Having just begun my new role at the Society of Biology five weeks ago, I’m embarking on the exciting prospect of travelling around the country to meet potential members and find out about the important work they are doing. The mood is very high at the Society as we were granted Royal status only last week, honouring the prominence of biology and the vital work of our Society as the voice of life sciences across the country. Today, I’m at the Young Embryologist Network Annual Meeting held at King’s College London, where 200 young researchers will be presenting their work, updating their knowledge and mingling with peers.
Research topic areas include early embryonic development, stem cells and differentiation and forces in morphogenesis, but as my knowledge doesn’t extend further than my BSc in Human Sciences, it’s way beyond my expertise. However, what I learnt the most from and can definitely share with you were the wise words of Professor Jon Clarke, Head of Department of Anatomy at KCL, about advancing a career in academia:
‘Identify a niche and an important question that you can contribute your skills to. I wasn’t at the top of my class or the best in my school: I moved from working in the CNS in amphibians, to teaching anatomy, so don’t be afraid to do several postdocs before you go for a job. There’s no single way to get a good job, but the keys are: work hard, publish well, become excellent communicators of your research and most of all, work in a good lab that’s best for your research area. If you’re going to stay in academia, you need to know that this is the right job for you – if outside reading and going to seminars seems like a chore, get out now.
‘Most permanent research jobs are in Universities and an important part of these jobs is likely to be teaching undergraduates: so start teaching now and make sure it’s on your CV. Be prepared to get good at teaching something unusual or out of your comfort zone to students; you’ll learn a huge amount from it, it will improve your science and will give you ‘the edge’ for job applications. Have enthusiasm and curiosity: in every lab meeting, be exceptional and ask good questions – remember you are always on show. Be able to identify important areas of need and ask the right questions. This will help you to get an outstanding letter of recommendation, one that is better than anyone else in the interview. And obviously, publications: A good teaching profile will really help your career prospects, but essentially won’t trump your research profile.’
It seems from talking to delegates that the atmosphere is competitive, as with all research activities, and they are looking for ‘the edge’ that will get them their next post. Professor Clarke gave suggestions on how to diversify your skill set to raise you above your peers, including teaching skills and finding an effective niche. But essentially, he suggested that regardless of the decisions you make in your career, what matters most is your ability to present your case to the decision making body, and build a cohesive and persuasive argument of how you came to your current post and why you want to move to your next one. It’s advice like this that translates across all professions.
I previously worked for a professional conference organiser for medical and scientific associations and would be simultaneously organising multiple large conferences. I commend the organisers, all volunteers, for their excellent work and the smooth running of the conference. The feedback I received from talking to delegates in the exhibition area was brilliant, with specific comments noting the rising standard of the talks given. Thank you to Amanda Patist and Claire Bromley for their assistance: I personally really enjoyed the event, meeting the delegates and exhibitors, and wish YEN all the best for future meetings.