One of the challenges faced by postdoctoral researchers can be to identify career progress over a period of employment on shorter term contracts. Their focus might be, quite naturally, on remaining in employment rather than on identifying any developments made. The pressure of getting the next job can override other career related considerations which may result in missing opportunities which could enhance an academic career and having a fragmented view of experience gained. Both of these are danger situations in today’s competitive academic job market as they can lead to a slow-down in the pace of career progress or to individual researchers waiting to be told that they are ready to move to the next level. What can you do to try to recognise and avoid these career danger situations?
Researchers are aware of the key elements to academic career progress especially concerning their research. Broadly this can be described as becoming an independent researcher with the ability to successfully gain funding and to demonstrate the impact of their work nationally and internationally. Becoming an independent researcher, however, brings with it other requirements, such as, taking on teaching and also being in a position of leading and managing staff. How can early career researchers identify and act on career development opportunities whilst their pattern of employment is a fragmented one?
At the start of your postdoctoral career are you analysing job opportunities to assess whether they are going to help you to build a good foundation for your academic career? Have you for example:
Identified an ongoing plan for your research or are you still looking backwards and inwards to your PhD?
Does this plan mean that you need to develop other networks and contacts in order to move incrementally towards a new area of interest?
If you have a research plan check that a job will help you to develop and work towards this plan. There can be career decisions to make in this situation, for example, it might be necessary to consider a role as a research assistant with a leading figure or group as it could lead to further development?
For more experienced post-doctoral staff who have lost touch with their career progress:
Review your progress over the whole of your postdoctoral career, i.e. if you have had two one year contracts analyse your career achievements against a two year timescale. This can enable you to consolidate your experiences and see that you are progressing. It may also alert you to the need for remedial action if the pace of your career progress has slowed. If you do need to step up the pace again some actions you could take are:
Check that your original research plan is still a viable option in terms of potential to attract funding? If you didn’t have a plan make one NOW! Identify funding opportunities internally and externally that may help you to show your potential to become an independent researcher?
Use a mentor to help you to identify and maintain your career progress.
Have a career progress discussion with your PI. Ask for their assessment of your progress, even if it may mean you hear some difficult messages.
At all stages of your post-doctoral career take a step back from your job history, so you can review all your experience, recognise progress and identify key career actions.