Developing Skills to Progress your Academic Career

Working as a postdoctoral researcher can certainly have its’ challenges. There is often a lot of uncertainty around contract length, long hours and pressure to complete many extra tasks. Therefore, being savvy and organised with your time can make a great difference to your career prospects. By prioritising longer-term career goals, and having a clear idea of the skills and experiences that you need to develop further, you can get ahead of the competition.

As an early career researcher it is fairly common to move around lots and change roles frequently (as previously highlighted short-term contracts are often to blame) so learning to adapt quickly to new settings and figuring out who you need to communicate with are key skills to develop. Who are the best contacts to help get things done (think PI, co-workers, school offices)? Aim to develop good working relationships with these colleagues. Be helpful, reliable and flexible to ensure that you are well thought of. At the University of Edinburgh the research staff hub pages are a great starting point for researchers at Edinburgh, including induction information.

So what should you focus on?

Write detailed research plans and apply for funding in your own right as this will give you some of the key tools and skills needed to progress an academic career. Research Professional is a database of funding opportunities so if you can secure your own funding and bring it with you to other groups and institutions you will be an attractive candidate! Search ‘funding’ within the career advice section on to see other relevant articles. It is also a good idea to discuss funding calls with the Edinburgh Research Office as they have detailed knowledge on grants available, funding calls and can offer advice on the application process too.

Start thinking about your longer term goals. Are you aiming to become a professor? Even if your goal is to work in a non-academic setting, communicate this with your PI and create a timeline to prepare and be ready to make this transition. It is also important to work well with your PI as their opinion carries weight and you need their support for good references. The IAD resource Career Conversations with you PI may be a useful read to start your thinking.

Presentation skills are hugely important because the whole premise of being a researcher is to be able to tell people about your research and why it is important so effective communication is key! You need to learn to adapt your style to fit the audience so getting plenty of practice speaking to different audiences is a must – think conferences, public engagement and local community events. IAD offers training on public speaking. See the full course list here.

Set a publication aim for the coming year. Target the journals that attract attention in your field not just the really large ones. It might be worth adopting an academic mentor that uses a similar strategy. That way they will be able to assist you with hints and tips. Not sure how to acquire a Mentor? The University Mentoring Connections programme could be a great start.

Try to gain some experience of grant management or lab management to demonstrate undertaking extra responsibilities. Daily duties and budgetary responsibilities may not sound like much but this can give you a real head start over the competition when it comes to job applications – extra responsibility = a motivated individual! The same could be said of seeking out departmental responsibilities and university committee memberships. Talk to your PI and head of department to see what you could get involved in. The Research Staff hub is also a good place to look for more information on staff societies.

Put time aside each week for professional development activities. Discuss with your PI, 10 days professional development. Join a Research Staff Society or another department/ University committee. This demonstrates that you are engaging with the wider university community. You could also volunteer for more responsibilities within your current group i.e. volunteer to supervise students or co-ordinate the equipment timetable for your laboratory. This might not sound like much but is a clear demonstration of “delegation, negotiation, problem solving and time management” skills that you need in droves to succeed as an academic.

Record your achievements! This may sound incredibly obvious but it is something often overlooked and helps in the long run when it comes to drafting a CV. After several months have passed it might be the case that you no longer remember the technicalities of the project that you were involved in or the details of the event that you attended. You may forget the details of what you have achieved. By recording your achievements you can have a CV “good to go” with minimal effort when it comes to making applications.

When it comes to writing covering letters make sure that you don’t spend half the letter writing about you PhD, this is a big pet peeve of academic recruiters! Instead focus on the current projects that you have been involved in and try to demonstrate your development of skills and techniques. For further tips on writing covering letters look at the Covering Letter Checklist.

Aim to develop a short statement for your CV (or an elevator pitch for in person meetings) that tells people about yourself and your work (including key achievements) in 5 sentences. If this is something that you struggle with or are not sure where to start then book a 1:1 consultation with IAD’s Career Consultant to get started taking action to move your career forward!


This blog was written by Eleanor Hennige.  Eleanor is the IAD’s Research Staff Careers Consultant, supporting fixed-term research staff at the University with their career planning and options.  In addition to running our 1:1 appointments, she also delivers our suite of career workshops, career discussion groups and works with Schools/Research Staff Societies on career specific events and workshops.  Eleanor works on a part-time basis (5 mornings a week) and can be contacted at

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