Careers, JUST careers

Last week’s blog from Amy featured a great cartoon from The Upturned Microscope depicting a meeting of “Postdocs Anonymous” which may have resonated with some of you. In it there’s a reference to “information about alternative careers” which I’m going to focus on in this post.

Like many researchers developers I have a bit of an issue with the phrase “alternative careers” because it implies deviation from a norm. This was summed up by Marie Thouaille at a meeting recently which was summarised in a tweet by Inger Mewburn.

The reality from the information we have about research staff career paths is that the so-called alternative paths are the norm. Your career is far more likely to develop outside the academic path and I think many postdocs accept this as fact. Despite this, there seems to be an unwillingness to engage in career decision making.

I’m not sure what lies behind this reticence but here are a few resources to help any of you who are aware that there are more options open to you than the fellowship/lecturer route, but may not be sure about how to get started.

Set a deadline to start 

It’s all too easy to push this down the to-do list. I find it easiest to move things along when I can link them to a meaningful deadline. You might be able to use your annual review meeting for this – the deadline for the year here at Edinburgh is approaching fast. If that has already passed why not schedule a similar conversation with someone you would like to talk about where you are, how things are going and what track you are on.

Think about your preferences

There are a number of different frameworks you can use to prompt your thinking about the way you like to work and the types of things you find interesting. You might use our skills audit based on the RDF and just reflect on what you enjoy doing. You can also ask people what they think you are good at and whether they have any ideas about careers or directions that might suit you. Working out what to do for the rest of your life can be intimidating so don’t think of this as a fixed decision. If you also talk to people about the paths they’ve taken (more on this below), you’ll discover that careers develop constantly and often in directions that can’t be seen in advance. Instead of trying to fix on something forever, work out what your next career needs to have more of and less of and see where this takes you.

Look at the destinations

There are a range of sources which set out the careers taken after postdoc research. Vitae, professional bodies, publishers and individual universities have all tried to provide better insights to help researchers be confident about their options. If you are struggling to find something that resonates, let me know and I’ll see what I can add here.

We now have more information about the destinations of postdoctoral researchers than ever before but the picture is incomplete. I make this point because no matter how rich the options are, I suspect there are far more opportunties taken by research staff than we are aware of.

Follow the paths

If the information from reports and profiles doesn’t give you the inspriation you are seeking, why not look at individual paths? Use social media and networks to understand career paths by connecting with people through your boss, former colleagues and start to build a picture of where postdocs have gone afterwards and where they are now. Connect with as many people as you can with on LinkedIn and look back through their online career summaries. If your network is a bit thin, ask around – most people would be happy to make virtual introductions to help you do this.

Be positive

I know it’s easy to say this, but I genuinely believe that you can do ANYTHING after a  postdoc. Some options might require some training or experience, but the value of being a researcher will shine through. Most postdocs still have the VAST majority of their working years ahead and if you put your experience into the context of a forty year working life (more for most of us, probably) any temporary side-stepping or reset is worth the short-term set backs.

Talk the talk

My final message is that once you have worked out what’s next for you, make sure you describe your skills and value in terms that the employer will appreciate and engage with. This is probably best explored in a future post if there is interest, but in the meantime, here’s a resource from my last role where I rewrote a postdoc CV for a new direction.

And finally, 

Can I encourage you all to look hard at where you will have most impact in the wider labour market? We need you…


The road to misconduct

Do Not Cross
Photo by DodgertonSkillhause at

We are making preparations to launch a new online resource for research integrity which should be available later in the summer. Aimed at our research students and their supervisors, this will complement the extensive support and guidance researchers receive in their schools. During the consultation process I’ve spoken to a range of university staff about integrity and added to my understanding of regulations, policies and systems across the University and disciplines.

One of the most interesting of these conversations happened last week when I met Dr Willem Halffman from the University of Nijmegen who was on a brief research visit to Edinburgh. We talked about a wide range of topics in our short meeting, with particular focus on the circumstances which lead to misconduct. My interest in integrity is both old and new. Old, in that I’ve spent close to twenty years training and developing research students and staff, and fostering good practice has been part of this. New, in that it was only last year that I attended the UK Research Integrity Office conference and became fascinated by wider discussions which went far beyond policies and looked at the behaviours and tendencies which lead to misconduct.

One speaker, Dr Maura Hiney spoke about these and referenced  David Kornfeld’s paper on the categories of people who violated the rules of research. Kornfeld’s paper is an interesting read, so I won’t give away the headlines, but he summarises that

These acts of research misconduct seemed to be the result of the interaction of psychological traits and/or states and the circumstances in which these individuals found themselves.

This prompted Willem to point me to a model from financial misconduct – the fraud triangle. This originated from the work of Donald Cressey (Donald R. Cressey, Other People’s Money (Montclair: Patterson Smith, 1973) p. 30.), who tried to explain the circumstances under which people commit fraud. The three factors which make up the triangle  – opportunity, pressure and rationalistion – are described with a simple animation by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. Although the examples used relate to financial fraud, it isn’t difficult to extend the model to research.


Image from ALGA – Association of Local Government Auditors


I find this model useful as it points to the role that pressure plays in misconduct and is something that cannot be ignored by any institution wishing to develop a high integrity culture. It isn’t enough to play lip service to the regulations and training whilst the pressures on researchers continue to build.

This connection between integrity and resilience is something that I hope to explore and has been a significant driving force in the initial focus I’ve had at Edinburgh on wellbeing and resilience for researchers. As we tailor and embed the integrity module I’ll be looking at how we ensure that our training plays a part in minimising the pressure in the environment as well as being clear about good practice and honest cultures.

Willem’s research has resulted in a number of pubications on scientific  integrity, (Whilst you are looking at his publications, The Academic Manifesto [Halffman, W. & Radder, H. (3 April 2015), The Academic Manifesto, Minerva, Vol. 53, no.3, p. 165-187. doi: 10.1007/s11024-015-9270-9.] makes a number of other suggestions to release the pressure in the system!)


Reduce Confusion, Manage Expectations

Photo by amann at

Last week I was involved in two events which on the surface looked different, but actually covered some very similar themes. The first was the launch of a new PhD supervisors’ network here at Edinburgh. This is part of the Supervision workstream of the Excellence in Doctoral Education and Career Development Programme and was a chance for us (principally my colleague Dr Fiona Philippi, Head of Doctoral Education who leads the project) to share some initial ideas and ask the supervisors present how they would like the network to operate.

As part of the discussion, Fiona illustrated an example of the resources available to support supervision by sharing a version of the Griffith University Expectations in Supervision questionnaire. I’ve used this for many years in PhD induction and “getting started” events so it was interesting to see the reaction of supervisors to the tool which is a series of paired statements which demonstrate the dichotomies possible in PhD supervision. The response was very positive, with all those present seeing the value in having a tool to prompt discussion but also clarify the details of their supervisory approach. No one wants to impose a single, cookie-cutter model on doctoral supervision as the questionnaire demonstrates. People talked about the value the discussions would have to students coming to the UK for their PhDs as it might uncover any assumptions they might have. Most importantly, used well, the discussion will reduce uncertainty and the resulting anxiety for students.

During more detailed discussions, the topic of co-supervision emerged as a key area which needed more scrutiny so we are planning to develop the questionnaire further to help students and supervisory teams work together with more transparency and clearer responsibilities.

Co-supervision is now pretty universal at Edinburgh, both as a means of quality assurance but also often reflecting the multi- and inter-disciplinary nature of many PhD projects. This links us to the second event of the week – the Digital Economy Crucible. I was a speaker at the second Crucible “lab” in Edinburgh last week and decided to speak on the topic of Confusion in Collaboration. This is a interesting idea to explore but I can’t take the credit for the idea which came from Professor Barry Smith at Welsh Crucible when he spoke about the steps to really effective collaboration as being Contact, Communication, Confusion and Conflict.

Barry was one of three “heroes” of collaboration I mentioned in my talk, the others being Professor Catherine Lyall from Edinburgh who’s established a deep understanding of models of collaboration as well as producing a series of incredibly useful practical guides to help people in the interdisciplinary space work more effectively.

Catherine was the “critical friend” for a guide to collaboration I wrote for the Institute of Physics in 2015 which featured my last hero, Professor Tom McLeish. Tom is a physicist so has had a career collaborating with with other scientists in academia and industry, but in recent years has worked within the Durham Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (IMRS) reexamining scientific thinking in the 12th-14th centuries on The Ordered Universe project. A collaborative close reading of works by teams of medieval scholars and scientists is generating new insights into the vital but overlooked foundations of modern science.

The slides from my talk are below, but the key activity in my slot was to get the Cruciblists to talk to someone from another discipline about the assumptions that people made about their discipline or area. Some fascinating conversations followed but I moved them promptly on to try to come up with some new questions to reduce confusion. Their list complements one that was produced by a Stirling Crucible group a few years ago which I blogged about in a former life (Confusion in Collaboration).

Confusion in Collaboration <- The Slides

The questions generated by the group:

DE Crucible Confusion June 2017
DE Crucible 2017 Confusion in Collaboration

My final act was to share the Griffith questionnaire with this group as a final test of their understanding of each other’s research models.

What questions could help you avoid future conflict and bring confusion to the surface?



Networking – How?

Today’s post is by Claire Keenan, who works in the Consultancy and Business Services section of ERI. We are working with Claire and her colleagues to support them in engaging more researchers with consultancy as a means to developing research relationships, building impact and generating new projects.

The importance of network building was a focus of the Global Challenges Research Fund Session for Post Docs in Chemistry (for more information on the link between science and international development see UKCDS). Each speaker emphasised how Post Docs need to start to build a cross disciplinary network based on their interests and their future interests.  So how do you do that in practice?     

First, you can start local – with the other post docs and PIs in your school, and workshops and departmental meetings are a great way to do that – just make sure to engage with one another.  Also, you can build and maintain your presence on Edinburgh Research Explorer.  This is a tool that both internal and external parties use to find academics with particular interests, and your publications sit within it.   If your profile is up to date, you can use it as a link to forward to other academics you might meet, and it’s branded so you look official!   Another tool with a similar aim is Research Gate , which is a social networking tool for academics.  Wherever you go, this will stay with you and can simply be updated with your new jobs and research projects. 

(SS note: Research Gate has a science and technology focus. If you are in the arts, humanities or social sciences you may find has more relevant networks.)

 Next, try to get outside your own School and into others – Chemists can look to Biology, Informatics, Maths and Engineering for inspiration and collaboration opportunities, and cross College interaction is increasingly important now to put together projects for GCRF.  Symposia are held for each of the Schools of current research – keep an eye on  Eventbrite  to get notified of when they are coming up.  Have a look on School webpages to see if there are any interesting Seminars you could attend in line with an interest you might have – here’s a recent example from the School of Engineering.  Go along to AimDays when available – there’s one coming up in a couple of weeks for Energy.   You will see first-hand how academics from different Schools and industry come together to discuss problems: this is  networking and knowledge exchange in front of your very eyes! 

It’s never too early to start engaging with the outside world.  Conferences are the obvious way to do that, and though some are expensive, you may find ones that are within your scope and some of the industry funded ones are free.  Scottish Enterprise and Industry groups run events, such as Venturefest Scotland.  It’s free, and you’d get to meet SMEs in all kinds of industries and not only get inspired as to how your research interests might be applied, but also have a platform to sell your wares as a Consultant.  Post Docs are entitled to do consultancy work as part of their contracts, and projects can attract funding.  However,  the best outcome is that you can engage directly with companies and start building a network by engaging in short contracts –  e.g. feasibility studies, literature review, and expert advice.  Most consultancy projects lead to something more – research collaborations, jobs, publications, demonstrating impact for REF.  If you’d like to find out more about how to pitch yourself as a consultant, contact us in the consultancy team and we can give you the support and training you need to get going.  Come and speak to us about your interests and we can help you make contacts with the academics and businesses we know – we can even come with you to conferences and help you work the room, or attend initial meetings. 

 So now you know how…get involved!  Please also get in touch and add comments as to other ideas you have about networking.

IAD >heart< Technicians

The Technicians Make It Happen campaign



This week’s guest post is a member of a critical, but sometimes unsung, community at Edinburgh – our technical staff.  Marianne Keith is currently a research technician based at The Roslin Institute, supporting the work of a Career Track Fellow into the prevalence of non-O157 E.coli in cow faeces across the UK.


I am currently working in a research environment, having chopped and changed several times since starting on my career path back in 2005. I left The University of Edinburgh with a BSc in Biological Sciences (with Honours in Microbiology) with a plan to get a job, save some money, and then do a MSc to bump up my BSc grade. Well once I started working, I never quite managed to start saving money, especially when I left home and I needed to pay for my new lodgings and all the associated bills.

I was actually offered a PhD in Combinatorial Chemistry early on, but declined, knowing virtually nothing about chemistry! Wanting to stay in science, I’ve used my lab skills in a variety of University technical positions. I was a teaching technician for a few years but have worked mainly in research labs, with this being my 4th research laboratory. 13 years out of University, I don’t have the same kind of focused expertise as PhDs or postdocs because no single post requires all the various skills which I have gained to varying levels of experience. Also, nowadays there are many more strengths and abilities which make up a valuable technician, beyond a range of wet lab techniques. Communication is key and I’ve developed a range of skills through my work, but been aware that might be more out there to learn.

This year I made a fantastic discovery. The IAD runs a plethora of courses, most of which are appropriate for both academic staff AND technical staff. There is a misguided assumption by many technicians (and also some academic staff) that the IAD only caters for people who are working towards or already have the initials “MSc” or “PhD” after their name.

I confess to feeling self-doubt when I hear post docs or PhD students present their work, as changing post repeatedly over the last few years has impacted on the depth of my knowledge. This probably influenced my decision to attend the “Assertiveness” course and recently the “Refining Your Presentation Skills” workshop and I can heartily recommend both. I did learn a considerable amount on each day, but most of all, I was made aware that there are other people who encounter the same difficulties in working life as I do. I left each workshop having met new supportive people, carrying a sense of well-being, and feeling slightly more confident each time than when I arrived.

I have now set myself a goal to work my way through all the IAD courses which I believe are relevant to my personal development (regardless of exactly which research project I may be attached to as my career continues), and I would encourage all technical staff to do the same and to take advantage of this excellent resource for professional development.

Many thanks Marianne! This post came about from a conversation between Marianne and Sara at the Technicians’ Support Steering Group which they both sit on. Today (May 30th) is the “Visibility, outreach and professional development – network event”  for technicians, designed to raise awareness of the HEaTED network and various CPD opportunities.

Sara’s slides from the HEaTED event.

And don’t forget – The IAD is here to support all staff involved in teaching and research – we are equally welcoming to academic and technical staff. We’ll be publishing our new programme for 2017/8 over the summer so there’s still time to suggest ideas.


Wake up and smell the statistics

This morning I was working with the Researcher Development team on restructuring the section of our website aimed at research staff. Once we’re got some feedback from research staff and those who support them (please let me know if you want to give us your thoughts on our plans), we’ll have a busy summer developing new content, connecting to other support around the University and finding resources from further afield.

After spending the morning continually asking ourselves “what do research staff come looking for and what do they need to find?” I then dashed to join the SRHE “Postgraduate study and employability” conference which was happening just up the road. The reason for my haste was to catch the presentation by Dr Charlie Ball from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit on the postgraduate labour market.

Charlie and I go back a long way – we collaborated on the first ever analysis of PhD destination data and spoke on the phone most days trying to work out how to extract the information we needed from the information we had. I was delighted to hear that after much lobbying (and I suspect some tears of frustration) he has convinced the gods of destination data gathering to include a box on the form which PhD graduates complete which asks “are you a postdoc?” This, along with his excellent work over the last (ahem) years means that we have a much clearer picture of the paths that researchers take through their careers.

Photo by Luanarodriquez at

Since the very first analysis over ten years ago, we’ve known that over half PhD graduates leave universities on graduation and never return. Yes, really – immediately on graduation OVER HALF leave academia. We know that those who stay are mostly on fixed term research and teaching contracts (with clear discipline differences in career paths between STEM and AHSS). We know that of these, only a minority continue along the academic path. We know that PhD graduates and former research staff move into a wide array of sectors and roles. Compared to my own time as a postdoc, when our options away from the university or industries related to our research were a complete mystery, researchers now have a wealth of information about their options.

And yet…  some of the old myths seem determined not to die.

One of the clearest messages I’ve had from our schools has been to be really explicit about the small number of academic opportunities available. One of the new developments on our webpages will be a section which highlights the different options and how widely employable researchers are outside universities. I have never seen the solution to the mismatch between the number of researchers we train and the number of academic posts, as taking steps to reduce the former.  Instead I think we should celebrate the value that research training has to both the individual and their future employers.  Let’s face it, populating the labour market with people with high-level critical analysis, a habit of behaving with integrity and personal tenacity is no bad thing.

Someone asked a question about what we it will take to ensure researchers transition more easily into the wider labour market. Charlie’s answer included the suggestion that a wider range of employers should be aware of the value of PhDs – something that is happening through secondments in doctoral programmes and projects like one run by the University of Aberdeen to place research staff for short projects with local companies. (Those of us who have been in researcher development for too long will recall this approach taken with great success by Cardiff University at the turn of the millennium.)

So, today’s post is in part a thank you to Charlie for his work over the last (ahem) years improving the quality of data about researcher destinations and disseminating facts which have challenged a number of assumptions, but also a wake up call to any researcher who thinks that a PhD or postdoc puts them “over the hump” of the journey to an academic career. It’s a counter to any local messages you hear that the academic career is the only real path open and that everything else is a failure or compromise. Or that there aren’t any interesting opportunities out there that would match your interests or values.

Rather tantalisingly (don’t judge me for finding destination data tantalising) he mentioned that comparisons of Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral level destinations show that some career areas appear to open up at PhD level – it would be great to know more about this and to be able to highlight these positive messages about the wider and added value of a PhD. In an attempt to revisit our youth we’re going to try to identify a new project to collaborate on, perhaps on this theme.

My PhD and postdoc experience have paid a dividend throughout my career, not simply because of choosing to work in researcher development, but because of the skills I gained through doing research AND the wider opportunities I took whilst at university. YOUR PhD and postdoc experience will do the same for you, but start preparing for what comes next. The data tells a compelling story. Start building your CV so it tells just as compelling a story about your value.

Retreat and Write

2016-04-23 15.31.19
Photo by Diannehope at

This week started with a rare treat – a whole day to write. More accurately, I was facilitating a writing retreat for our current cohort of CAHSS Mid-Career Fellows, but I took the opportunity to join them in spirit as well as body.

Writing retreats are one of the most popular offerings from IAD, probably a reaction to the double whammy of fragmented academic time and increased pressure to produce outputs. We based our approach on the work of Professor Rowena Murray and in advance of the retreat we encourage all those attending to read the Murray and Newton paper which considers the value of structured writing interventions.

At the end of the day, I asked people to briefly consider if there was anything they could take away which might help to write in less focused circumstances. We talked about the ease or difficulty of writing at different times of the day which reminded me of the work of Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega, in particular a blog post in which he shared his academic writing approach. He talked about both the discipline of writing every day but also finding a slot where this is possible. For him it’s around 5am – perhaps linked to another of his pieces of advice which is about not being interrupted. The early morning writing habit was admitted by several of us in the room.

Another tip was making an appointment with yourself to write and preparing for the appointment in the same way that you would any other (because clearly everyone reads committee papers in advance). This isn’t just about putting a writing slot in your diary (although in an era of shared diaries you should do this and make sure it appears as “busy” rather than “tentative”) but about starting that appointment with a clear plan. All preparations in place, tools to hand and ready to make the most of the time available. Someone mentioned that they’d “saved up” their best writing ideas for the day so it felt like more of a treat and an occasion that they weren’t going to squander.

We also talked about the guilt of not writing when in a room full of people who know you should be. There’s many a “you should be writing” meme that you can print out and have glaring at you when you lift an eye from the screen or page, nothing is as effective as another human. There was nothing competitive about the atmosphere, so I don’t want to suggest there was an unseemly comparison of word count in each break. More that we all gently willed each other on to keep pushing on until the end of each slot. Someone referred to this as “strength in numbers”.

However, despite the fact that it’s possible to weave some of the features of the retreat into a daily routine, when asked if they could see a way to achieve some of the same value, for some the answer was a clear “no”. The cumulative effect was key to the impact of the day. One person talked about their final hour being the most productive by far. Although there might be some value in the planning and scheduled commitment, nothing could come close to the impact of being able to achieve a flow.

The fact it has again taken me until late on a Friday to do this week’s blog (& Sunday  to post it) shows that these habits aren’t easy to weave into busy schedules, but here are some things that might help.

SUAW and mini retreats – there is a regular SUAW hour on Twitter each Tuesday which could help achieve a sense of strength in virtual numbers. There may also be part or half day retreats in your school which you can attend when you need to. The Mason Institute runs a fortnightly retreat, but you could start one – IAD has written a facilitator guide which I used as the basis for the one this week.

Writing plans – I often plan to spend time on writing, but then get slightly paralysed thinking about what to write. The process of mapping out each of the hours in the retreat meant that I started the first hour almost effortlessly. This might be a good use of the next writing slot – to make a set of writing plans rather than fail to write.

Write by hand – this was an interesting reflection from one person. We start the day with a free writing warm up exercise and at points he found it easier to return to pen and paper. If the distractions of a keyboard and screen prove impossible to resist, perhaps it’s better to go back to basics and get a first draft out the old fashioned way.

Whatever helps you to write, persevere.