Contract Researchers: How to make Informed Career Decisions

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If your current research represents the area of study that you have pursued since your first degree and funding conditions have limited your chance to gain work experience in other areas, then the decision about your future career is particularly difficult, as you may feel (and truly be) out of touch with other options.

This article offers you ways of gathering knowledge together, so that you can make an informed decision on your future career direction within the higher education environment.

How well do you know yourself?

What skills do you have?  Take the most important skills, draw up a grid and find examples firstly from your work and then secondly from home life, voluntary work and interests.  Are there any glaring gaps?  If so, can you do anything about them?  Try these skills for starters: written communication, verbal communication, numeracy, administration and organisation, attention to detail, research, problem-solving, creative thinking, interpersonal skills, working under pressure and commercial awareness.  Add any other skills with relevant evidence.

Are there any constraints?  Issues such as disability, health or family requirements might affect your options, so think carefully about them at this stage.

How effective is your network?

A network can be one of the most valuable tools in your career – the way to find out about future developments in your field, opportunities in other universities, commercial spin-offs, training needs etc.  Take every opportunity to attend conferences for meeting people, join national and university committees to get your name known, talk to researchers in other departments of your own university for insight into cross-faculty research.  Attend professional institution meetings.  Get involved with university selection panels, where you will gain a really good idea of what different jobs entail and require.

Don’t forget social networking media.  Sites such as LinkedIn can be a great way to extend our network into other professional areas.  However, be wary of sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as their informality can encourage unwise comment and the posting of photos that you would probably were rather not seen by your employer. 

Are your skills fit for purpose?

Work can change around you and the burden is on you to keep your knowledge, qualifications and experience up to date.  Take a look at job adverts in the areas that interest you and ensure that you have the appropriate skills and qualifications.  If not, can you undertake part-time study or distance learning?  Is there a training course that would suit your needs?  Talk to your manager and persuade him to part with training funds.  Of course, the further you wish to move from your current area of work, the more likely you are to have to do this under your own steam – and indeed you may not wish your manager to know of your ideas about moving on.

Writing bids, managing budgets and marketing are all areas where you could get involved in your current research and those skills could also help you to move on to other areas of university work that require business skills.

Are you commercially aware?

This is not a case of spotting the next wonder share, but being aware of the issues surrounding your research, relevant employers, funding organisations, research in general and universities.  You can’t afford just to keep your head down while working on your own research. 

Can you seize the opportunity?

There may be the chance to do lecturing, demonstrating, supervising students or even take a secondment to another department.  Again consider national committees, involvement within professional institutions and university activities.  These chances all allow you to broaden your experience.

What career direction will you take?

Take all the previous suggestions into account then seek help.  Some universities have appointed careers advisers to take a special responsibility for working with contract research staff and others have someone to work with staff.  Make the most of any programme concerning the Concordat, which should be offering a “career development strategy that is supported by mentors, continuing professional development and annual appraisal”.

Vitae now holds responsibility for managing the implementation of the Concordat.  There is much useful information on their web site.

There are profiles of varying academic and administrative university roles on this site and also on the Prospects site and other useful articles on this site at Careers Advice, so plenty of information to help you make your major decision of whether to stay in an academic department or move over to central administration.

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