Thursday, 31 May 2012

From PhD to PI in ten 'easy' steps

Posted by Martin White

Recently I’ve been reflecting on what it takes to make it in academia. In part, this was prompted by an invitation to take part in an event at the UK Society for Behavioural Medicine conference last year. ‘Senior’ academics from a range of disciplines formed a panel to take questions informally over lunch from a baying mob of PhD students and post-doc researchers.

The baying mob: El dos de Mayo de 1808, by Fancisco de Goya y Lucientes
The questions primarily focused on career development and how to achieve rapid and effective progression. The members of the panel were readily able to identify ways in which their careers had been atypical. But despite our idiosyncrasies, we agreed on many pieces of advice.

Here's my top ten tips for success:

1. Get a doctorate early on in your academic career – preferably while you are young and need less sleep, and while you can tolerate a student stipend for 3-4 years.

2. Learn to work independently, demonstrating that you have an enquiring mind and are able to define original research questions. This is the foundation of academia and one of the X-factors which will set you apart as PI material.

3. Learn how to write well, for both scientific and non-academic audiences. Get advice or training on how to do this. Practice every day (e.g. by writing blog posts - Ed.).

4. Publish your work. Start while you are doing your PhD - leaving these papers until later creates a backlog which you may never be able to tackle. Writing papers before the relevant thesis chapters will help you develop a concise, clear style for your thesis and prove it is of a 'publishable standard'.

5. Get a mentor. Identify an academic ‘hero’, or at least a good role model. Look outside your institution and don’t be afraid to ask very senior  people. They will be flattered and pleased to help shape someone else’s career. Meet with them at least once a year.

6. Be genuinely interested in your subject area; choose carefully! A lack of enthusiasm shows through any veneer you put on for project meetings or interviews.

7. Sell yourself. Think carefully about how you can make a case for your future employment. Make yourself indispensible and demonstrate how you can add value to any team. Take every opportunity to present at conferences, workshops, select committees, etc.

8. Get personal funding. While post-doc research posts, working on other people’s projects, will earn your crust and keep you busy, they provide limited opportunities to hone your skills as a PI. Fellowships are available at every level and will give you incredible freedom to develop and shine as an independent researcher.

9. Collaborate. Spread your wings and make new relationships with the most interesting and brightest people you can find. Involve policy and practice partners in your research whenever possible to help bring relevance and impact to your research.

10. Learn to love criticism – she's your best mate. You will not get anywhere unless you welcome objective peer review and understand how to give and receive it. The best way to learn this is to become a peer reviewer for journals and grant funding bodies. This also carries esteem and will open up doors for you through the contacts you make.

Lastly, enjoy yourself and don’t be afraid to break the rules!

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