Research Technicians – the silent partners?

Maybe a few decades ago that was the case. Has it changed?

Written by Bill Luckhurst, Technical Services Manager, Physics Research Facility

Over my long career as a research technician in Kings, I have gradually seen a blurring of the dividing lines between the differing roles in Research. The distinct boundaries tended to discourage mutual respect and collaboration between the different roles; however, these boundaries have been naturally eroded by wholesale changes in the way that research is conducted.  We all know how the changes have affected us: collectively we are far more collaborative and our role is more inclusive though I believe we do more with less, have fewer support staff and work within a highly competitive environment. The global reach of research at Kings has naturally attracted a diverse and talented range of staff who over a period of time have contributed significantly to the highly collaborative environment we all now work in.

The above changes have helped my career as a research technician but I too have helped myself. I am not one to be silent; I’m a person who wants to be part of a team, valued and respected. I have found a variety of ways over many years to get myself heard, the consequences of which have been my ability to move around and work with diverse research groups within Physics throughout many decades and through periods of change.  How did I do this?

Research technicians possess many skills, can multitask, and are fast learners; we may just not be aware of it or be prepared to demonstrate it. Self-belief might not be evident, a result of defaulting into the silent partner, undervalued mode.

I was always looking to spread myself about the various research groups, whether existing groups who saw their technical support dwindling, or new arrivals keen to get their research started. What could I offer? Technical skills, enthusiasm and continuity. If what I was offering did not match expectations I would be sent on courses; Electron Microscopy and Atomic Force Microscopy spring to mind. I would look at the arrival of new instruments large or small as an opportunity not to be missed; I would become involved with the installation and user training, skills that are essential and can be passed on.

I have seen the ability of many technicians to adapt to new situations. We have existing skill sets and core work that is the bread and butter of our research groups but I believe research technicians can be willing participants in taking on new responsibilities in a variety of fields. We may have qualifications that we feel define exactly where we should be placed within a Faculty or research group, our comfort zone. We can also step outside the zone because as Research technicians we can adapt to new situations and experiences as I have done. I have scared myself witless on a few occasions as I thought I had taken on too much additional responsibility.

I also looked beyond my own Faculty and department. What can I offer others? I have found that networking has helped here. Research technicians can often be the first point of contact from other departments’ research groups. Here’s a chance to offer advice or skills you have or to recommend another go-to person. Raise your profile at every opportunity, which could be by gently pressing for co-authorship of papers where you have had a significant impact on the outcomes, or by looking to have acknowledgement on papers where technical input has been essential to the complete package. Why should we be left out if we have contributed to successful publications? Although, to be fair, more recently over the last decade or so I have seen far more inclusiveness in the authorship and acknowledgements in papers.

Over many years I have used line managers and Heads of Department (HODs) to good effect. Push your line manager to place you in another department or Faculty research group for a two-week period during the summer or quiet period, maybe just to shadow. Try suggesting a research technician swap for a week or so: it could be a completely different experience outside your comfort zone that helps with your work portfolio and networking. Touch base with your HOD – remind him or her that you are there. I have the impression that HODs just don’t expect research technicians to make an appointment for a chat, an update on department research trends or the arrival of new researchers or groups, or a chance to offer your services.

I have found that very little just falls into your lap. By and large I have had to go and find the extras that have allowed career progression – the bits that get added onto the end of your PDRs, that add value, build career progression  and make you indispensable.

Ask your line manager or HOD if you could have a go at shadow short listing candidates for new technical appointments or maybe having an input into a JD for a research technical post. Why not, if you believe you have something to offer? If new labs are in the pipeline ask if you can participate in design meetings; if you have worked for some time in Research labs you know the faults and things which could be done better. You can be surprised what can be overlooked on a design brief!

To summarise, the only way to avoid being the silent partner is by using your voice – not just what you say, but what you do and contribute to the successful outcomes of research groups.

Raising your Profile

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

Why do we want to raise our profiles? There may be a variety of reasons, some obvious, some less so. Interestingly there may also be unexpected consequences of the actions we take in our day-to-day lives that contribute to raising our profiles, as I found out.

One obvious reason for engaging in profile-raising activities is to increase your chances of getting the job you really want, invitations to speak at conferences or other events, grants and the best collaborations. In this case you might aim to publish or exhibit your work in the places where they have the greatest impact, talk to the most influential people at places of work or funding bodies that interest you, or connect with others outside of your research field.

Other reasons for raising your profile also interest me. In a previous role I had a colleague, Paul, who seemed to have an endless supply of great postdocs and PhD students applying to work with him. He was a good researcher himself and that obviously would have helped, but he was still fairly junior in his field and consequently less likely to be known as those who had been around for a while. I had to admit to being slightly jealous of his success, having only just set up my own research group and finding it difficult to get any applications from people wanting to work with me, let alone those from good candidates. What was his secret, I asked him. Paul knew that by getting great people to join him at an early stage in his career his own research profile would rise too. He is an excellent speaker and it turned out he deliberately gave talks in places where he could influence fledgling researchers by showing them how exciting research in his team could be.  During those talks he also demonstrated how he would support them, which of course would be attractive to anyone who is aware of the ups and downs of research. Those who passed through his lab when we were neighbours have certainly gone on to successful careers of their own.

There are others who feel passionately about an issue and recognise that by raising their own profile they can promote the profiles of others. Over the last year I have witnessed the effectiveness of Bernadine Idowu as she promotes equality within academia by being an exemplary role model, encouraging others to succeed by her own actions. Her determination to improve the chances of BME would-be academics gives her the motivation and a solid reason to talk to those at the top levels of King’s and other universities where others at her career stage may feel inhibited. This has resulted in her being well known within the academic BME community and beyond.

In my own career I also wanted to support a cause and found unexpected consequences for my profile. When I set up my own research group in London there were about 8 labs here working on fruit flies, my chosen model organism. Those who know me are fully aware that I feel strongly about the power of collaboration and mutual support. What better way to demonstrate this than to set up a monthly meeting of those 8 labs to discuss our research and support each other with shared knowledge and technical expertise? Rather naively I hadn’t really thought about the consequences for my own profile and how much this meeting might be valued by others. About 2 years after we started I was at the annual Drosophila Research Conference in the USA, the premier international gathering of fruit fly researchers that attracts around 1,000 participants. At this conference a participant I had never met before who worked on an unrelated research question in a lab in the USA saw my name badge and asked, “Are you the Kathy Barrett who runs the London Fly Group?”.

There are many reasons for raising our profiles. There are also many ways in which our profiles rise because of the actions we take for other reasons. Either way, getting yourself noticed for positive actions can only help you navigate your way through the vicissitudes of life.

Five Steps to Visibility

Written by Dr Emma Williams. Emma works towards illuminating a wider career choice for early career researchers. Trainer, consultant and coffee lover. Find out more at www.ejwsolutions.co.uk 

Embarking on a postdoc or working in another research role? You are discovering that the life of research staff is not just research. Teaching, committees, looking after amazingly young-looking undergraduates in your lab … all add into the rich mix. Don’t you just want to raise the drawbridge up and ignore the wider university from time to time?

Once we could hide in our ivory academic tower and descend (or condescend) to tell our London Society about how marvellously we were doing. If you are now imagining a Victorian gentleman scientist, it is time to drag ourselves into the modern age!

Our next steps, academic or otherwise, depend on being successful in your current role and having a wide network who can provide you with skill opportunities, references and a heads up on interesting jobs for you.

Visibility is the key to unlocking the future. Here are my top five research staff tips – all of which are making the most of the things you need to do anyway. I’m a big fan of ‘double counting’ when it comes to saving time and effort!

Follow your passion

Exploding bananas with school kids might be some people’s idea of fun but not all profile raising needs to involve children (or bananas). If you are doing something in concert with your values and motivations, it will be easier and feel much less like ‘work’. You will also meet like-minded people to create an authentic network.

If communicating your research is important – do it. If you want to champion underrepresented groups then student inclusion, Athena Swann and similar schemes are always looking for research staff to get involved. If you want to channel the impact of your research into a social enterprise, King’s can help you.

Play to your strengths

This is not just sensible but time saving! We are much faster at things that come easily so chose a visibility route that channels your talents. Writers could blog, contribute to newsletters or contribute to the wider public press. If public speaking is your thing present your work at a variety of places or set up an interest group. Those with great people skills might consider committee work, steering groups or working with research stakeholders (patients, companies or charities).

Not all of this needs to be academic. Perhaps you are involved in charity work or university sporting events? Your personal back story might be an inspiration to future students or current research staff.

Don’t be a bad news fairy

Yes, we all know research doesn’t work all the time but a constant flow of negatives will paint you in a bad light too. Simple proactive, positive actions to take are:

  • List successes in meetings with people as well as problems.
  • Offer solutions to set backs
  • Be part of the solution

Do not hide your successes – promote them. Be proud of what you have achieved. No one else (apart from perhaps your mum) will prioritise your career. It is up to you.

Say yes (and sometimes then no)

Be on the lookout for opportunities to raise your profile. This will mean reading department / university emails! Or perhaps your discipline’s learned society has a need for committee members or volunteers? Which undergraduate courses are looking for TAs or guest lecturers? Be proactive and manage your time well. If you have sat on a committee for a year time to say no and give the opportunity to someone else.

Visibility starts at ‘home’. People at King’s have worldwide connections. A colleague in your department may just have got an email about an academic position that might be suitable for you …

Take part instead of being a cog

Research staff sometimes blame the great university machine for their woes. Being reactive and pointing the finger rarely achieve great things and have a very negative impact on your mental outlook.

Be proactive and take part to influence the debate (whatever you are passionate about).

Your research alone is not enough for you to be visible. Let’s learn a lesson from another Victorian. Wikipedia describes the plot of H.G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man”:

 “He demands to be left alone and spends most of his time in his rooms working with a set of chemicals and laboratory apparatus, only venturing out at night.”

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).