The road quite well travelled

18 March 2016 - By: Sarah Blackford

The road quite well travelled

By Sarah Blackford

It’s the last day of January and I’ve already been out on my travels twice this year, visiting universities in the UK and mainland Europe, with the aim of helping bioscience PhD students and early career researchers with their personal career journeys.

During the third week of January I went to the University of Leicester to deliver workshops on successful applications and interviews, during the Midlands Integrative Bioscience Training Partnership (MIBTP) retreat, organised by one of our plant science members, Katherine Denby (Warwick). With Katherine, her MIBTP co-partner, Ezio Rosato and Rocky Cranenburgh (Chief scientific officer at local company, Prokarium Ltd) lending valuable input to the sessions, we were able to create more realistic scenarios for our students – two of whom bravely agreed to be grilled in a mock interview in front of their peers.

Further afield

The following week I was en route to the University of Zurich, where I met up with one of my co-authors of a paper published in 2014 entitled, ‘10 simple rules for finishing your PhD’1. This was the first time we’d met in person, let alone co-tutored on a two-day workshop, so we were slightly apprehensive as we began “Preparing to postdoc” with 25 final year PhD students, most of whom had also never met before. We needn’t have worried; after an initial ‘SWOT’ analysis, giving the participants the chance to discuss the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that go with being an academic researcher, we were all warmed up and ready to go! Comprising two halves, the first day of the workshop was more abstract, examining self-awareness connected with the prospect of an academic career. On the second day attention turned towards making effective research proposal applications, integrating self-awareness to demonstrate the importance of personal presentation style and language. 

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Co-tutor, Jacopo Marino, during our ‘Preparing to postdoc’ workshop in Zurich

Channelling creativity

Exercises and discussions were interactive and drew on the experience of creative industries such as movie-making to demonstrate the art of crafting an eye-catching research proposal – who would have thought that Hollywood blockbusters are based on a recognised narrative formula aimed to draw people in and keep them riveted until the end? It certainly got the attention of our participants! Other techniques we used included art critique to hone summarising skills and role play to reveal personality preferences, all of which fed into the mix of energising activities, as well as demonstrating how self-knowledge can help towards building good leadership and communication skills. Once again we enlisted the help of an approachable professor who was able to give feedback on presentations delivered by two of our brave participants, currently in the process of applying for early career postdoctoral funding. It was an intensive two days for the students, but well worth the time out of their research schedule (so they told us), preparing them for their next career transition. 

Future directions

Feedback from these events was excellent with participants particularly valuing an individualised personality assessment, mock interview practice and the general interactive nature of the workshop. So, with further events and one-to-one guidance sessions planned for this year in cities such as Strasbourg, Antwerp and Manchester, not to mention SEB’s own Careers Day during the main meeting in Brighton, our careers events look set to continue to be a popular and valued activity for SEB. If you’d like to find out more about our programme of training and what the SEB could offer to your institution, please get in touch. We cater for students, early- and mid-career researchers and can offer personal coaching to academics.




Category: Career Development
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Sarah Blackford

Sarah Blackford is the head of education and public affairs at the SEB and the editor of the SEB magazine. As a qualified careers adviser and MBTI practitioner, Sarah provides career development and support for SEB members and the wider scientific community. Sarah is also an active member within SEB+, focusing on a number of initiatives aimed at improving gender equality and diversity in the science field.