What Next and How to Get There

Last week I visited Edinburgh University to participate in their inaugural ‘Innovative Learning Week’. Whilst many universities, though not my own, have study weeks or mid-term breaks, I haven’t come across the idea of teaching a different kind of teaching before. By all accounts it was a successful week, and those parts I saw were certainly innovative. It should be stated, though, that for me using a ‘clicker’ – as the audience did in the informative and entertaining talk on Dark Matter by Catherine Heymans – is in itself innovative. This is something I have not had the opportunity, or perhaps I mean courage, to try out on my class of 400+ 1st years in my own lectures.

Students were encouraged to try out many new things and participate in activities beyond and outside the curriculum. I only got to see what was going on in Physics, but there I encountered a student who had written an iPhone app from scratch in a day, another who had got philosophers along to discuss time travel and a group who were putting together a magazine covering the week’s events (for which I was duly interviewed and photographed).  Good material for a CV, I said, when starting to job hunt, to which I got a slightly jaundiced answer from one of the magazine team saying essentially that the person in question had so many activities under their belt, they’d ‘given up thinking about this when in the Fourth Year at school’. Well, if this person was telling the truth, I suspect they were unusual. Many students come through university with little to assist them in answering so-called ‘competency questions’ as they apply for jobs. These are the questions beloved by big firms trying to reduce the numbers of applicants fast (but not so fast they just count up the number of GCSEs at A*). PhD students – and postdocs – should be able to cope rather better than undergraduates when attempting to deal robustly with questions such as:

  • Describe a situation when you have persuaded a colleague to do something they didn’t want to do?
  • When have you lead a team and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Have you ever initiated new systems or processes, and were they successful?
  • Give an example of when you have taken the initiative, and what were the outcomes?

I have to admit when I see questions like this I can only be thankful I am not required to answer them myself (my mind always goes a blank), but for someone just setting out on ‘life’ they can be really challenging, particularly if your personal ethics require (as they should) that you remain fairly truthful, even if the odd embellishment may slip in.  By and large science degrees do not offer too many opportunities to gain these skills, and it is only the extracurricular stuff that can be incorporated. Fine if your vacation consists of arranging an expedition to monitor glacier flow in Greenland, probably less good if your holiday job is in the local Tesco’s.

PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, at least in most science subjects, probably have greater opportunities to gain experience relevant to answer some of the questions, particularly if a little re-interpretation is applied. If you haven’t initiated new systems or processes during your research, you probably are just cranking a handle for someone else and not actually doing original research at all. This might be something to worry about as thesis-writing time looms. Ditto taking the initiative; if you are assuming your supervisor has all the answers and you simply should do as they suggest even in your third year, you may not be cut out to go very far (unless you are part of an enormous team, and even then I’m dubious). As for demonstrating persuasion, that could be anything from getting someone to loan you a bit of kit for a week to making sure you got sent to that fancy conference in Hawaii.

However, do students/postdocs think like this and take heed of how to ‘sell’ themselves as the job market beckons? Not according to a recent article  I came across, written by Conor O’Carroll who is research director for the Irish Universities Association. He was specifically considering people who were looking to move out of academic science research, as the statistics show so many people will. (and let us remember that this should not be seen as ‘failure’ as I’ve written about before). He wrote

Having sat on many interview panels for non-research posts, it continues to surprise me how little preparation some applicants from the research sector put into the process….

A researcher should approach their CV as they would a grant proposal. In the case of research grants, there are clear terms and conditions and evaluation criteria. For a job, these come in the form of the job specifications and the desirable attributes of the applicant sought by the employer….

During verbal interviews some conduct themselves as if it were for another lab position. They are content to talk at length about their research, disregarding the fact that their potential employer may have little or no interest.

The message from this is clear, we need to do a better job ourselves of ensuring the students understand how to market themselves, and how to extract the most they can from the experiences they have had.  For undergraduates this may mean simply leaving it to the Careers’ Service, unless (like Edinburgh) a slot in something like Innovative Learning Week can be devoted to it. But as supervisors of those starting out on research careers, as PI’s we could and should do a great deal better (though I would doubt I myself do this reliably, despite my exhortations). This position was highlighted in the Willetts round table discussion this summer on postdoctoral careers and is implicit in the Research Concordat, which states (in the fourth of its seven principles)

The importance of researchers’ personal and career development, and lifelong learning, is clearly recognised and promoted at all stages of their career.

This includes PIs encouraging individuals to step back from their daily grind at the laboratory bench and computer (or back of envelope) to attend courses, something it would appear some PI’s are reluctant to do. Beyond this it should also mean an actual dialogue occurs about job prospects, interviews and time is spent looking at draft CV’s if requested. Although the Concordat goes on to say

Individual researchers share the responsibility for and need to pro-actively engage in their own personal and career development, and lifelong learning.

some need more than simply being told to take responsibility; a chat, encouragement to think hard in advance of submitting an application or preparing for an interview, might do much to render Conor O’ Carroll’s words above redundant.

During the day I was at the University of Edinburgh, a session (which I did not attend) had faculty talking for 10 minutes each, without powerpoint slides, about what they actually do each day. My talk too was focussed on aspects of  ‘life’ at least as much as my research (the title of my talk ‘Life-plans, Research and Sidetracks’ says it all). These sort of activities provide another route to prepare students – and many in my audience were undergraduates rather than postgraduates – for what may lie ahead, and what sort of questions they need to ponder as they make decisions about ‘what next? In my own university we try to do this (at least) once a year with the annual WiSETI Lecture, given this year by Professor Carol Robinson (on March 22nd). Maybe more places need to include activities like these  in the fare they offer students – at all levels – and postdocs. In the meantime, let me express my appreciation to Karon McBride, who was the prime mover for the Physics activities in Edinburgh, for what she set up. If all the departments in the university had such stimulating activities going on, Edinburgh will undoubtedly be keen to repeat Innovative Learning Week next year.




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