Tuesday, 5 November 2013

ECRs: Planning your Career

Prof Sally Sheldon
Prof Sally Sheldon and Dr Simon Black led the first of this year's Early Career Research Network meetings by considering how to 'plan your career'. This isn't necessarily as straightforward as it sounds: in any area of work we're restricted by the opportunities we're given, and however strategic we mean to be, life has a tendency to offer up alternatives paths.

 However, the session was a useful opportunity for those attending to take a step back and think about both the aspirations they had for their careers, and the challenges they faced. After a brief discussion, the audience offered a variety of career aims, ranging from the fairly straightforward (completing probation) to the more ambitious (establishing a research centre), and all points in between: writing a successful funding bid, publishing a book, and hosting a conference. Their 'challenges' were all too familiar: managing workloads, short term contracts, working to someone else's agenda and fierce competition for both permanent positions and research funding. 

Dr Simon Black
Although many of the opportunities in Sally's career had been serendipitous, its overall progress had followed a fairly straightforward academic path. Simon, however, had followed a more varied route. He had got a PhD in Management, continuing to publish whilst working in a large corporation, before deciding to move in a different direction and taking an MSc in Wildlife Conservation. He now split his time between publishing and working as a researcher, and working in Human Resources.

 Both Sally and Simon demonstrated that there was no single path that was appropriate - or available - to all. Simon suggested that ECRs should see the totality of their role and the skills they had developed. Most had four distinct aspects to their working life:

  • Teaching/professional: perhaps the most obvious aspect, and is often what comes to mind when we think about work; 
  • Individual skills: all of us have developed these over our working lives, from time management and decision making to planning and networking. 
  • Organisational knowledge: such as an understanding of the School, the University and the sector, and could include a knowledge of (say) course development and finances;
  • Leadership/Teamwork: experience of collaboration, group decision making, or managing meetings. 

Thinking in these terms may make you recognise that you have many more skills, and much more knowledge, than that just that gained within your discpline. However, in considering how to plan your career you should:

  • make sure that you've got an appropriate and supportive mentor. Good mentoring is crucial in helping you to understand your options and make the most of your opportunities. If this is not being offered, you need to think where you can get the necessary support. Consider approaching alternative senior staff, who may be more supportive, or discuss issues with both peers (to get an understanding of what you should expect), and with HR. 
  • be open to opportunities. These may come from colleagues or students, or from completely unexpected sources. Simon highlighted how he had expanded his network globally, and being open to opportunities had led to him developing new courses or new ways of teaching, new methods or new responsibilities. 
  • be aware of what's expected. Sally gave an insight into the work of both appointment and promotions committees, and highlighted the importance of a strong publication record. Knowing what the expectations are will help to prepare you in meeting them. 
  • offer solutions. If your current situation is not ideal, think of what is needed to improve it. Less teaching? More research time? An opportunity to be a lead author? With this goal in mind, consider what needs to change in order to make it happen, and approach your Head of School or Group Leader with a solution. People are more likely to respond favourably if they are presented with a solution rather than a problem. 
Simon finished the session by highlighting Steven Covey's seven habits. Whilst some may resist the 'self-help-ism' of this list, it does offer a useful framework in which to think about planning your career.The full list is available in the book and on the website, but includes:

  • Be proactive. It's easy to be reactive and wait for change, but it's more productive to instigate change yourself; 
  • Begin with the end in mind. What's your vision? What are your values? How do you want to work? Think about what you want, and keep that vision in mind; 
  • Plan. Understand what your commitments are, and fit your ideas around these. This might mean 'blending' teaching and research. There's no perfect plan and of course your plan might change, but think methodically about what needs to be done, and what you can do within your limits; 
  • Work with others. Listen, understand, collaborate, and don't burn bridges. 
  • Balance your life. It's easy to be focussed to the point of insanity. Sometimes you need to take a step back and, in doing so, you become a more effective academic. 
Simon and Sally's slides will be made available on the Research Services website shortly. The ECR Network will continue with a programme of workshops and more informal social events throughout the year. If you want to join the ECR mailing list, drop me a line.

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