Your career, your choices

I spent part of the afternoon talking to a researcher about science festivals. For the last 7 years I’ve been the director of Bang Goes the Borders, a community science festival which many Edinburgh researchers have supported over the years. Dr Gary Kerr from Salford University is doing a PhD on science festivals in society (yes, you read that right DOCTOR Gary Kerr is on his second PhD. He’s surprisingly normal.) We had a great chat about how the festival formed, has grown and where it is going.

As usual I felt a little defensive when asked questions about my aspirations for the festival, how it might grow and where we saw it going in the future. The reality is that a festival run by volunteers is always limited to the time and goodwill we can draw on. Our numbers are largely dictated by the venue we work in, so if we were to grow dramatically I don’t think it would be as much fun (and more seriously, potentially less safe). We have an event which is a recognised success and it works really well. Most importantly, I have no appetite to make this more complicated than it already is.  It’s fine as it is, but I felt awkward admitting that I don’t want it to grow. Then he turned off the tape recorder and I discussed this awkwardness – and of course discovered that it’s very common amongst the directors of festivals like mine and makes complete sense.

Gary also asked me about my engagement with science festival networks and I had to admit that I haven’t ever engaged with them. I’ve never felt I needed this because I was too busy getting on with things and assumed that their focus was on growth and world domination. When he pointed out that there are a number of festivals very similar to mine in the network and that they are probably facing similar challenges sustaining, rather than growing, I realized that I should take another look.

It struck me that there were parallels here with an email earlier in the day about a new research staff development framework we’ve developed. Most of our research staff can also be classified as “early career researchers” with up to five years’ research experience post-PhD. The programme has been written with them in mind and the statistical likelyhood that they will leave the academic path, whilst providing a fellowship track for those who want to pursue independent funding. However, there is a (much smaller) group who have extended their research careers for many more years and effectively become career postdocs. They work on contracts and projects (often precariously) but have little motivation in becoming principal investigators and group leaders. They love their specialism and want to continue to develop, but as researchers, not leaders. The email was about getting their reactions to some of our plans and letting me know where I’ve got it wrong.

I suspect they feel a little frustration about the relentless sense of needing to move on and up that pervades the postdoc years. I also suspect that they may not see kinds of things we do at the IAD as relevant to their needs (I hope this isn’t the case.) The universe sent Gary this afternoon to remind me that there are all kinds of choices in our careers and that we should support our researchers to follow all kinds of paths in all kinds of ways.

We remain committed to supporting researchers who want to leave academia, particularly if they have their choices undermined by messages around them which only focus on the academic path. This is the most likely destination for most of our research staff and we need to be more honest about their options and more supportive in helping them make transitions into new careers.  We will continue to help the next generation of research leaders to develop their ideas and proposals so they can grow new research groups. But we are also here to offer appropriate development to researchers following different trajectories.

I don’t know how it feels to be a long-term postdoc because I was never one, so I’m asking them. I’m looking forward to getting their feedback and seeing if this requires a re-think from us. A similar process is happening for technical staff, who are also welcome at our workshops and events.

If you feel that our programmes aren’t addressing your career challenges, then let me know. But please don’t assume that what we offer isn’t right for you. Whatever your choices about your career path and the way in which it will develop,  we will do our best to help.  But only if we know what you need.



  1. If any researchers at Edinburgh Uni are reading this, you need to know that in your Head of Researcher Development, Dr Sara Shinton, you have a gem. Someone who is entirely committed to your development (and I do mean whole-heartedly) and to supporting you wherever your next career step takes you. Do let her know your thoughts about the programmes being run, because she will take them and from them will create even more practical value for you and your colleagues. How do I know? Because I have seen her do it so very many times before. Good Luck all with whatever the next step holds, choose wisely.

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