Meet the Academics - How do i advance in academia?

01 October 2018 - By: Jonathan Smith

Meet the Academics - How do i advance in academia?

Meet the academics_
Photo: Simon Callaghan


By Jonathan Smith

The Meet the Academics lunchtime session of the SEB Annual Meeting allows an intermixing between young, early-career researchers and those at later stages of their careers. Hosted by George Littlejohn, University of Plymouth, UK, this year’s session was a valuable opportunity to pick the brains of a diverse mix of researchers.

Here, George asked key careers questions at the outset and the crowd contributed ideas, all of which provided insight into finding your dream academic career.

WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF GETTING AN ACADEMIC JOB?

In spite of low rates of researchers gaining positions in academia, the first general advice for postgraduates and post-docs was to stay positive and optimistic. An academic explained why: “We discussed some depressing statistics, but in fact, hiring can be very circumstantial; sometimes you need to be in the right place at the right time.” He further suggested that the moment you get a foothold into an institution, your chances are much better for landing a position.

WHAT IS THE RIGHT TIME TO APPLY FOR A POST-DOC POSITION?

When a PhD student is coming to the end of the project, searching for a post-doc position is unlikely to be a high priority. However, this is extremely important. “Start looking around 18 months in advance,” one audience member cautioned. “Contact supervisors and see if they have post-docs that they have not even advertised yet.” Amidst the tumult of experiments and theses, taking this step early on is critical for securing a good postdoc position.

HOW CAN YOU BOOST YOUR CHANCES OF PROGRESSING THROUGH ACADEMIA?

A nerve-wrecking aspect of finding academic positions is how to find support via networking. A key method for networking is the interview stage in an application, your best chance to steer the application your way, as another attendee advised: “My one jewel of advice: when you get the interview, chat with the people there, even the ones who are not in the interview itself; this is your best chance to control the application process.” He also cunningly suggested commiserating with collective worries over grants: “Academics are grant hypochondriacs; a great way to approach us is to get talking about the money we need!”

Another academic highlighted how important it is to ‘find your thing’. Although it is easy to stay within the field of the supervisor, it pays off to find your own direction, with a supportive supervisor on board. “In the early days of my career, I stuck to the work that I was familiar with, and didn’t progress,” he explained. “It took a new investigative ‘niche’ to really get my own research group going.” This was echoed by another attendee, who valued collaborations in candidates: “Your ability to work independently and with others is what we look for in an applicant.”

WHY DO I NEED A MENTOR AND A SPONSOR?

Mentors and sponsors help your careers, but in distinct ways, as one attendee pointed out. A mentor is someone who specifically coaches you in the process, as she continued: “It is key to have a recently established mentor, and a mentor who has been present for a long time, possibly a chair, as both help you make crucial decisions.” In contrast to a mentor, a sponsor is a person with influence, who is able to ‘name drop’ your reference and have a direct effect on your career. “Although they have distinct roles,” the attendee concluded, “it is vital to have both forms of support.”

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The session provided a useful resource for younger academics wanting advice in advancing their careers. The modern trend in academia is also shifting towards less traditional methods of advancing your career, such as social media and outreach. Together with the proactive networking, interview and mentoring suggestions, these methods will greatly help early-career researchers land themselves their dream academic job.

Category: Career Development
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Jonathan Smith

Jonathan Smith served as the SEB’s press intern for the annual meeting in summer 2016, and has since contributed articles for the SEB’s bulletin. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience from the University of Bristol, he is currently studying for a PhD in locust neurobiology in the University of Leicester and runs an active Twitter account communicating his work.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/j_ivories