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.