DIY for Contract Researchers: How to Build a Career in Science. Part I: 'I didn't get where I am today by ...'




Did you enter into academic research with a particular career path in mind? If not, you are certainly not alone! Did you gain your present position by careful thought and planning, or was it serendipity? In today's climate of limited (and, therefore, targeted) funding for research, it is necessary for contract researchers to know what it takes to build a career in science, whether inside or outside academia. As Reggie Perrin's boss would say, "I didn't get where I am today by ..."

A hot potato for universities is the "management of expectation" of contract research staff. Many experienced researchers are leaving science after two or three postdocs, disillusioned by an itinerant lifestyle and a perceived lack of institutional support. For those who stay in academia, movement tends to be "along" (to another postdoc) rather than "up" to a permanent position. The reason is simple: The pool of high-calibre researchers is now vast when compared to the puddle of permanent academic posts. It is estimated that perhaps one in five researchers will achieve a degree of permanency in academic employment; only one in three will be able to stay at one institution for more than 5 years. Unfortunately for those who might wish to pursue an academic career, no one presents you with these sobering statistics before you embark on a Ph.D. (Remember that senior academics grew up in a university system very different from that of today.)

Who, then, is calling the shots, careerwise? Is it all gloom, doom, and 1-year contracts (complete with waiver to redundancy rights), or can you influence your own career path? One problem is that many contract staff members are so deeply buried in their research that they have little time to consider the merits of charting a possible future for themselves. The pressure of work and the constant need to publish mean that any thought of career or professional development quickly goes out the window. One contract drifts into another, until such time as the external funding runs out and you are dispatched to the friendly folks at the DSS without even a carriage clock to show for your research endeavours.

Realising that if you don't take responsibility for your own career path, it is unlikely that anybody else will is a major turning point for many postdocs. In addition, weighing your career options outside academia can lead to a change in focus. "Think 'outside the box,' i.e., not 'I am a contract researcher,' but 'I am X with the following skills, interests, and attributes who happens currently to be employed as a contract researcher,' " suggests Martin Pennington, assistant director of the careers service at the University of Leicester. This is great advice, but then you need to do something about it! At this point, many postdocs come unstuck and return to the lab bench. So what should you do? The answer is to develop a career plan, implement it, and monitor your progress. By this means, you will overcome the inertia that stems from a belief that where you go from here is somehow solely dependent on your institution, department, or supervisor!

In the next installment of "DIY for Contract Researchers: How to Build a Career in Science," we look at career plans--hints and tips on how to formulate one, and where to go for help!

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