Supporting researcher career development

Supporting career development involves encouraging researchers to give careful and informed consideration to their future career path and enabling them to gain the skills and experience that will allow them to work towards those goals.

The UK Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers places great importance on the career development of researchers:

  • Principle 3: "Researchers are equipped and supported to be adaptable and flexible in an increasingly diverse, mobile, global research environment."
  • Principle 4: "The importance of researchers' personal career development, and lifelong learning, is clearly recognised and promoted at all stages of their career."
  • Principle 5: "Individual researchers share the responsibility for an need to pro-actively engage in their own personal and career development, and lifelong learning."

Career development is complementary to professional development and will often involve the same processes and activities. To learn more about professional development, visit our section on supporting professional development.

When should a researcher consider his or her career development needs?

Career development is most effective when it starts early and becomes a continual activity. By encouraging your researcher to begin to consider their career goals early in their contract you can ensure they have sufficient time to develop the skills and experience to help them work towards those goals.

Developing a CV suitable for any career takes time. Leaving consideration of career options until the end of a contract means that any potential for shaping their work to encompass new experiences related to a career path or engaging in other development activities may have been missed.

The career planning cycle is a helpful model to support the process, and the RDF Planner provides an online resource for planning and managing career development.

The role of the principal investigator

Principal investigators have an important role to play in helping researchers consider and develop their career options. You are well-placed to support your researchers' career development for a number of reasons:

  • you can encourage serious consideration of their career path
  • you can consider their career goals when delegating responsibilities amongst your team
  • you can help them combine career development with their day-to-day work
  • if they wish to pursue a career in research, you will have valuable experience to pass on
  • you will often be the first person to whom a researcher will turn to for advice.

In the 2009 CROS survey, 40 per cent of researchers said they had consulted their PI or line manager about their career development, 22 per cent would definitely consult them and 23 per cent felt they were likely to do so. This made PIs the most popular source of advice alongside family and friends. Researchers were far more likely to turn to their PI than to career advisors or staff developers.

While there are some areas where PIs will be able to give specific advice based on their own experience, you cannot be expected to play the part of a qualified careers advisor. You will want encourage all their research staff to give active consideration to their career plans and but be prepared to point them in the direction of the careers specialists in your institution when there are questions that you do not feel qualified to answer.

Often the PI will be most helpful simply as a respected sounding board as the researcher tries to investigate their career options. In this case the most important attribute to possess is an open mind. Some researchers, especially those who have moved seamlessly from degree to postgraduate study to postdoctoral research, may have had little exposure to career decision making or may even feel a reluctance to look outside of their current research group, department or PI because of a sense of loyalty or a fear of leaving their comfort zone. Your support can be invaluable in encouraging them to broaden their horizons.

Combining research and career development

Career development should not be seen as an activity separate from, or even a rival to your researchers' day-to-day activities. Once they have considered their possible career paths you can discuss your researcher's development needs with them to see if they can be met alongside their research activities:

  • are there any specific skills they can learn as part of their research?
  • can they take responsibility for an area of the project that would be helpful for their career goals?
  • would involvement in, say, the financial side of the project, give them valuable experience?
  • encourage them to see their attendance at conferences or involvement in other outside activities as an opportunity to market themselves.

Even if their career development needs are sometimes best met by attending a course or activity away from their research, the skills they learn can often feed directly back into how they approach their work.

Academic versus non-academic career paths

Of all the issues surrounding the career development of researchers this can be the most contentious. Many PIs will have spent their whole career within academia and assume their researchers will want follow the same path. Indeed some research managers can view with suspicion, or even hostility, career development that actively encourages researchers to look outside of the academic world.

In reality, supporting career development is not about a competition between the academic and the non-academic but is simply trying to encourage researchers to take control of their own careers and develop the skills to help them pursue whatever goals they set themselves. If they come to the conclusion that their current career is the direction they want to go in then that is a positive result in itself.

In the UK Careers in Research Online Survey (CROS), the majority of those questioned saw their career aspirations over the following five years as remaining within higher education. 38 per cent, however, would prefer a research career outside of higher education and 19 per cent had five-year aspirations of a non-research career in business, industry or the public sector. Those involved in supporting researchers' career development need to respect that there will be a wide variety of aspirations for the future.