DIY for Contract Researchers: How to Build a Career in Science. Part III: Reach for the Skies




All around, expectant eyes are turning skyward. The countdown to becoming an established, independent researcher has begun, but out there on the launchpad the blue touchpaper won't ignite. The spark is there but fizzles out as you are asked to take on teaching, marking, tutorials, and postgraduate supervision. Evenings and weekends are spent writing papers and grant proposals, and perhaps squeezing in some time with your long-suffering partner. After all the effort you've put in, progress seems slow. Will your career ever take flight? Now could be a good time to take a step back from what you've been doing and review your progress so far.

Start your review by going back to your support network (other researchers, career advisers, funding advisers) for constructive feedback on your career ambitions. Is your chosen field of research still attracting interest from funders, or is the spotlight beginning to shift to another area? What national pressures or priorities are driving the funds in this direction? Positioning yourself in an area likely to attract generous, long-term support from the Research Councils or industry could give you that extra lift for career take-off. Even if you're set on a nonacademic career in science, it is important to find out where the money goes for research, and who looks after their researchers. As an estate agent might say, the all-important thing is 'location, location, location'!

If offers of interviews aren't trickling in, take stock of your existing skills. If you decide that you need to acquire new competencies relevant to your job search (for example, project management experience), take practical steps in this direction. Of course, you may conclude that you are doing everything right, in which case perseverance is the name of the game.

But hang on, is there something missing from your career plan? In the U.K., 72% of total grants and contracts for research go to 20 large universities with medical schools, and a mere 4.5% to the post-1992 university sector. The 20 heavyweight institutions also host about 75% of all contract researchers. Could you be losing out if you are located in a less-favoured institution? Crucially, the big players are able to achieve a reasonable degree of continuity in research income, which in turn should lead to greater job security for their researchers. (Though judging by a recent Research Careers Initiative report, many institutions have yet to realise this potential.) Continuity of employment in the early stages of your career gives you an edge; specifically, it provides the chance to "publish a lot of good stuff and get a high profile internationally," notes Godfrey Fitton, professor of igneous petrology at the University of Edinburgh. So should you jump ship and throw in your lot with the research heavyweights? Only you can decide. Here's where your network of contacts comes in; knock on doors, gather information, and chart your course accordingly.

If your hard work pays off, your days as a contract researcher are numbered and you will move on to pastures new. Staying in academia brings with it the responsibility to help drive the policy changes that are necessary if a genuine career structure for young scientists is ever to be implemented (progress by U.K. universities is excruciatingly slow). You can also serve as a mentor for those who come after you. If you venture into industry, volunteer to come back and tell your colleagues just how green the grass is on that side of the fence, or vice versa. Whatever your career choice, your experiences matter to those who would follow your example and reach for the skies!

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