Each Friday we post a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story (use the tags at the bottom of the post to find the entire list). These posts accompany our curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, v i s t a mentoring, and also #sheffvista on Twitter.
Job title and company: Researcher Development Manager, Faculty of Science, University of Sheffield.
My professional life started with a PhD in Parasitology hosted in the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health (Maryland, USA).
During my PhD I did not really think about my future career. I just enjoyed learning the science, the experimental work and the environment of incredibly talented scientists. The NIH campus was an international scientific bubble with researchers from all over the world coming, mostly, for an intensive postdoctoral research period. I worked with a wonderful supervisor Dr Louis Miller, who provided me with many opportunities to develop as a scientist and constantly challenged my thinking. The environment was competitive but I felt trusted, respected and supported.
I have been incredibly fortunate that throughout my professional life this has remained a constant. Fostering a research culture, where key principles of trust, respect and support are the norm, now drives my endeavors as a Researcher Development professional.
Following my PhD, I took a postdoctoral research position in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Sheffield in England. I did not really plan this career move. As for many dual-career couples, this next career step resulted not from the single minded strategic career goals/decisions one might ideally want to make, but from balancing family circumstances, caring responsibilities, opportunities and research interests. The shift in research themes from malaria to developmental genetics was extremely challenging – it was like starting from scratch. Whilst it was an exciting period, as I was learning about a whole new research domain, it was at the same time daunting as my scientific confidence remained low considering the vast knowledge I was trying to gain.
My postdoctoral period also took place when no career support was available for research staff within the institution. Having done research in 2 different countries and having left my own country (France), I did not really have a sense of how to navigate and negotiate the academic job market.
What helped me most in deciding how to shift my career to the next stage were the stories posted on the career pages of Science. In 2003, this was the only place where ex-scientists talked positively about their career transition and destinations (there were no v i s t a Career stories then!). These positive outlooks in career transition were critical in my own approach to constructively visualising my transition.
At the time, very limited opportunities were offered to postdocs, but I certainly took anything that came my way. I taught at every opportunity I identified. I even invited an undergraduate student from my old French university to come and do a summer project with me. I gave talks and attended conferences whenever I could. The most joyful activity I got involved with during my postdoc was doing outreach work in schools. This was a period well before the impact agenda, at a time when no requirement had yet been placed on academics to undertake such activities.
My awareness of what gives me joy in my professional life has been a major driver in deciding which professional activities to undertake.
Outreach and science communication became the anchors of many of my future professional engagements. After my postdoc, I undertook some freelance work as a science consultant for the Science Learning Centre at Sheffield Hallam University, to provide expertise in the development of contemporary science awareness for science teachers, and to deliver some outreach activities in science museums. I also worked for a year for the Centre for Stem Cell Biology where I undertook a substantial amount of science communication activities. I established and led the Sheffield Café Scientifique for a number of years.
My current role as Researcher Development Manager (now part of the Think Ahead Team) has evolved greatly over the years. It started as a part-time position on a one year contract within one of the biology departments with the remit of supporting the ‘transferable skills training’ of PhD researchers. On the basis of the initial job description, the position did not look amazingly inspiring and could have been perceived as having a relatively limited scope. Remember that in 2006 there were no Researcher Developers employed by the university. This context however, offered me the autonomy to innovate and create opportunities that had never been established before, but at the same time my work existed within a policy and structural vacuum. The academics did not necessarily understand what I wanted to achieve through a researcher development programme, and the lack of institutional strategy for researcher development meant part of this work lacked the visibility it deserved. What this afforded me was a terrain to experiment with approaches and freedom to trial programmes.
Over several years, I applied annually for internal funding which enabled my position to be maintained, and I gained access to funding to develop the researcher development programme further. What I did learn from this period is that and job description is just an ‘entry point’ and it does not have to define the scope of the role you want to play. Universities are organisations where leadership can be deployed outside of the frame of line management.
From 2006, the researcher development programme gained momentum and a formal cross institutional team was eventually established in 2012. Our collective efforts led us to be recognised nationally by the 2014 Times Higher Education Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to the Support of Early Career Researchers’.
Some key lessons from this period:
- The visibility of what you do really matters. Ploughing hard in the shadows will not take you far.
- Harness the power of team work. You don’t have to be alone on your mission.
- Nurture your working relationship with key colleagues, especially supporters.
- Dare to build a network and to use it.
- Identify needs and create the next step.
Does my research experience help me in my role? Although some of my colleagues who work as Researcher Developers do not have a research background, I personally think it is hugely valuable to me to have such experience in performing my role. It not only helps to have a research-led approach to developing programmes of activity, but it also fosters an inquiring and critical approach to evaluating developmental initiatives. Most importantly, it allows me to know ‘how it feels’ to do research and gives a depth of understanding of the issues and the environment, which I think provides an important connection and empathy with the researcher communities.
Interestingly, the field of research on Researcher Development, although still new, is becoming a burgeoning area in Higher Education Research. This is something that feels quite exciting as having left biological research almost 15 years ago, I am slowly progressing towards scholarly explorations of the research environment.
Once a researcher, always a researcher. Research is not a job, it is a mindset!
The ethos of being a Researcher Developer. My role as researcher developer is difficult to define as it entails contributing on a great many levels across the institution and beyond. My colleague Bryony Portsmouth has mapped our strategic contributions. I see my role and expertise as being in:
- Facilitating conversations
- Challenging assumptions
- Creating alternatives
- Planting the seeds for new thinking and new approaches
Some of the projects/activities I have found to be the most rewarding in my role as researcher developer:
- Running the Springboard for Women programme and being actively involved in Equality and Diversity committees and the Women@TUOS network.
- Introducing and leading the Crucible programme: a programme to foster interdisciplinary collaborations and communities between early career researchers.
- Developing interactive and engaging workshops on a great diversity of topics.
- Working as a coach in 1:1 discussions with researchers.
- Constructing projects with creative companies to engage diverse public in discussing/debating science (e.g. Synthetic Stories with the Babbling Vagabonds).
What’s next? I do not know yet. I will trust my instincts. Changes and transitions at any career stage can feel threatening, so I always try to keep in mind the wise words of Prof. Elena Rodriguez-Falcon: “What’s the worst that can happen?”