Meet the Young Academics

31 October 2016 - By: Caroline Wood

Meet the Young Academics

Meet the Young Academics

By Caroline Wood

Speakers: Carol Bucking (York University, Canada), Gonzalo Estavillo (CSIRO, Australia), George Littlejohn (University of Exeter, UK), Jodie Rummer (James Cook University, Australia), Teresa Valencak (University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, Austria) 

Chair: Sarah Blackford, Head of Education & Public Affairs, SEB With only enough academic positions to employ around 5% of PhD students, there comes a time when every young researcher must decide whether to try and ‘make it’ in academia or chose another career path. During the lunchtime Question and Answer session “Meet the Young Academics” at SEB Brighton 2016, our early-career delegates were able to find out just what it takes to land that elusive tenured position. Our panel featured plant, animal and cell biologists, all of whom were current or past SEB president’s medallists. Together they demonstrated the diversity of career paths available across different nations. 

The early bird catches the worm?

Given the high level of competition, how early should PhD students start looking for postdocs? The panel agreed that sooner is always better, but opportunities often come about through contacts you make from your research. “During my PhD in Canada, we were encouraged to work with other experts to learn new techniques” said Jodie. “These small collaborations in your PhD can turn into postdocs later on”. Even outside the lab, you should be seizing every chance to improve your network, advised Gonzalo: “Go to conferences, talk to the person next to you and never sit with your own lab group,” he said. But if you want to apply to a specific programme or award, a focussed approach may be necessary. “I started applying for postdocs two years before my PhD finished but this was because I wanted to fund it through a Fellowship, and these can take up to a year to come through” said Carol. 

Upskill development?

And when it comes to making these applications, is it important to have teaching experience? The panel were unanimous that this can give you an edge in the job market. “For us mortals without Nature papers, the more you can increase your skills, the more likely you are to get the job you like. Showing you can communicate gives you an extra advantage,” said Gonzalo, with Teresa adding: “I think one of the reasons my University hired me was because I have a teaching degree so could be used both as a researcher and a lecturer”. 

Staying power?

Meanwhile, is a change always for the better or does it harm your career prospects to ‘stay put’? “My postdoc was very much a continuation of my PhD and it didn’t harm me at all; it enabled me to think about some ideas in a really different way,” said Jodie. Making a break, however, does broaden your skills and self-development. “Having a wide experience convinces people that you will function well in a department, that you can make links with people and contribute to teaching across the board” said George.  

A change for the better?

And what about changing your area of research – how amenable are PIs and potential supervisors to a change of interest, or slightly off-topic ‘side-projects’? In this respect, funding can be a key issue. “My centre had a set of specific guidelines so I only had a few options,” said Gonzalo. “But inside my topic, I was free to move in different directions”. Securing your own funding can thus be the key to your independence. “Try to develop skills in writing grants and getting information on new grant proposals during your PhD, because this is something, as academics, we have to do on a daily basis,” said Teresa. The important thing is to communicate your ambitions to your supervisor. “If your post doc isn’t exactly what you want it to be, you need to have a very honest conversation with your PI,” said Carol. “There are often ways to work around in the background to get what you want and most PIs are very amenable to that”.

Wrapping up this lively session, George, made a more general comment on the art of career choice saying, “Life happens at the same time you make your career – so make your decisions based on your values”. 

Top Tips:

  • Be tenacious – apply, apply, apply!
  • Stay positive – you never know how things will work out
  • Grab every opportunity to build your network, learn new techniques and have new
  • Build your own niche and exploit it
  • Be open to different environments, career paths and funding sources




Category: Brighton 2016
Caroline Wood-Author Profile

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.