is an important learning lesson, enabling you to develop the aptitude for strategic, long-term planning and identifying opportunities, so commend yourself for having reached where you are today.

Keep your Options Open

Transforming the world through the research you carry out in academia might be your lifelong ambition, but don’t dismiss the possibility of making the contributions you plan to make via other career routes. For some of you the idea of leaving academia might be mired with the notion that somehow you have spectacularly failed or are a quitter. This belief is far from true. In Vitae’s 2016 report* entitled What do Research Staff do Next that captures the results of a survey completed by 856 research staff who transitioned into other sectors, the majority of respondents reported having high job satisfaction in their new roles. There is a wealth of opportunity outside academia where you can apply your expertise without compromising the challenge and exhilaration that the promise of an academic post might hold, often with the added benefits of better security and scope for work-life balance. Visit our case studies webpage to see how people applied their research experience and PhDs to a range of roles and sectors and book a one-to-one appointment with our experienced Careers Consultants who can support you with exploring options.

*King’s has institutional membership to Vitae. Login with your King’s credentials to view the report.

Learning at Work Week 2018

Written by Holly Hart, Organisation Development Consultant

From 14th – 18th May, King’s ran the first ever Learning at Work Week (LaWW). The week was full of face to face and virtual sessions, covering a wide range of topics; in total almost 200 staff from King’s attended a minimum of one session over the week! But why did we do this? Well, there is science behind the madness…

Humans are naturally inquisitive beings, designed to be lifelong learners. This need to explore is arguably a result of the evolutionary pressure to survive, for example finding food and eating. This has built up an internal reward system in our brains meaning that by exploring and trying new things, the majority of the time we will eventually find some form of reward, perhaps in the form of food, but more likely in the modern day that reward might be a new skills or ability to achieve something previously unobtainable.

However, in this era, it is easy to become so wrapped up in our routines that we forget to indulge our curiosity once in a while. Sometimes, we get stuck in a rut doing the same things with the same outcomes. This can become frustrating but just by doing something new – out of the ordinary even, we can satisfy our curiosity and take advantage of our capacity for learning.

LaWW provided an environment where staff were encouraged to be curious. LaWW was designed to present opportunities that engage, excite and educate participants as well as bringing colleagues together to learn from each other; all facilitated by our very own experts within the King’s Community.

Some of the things staff enjoyed most about the week were “feeling like there was an attitude that you could take time out for your own development” and “coming together with colleagues I would never have met before and learning about how they contribute to King’s”.

Just because LaWW is over, doesn’t mean you can’t continue to satisfy your inquisitiveness! There are loads of ways you can increase your learning and widen your networks; take a look at the Kings internet pages to find out about the latest events all over the University or head to the Organisation Development pages for a list of all the topics we have learning sessions and resources on. And if you want to do something fun and connect with likeminded people, I thoroughly suggest you check out the Staff Experience pages – there are so many opportunities you are bound to find one that floats your boat!

Thank you to everyone in the King’s community that helped contribute to such a successful campaign, I for one cannot wait to do it all over again next year.

What are PDRs and why are they important?

Written by Holly Hart, Organisation Development Consultant, Organisation Development 

The aim of the on-going PDR process is to ensure we have regular, high quality conversations about how we are doing, our goals, and what development, support and advice we need to achieve our goals and objectives.

The formal PDR meeting is an opportunity to have a conversation reflecting on the past year, and recognising our achievements, challenges, development and progress. Based on our reflections on the past year, it’s also the time to make plans for the year ahead, and to set our objectives. Considering how we are performing will help us to identify the best way to approach our personal and professional development over the next year and beyond.

The aim is to have a constructive and motivating conversation which creates clarity about our performance and our objectives.

The outcomes from the conversation are documented on a PDR form, which is used to capture the discussion between the ourselves and the reviewer. To help faculties make sure that each of us has access to the right types of support and development as well as to inform decisions around reward and recognition, PDR forms are made available to line management.

In addition to the annual PDR conversation, we are all encouraged to meet with our reviewers regularly throughout the year. These informal meetings are an opportunity to have open, honest and constructive conversations about performance, development and support. This will help to ensure that there are no surprises at the annual formal PDR meeting, and will also ensure that we are getting the support and advice that we need throughout the year.

There are a number of resources available to support our preparation for the PDR meeting, including the PDR Support webpage which has a short video on preparing for your PDR. Our Principles in Action also gives us a framework to think of our own development, and there are a number of tools to help us consider our development on the internal webpages.

Learning Agility – Why This is Important in Such a Volatile World

Written by Holly Hart, Organisation Development Consultant, Organisation Development 

I think we can all agree that the world we live in today is unpredictable, complex and often ambiguous. The rate at which technology is continuing to develop is almost mind boggling and with that comes uncertainty, especially in the workplace. What will our roles look like in the next 5 years? Will they still exist, or will we need to adjust our career plans drastically?

The answers to these questions remain unknown therefore we need to accept and be comfortable with change. Research suggests the most successful individuals are also the most agile; they have the confidence to weave together pieces of seemingly unrelated information to craft novel, innovative solutions on the spot.

So how do we get comfortable with change and uncertainty? Well, learning agility is the key to unlocking our adaptability. Learning agility is the ability to learn, adapt and apply ourselves in constantly morphing situations; being able to learn something on one situation and apply it in another completely different situation sets us up very well in today’s everchanging world.

Learning agility presents differently depending on the person and the context; according to Korn Ferry International there are 5 dimensions of learning agility:

  1. Mental Agility
  2. People Agility
  3. Change Agility
  4. Results Agility
  5. Self-Awareness Agility

Increasing agility across these 5 dimensions unlocks enduring potential to achieve and succeed in uncertain situations; equipping individuals with the tools and solutions to draw on when faced with new challenges.

So now you know the importance of learning agility, how do you increase your own? There are many resources, journal articles and videos online. This video from Lynda.com will take you through setting goals, creating a learning plan and staying on track to improve your learning agility and get ahead. (N.B. Please note that you will have to log in to Lynda.com with your King’s username and password to access the video).

Well-being – What Does Yours Look Like?

Written by Lorraine Kelly, Head of Engagement & Development, HR

What does the word well-being mean? It can mean so many different things to each of us; for some it’s about fitness and going to the gym, for others it is listening or making music or sometimes it may mean taking some quiet time to reflect after a busy day. The one thing that we all share is our need to understand and manage our own well-being.

Sometimes, when we are busy and we have a lot to deliver at work and in our busy lives the things that are really important to us can be neglected or even forgotten. Having a healthy mind-set when it comes to our well-being can support us to feel more confident and to be more successful. It can open our minds to different ways of thinking; encouraging positive behaviour. Over my working life I have learnt how to be more aware of my need to manage my own well-being; this has largely contributed to a better work life balance, ensuring I had the time for the things that were important to me.

We are delighted to offer a workshop at the Research Staff Event which will get us thinking about how we can understand what well-being means to us, how to better manage our well-being and consider strategies for success. This interactive session will look at the importance of maintaining individual well-being before we discuss strategies to achieve individual well-being as a group; by the end of this session each person will have a set of actions which they can take forward to support their own well-being.

Learn more about the Research Staff Event 2018 and register to attend here.

Taking Charge of your Future

Written by Dr Stephani Hatch, Reader at the IoPPN

When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time”Maya Angelou

The first time I took charge of my future is when I found my voice and refused to be intimidated by the power and assumed knowledge of my guidance counsellor.  With very few accessible role models for what I wanted to achieve at age 14, my guidance counsellor attempted to place me in classes that would result in the receipt of a diploma required for vocational courses rather than one that would prepare me for university.  This decision was made despite being a strong student. With my parents support, we insisted that I be included on the university track and decided I would search for a different high school where I would be encouraged, supported and nurtured to thrive. There were lessons I learned from this experience: the importance of finding your voice and being prepared to move on when your needs are not being met.

Fast forward to my undergraduate years, I took charge of my future by listening to the sage advice of a PhD student who told me to find a faculty role model and ask that person to mentor me.  I plucked up the courage to approach an academic I admired, and she mentored me through the next steps, applying to postgraduate studies. That mentor was my first of many mentors; when I think back, my mentors were the key to me continuing to take charge of my future.  To date, my mentors keep me focused, realistic and motivated toward achieving my goals.

Taking charge is not a single event; it is a process that will continue across your career. I joined King’s in 2006 and it was a clear opportunity for me to recreate what had worked in previous experiences and intentionally avoid potential barriers. However, in many ways I felt 14 again, with very few accessible role models and a feeling that an environment that lacked diversity and inclusion may be a barrier to achieving my goals. I looked around and the absence of ethnic minority academics was immediately obvious to me.  Being in a different country with seemingly different cultural rules, within and outside of the workplace, also left me with a feeling of uncertainty.  My response was to find my voice and have sometimes uncomfortable conversations with my line manager about who I was, who I wanted to be and what I wanted to accomplish, immediately and in the long run.  I was also upfront about how my academic experiences had been shaped by gender and race.  Yes, gender was the more comfortable conversation to have, but for many reasons, our continued race discussions have been more important.  This openness also led me to working on Diversity & Inclusion initiatives at King’s which has greatly improved my research, teaching and ability to support my students and colleagues.

Based on these and many other experiences, I offer the following tips:

  • Find your voice: Let people know who you are and who you want to be (and it’s your prerogative to change your mind);
  • Know what is expected of you: make this a part of your communications with your line managers and supervisors; know how your progress is being benchmarked in your faculty and the wider institution;
  • Put yourself in uncomfortable situations/have difficult conversations: step outside your comfort zone at least once every few months; many situations/conversations you are avoiding can become unnecessary barriers to your progress;
  • Let other people say no: no one likes rejection, but you cannot let yourself become your biggest barrier;
  • Keep moving forward: if the decisions you are making and the people you are surrounding yourself with are not contributing to your progression, make new decisions and approach new colleagues;
  • Find mentors: this is preferably someone that is your champion but does not have a vested interest beyond that; make sure your mentor is fit for purpose; one mentor may not be able to guide you in all aspects required of an academic (i.e., research, teaching, administration and citizenship);
  • Share information and strategies with your peers: academia is competitive but it can also be a supportive environment; always model how you would like to define collaborative and supportive relationships in how you interact with your peers and colleagues.

Attend the Research Staff Event 2018 to hear Stephani speak and introduce a diverse panel of speakers who will be sharing their experiences of taking charge of their future at King’s.

Engaging with your Professional Network

Written by Dr Kathy Barrett, University Lead for Research Staff Development, CRSD

I didn’t really see myself as someone who was good at networking.  I have to take a deep breath and steel myself before entering a room full of people unless I already know them all.  But I do it because there is always the possibility that I might meet someone interesting.  It surprised me then that during an appraisal one year my line manager pointed to networking as one of my strengths.  Really?!  Yes, because I was always bringing people to our department who had interesting ideas, projects and attributes that would enhance what we were trying to do.

What was it I was doing?  Just following interests, enjoying talking to people, keeping my mind open and being creative about how I could work with the people I met.  Admittedly some of those people I never saw again but others became good colleagues and some also friends.  Over time we built up relationships that became stronger and stronger following the 5As that I described in an earlier post on this site from February 16th.

What I discovered later was also a theory that has implications about getting new ideas from others.  As the theory goes, we generally work in groups of 5.  This is the number of people you see frequently and with whom you share and discuss ideas most frequently.  If you and your friends move only in this group you’re likely to lapse into group-think, only knowing and understanding a small fraction of what the world is doing.  In practice it doesn’t work completely like this.  Your core of 5 is not the same as that of your 4 core members.  There are probably some overlaps, but they are more likely to have others in their core and this will enable new ideas to be brought in to yours.

Then of course the net continues to spread with you having a wider group of about 50 people you see on a less frequent basis but whom you would be happy to invite to your party. Beyond that is a group of around 150.  It is difficult to keep up with more than that because you have reached the limit of your mental capacity.

What if you could keep people who are within that 150 a bit closer to you? The trick might be in the connections you have and the people with whom your connections are linked.  Are they the kind of people who could provide you with the ideas that you might need in the future, ideas for new avenues to explore, new knowledge and new collaborators, for instance?  If you could build the ideal network, what would it look like?

At the Research Staff Event on June 20th we will be doing just that.  One of the workshops will explore who we would like in our networks and how we can set them up to be the most useful.

My thanks to Robin Dunbar, Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford, for developing his theories around Dunbar’s Number.