Making Strategic Choices to Raise your Visibility

Written by Prof Sue Brain, Professor of Pharmacology, School of Cardiovascular Medicine & Sciences 

King’s employs many postdoctoral staff on a range of defined-term contracts.  Whilst these workers will be already an expert in their own area of research or education; they will be at a relatively early stage of their career. Most will have ambition to progress to a greater independence and to become established within their specialist area. The success of this ambition will involve, to a greater extent developing a suitable c.v. for applying for the opportunities that are likely to occur.  The priority should always be to work within the specialist area that their senior academic has employed them for, to obtain high impact publications or contributions that are recognised within the sector.  This may relate to research, discovery, innovation, business, education, communications or a related academic field.  However, one of the aims of the postdoctoral staff member is to develop their c.v.  so that their potential is obvious.  Sometimes this can be achieved purely via their work with their supervisor; especially if the work involves working in a high impact field where there is an unmet need for the acquired skills. Usually though postdoctoral staff will benefit from adding to their c.v. via related activities. This may be in terms of teaching and providing some evidence of having learnt how to enhance education, if they want to be an academic. This may involve outreach or seeking out and agreeing to invitations to speak and contribute at meetings, if communication skills involving a wider audience may be important for future career choices. Future employers may also want to see evidence of being able to take responsibility for an area of work. This evidence may come from roles carried out externally to the university (possibly a management role within a part-time or temporary work position) or via involvement with many of the committees and working groups within the university. The latter can be very important in enhancing visibility within your School, Department or even via the university.

One major question is ‘how does a postdoctoral staff member manage to do this whilst working on their postdoctoral project’? The most important aspect is to ensure that the choice of any additional commitments is targeted, strategic and relevant to aspirations for future career possibilities.  It is not possible to take every opportunity, thus it is important to make the opportunities work for the postdoctoral worker. Also, decisions may have to be made where an activity is curtailed when it is not clear how continuing it will enhance career aspirations. These can be difficult choices to make and involve saying ‘no’ to senior staff who may have previously depended on you.  How does one get the balance right?  An important factor is to ensure these choices are fully discussed and agreed with your supervisor/line manager. The needs of your immediate academic supervisor and group need to be taken into account. All postdoctoral workers will already have some academic responsibilities alongside their employment role in making their research group work.  Opportunities such as getting involved in writing grant applications and writing review chapters that are related to the postdoctoral research can be invaluable and sometimes step changing in terms of the career of an individual postdoc.  Attendance and visibility at meetings is also important. However, it has to be remembered that meetings are associated with travel and time away from work, so these too have to be chosen in a strategic manner.

The discussions could take place at your annual professional development review (PDR), but are also appropriate to discuss during any of your meetings with your immediate supervisor.  Most supervisors have a background that is similar enough to that of their postdoctoral staff to be a source of good advice; whilst ensuring the career remains ongoing in a positive manner.  However, there are a range of schemes available within and outside of King’s where by postdoctoral staff can obtain mentors. Mentors will also be ideal sounding boards for discussions on how to enhance visibility of early career postdoctoral staff whilst building the c.v.

To conclude postdoctoral staff should always have a priority to enhance the research work to which they are attached first. However, they should also work strategically to take opportunities to enhance their profile, relevant to the careers that they hope to enter.

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 

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.”