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Settling In: The Researcher's Guide to Your University

4.3 Career management

In the last section we considered how you can manage your time more effectively, with the intention of finding time to focus on your long-term priorities. This section explores career management a little more fully to clarify some of the issues you should consider. Career management needs to be an ongoing priority – from the very first week in a new role, you should be thinking about the next step! Most career strategies take several years to reach fruition. It is never too soon to start. This section therefore offers you a few pointers that can assist in planning ahead to make best use of opportunities as they arise. As you read this section, you will need to take into consideration your research context, your university, your goals, and your personal circumstances. These are clearly important factors to constantly monitor when planning your long-term strategy.

A research career requires careful management. At all times, you need to focus on building your track record and monitoring your research performance. You need to understand the criteria against which your performance will be measured, both within your university and across the sector as a whole. (A mentor can be very helpful in guiding you as to realistic standards. This will be discussed in Topic 5.) The 'old days' when academics had the ease to gradually evolve into effective researchers are definitely long gone. In their place we have university research benchmarks, national league tables, and performance management of outcomes.

As researchers we are expected to perform creditably and to build a momentum that will take us to the next level of performance. When we seek promotion it is expected that we will already be demonstrating the standards of that higher level. Those of us on contracts also need to build and sustain a credible track record which assures the next employer that we are productive researchers. In this competitive and challenging context it is therefore most important that we put time and effort into planning our careers. The goal of career management is to optimise our outcomes for the effort we put into our work. There are many academics who now look back and realise they could have been far more effective in managing their careers – if only someone had told them. This section draws on their experiences to enable you to manage your career in a more strategic manner.

Topic 4 outlined the various levels of research work that can be undertaken as one moves from a novice researcher to a research leader or centre leader. This is one career track that you might see as desirable. There are many other paths you may take too. For some, the achievement of a teaching research academic role is highly desirable. For others, a consultancy or industry-linked career may prove more alluring.

In order to manage your career, it is obviously important to clearly identify what you want from your future work life. Consider the future that most attracts you. What are the typical expectations for that career track? Monitor the advertisements for positions and review the selection criteria for these roles. Would you be able to compete? It is important to review your strengths and to consider how you might leverage off those.

If you have areas that are less fully developed, identify them and consider how you might strengthen those skills and capabilities. If you are seeking a teaching research role, for example, you will need to have some higher education teaching experience and some research supervision can be most helpful. If you are looking for an industry-related role, some work with an industry partner will give you much greater credibility.

Although there are different career avenues that might be pursued, the principles of career management tend to be similar. The following points provide a succinct overview of the most important strategies for you to consider.

  • Establish and maintain your track record. Any research career will demand that you have a credible track record. Your mentor (see Topic 5) will be very important in clarifying what expectations are reasonable for you at your stage of development. It can also be useful to look at some successful role models and to review how and what they achieved in their research career. For most researchers the typical goals will relate to publications, research grants, supervision, and possibly research collaboration. However, you may also see the need to identify some other goals related to teaching, leadership, or project management. You may also find that your university has established some expectations as a baseline. Try to set higher goals than those which are minimum performance levels if you wish to escalate your career. Once you have established the goals to which you aspire, keep these goals active in your planning, performance reviews, and ongoing activities. Monitor your progress and make sure you remain committed to these outcomes. At the end of each year you should be able to demonstrate high-level research outcomes, not just operational activities.
  • Seek and nurture mentors and sponsors. Mentors are people who can offer you close support as you focus on your career. They are explored more fully in Topic 5 and will not be discussed in depth here. Suffice to say that they are incredibly important in helping to fast-track your career. Sponsors are also important, but play a less active role in guiding a career strategy on a regular basis. Sponsors are often senior people who provide opportunities and avenues for development and profiling. They may open up channels for you to meet significant people, or perhaps assist with gaining funding for a project. They may share their resources with you, or provide testimonials to assist with a research proposal. In some cases your mentor will be a sponsor. However, you will find it helpful to cultivate a number of sponsors who link to your research area. You will need to identify who those people might be, and to make contact with them to introduce yourself and your research. When you are talking about your research, make sure you market the research in a way that is understandable and engaging. Think about your overview from that person's point of view: what will they wish to know? Why would it interest them? What is in it for them?
  • Build relationships. Very few researchers operate in isolation. You will need to build a wide range of relationships and partnerships over the years. Seek out contacts when you are at conferences and other research forums. As you meet new people, make sure you manage the records of your new contacts. Make a note on their business card as to what you were discussing, and record their details into your email system. Send them an email by way of greeting after returning to your office. This is one of the more important activities you will undertake. Not all contacts will prove fruitful, but many will come to be highly supportive relationships over the coming years. This is how a lot of collaborative research commences.
  • Take advantage of work opportunities. If you identify an opportunity that enriches your current experiential base, take full advantage of it – as long as it assists in fleshing out your track record in a useful manner. Service roles in the university can sometimes be very useful in promoting your skills, building your profile, and providing you with more insight into how universities work. Make sure you also take advantage of development opportunities that demonstrate your commitment to your research career. This module, for example, leads into further research management modules. Their completion is a strong affirmation of your desire to take on a more substantial research leadership role.
  • Seek new opportunities. While some opportunities will arrive on your doorstep, others will need to be actively sought. If you have a clear sense of the direction you wish to take, you may see likely avenues for career development. A secondment to a different university or a leadership role working with a high profile person are two examples of the many ways in which new opportunities can be solicited. Carefully evaluate the likely benefits of a change of this nature and seek advice from those who are well versed in the field. While there may be some risks attached, don't forget that a breadth of experience can be very beneficial in preparing you for the next career jump.
  • Set goals and achieve them. The most important method of managing your career is to set challenging goals and achieve them. Stretch your ambitions and aim for slightly more than you think you can reasonably manage. While you may not ever get there, your ambitious targets will keep you focused on the long-term priorities you have set. Aim for actualisation when you set goals. Compare "I will publish four articles this year" with "I submit a journal article every three months". The latter goal is more powerful as it affirms that this is your real practice, not a new year resolution. It increases the likelihood of building your goals into your daily and weekly routines. Similarly, more specific goals are more powerful. Identify the articles that you wish to publish. Break down the papers into manageable segments and assign a week to do each component. The more specific the goals, the more achievable.
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