Report on the Early Career Researcher Workshop




The AWRN ‘Career Progression for Early Career Researchers’ workshop, organised by Nicola Davidson and Jane Hurst, took place at the University of Liverpool from 01 – 02 March 2018. Due to the appearance put in by ‘The Beast from the East’ a number of delegates and even speakers struggled to make the conference, but the show must go on!

The first session on day one focused on career stories from speakers from a number of different industries, all of whom were University of Liverpool alumni. All of the speakers gave an overview of their current position, the pros and cons of their jobs and highlighted things they thought were important to do to increase your chances of being employed and generally help you to develop as a young researcher. It was really interesting to hear the different routes the speakers had taken in their careers, and it was great to be able to learn from their experiences.  The first speaker was Dr Paul Myers who is the co-founder and managing director of Farm Urban. Paul gave an honest and inspirational account of his career path, moving from a PhD in epigenetics to focusing his energies on a bottom-up approach to healthcare, looking for ways to develop solutions to what he felt were the most pressing and solvable problems affecting people’s health and wellbeing. A key driver at Farm Urban is looking for ways to make our lifestyle more sustainable, taking science fresh from the lab and implementing it in urban farm communities. Paul told the story of how he convinced his 2-year-old daughter to drink healthy smoothies after showing her the process in which the ingredients were made using an aquaponics system. Farm urban now has a number of projects  using aquaponics as a focal point to bring communities together, working with organisations such as schools and hospitals to develop programs around sustainable urban living. Paul signed off with a key piece of career advice on how to make decisions – think not about what you do but why you do it! 

Dr Leah Williams from Chester Zoo was the second speaker. Leah was discussing ‘zoo based research’. She talked about her current work as a Behaviour Officer at Chester Zoo, and gave an overview of her previous work experience, including her work with the RSPB as a Conservation Scientist and her PhD studying behavioural ecology of Gouldian finches. Leah highlighted the importance of gaining skills appropriate to what you might like to do in the future, especially through volunteer work. 

The third speaker was Dr Malgorzata (Maz) Behnke, discussing ‘teaching in higher education’. Maz undertook her veterinary degree at University of Liverpool and is currently working as a Lecturer in Animal and Vet Sciences and Associate Head of the Animal Health and Welfare section at Harper Adams University. Maz was snowed in and so her presentation was delivered remotely. Maz discussed the slightly unusual circumstances in which she was offered her job, whilst attending her brother’s graduation! Maz highlighted the importance of ‘not being rigid in plans, recognising when opportunities present themselves’ and suggested enquiring about career progression if undertaking a teaching only contract. 

Our final speaker in this section of the workshop was Nicola Frost. Nicola works in the Press Office at the University of Liverpool and was discussing ‘science communication’. Nicola left us with the message that ‘luck is being at the right place at the right time, but location and timing are to some extent under our control’. 

The second session of the morning, hosted by Dr Tom Price, was on ‘mental health and resilience’. Tom presented us with some staggering statistics; 25% of the public have a mental health problem, in academics this rises to 50%. Tom highlighted the importance of proactively taking precautions to maintain good mental health, including reducing stressors, building resilience and knowing what to do in a crisis! He advocated eating and sleeping well, having support networks and ensuring your expectations are realistic – prevention is better than cure. The British Ecological Society and WISE have good mentoring schemes. 

The afternoon of day one focused on aspects of a career in academia. Professor Greg Hurst (@theladybirdman) introduced us to fellowship schemes. Fellowships are self-development opportunities and so it is important to focus on training and partnerships. Greg highlighted a number of fellowship schemes, including some aimed at ECRs: The Leverhulme Trust and the BBSRC Future Leader Scheme. Katherine Allan followed on from Greg. Katherine was talking about her Knowledge Exchange Fellowship, which gave her the opportunity to work on increasing the ‘real-world’ impact of research. The final speaker in this section was Dr Steve Hillier, who was discussing partnerships and collaboration with industry, including internal and external funding options, and the benefits of working with industry. 

Day two focused on career choices, a CV/cover letter workshop and then discussion with a hiring panel. The first section of the day was hosted by Dr Dan Holden and Dr Rob Treharne. Dan discussed the importance of your personality in career. He got everyone up, moving and warm by asking us to characterise ourselves on a scale of introvert to extrovert and task-focused to people-focused. From speaking to others it seemed that Dan’s descriptions of us all based on our answers to just two questions were scarily accurate! Rob then gave us an excellent CV and cover letter writing workshop, including a breakdown of areas to include on a CV and how to structure a cover letter, and then discussed interview preparation techniques, including meeting the named person on job adverts to take them for a coffee! Dan and Rob’s resources are available at . They are also offering a ‘Thesis Retreat’ in Easter 2019 so keep your eyes peeled for that!

The afternoon of the second day started off with a short discussion about how we could best utilise the AWRN to share experiences amongst members, with the possibility of introducing a mentoring scheme for anyone who wishes to become involved. The day, and the conference, culminated in an open floor discussion with an expert panel. Areas discussed were most common mistakes made in job applications, how to choose referees and how best to prepare for interviews. The most common mistake was not ever explicitly stating ‘why’ you are interested in the job for which you are applying. In order to prevent this, the panel advocated using personal language and ensuring applications are tailored to show who you are as a person, not just a list of achievements. Once you get offered an interview the panel highlighted the importance of being prepared, doing your research about the company and feeling confident when you arrive. Employers are looking for authenticity, show them who you are and what you have done. They also suggested having a bit of a plan in place, so you can discuss how you would approach the post and where you plan to head to next in your career. Finally, do not be disheartened by not getting a job, if you do not get the job it was not meant to work for you, and do not be afraid to ask for feedback. Good things come to those who wait… and persevere!