What does it take for an early career researcher to be a ‘star academic’?

Rob Hardwick (17 July 2012)

This article in the guardian education section (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/jul/09/research-funding-for-star-academics) provides plenty to think about for researchers. It highlights a growing trend in research funding policies from bodies such as the Wellcome Trust and the European Research Council. A number of questions sprang to mind from this, but the one I wanted to discuss was this: what does it take for an early career researcher to be a ‘star academic’?

A high impact paper stemming from time as a PhD student or as a junior postdoc can open up many opportunities for independent funding



Being successful in any career requires not only hard work, intelligence and desire, but also a healthy dose of good fortune. Nowhere is this more evident than in research careers. The funding system as it stands appears to favour early success in a research career over experience and consistency. A high impact paper stemming from time as a PhD student or as a junior postdoc can open up many opportunities for independent funding through Fellowship schemes such as Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowships or Research Career Development Fellowships with their strict eligibility criteria on years of postdoc experience. In turn, those who are awarded such prestigious Fellowships will find themselves in pole position for a lectureship. Meanwhile, there are other researchers who can work just as hard if not harder, yet do not get the lucky break at the critical PhD and early postdoc phase of their careers, and their publication record will simply not be competitive enough for the big fellowship awards. They may eventually get their rewards with some good quality publications later on during their second or even third postdoctoral position, but by this time they will likely find themselves ineligible for many of the fellowships on offer.

A successful research career also requires the researcher to work with a clear direction, to be leading and contributing to several ongoing projects, and to become an established and well-known member of their research community.



So what can PhD students and research staff do to maximise their chances of a long and successful research career? Firstly, we should acknowledge that publication record is not proportional to hard work alone. You can work as hard you like yet be unlucky and get a thesis full of negative results. But it is not just about luck. A successful research career also requires the researcher to work with a clear direction, to be leading and contributing to several ongoing projects, and to become an established and well-known member of their research community. Those are the parts that as an early career researcher you can control.

So how can researchers be more effective in these areas?

Take time to define in detail the research question that needs to be answered, and the order and timings of what needs to be achieved. This may require several days or even weeks of reading and talking to colleagues, but in the long run this will be the most efficient and clearly directed approach to a project.

By having several ongoing projects there is more chance of discovering something interesting that can publish well. These could be the researcher’s own ideas that they are taking the lead on, or they could be collaborations with colleagues from the same or different fields. Researchers should not be afraid to delegate projects to others (undergraduate and Masters project students can be useful here!).

Raising a researcher’s profile within their research community has never been easier with the advent of social media. Blogging, tweeting and websites such as LinkedIn can get them known in the online research community, and can be done from the comfort of their own home. Other, more traditional methods of networking such as chatting regularly to colleagues at departmental meetings and at national and international conferences are also hugely important. At the end of a conference researchers should ask themselves not how many seminars or posters they attended, but how many new people did they talk to?

Does anybody else have any tips on how to be one of the ‘star academics’ this article refers to?


Comments

Elizabeth Wilkinson
Good blog post - I'll recommend it to our postgrads.

If you want more pointers, we came up with some questions to ask yourself if you're considering "Have I got what it takes to become an academic?" for our website, An Academic Career (these came from discussions with a range of academics).

For postdoctoral staff: Have you got what it takes?
For doctoral researchers: Have you got what it takes?
 

Raheleh Rahbari
This is so true. An eye-opening blog for junior researchers. Sometimes we have to be realistic about our job opportunities in academia, especially in the current economic environment and with junior researchers being disadvantaged in getting fellowships; like you said, "the funding systems appears to favour early success in a research career over experience and consistency". I think it is important to explore a range of options and not just academic jobs. They may also be just as satisfying!

Blanka Sengerová
My cynical answer would be that what is required is that elusive Nature, Science or Cell paper. But as we all know, these are quite hard to get, and very much require a lot of luck in terms of being on the correct project - "in the right place at the right time".

Rob talks about the need to spend a lot of time reading and deciding on a question to investigate/approach to take. I would suggest that early career academics, such as PhD students, are much more likely to be working on a project because their supervisor/PI is interested in it/tells them to. So maybe it is true that what sets you apart as a star academic are early attempts at independence?

>> I think it is important to explore a range of options and not just academic jobs.

I totally agree with this sentiment, but do think that, as we discussed elsewhere, moving away from academia is often seen as a failure amongst academics so perhaps there is a need to change that perception?

Sandrine Berges
I agree with Blanka that a lot of it is about being at the right place at the right time. On the other hand, in the humanities at least, not all phd supervisors make an equal effort to put their students in these places and times. It's difficult as a phd student to gauge which conferences it's a good idea to attend, or when and how to polish a piece of writing for a journal. Now that a lot of information and advice is available online, it's perhaps easier for phd students to work their way to a successful career. I like Elizabeths' link, "Have you got what it takes" although the title is perhaps a bit more discouraging than it needs to be. It's more a case of 'Do you know how to use what it takes (and what you've probably got)?" Although, of course, that's not a very snappy title...

Blanka Sengerová
>>It's more a case of 'Do you know how to use what it takes (and what you've probably got)?"

Lovely description, Sandrine!

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