What is a successful research career, and how do I have one?

I recently had a read of a great blog post by Dr Manu Saunders who talked about people’s opinions that it is necessary to move abroad in order to have a ‘successful’ research career. I think there is much more to it, and wanted to add a few opinions from my own perspective, but in the wider context of what is and how do I have a successful research career.

Dr Saunder’s post refers to an article in Nature’s Careers section that details a recent study that looks at the careers of researchers in physics, and how there is a correlation between moving abroad for a career and increased citations of their published works (and in theory, therefore, greater ‘impact’ on their field). I dont think this is necessarily reflective of all fields of research, but in the sciences, this is the the general advice when you talk to people about longer term ambitions…and in particular, fellowships.

Dr Saunders discusses the fact that you dont have to move abroad to have a successful research career. However, there is still the generalised implication that moving somewhere even within your own country is going to be necessary to have this successful career. And, as Dr Saunders also points out, moving institutions is the key aspect here.

I am an early career researcher. I passed my PhD viva in December last year (2017), and have worked on two small industry-funded post docs, and now my own 12 month post doc project (where I am PI – Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund. (This is externally funded, but internally awarded money) ). My current career ambitions (mid to longer term) are to establish myself within the research field (by going to and presenting at conferences, invited talks, publications, receive funding etc), and to try and secure a lectureship to lead my own research group. I would consider myself to be relatively successful as an early career researcher for someone of my level of experience.

But what is success?

Throughout my PhD, I was very pro-active in attending conferences, getting involved in seminars, talking to people, and specifically using social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, Research Gate, my own blog) to really try and get myself out there. I was very aware from an early stage that I had to promote myself if I wanted to get anywhere, and had the support of my PhD supervisor in doing so. Interestingly, I have met people at conferences years after actually interacting with them on social media. I felt like I knew them and it made the initial introduction far easier than just going up to someone and introducing myself (although I am absolutely fine with doing that too) – it gives a common ground to break the ice. Is this considered having reach in the field? Is direct communication on social media considered ‘worthwhile’ in the sense of dissemination?

I do agree with many of the points that Dr Saunders discusses in the post, particularly that online presence is a very important aspect to consider nowadays. I don’t particularly agree with the advice to focus mainly on one social media outlet because if you are tech-savvy, which many of this generation are, then why not go for multiple ones if you can manage them effectively. This will only increase your reach. But keep it professional and manageable. Also be aware that it is open to the public as a forum of interaction, and you (probably) want it to portray the message that you are professional, employable, and that you are what a supervisor wants from a post doc/ECR. Communication on social media, however, can be very powerful indeed.

I agree with the fact that collaborative tools like Skype and remote document management software etc are invaluable, especially in an age where there is a lot of inter-country collaboration on papers, reports, data analysis etc. This helps with computer-based work, especially in the realm of big data, that can be done at home. But this then suggests one, in theory, would not necessarily have to move anywhere to be involved in these things.

Anyway, back to ‘success’. This is a very individual metric, and I think there are two perspectives to consider; personal and professional. Personal life can, and does, influence your professional life, and vice versa. But there are so many factors that can play into this, I don’t want to get into the details for now.

So the next question is “If I can communicate, interact, and collaborate effectively (and arguably, successfully) with these technological tools, do I need to/should I move?”

There is no right or wrong answer to this. I have a young family and we are settled in our home/local environment, my children are settled in school/nursery, they have established strong friendships, my wife has her own business that she built up from the ground only a few years ago which is location-dependent. I am not in a position to move. Not anywhere. I have no problem with commuting within a reasonable distance (an hour or maybe more each way for the right role), but I just don’t want to up-root my family, their friends, business etc for my professional ‘benefit’. There are many other ways to achieve a professional career, and be successful at the same time in doing so.

There are limitations to this, of course. I am limited in the possibilities that will keep me employed, short and longer term. I need to be efficient in what I apply for, to give myself the best opportunity to be successful within the self-imposed limitations that are evident daily. But there is nothing to say that I won’t be able to do this. I was awarded grants during my PhD, and have been awarded grants since achieving my PhD. I am very early on in my postdoctoral career, and I am aware that I will need to move at least institutions relatively soon. I want to move institutions, for my own personal benefit as well as professional, but I am not moving geographically. I have made so many friends (and contacts that are maybe not quite ‘friends’ per se) at conferences, meetings, lectures etc, and many of these are potential work-colleagues or collaborators on projects even in the not-so-distant future. They are from institutions all around the country, and some from farther afield, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t work with each other on the right project. There are many host institutions that I could work with within my commutable range, most of which have excellent facilities, and are completing work of similar foundations/with similar goals. so why not use these low hanging fruits.

It won’t be the same as going abroad, of course. But, in the light of personal circumstances, why should I be disadvantaged professionally for my personal desicions, when academically, and in practical terms, what I can offer (independently or collaboratively) may be the better choice.

I also have about 4 years industrial research experience prior to my PhD. This was a very different environment, very different work, but ultimately opened the doors to additional opportunities. This is another research route that is by absolutely no means a failure for someone with a PhD (although some still look down on it – shame on you!). Industrial research positions are of equal or sometimes even more benefit to the wider comunity than academic ones (think route to market and commercialisation for public benefit). This is also a successful research career, and there may be many more opportunities in this field than academic ones (depending on where you live).

The next question to ask yourself is “What does a successful research career look like?”

Again, there is no right or wrong for this. For some, it will be to become a highly respected, powerful and influential academic, with a strong publication and funding record. For others, it will be merely being involved in research they enjoy doing, but not necessarily be a travelling or high-flying professor. And who are we to argue with that? It might not even be in academia. Industrial research is very important too, with LSE writing a blog post on how institutions should give more support to those wanting a non-academic career.

But, all in all, for me, it is important to have in mind what you want to achieve in the short and longer term, and make decisions based on your best interests. Set your own definition of success, and don’t let others dictate to you what is and what is not ‘a success’. We all walk along our own paths, and comparing yourself to others doesn’t often end up with a positive outcome. Dr Saunders, did highlight that moving is beneficial but not necessary, and yes, it probably is beneficial for some, but it won’t be for all. It certainly shouldn’t be a make-or-break situation and people should never be made to feel it is an essential part of being successful, because everybody’s position is different, and many opportunities present themselves at the right time. It is more important to be adaptable in your expectations and your route to achieve your self-proposed successes. Have an ideal plan, and have a few backup options too, because things don’t always go to plan. This is science after all.

What is a successful research career, and how do I have one?
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