Career Support Staff: Are You Being Served? Helping Contract Researchers Achieve Their Career Ambitions


"There's plenty of talk about support for researchers at this university, but it doesn't quite happen in reality. You're on your own really ... you just get on with it." But hang on a moment ... does this oft-heard refrain actually ring true? Your institution almost certainly employs staff outside of your department who may be incredibly useful in helping you to achieve your career ambitions. Find them. And I don't just mean the more obvious folk such as careers advisers and fully paid 'staff developers'; there are others who may be equally or even more helpful.

One such breed is the research link officer or research funding adviser. Institutions give different 'tags' to such people, but they usually reside in the research support office, external funding office, or its equivalent. How might they be useful to you? For a start, research funding is the key to a research career. No funding, no career. Obvious, but often overlooked because science is just so interesting, you'd almost work for free! Sadly, if you don't pay attention to where the funding is, this is precisely what you will be doing before long. A second handy feature is that research funding advisers are often experienced postdoctoral researchers who have moved into a different role. By this, I don't mean 'failed scientists who couldn't think of anything else to do with their sad, empty lives', but staff who have changed direction in their careers through choice or necessity, e.g., they still have mortgages to pay and kids to raise. This background and experience makes them doubly useful as contacts; they really do know what it is like to be a contract researcher, the highs and lows of life at the cutting edge of scientific endeavour. This is a good starting point for a working relationship.

As you may have guessed by now, I'm a research funding adviser. I have a background in earth sciences, but currently work in a research support role at a university in the English Midlands. When my third postdoctoral fellowship came to an end in 1998, I was unable to secure further support for my research; the Natural Environment Research Council had simply stopped funding anything in my field. Faced with no lectureships available in the UK (the next Research Assessment Exercise being 3 years away!), I sought an alternative way forward. The metamorphosis from postdoc to funding adviser was not painless. A period of unemployment was followed by a year working in student support services on a low salary. When the job of research funding adviser at another university came up I jumped at the opportunity. I have a reasonably good eye for what makes a successful grant application and have written several such applications myself. This was definitely a bonus when applying, and it adds credibility to the role when in post.

So, what do I do? A funding adviser is employed to oversee the administration of bids for research and other educational funding, advise on the 'ins and outs' of various funding schemes, and help university staff to manage their research projects effectively. In practice, the role is strongly developmental and covers a broader portfolio than that outlined above. In my case, the portfolio ranges from informal, one-to-one advice ("get into this area now--there's lots of research funding, so your chances of permanent employment are excellent!") to workshops on grant-writing and policy developments in Higher Education (for example, "this is where government thinking is headed ... let's consider how to exploit your expertise in this area, in terms of securing funding for your research").

Having made the move into research support, I thoroughly enjoy my work. In a very short period, I have gained useful insights into how the 'Republic of Science' thinks and works. Such insights might otherwise accrue more gradually as an academic. Much of the satisfaction in the job comes from helping others to gain funding for their work. In the process, I benefit hugely from interacting with people from diverse scientific backgrounds. I would be lying if I said that I don't miss doing research on a day-in, day-out basis, but I try to find time (in between family commitments( to write papers and thereby maintain a research profile. Perhaps the greatest benefit is the greater degree of job security--for the first time in my life, I'm not on a short-term contract. Wonderful.

It comes as a surprise to some researchers that an 'administrator' (bureaucrat, pen-pusher occupying plush carpeted office, general waste of space) can be useful, particularly when it comes to helping them realise their career ambitions. This leads to comments of the kind, "I didn't know your office even existed, but I'm glad to have found you!" Of course, there is no guarantee that the contacts you make within your own particular institution--whether funding advisers, careers staff, or other workers--will have all of the answers you seek, or give infallible advice. What you can expect is professionalism and a genuine desire to help--these are support roles, after all. Why not give it a try and seek out the relevant person(s) in your university? It could be the best career move you ever make!

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