Advice

Advice

This project has taken a focussed look at the career pathways of former postdoctoral researchers who now work within, or in association with, the School of Life Sciences, University of Dundee. Each individual offered advice for prospective scientists based on their own experiences, which have been compiled here.

Click the bars on the left to find out more information about each stage of an academic career; the careers available in industry and how to start looking for a career away from the bench.

Whether you are considering your own scientific career pathway or are just interested in what is involved, we hope this information will be useful to you.

The first degree you study for at University is typically termed an undergraduate or bachelor’s degree (BSc / BA), though some institutions offer four-year degree programmes where, if you complete the optional fourth year, you gain a masters degree (MSc / MA). Some degree courses give the option of taking a “sandwich” year after the second year of study where you may take a year long placement in another University or company, here in the UK or abroad.

The range of degree programmes available differs with each university, dependent on their specialisms and the size of the department. You may start out studying a broad range of modules before specialising towards the end of your degree or you may study a more defined subject from the beginning of your degree. You can often find out what modules you may study and whether you will have the opportunity to choose modules or whether you will follow a fixed curriculum by looking at the degree course webpage.

Don’t worry too much about what is the ‘correct’ course to study, many of the people in this project have ended up doing something different to what they started out doing. Choose something that interests you now and if you really aren’t sure, look for degree programmes where you will have more flexibility to choose what modules you study.

What it involves

You’ll attend a mixture of lectures, tutorials and practicals and be expected to do a substantial amount of study in your own time. There will be examinations throughout and at the end of the course.  There will usually also be a project in the final year where you spend time working in a research lab. The emphasis on these different methods will be different in each university, think about how you learn best at school or college and elsewhere as to where will be best for you.

Further advice

For more advice about choosing a degree talk to the teachers at your school or college; explore the UCAS website which talks about what you should consider when deciding where and what to study in higher education in the UK and visit the course open days held at the universities you are thinking of studying at.

After completing undergraduate studies you may wish to specialise further by taking a master’s degree. Taught master’s degrees generally involve studying individual modules which will be assessed by written examination and completing a research project supervised by an academic over several months. Research master’s degrees (MRes) are focused on research, though sometimes can contain taught components. Both will give you training in how to research independently which is a valuable skill for many careers.

To continue onto most graduate programmes or PhD studies you will usually have had to attain a 1st or higher second class degree classification. If you haven’t achieved this completing a master’s degree may help to qualify for these positions. If you realise during your degree that what you are studying isn’t what inspires you, then completing a masters degree may help you to change fields.

Bear in mind that the tuition fees for master’s degrees can be high and there are fewer funding opportunities available for them.  Look on the university webpages for postgraduate study funding to see what funding is available for your chosen course.

After completing undergraduate studies you may wish to specialise further by taking a master’s degree. Taught master’s degrees generally involve studying individual modules which will be assessed by written examination and completing a research project supervised by an academic over several months. Research master’s degrees (MRes) are focused on research, though sometimes can contain taught components. Both will give you training in how to research independently which is a valuable skill for many careers.

To continue onto most graduate programmes or PhD studies you will usually have had to attain a 1st or higher second class degree classification. If you haven’t achieved this completing a master’s degree may help to qualify for these positions. If you realise during your degree that what you are studying isn’t what inspires you, then completing a masters degree may help you to change fields.

Bear in mind that the tuition fees for master’s degrees can be high and there are fewer funding opportunities available for them.  Look on the university webpages for postgraduate study funding to see what funding is available for your chosen course.

As a research assistant you will be expected to complete research tasks under the guidance of the PI, lab manager or other members of the research team.  These tasks may involve you working on your own project or supporting the projects of other researchers in the lab, and may be varied or focused on one particular technique or piece of equipment. To become a research assistant you will normally need to have attained a first degree in a science subject.

Some laboratories may offer you the opportunity to take up a part-time research assistant position and study for a PhD part-time; Claire Halpin completed her PhD studies in this way.

Research technicians often coordinate the general day-to-day running of the lab, completing tasks such as ordering reagents; aliquoting reagents, making up buffers and maintaining equipment, whereas a research assistant will do more research orientated lab work. Research technician or assistant positions which require a high level of technical specialism or responsibility, i.e. running an instrument facility, can receive a competitive salary in comparison to other academic research roles. These positions could be ideal for you if you enjoy academic research but don’t want to continue on the PI track or don’t want to study for a PhD.

If you embark on a PhD in the life sciences in the UK you will complete 2.5 – 3.5 years of laboratory research under the guidance of one or more PIs. You will write this up as a research thesis which is submitted to be examined by an internal and external examiner who are experts in your field of research. To be awarded your PhD you will be questioned on the theory behind, the execution of and the conclusions drawn from your research in either an open forum or closed room viva voce or oral examination.

You may be considering studying for a PhD for a number of reasons but choosing where to study for one, who to study with and what to study can be daunting. Most University web pages offer comprehensive guides for the types of PhD programmes on offer and who is eligible to apply for them.

Below are some of the things you should think about when deciding to do a PhD.

Where to do a PhD

Of the people in this project, just over half studied for their PhD at a different institution to  where they completed their first degree while the rest choose to stay at their initial institution, having been inspired by the research they  learnt about during their undergraduate studies, or remaining where they are for personal reasons. Whichever you decide there are usually postgraduate societies at universities to help you integrate when you first arrive; in Dundee PiCLS organises social events for PhD students in the College of Life Sciences.

Choosing a lab group

When choosing a lab group consider whether the research taking place in that group excites and interests you, who will supervise your work (will it be your PI or other members of the lab), do you like the atmosphere in the research group (try to go for lunch or a coffee with some members of the group to see whether you will like it there), if you will be able to collaborate with industry or across disciplines if this interests you and what support, educational and pastoral, is available for postgraduate students.

Many institutions now offer  4-year PhD rotation programmes in which the first year is spent as a "rotation" year which allows the student to experience two to three different labs before deciding on which to join for their PhD project.

Funding

Life sciences PhDs are generally funded through the university by government funding bodies or charities which cover the tuition fees for the student and provide a monthly living stipend, the amount of which is dictated by the funding body and institution that the PhD is with. Funding may be restricted depending on which country you are from; students outside of the EU may find fewer opportunities or be expected to find a source of funding themselves. If your funding is limited and you’d like to travel to conferences you may be eligible to apply for travel grants from your University or, if you are a member, from a scientific society.

As a postdoc you will be employed to perform research in a PI’s laboratory. You will probably work on a project initiated by your supervising PI but you will be expected to have considerable input into the design of your experiments. You will have more responsibility for your own work than as a PhD student and you may supervise undergraduate, master’s and PhD student’s research projects.

When considering where to do your postdoc it is worth bearing in mind what you want to do after you’ve finished.  If you want to pursue the PI track then you need to consider how likely it is that you will publish your postdoctoral research, though, due to the nature of scientific research, this is hard to predict.

Questions to ask yourself before applying for a postdoc and at the interview are:

  • How well is the PI publishing now?
  • Will the PI be available to mentor your research and career progression?
  • Will you have to compete with other members of the lab to get your work published in a timely manner?
  • How long is your contract, is there the potential to get it extended if your work isn’t complete?
  • Will the PI let you develop your own ideas which you can take with you to start your own laboratory?

Will you have the opportunity to increase your scientific network through interactions with other scientists in your department and outside this through collaborations and conferences? Here in the CLS the Postdoctoral Association and BioDundee organises both internal and external social and networking events.

You may finish your PhD with an idea about the areas of your expertise that you want to develop in order to run your own lab and so may have particular PIs, groups or institutes that you want to work with or in. If this is the case, approach the PI well in advance of your desired start date so that you can find out if there is room in the lab and whether you need to secure your own funding (LINK to postdoctoral funding advice page), which is often the case if travelling to the USA or Canada.

If you are thinking of running your own lab in the future, then moving abroad to do a postdoc may give you an advantage when applying for future funding; many of the PIs featured in this postdoc went abroad to work at some point in their career. You may have to balance your research interests with your family commitments as many of the scientists in this project have. Mentoring schemes, such as the Early Career Academics’ Mentoring Scheme here at Dundee and St Andrews, may help you to make these decisions. If you want to run your own research group, bear in mind that most early career fellowships only accept applications from scientists in the first six to seven years after they have completed their PhD studies.

If you are using a postdoc as a stepping stone into another career or are not sure about what you want to do after then look for a position where you will be able to expand your skill set, e.g. teaching, outreach, reviewing and editing. Most universities acknowledge that the majority of scientists at the postdoctoral level will not go on to be a PI so offer support services, such as career advice and information technology training, to promote postdoc continuous professional development. Here at Dundee Organisational and Professional Development work with the postdoctoral society to provide seminar and workshops to develop the skills that postdocs feel they need both in their research and for their future careers.

A Principal Investigator (PI) leads their own research programme within a university or institute. They are awarded funding from government bodies and charities to employ postdocs, PhD students, research assistants and technicians to conduct experiments to answer scientific questions as outlined in their research proposal.  Our brochure features three types of academic PIs; the core-funded, the lecturers and the fellows. Each role is described below.

However they are funded, the PIs in this project all described how when they first set up their labs they spent a lot of time at the bench, doing experiments and training the members of their team. As their careers have progressed they have moved away from the bench, directing their research aims through meetings with their staff and students and taking on more teaching, administrative and managerial roles.  During the first few years of running a lab, most universities and institutes will try to protect their new PIs from these other responsibilities in order to let them focus on establishing their own research programme. Noticeably, the more senior PIs in this brochure all have a lot of other responsibilities, be that organising and managing large European collaborations, outreach projects, editorial boards, charitable bodies or funding panels.

In recognition of their contribution to the progression of Science PIs may be awarded prizes such as the Royal Society for Edinburgh Early Career Patrick Neill Medal Award, Fellowship of learned societies such as the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh and honours such as the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) recently awarded to Doreen Cantrell.

Core-funded PI

Research institutes, such as the MRC-PPU here at Dundee, are awarded a budget by the government or charitable body which the Director of the institute uses to employ PIs and provide them with the staff to carry out their research within the remit of the unit. The unit has to reapply for funding every five years or so and the PI’s position will be up for review at this point, taking into account the productivity of their research lab and how this research fits into that of the unit as a whole. Yogesh Kulathu, Matthias Trost and Doreen Cantrell are or were employed in their first independent positions by core-funded units - visit their profiles to find out more about their experiences in these roles.

Tenure

Obtaining tenure from a university means that the university will employ the PI directly on a permanent contract so that if their research funding runs out they will still receive a salary. PIs usually apply for tenure after approximately five years of independent research and whether they receive it or not will depend on the success of their research to date. Sonia Rocha was awarded tenure in 2010. Watch her explain what the tenure interview process was like in this clip.

Most PIs will be involved in university teaching, but some will be specifically employed as lecturers. Most universities will give you a reduced teaching load for a few years whilst you first set up your lab, but it will be worth checking how much you will be expected to do whilst conducting your own research and writing grant proposals. You will be expected to raise your own research funding by applying for project grants to employ staff and pay for reagents and equipment which means you will spend a considerable amount of your time reading and reviewing the current literature and writing project proposals. Dividing your time between research, writing and teaching can be challenging, however the researchers in this project have all spoken about being driven by their passion for their research and the joy of discovering new things, saying the end justifies the means.

Some lecturing roles will focus purely on the teaching of undergraduate and postgraduate students and will not have research element. Linda Morris undertook such a role after realising during her postdoc that teaching gave her the most pleasure in her job.

Fellowships are research grants that pay the applicants salary as well as fund their research by providing money to buy reagents and equipment and, for the higher awards, employ research staff.  Due to their flexibility, high monetary value and the prestige of being awarded one, these fellowships are highly competitive. Before applying for a fellowship you must receive support from an institution which will provide you with the space to research for the duration of the fellowship you are applying for.

There are different levels of fellowships, from postdoctoral funding and early career to senior investigator – for a more detailed explanation of the differences between these and what you should consider when applying for them visit our advice pages on postdoctoral funding or first independent funding.

Being awarded a fellowship gives you the freedom to move your research between departments or even universities as your salary is not paid by the university directly. Fellowships are designed to allow the best researchers to devote the majority of their time to drive forward their research and therefore time spent on teaching and administration is minimized. Sonia Rocha was awarded the Cancer Research UK Senior Fellowship in 2011 which funds her laboratory for six years. The stability of receiving funding for this period means that you can risk embarking on bigger projects knowing that you have the necessary time to develop them before you will need to re-apply for funding.

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Many academic researchers move into industry after completing their PhD or postdoc, although the minimum qualification required is an undergraduate degree.  Industrial science is for-profit, meaning that research projects will only be pursued if they are commercially viable. Unlike the blue-sky research of academia, industry research is focused and direct; projects that aren’t leading anywhere will be dropped quickly but, because the aim of industrial research is to create a commercial product, your research is more likely to be taken through to the clinic to have a real impact on the world.

Job security is something to consider when working in industry; your job will be tied to the fate of the company you work for, whether it’s a small company just spreading its wings or a large pharmaceutical company, your job may be at risk if profits fall. Once employed in industry, however, you can develop the skills desirable for research in any company or those that will help you to take up a new role; Rob Ford moved from research and development, to sales and marketing and then into management at Axis Shield. And there’s always the option to move back into academia; after becoming a senior scientist, running her own projects at Zeneca Seeds, Claire Halpin took up a lectureship in Dundee but the contacts that she made whilst in industry still remain useful for her research today.

Unlike an academic postdoc, as an industrial postdoc or research scientist you will probably find yourself working on an aspect of a project as part of a team. This lack of autonomy may not sound ideal but if your project is favoured by the investors, the resources available to you to execute your research are likely to far exceed those you’ve experienced in academia.

Success in industry means creating an effective and marketable product that will bring a profit to the company, therefore publishing results is less important than in academia. Moving into industry doesn’t necessarily mean that your work will not get published as companies increasingly recognise the importance of this for career progression. Publications, however, will be restricted to those that will not affect a patent application or tip-off your competitors.

If you are in an academic postdoc position and want to move into industry be aware of the relevance of the skills that you are developing for industry. Consider the skills you gain each year you remain in your postdoc position and whether these will make you more competitive in your desired job market.

Partnerships between industry and academia, such as the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy (DSTT), are becoming more common, allowing postdocs to network with researchers in industry. Use these opportunities to expand your network and find out what skills are desired in postdocs moving into industry. Look for awards which fund research placements in academia and industry, like the SULSA LEADERS award to gain industrial experience whilst in academia.

A principal investigator (PI) in industry may lead a number of research projects, managing a team of scientists towards reaching a desired outcome. As with the industry postdoc if research projects are not seen to be leading to a marketable product that can be used to generate a profit they will be abandoned, meaning the freedom to follow your research desires is limited compared to academia. The ability to be flexible, to pick up new projects quickly and move forward at a fast-pace is highly desired and is rewarded with a clearer career progression and higher salary than academia.

If you want to do a postdoc, particularly in the US or Canada where you may be expected to obtain your own funding, and have managed to obtain a first author paper during your PhD studies then you should consider applying for a postdoctoral fellowship. As well as providing you with a salary to conduct your own research under the supervision of a PI, these prestigious awards look great on your cv when applying for future research funding. Yogesh Kulathu, Matthias Trost, Nicola Stanley-Wall and Kate Storey were all awarded postdoctoral fellowships which aided them in their research.

Pay attention to the eligibility criteria for each award including nationality and time since you submitted your PhD; when the application deadline is; how many referees you need; whether you need to move countries; whether you need a mentor other than your supporting PI.  Think about the projects, people and places that you are interested in and approach the PIs of these labs well in advance of the application deadlines – it takes time to secure a position in a laboratory and coordinate writing a fellowship application. When you have found a lab and have a project in mind, try to speak to previously successful applicants and find out about their application and interview, and if you manage to get an interview, ask other PIs that you have met during your PhD studies to criticize your proposal to prepare you for the interview process.

Some postdoctoral fellowships that you may consider applying for are:

In order to start your own research lab it is essential that you secure your own research funding. There are two main types of funding awards: fellowships and project grants. To gain either it is important to get your research known; attend conferences and visit other universities to give talks and expand your network. Remember that the scientists you meet may be on the panel that decides who is awarded the funding. Government or charity funded research institutes, such as the MRC-PPU, fund their PIs research directly from a core-fund which means they do not need to apply for individual research grants or fellowships.

Fellowships

There are different levels of fellowship designed for different stages of an academic career; a postdoc looking to gain their first independent funding would apply for the first level, which is an early career fellowship or career development award. Early career fellowships are highly competitive funding sources that provide the new PI’s salary and the means to start up an independent lab group. After coming up with a research proposal that is innovative and realistic, potential applicants will need to gain the support of a university or institute before applying for the funding. To be competitive you will need at least one high impact first author paper or several lower impact papers. Funding bodies favour scientists that are moving from their postdoctoral lab into a new institute to start their own research programme so if you would like to remain in the same place that you are working in now you may find it hard, like Sonia Rocha (LINK to page) to get a fellowship.

Please look at the following links to learn more about some of the fellowships available to postdoctoral reseachers:

Project grants

An alternative way to start your own lab is to apply for project grants.  In order to do this you will need to be employed by a University, usually as a lecturer, to demonstrate that you will have the laboratory space to work for the duration of the grant.  Project grants usually provide the funding to employ one postdoctoral researcher and the reagents and equipment to carry out a specific project, though some can fund the employment of additional staff or students.

Fewer than ten percent of the people with PhDs in the Life Sciences continue on to run their own independent research laboratories, so what do the other ninety percent end up doing and how did they decide to do it?

The move outside of academia and off the bench can seem daunting. Jon Urch and Rob Ford have both successfully made the move, Jon into a position managing the University of Dundee’s public outreach office and Rob is now College Secretary of the CLS having spent his early career in various positions in industry.  Both suggested trying different things out to see what you enjoy doing.

If you are considering what to do in your career after your PhD or postdoc start by thinking about what you like about your role now, what you’re good at and what you dislike. Begin looking through job advertisements for a variety of roles to build up a picture of the types of tasks and responsibilities you would like to do and those that you would not. This will help you to get a clearer idea of the jobs will suit your requirements.

When you have narrowed down the search, look at the skills and experience required for the position and try to match them to your own. If you are missing anything, use your connections and the resources available to you as a postdoc or PhD student to gain experience in these areas. For instance, can you take on extra teaching; participate in or help coordinate outreach events; become a member of the PhD or postdoctoral association or, if your department doesn’t have one of these, start one; help your PI edit or review manuscripts? If there is a particular career that you are interested in, why not organise a representative from that vocation to come in and give a talk about that career to your department? Talk to as many people as you can about how they made their career decisions and what helped them to get where they are today. 

Your university careers service will be able to advise you further about your future career, talk through your options and help you to write a CV for outside of academia.  Look out for career fairs for scientists, such as Naturejobs Expo which, as well as showcasing potential employers, also run career advice seminars and workshops.