For postdoc researchers, the world is their oyster, but only if they’re willing to put their research skills into their career path.
Research is an essential part of science, and a huge number of bright, young scientists are extremely passionate about the field of research and want to pursue it in lieu of working in the industry.
But there is a lot to a career in research that not everyone is familiar with. Dr Liz Elvidge has plenty of wisdom on the subject, not only as the head of the postdoc centre at Imperial College London but also as the author of What Every Postdoc Needs to Know.
Elvidge is delivering a keynote address at a research career options forum run by Science Foundation Ireland in the Ballsbridge Hotel in Dublin tomorrow (22 September).
How the research industry has changed
When I spoke to her about the scientific research industry, she told me she has seen massive changes over the course of her career. “There’s a lot less money around and it’s a lot more competitive.”
‘Less than 10pc of postdocs will get an academic job’
– DR LIZ ELVIDGE
She notes that her first postdoc, which was funded by the National Environment Research Council, would probably not be funded if she were to do it now. “It was completely speculative. It was like, ‘We’re going to go to Egypt, we’re going to collect all these samples and we’re not quite sure what we’re going to get.’”
While doing postdoc work was tough for Elvidge, she cites a pretty startling statistic that highlights just how tough it is for postdoc researchers now.
“Less than 10pc of postdocs will get an academic job,” she said. “So, 90pc of these people who have been working in science for quite a few years are not going to get what they have been aspiring for.”
Not only is there more competition for roles, but there’s also less funding to go around, with speculative research taking a particular hit. “Financially, we’re in a very different system,” said Elvidge. “The person on the street is thinking, ‘Why am I paying taxes to give funding to someone for three years to not quite know what they’re going to get out of it?’”
However, on a more positive note, Elvidge said that while it’s tougher to get academic roles and funding, there is much more support for researchers than ever before. “[At Imperial College London] we do mock interviews with people, we review applications – there was none of that when I was starting out,” she said.
Support aside, it still sounds incredibly tough for postdoc researchers to map out their dream career, but Elvidge believes it’s not about steering them away from a career in research, but rather helping them to become realistic about the options.
“If they can change their mindset a little bit, the world is their oyster. These are incredibly bright, intelligent, articulate, analytical people,” she said.
“Most research is still funded on fixed-term funding. So, if they decide to go down a research career path, this is where I get a little bit blunt with them and say, ‘That’s absolutely fine, but you’ll always have to be doing research that’s sexy. And if you happen to be doing research that is not sexy, funding will stop.’”
Elvidge also said that it’s important to keep in mind that funding is on a fixed-term basis, which is something aspiring researchers will need to consider in terms of their livelihood.
“You can do it for a long time, but that’s the nature of the beast, it will always be fixed-term funding,” she said. “It’s all about the decision-making, so if someone knows that they want to do that, don’t then complain about the fixed-term funding because that’s nothing they can do anything about.”
Top tips for postdoc researchers
For postdoc researchers who have their hearts set on their research career path, Elvidge advises them to take ownership of their careers. “They actually have to say, ‘My career is my responsibility.’ I think that’s one of the biggest breakthrough things.”
Her second tip is to be proactive in making a plan and doing your research. She said researchers have such strong skills in research but they don’t always seem to be able to flick that over to researching their own career. “Sometimes, the grass is not greener, it’s just a different shade.”
Her final tip is to feel the fear. “I know it’s scary. I’ve met people who are in their 20s and they’ve never failed at anything,” she said. “The fear of failure can be enormous because if you literally haven’t failed anything, that is scary.”
She said those people must realise that they are going to fail at something and know it’s not the end of the world. “Life’s about learning from those failures and it’s not life-threatening.”
Elvidge added that one of most important things researchers can do is actually research what their options are, particularly when it comes to career options outside of pure research. “They don’t know what they don’t know,” she said.
Women in research
While all researchers need to know what they want from their career, and could do with advice on brushing up on their CVs and interview skills, Elvidge noted very significant gender differences within the research community.
“Men are much less risk-averse. So, they’ll put something in and they might get it or they might not get it, but their recovery is much faster,” she said.
“But if women put something in and they don’t get it, six months down the line, they’re still thinking, ‘I’m never doing that again, that was the worst experience ever’, and that’s where you see the difference.”
‘Female CVs are often far too honest’
– DR LIZ ELVIDGE
Elvidge said women have a tendency to be more cautious and hesitant about submitting research. She said they tend to want to wait until they’re more sure, which she discourages. “Don’t use the words, ‘I’ll just wait’,” she said.
She also noted that women use a lot of adjectives to justify themselves, which comes across as less confident. “I can spot the gender of a CV within a couple of seconds.” Elvidge said this is largely due to women saying things like, ‘I’m quite good at this’ or ‘In five years’ time, I hope to be this’ while men say, ‘I am good at this’ and ‘In five years’ time, I will be this’.
Elvidge advised women to consider some coaching to help them take unnecessary qualifying words out. “Female CVs are often far too honest,” she said, citing CVs that include ‘part-time’ in brackets unnecessarily.
“It’s not about writing as a man and behaving as a man, but it is about writing confidently and assertively.”
Dr Liz Elvidge will be speaking at the Smart Futures: SFI Research Career Options Forum, which will take place from 10.30am on Friday 22 September in the Ballsbridge Hotel, Dublin.