Getting Into Education/Community Liaison


Dear CareerDoctorI was wondering if you could help me? I know the job I'd like to do, but I don't know if it exists! I'm finishing my PhD in cell biology and I would then like to act as an education/community liaison person within a university. I'm very interested in communicating science to school kids, but I do NOT want to be a teacher.I'd like to act as a contact for (life) scientists who are interested in promoting their research to schools/community groups and also as a contact for schools which want to receive information about research/tours etc. for pupils. If at all possible, I'd like to build up a resource of items for use in schools (e.g., booklets/kits etc) that would be available to scientists for outreach work.I know the Wellcome Trust is launching a new scheme of grants for engaging the public in science and I'm looking into that. I'm also aware that Imperial College has a new scheme for 50% postdoc/50% teaching. I'm attaching a copy of my CV. Any other hints or tips for me? Any contacts in the Bath/Bristol/Oxford area? I hope you can help!Many thanks,Avril

Dear Avril,

I am sure that your ideal job is out there, but you may not be able to step straight into it after your PhD, so it is important that your first job builds on the skills and knowledge that you have already started to develop to make you more employable. You've made a good start by getting involved in the " Researchers in Residence" scheme, which has obviously helped you confirm your interest. As you learn more about the opportunities in this area, you may discover other jobs which appeal to you. However, you also will probably come across some related opportunities which in fact wouldn't suit you so well, and it is important that you keep in mind a clear idea of what you are after.

Before you start your research, make some notes on what you are looking for, where you want to be based (as you have a geographical preference), and how you hope your career will develop. You can always modify these parameters, but they should help you to remain grounded.

The type of work that interests you is relevant to a number of different organisations, not just universities. However, in the higher-education sector, promoting science (and of course other subjects and university life in general) is the responsibility of the schools liaison or admissions departments, which may also be dealing with the government's Widening Participation agenda. Under this initiative, most big universities--including the main ones in your preferred geographical area--now run summer schools. Have a look at the universities' Web sites ( Bristol and Oxford both give details of their programmes). Summer schools give students who have no experience of higher education or come from deprived backgrounds a chance to spend a week or more in university experiencing lectures, practicals, and input designed to inspire them to apply to university.

Be aware that in an admissions or liaison role, you are likely to provide schools with speakers on all curriculum subjects, rather than focusing solely on science (depending on the size of the department). Also, this role is often largely administrative, as academics or researchers will be giving the actual talks.

However, your background may be so unusual that the university would be willing to send you out in person. Many years ago, when the CareerDoctor was still at the bench, she applied for a vacancy at a university in the Midlands for a young scientist to work in the schools liaison office and go out to local schools to promote all technology and science degrees. Sadly, the funding for the post didn't come through (although the CareerDoctor is very happy with her subsequent career!), but there may be other similar opportunities out there. Perhaps the Wellcome Trust's scheme might cover something like this? I know that the Trust is very happy to discuss eligibility for schemes with potential applicants, so do e-mail or phone the organization if you haven't already done so.

And think beyond university. You should also try approaching those other big funders of science--the Research Councils. They are very active in science-promotion work and are mostly based in Swindon, which falls into your preferred geographical area.

Another group of potential employers includes professional bodies and learned societies. These organizations are likely to develop the types of materials you mention and are also involved in other initiatives to promote science. A brief search on the Internet identified one in the Bristol area, the Clifton Scientific Trust, a registered charity that promotes "excellence and relevance in science through pupil (student) participation in open-ended programmes of real scientific exploration and application, what we call Science for Real." Your university's careers service office ought to be able to offer further local advice and contacts.

I'm sure there are others, but they may be small organisations whose best help to you may be to provide information on activities in the region, skills needed in the sector, and how to develop your career--rather than telling you about vacancies. The larger bodies are almost all based in London, so decide how determined you are to stick to your geographical location, as you will likely be limiting your options. Luckily for you, however, the Society for Endocrinology is based in Bristol and the Society for General Microbiology has its headquarters in Reading. Do some research into their activities there, and don't be afraid to make an approach--you may be able to visit and speak to someone to talk about their activities, find out about recruitment into similar posts, and get general advice from the inside.

If location really is at the top of your list of career needs, then you may have to be more flexible in terms of what job you will start your career with. Contact the local branches of professional bodies or organisations in the life sciences. Although they won't have paid employment opportunities, they can help you to keep your experience current through volunteering for community or schools-based events, as well as offering some excellent networking opportunities.

A third option is to work for museums that will be keen to engage their younger visitors and will try to relate science to the real world with exhibitions that explain stories in the media, or are of local interest. Museum work is traditionally very difficult to find, poorly paid, and on short-term contracts (sounds like academia!), but it offers an appealing work environment. The Web site of the Museums Association has links to museum organisations, including one for the South West. You may need to do further training to increase your chances of landing a job in this sector, so it may not appeal. However, any research you do into museum work will be useful, as it will familiarise you with how science is presented and promoted in a different setting.

If you are ambitious, how about establishing a life science version of SETNET, which aims to "ensure that there is a flow of well-motivated, high-quality people from schools who have an interest in, and an understanding of, engineering related subjects"? Although the life sciences are included in this remit and the Web site provides a database of resources, links to member organisations, and an ambassador scheme (all of which are definitely worth a look), they are diluted in a wide subject base.

Also useful for general research is the National Grid for Learning, "the gateway to educational resources on the Internet." This again should lead you to the publishers of educational materials and help you to identify any gaps in the life sciences compared to other areas, if you decide to apply to the Wellcome Trust for funds. (The Trust will want to see the need for your intended work, and you must have a strategy to target and tailor your science-promotion work.)

Finally, although I've suggested Web sites for your research, your most powerful resource will be people working in this field. If you have problems identifying practitioners, you may be able to find help from STEMPRA, the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine Public Relations Association. Its Web site is worth visiting for the advice to science communicators. Or look at psci-com, a guide to Internet resources on public engagement with science and technology, which also has an excellent listserv where jobs are sometimes advertised. Once you do track down useful contacts, their enthusiasm for science will, I hope, manifest itself in a willingness to talk to someone interested in joining them!

All the best in your career!

      The Career Doctor

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