Fun, Friendly, and Informative

Back in February, Next Wave reported on plans for four pilot career development schools aimed at postdocs, funded by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC). Two of the schools have now taken place. Jenny McCann, an epidemiologist, and Matthew Russell, a chemist, both postdocs at the University of Cambridge, attended the Manchester school which concluded in June. Both are looking for a new direction when their current contracts end. In this article, they tell Next Wave about their experiences.

Next Wave: Why did you take part in the career development school?

Matthew Russell: The aims of the course were to increase self-awareness, broaden your career horizons, and develop ideas on how to further your own career prospects, and I went along with several expectations. I knew I wanted to investigate careers other than research but had no concrete plans on how to go about that. The concept of 'career development' was very appealing and implied to me a great deal of self-analysis, but also a large amount of information on how to change careers, how to look for jobs and where--but mainly lots of ideas! Given that I was unhappy with my current situation (both due to my jaded enthusiasm for the work itself but also the perceived opinion of postdoctoral workers and their rights), I was very happy to see that someone (i.e., the EPSRC) was doing something for me! So I was very excited about the whole project and really looking forward to it.

Jenny McCann: I have never been entirely convinced that science 'postdocing' is really 'me'. I have had three changes of direction in my career so far, from laboratory bench to scientific administration to epidemiology. I have enjoyed some aspects of each, and hated others! However, I have never really felt about any job 'this is me: this is what I love doing, this uses all my skills and fulfils all the requirements I have for a job'. As I get older, I find quality of life becomes increasingly important. I want a lot out of my career. I am prepared to change direction again to get more of what I want from a career, but I am not prepared to keep on changing--next time I want to get it right! I hoped that the CRAC course would help me to discover what it was I wanted to be, and then tell me how to be it!

Next Wave: What was the structure of the school, and what did you do?

JM: The first stage of the course was residential and took place over 3 days. Of a total of around 40 people on the course, there were seven people in my group: four men and three women. Given our different backgrounds and disciplines, it was amazing how similar many of our experiences and viewpoints were, but then we had all opted to go on the course!

MR: Although these 3 days have a wide remit, its most useful function was putting you in touch with a lot of people in a similar situation. The postdoc's life can be a very isolated one--not a student any longer but not necessarily a respected member of the academic staff--and, sadly, this seemed to be true for too many of us. This was helpful, though, in breaking down the social barriers and becoming truly supportive of each other. And it wasn't all gossiping and complaining as we had a number of tasks to perform over the 3 days.

JM: Each group had a 'facilitator' who guided us through a series of exercises undertaken alone, in pairs or in the group. These included chatting to--then introducing--another team member to the group, building a tower as quickly as possible in order to maximise height but using a minimum number of bricks, and a similar word game with scrabble tiles. We had a couple of brainstorming sessions and some time to consider the breadth of career possibilities within the group, as well as time on our own to contemplate exactly what we did and did not want out of a career. These group sessions were interspersed with a few plenary sessions in which some basic ideas about careers were presented. Throughout the course there was build-up to the 'big task' which turned out to be the setting up of a career research project. At the end of the first stage, most of us had identified a career we were interested to learn about and had some good ideas or even definite contacts to approach in order to set this up.

MR: The individual research project was to be carried out over the next 6 weeks on our own. The idea of the team-building was that on our return visit we would be effective in sharing our results and getting the most out of everyone's hard efforts. The research project, if chosen and carried out carefully, can be very rewarding although, disappointingly, only a third of the projects went to completion. Nevertheless, I was keen to share the conclusions and insights I gained from my own research and feel that others benefited as much as I did from it.

JM: I arranged my project through 'cold calling' and was surprised by how easy I found this. We then met up again in Manchester for one day for stage 3. We discussed our research projects in our original groups, then prepared and exhibited project posters to all the participants over lunch. This gave us the opportunity to discuss potentially interesting experiences with others. Finally, in our groups, we wrote and presented personalised action plans as to how we were intending to direct our careers in the future.

MR: While thin on hard facts and concrete suggestions, the framework of the sessions and the motivation of our group as a whole were terrific stimulants to returning to the real world and finding the right job for me.

Next Wave: What would you say to other postdocs who might be thinking of going on a course like this? Would you recommend it?

MR: Certainly, yes, if you are feeling directionless and unsure that you are where you want to be. The course is not really for those who want to remain in academia, although even for them I would hesitate to say that the course would be a waste of time. Like anything else, you get out of it what you put in.

JM: It was actually a lot of fun. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the people in my group and was surprised at how quickly we all bonded. The atmosphere throughout was very friendly and supportive. I was initially rather wary of the idea of team exercises but found them enormously rewarding and entertaining. The course was a pilot, and I think some aspects could possibly have been improved, but I did feel that the organisers listened carefully to the feedback and I am convinced that future courses will be even better.

For me personally, I gained a much firmer conviction that I can actively choose what I do with my life, and that there are a lot of opportunities out there. I am now much more determined to choose a career, rather than have one choose me! I feel quite empowered.

Places are still available on the remaining two pilot courses. To find out more and register your interest, visit the CRAC Web site.

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