Adding value to your research experience

30 September 2015 - By: Caroline Wood

Adding value to your research experience

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By Caroline Wood

Organised and presented by Sarah Blackford (Head of Education & Public Affairs, SEB) and Caroline Wood (PhD student, Sheffield University, UK), this year’s pre-conference Careers Day focussed on enhancing careers through extra-research activities and communication. 

For PhD students and early career scientists, attending big conferences and meetings can sometimes feel overwhelming. Each scientific journey is a process of self-discovery starting from small beginnings. So before the main bustle of the meeting kicked off, we wanted to provide some time and space for early career delegates to focus on their career progress so far, and equip them with some of the tools needed for visionary planning and strategic goal making. 

Forging Networks 

As soon as the delegates passed through the doors at the Clarion Congress Hotel, we put them to work on a “Networking Bingo” exercise. The challenge was to complete the grid of boxes by finding someone who fitted each description. The game proved a great success – everyone was on their feet, squeezing past each other to ask “Have you got a business card?”, “Are you presenting a paper?” or “Do you write a blog?” Afterwards, Sarah explained that the same forward attitude should be used at conferences to forge networks and increase one’s circle of contacts. “Make the most of the face-to-face networking opportunities provided by conferences”, she advised. “If you’re finding it hard to approach professors and group leaders directly, aim to make links with postdocs and PhD students and build your network from here instead”. 

Adding Value beyond your PhD 

It is widely believed that getting anywhere in academia depends on working as hard as possible in the lab. But this approach is not enough these days, as employers have so many talented PhD students to choose from. Hence the next part of the session focused on the importance of “adding value” to your research, to boost your CV credentials for careers, both within and outside academia. Following a stimulating presentation by Caroline Wood, in which she described the wide variety of activities in which she is involved within and outside of her university (including writing for the SEB!), the delegates were invited to take part in an interactive exercise. Giant pieces of flipchart paper and a colourful array of sticky notes always seem to bring out people’s creativity and the delegates were soon busy brainstorming their ideas. We discussed how dividing the disciplines of research into themes – outreach work, communication, entrepreneurship, etc. - could help one to identify areas on which to focus. For instance, a PhD student or postdoc who felt they lacked industry awareness might want to apply for an internship or enter an entrepreneurship competition such as the BiotechnologyYES Challenge (http://www.biotechnologyyes.co.uk). Meanwhile, solo workers could show their team working abilities by building collaborative internal and external research networks, engaging in local voluntary work or joining university groups. 

Enhancing your profile 

Communication is everything. What’s the point of doing fantastic research if no-one knows about it? Even at the start of your scientific career, it is important to consider your profile and how you can raise awareness about your work. Sarah advised the delegates that they should always be mindful of their personal impression and to be aware of all three of the key components – words, tone of voice and body language. Surprisingly, body language plays the most dominant role and is thought to contribute to 55% of the message we communicate to others. This advice extends to exposure, image and content too – people won’t listen to you or read about you if your image does not fit your message and, of course, if you’re not exposing yourself, no one will know about you anyway. This applies to writing papers, giving presentations to academic and non-academic audiences, making applications for jobs, your interview technique and applies to your “virtual profile” too, as impressions stretch beyond the physical world nowadays. In this latter regard, participants were encouraged to check their profile on their university or departmental website (do they even have one?), and to consider joining social platforms, such as Research Gate, Twitter, blogs and even Facebook (for professional purposes). 

For the afternoon session, delegates could choose from “How to write an effective CV” (for an academic and non-academic employer) or attend a masterclass in “Academic publishing. From A-Z)”. 

CV session 

“In order to write a really effective CV, first you need to know what the employer wants”, said Sarah Blackford, who presented this interactive style workshop. She went on to explain that writing a CV or completing an application form is not dissimilar to answering an exam paper or writing an essay – the answers are in the question (that is, the job requirements and personal specification). That means you need to structure and tailor your CV content accordingly (not write down everything you know about yourself). In the same way that the highest marks are won during the earlier part of an essay paper, the employer’s attention will be drawn primarily to the start of your CV and the first lines of each section so that these must contain the most relevant information to gain maximum attention. 

“Employers usually only have a finite amount of time to read through a set of applications”, explained Sarah. “Therefore, they may only glance at each CV for about 20 – 30 seconds the first time around, so don’t put the most interesting information half way down on the second page; make it stand out”. You can also consolidate the most relevant evidence of your suitability by highlighting it in your covering letter. Make sure you tell the employer why you are applying to their company or research group – show them you are motivated and have done your homework”. For more advice on CVs see Sarah’s blog: http://biosciencecareers.org/cvs 

The ins and outs of publishing

 

Next door, delegates were able to pick up some inside secrets from the publishing world from Mary Williams (Features Editor for The Plant Cell) and Bennet Young (Assistant Editor of the Journal of Experimental Botany). With the higher-impact journals typically rejecting around 80% of submitted papers, the audience were keen to know how to give their papers an edge. Mary’s top tip was to spend some time considering the best journal for your paper. “Use conferences to visit the journal trade stands and find out about their scope and meet the staff – don’t just go for the freebies!”, she advised. Meanwhile, Bennet stressed the importance of using the covering letter to sell your manuscript. “Link your manuscript to other papers recently published by the journal to show how it fits their remit”, he advised. The changing nature of peer review was also discussed, including the rapidly emerging models of open and non-anonymous review. Not surprisingly, this introduces whole new areas of ethics and integrity. “It can be emotionally damaging to see the wider world criticising your paper”, Bennet said. “My advice is to keep you data organised – this will benefit you if anything comes into question post-publication”. 

Action Planning! 

The overall take home message of the day was this: For the best chance of success, you should be working on your profile all the time, using every opportunity to improve your contacts and influence. For the participants, this started with the Annual Meeting itself and we encouraged everyone to give themselves some objectives, whether this was finding a potential collaborator, exchanging business cards or visiting trade stands. 

So, how about you? It’s never a bad moment to put some thought into your aspirations for the future. Why not take a postcard and write down three objectives and a date you’d like to achieve them by? Could your CV do with a makeover? Is there a paper you’ve been intending to start writing? An email you’ve been meaning to send to catalyse a new partnership? Have you been meaning to set up a profile on LinkedIn? Is there a local science festival you could be involved with? Although we can’t control the future, by setting strategic goals, we can make sure we keep moving in the direction of where we want to be. Good luck! 

Morning Session: 

“It was good to meet people working in different fields, but who are in a similar situation and thinking about their future careers”, Zoe Self (Royal Veterinary College, UK). 

CV session 

“This is the first time I have had any CV training in my life and it has been really useful, especially to see the difference between a CV for industry and academia”, Elletra Leo (Alfred Weninger Institute, Germany). 

Publishing session: 

“I was really not sure about the actual step-by-step process of publishing so the session was really interesting and informative. As a PhD student or researcher, it is almost mandatory that you publish articles and this can be really stressful”, Shamundeeswari Anandan (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Germany). 

 

 

 
Category: Career Development
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Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.
Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here.