With high profile national conferences, an affair more intimate and niche is appreciated. Alzheimer’s Research UK, a powerhouse for ongoing dementia charity and research, delivered this with their North West Network Early Career Researcher conference, a casual event of 70 attendees. It was held in the psychology building of my campus where I displayed a poster but I’d have gone irrespective, for the educational nuggets targeting ECRs.
‘Early Career Researchers‘ are the population of scientists half way between incubating and spreading their wings, postgraduate students and research assistants attempting to navigate careers, dissemination, funding, publishing, and networking. In other conferences we’re observers of the academic community and though that’s a learning experience an event personalised towards our queries is essential because you learn the following:
PhD Timeline: During a plenary lecture we were told each PhD year has a distinct purpose. Year 1 is about thinking and learning, reviewing relevant literature neck deep in publications. You’ll be working on personal development, receiving training, conducting public engagement, and collaborating with others. You’ll also be saying ‘Yes’ to opportunities.
Year 2 is for data generation and analysis, more time in the lab, travelling for research visits, additional collaboration, planning for future grant applications and publications. It’s also time to say ‘No’ to some opportunities, to avoid over committing. Year 3 is all writing, tidying up and succeeding with submission. You wrap up your analysis and are engrossed in your thesis, as well as planning the dissemination of your findings, writing up potential publications and seeking your next position.
Grant Applications: Different funding bodies will have different eligibility requirements but standard rules apply. You typically won’t be able to claim grants for salary and the length of the grant can’t extend beyond the length of your contract. To be in an advantageous position you should have a few papers under your belt where you’re the 1st, 2nd or last author and you should prepare applications up to 6 months in advance. Sit in on funding committee meetings to see how you can boost your application.
Fellowships: The ECR conference ended with a session on fellowships, hearing from representatives of ARUK, the MRC, Alzheimer’s Society and the BBSRC. With regards to projects the research needs to be cutting edge, realistic, correct and achievable. Panelists will be looking for reasons to reject so reinforce the integrity of your research through public engagement as most organisations advocate the involvement of lay persons in project planning, with research being “the hope that keeps them going”.
In your application, don’t be afraid to use the words ‘I’ and ‘my’, and avoid technical jargon and undefined acronyms. Alzheimer’s Research UK and the MRC said they would typically want applicants to have 3-5 first author papers and would expect mock interviews be done in preparation of the real deal.
Publishing: One session was on ‘Planning and conducting high impact research’ and this focused on publishing. Your research should address an obvious gap in current knowledge that isn’t just interesting to you. You will need to accumulate relevant literature, keeping in mind that nearly 20,000 papers are published every week, and should stick to findings from recent years. Avoid low level research by focusing on high impact journals and within your own work utilize the latest equipment, models and techniques and collaborate with multidisciplinary teams. This will appeal to professional and scientific editors.
When submitting, send a covering letter that expresses the clear message of your work. This, along with your title and abstract, should be concise. When you receive comments from reviewers take every measure to address them, highlighting the changes you make in the manuscript, and writing a new covering letter to detail how you addressed each comment. Don’t defer to a lower tier journal in the face of harrowing comments and only submit elsewhere when you’ve extinguished all options. On the day your publication is accepted deposit this version with your university and capitalize on the momentum by engaging with your university press release, social media, blogs, radio stations and television to disseminate your findings.
Networking: This activity we’re all uncomfortable with is the antidote to the scientist stereotype of they who are socially inept, holed up in their office. Networking is the formal and informal connection between individuals and groups that develops and enhances your career. It leads to job opportunities, interviews, promotions, funding, publishing and collaboration, building blocks of any career. To successfully network, you start within your circle of supervisors, advisers, examiners and mentors and attend conferences and meetings, breaking away from the comfort zone of your group.
Research any potential connection, reading up on their latest publications. When approaching them avoid immediately talking about yourself and ask about their work first. Never have your phone out, don’t fidget, maintain eye contact, and never interrupt, even to corroborate on what they might be saying. In the end repeat at least one point of what was said, ask questions, show an interest in visiting their lab and exchange emails. Wear badges in a visible area, where they’re easily readable.
The conference was teaming with such wisdom, now available on Twitter via #ECRconf. Frankly, I wasn’t surprised since it all started with a humour ridden plenary lecture, delivered by my university’s President and Vice Chancellor, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, a product of the lessons above. I’d seen images and videos of this epitome of a career woman for five years now, read her words and regarded her as an authority figure, accomplished and in another league.
It’s hard to imagine the picture she painted, joking about her A-Level days, her preference for art, her postgraduate experience and rooting in Physiology and that she’d never truly intended to be the President or Vice Chancellor. What really stuck with me is that she advocated the value of the more diverse pathways towards any given career, quoting “If you follow the trodden path, you may find all the grass has been eaten”