May 14, 2021, by School of Medicine
50 at 50: Developing as an Early Career Researcher
I took a relatively untraditional journey to the University of Nottingham’s School of Medicine. Starting with an undergraduate degree in Musicology, I shifted to Psychology for my PhD, and when the opportunity arose to move to Nottingham’s Hearing Sciences department a few years later, I jumped at the chance. My interests have always centred on how people interact so easily with others, from how we coordinate our musical output with a duet partner to how we time our turns accurately in a conversation. I now study the cognitive and neural processes that allow us to converse so successfully, with a particular focus on people with hearing loss, who tend to experience particular difficulty in social situations.
Having recently won the School’s first UKRI future leader fellowship – a unique seven-year opportunity to build a lab to conduct a large-scale research programme – in this piece I want to reflect on developing as an early career researcher.
When I look back on my plans when I was wrapping up my PhD, there isn’t a lot of overlap with the path I ended up taking. Early plans rarely survive reality with so many externalities contributing to the mix – the practicalities of the job market, our individual priorities, and a good deal of luck, to name just a few! But I’ve found that the unexpected twists in one’s academic story can lead to the most growth. For example, one of my first postdocs took a sidestep into a different field. While I haven’t stayed in research area, it allowed me to train in a technique that is now central to my work. As I look to my colleagues and mentors, I see more and more of these non-linear paths, each enhancing their academic repertoires in different ways.
Probably the hardest thing in my academic journey has been the fact that prior to every success, there were a number of failures. To support junior academics, transparency around this is critical. For example, the £1.2m future leader fellowship I won is the culmination of a host of previous unsuccessful grant applications: a prior future leader fellowship, a Henry Wellcome fellowship, a Leverhulme fellowship, and a British Academy fellowship. While each rejection improved my research proposals, each also stung. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had mentors encouraging me to keep pushing on.
There are three key themes that have contributed to my success so far that I would urge any early career researcher to take on board: developing your network of supporters, identifying new skills to master, and being willing to take initiative.
In terms of supporters, I’m lucky to be based in a department with the right foundations to nurture ECRs: Hearing Sciences is run by colleagues strongly invested in developing their staff and willing to provide the time and space for that to happen. But building relationships with people outside my department and university has also been critical, and I now have a handful of fantastically supportive mentors to consult about a variety of issues relating to career progression. For example, I have one mentor from a different institution that I turn to when I’m looking for an outside perspective on field-specific issues, and one mentor from a different department within UoN that I contact when I’m looking for advice on interdisciplinary research or succeeding as a female academic. I’ve learnt that most people are remarkably willing to share their knowledge and support more junior researchers when asked.
In terms of identifying skills to master, I regularly evaluate my skills and try to spot areas that I can bolster. This can be anything from experimental techniques, to understanding of the literature, to leadership and management skills. While points of improvement can be hard to see in yourself, a lot of insight can be gained from asking other people. I’ve solicited feedback on my skills through 360o feedback with my group and discussions with mentors. For the sake of a few mildly uncomfortable conversations, this sort of insight has definitely sped up my development and strengthened my relationships with my colleagues!
Finally, and maybe most importantly, I’ve learnt that while it’s easy to wait for opportunities to come along, taking the initiative can often lead to greater success. For example, when applying for grants or fellowships, the School often provides introductory talks summarising the scheme, which give a useful foundation. But for me, making the additional effort to talk to others that had been successful with the scheme, or even to those with experience on the grant/reviewing panels, made all the difference. The same is true with opportunities for career development: the School mentoring and shadowing schemes provide a fantastic chance to engage with people and job roles you may not have been familiar with. Approaching such schemes with a proactive view can lead to long term benefits, from unexpected collaborations to the development of new initiatives.
The path of an early career academic is rarely smooth, but the twists in our academic journey can uniquely shape our approach to research. A supportive environment is critical for any ECR to succeed, and for me, being surrounded by supportive cheerleaders, consistently appraising skills to improve, and being proactive about driving my career forward, have been critical to get where I am now. As my lab grows in the coming years, both the challenges and opportunities of this career stage will remain at the forefront of my mind.
Lauren V Hadley, Hearing Sciences – Scottish Section, Mental Health and Clinical Neurosciences
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