Why did we need such a group?
I studied in France and came to Leeds for my first postdoctoral position more than 10 years ago. I just love research and being at the bench. I specialise in cancer research, but within this field, I have worked on a variety of malignancies. I love both basic and translational research and I am always looking forward to learning new skills.
During my Ph.D. in France, we had a group for Ph.D.s, run by Ph.D.s, under the wing and direction of the school of medicine. Each school had a similar group aimed at networking and promoting career options post-Ph.D. This was great … but then, I arrived in Leeds in 2008 as a postdoc and realised that although there were some courses available to help with things such as “grant writing, publications” and the like, the topics were pretty much all orientated towards the “academic career,” which we know is only attainable for a very small percentage of postdocs.
No other career path was supported or even advertised. The other problem I faced was that all those courses were taking place on the university main campus and I was based on the opposite side of the city.
How we started
At the end of 2013 (probably boosted by the Athena Swan Initiative) I was approached by a senior member of staff who wanted to create such a group. So, I joined a team of six postdocs. Together we represented the (then) three institutes located on our remote campus. We created the original early career group (ECG) for our own campus.
We met with other ECGs from other institutes (all based at the main university campus). We exchanged ideas about relevant topics and what the needs would be for our respective crowds of Ph.D.s and postdocs. At first, we drew on our network of friends and contacts who had transitioned outside of academia.
They came and told us about their new positions and how they successfully transferred. They gave us advice and tips. We also developed a close collaboration with the university staff development service (OD&PL) and asked them to bring their then-expanding portfolio of courses to our site — thus saving people the travelling time to campus.
What we do now
We have started catering primarily to a group that runs from Ph.D. candidates in their third year to postdocs. We realise that there is no clear description of the “early career” researcher. The portfolio of events we have built and developed over the years is still aimed at that original group’s core interests. The seminars, workshops and courses are delivered by a range of industrial partners, university staff from the Organisational Development and Personal Learning department, as well as privately hired professional career coaches.
They aim to expose our researchers to the breath of career options and pathways available to scientists, as well as help promote well-being, teaching opportunities and qualifications. We also offer various workshops tailored to support transition into independence as an academic, as well as to transition outside of academia. Some events are annual, others every other year.
The experience-based seminars given by post-academic presenters change year to year. This means each year the presenters offer new avenues and career pathways ideas. We open our events to all who believe that they will benefit. As a result, we have seen an increasing number of first-year Ph.D.s, as well as long-term postdocs (such as myself) and junior principal investigators and fellows.
Our success story
Our group went from humble beginnings to a thriving development program with an ever-expanding portfolio. I, the only member left from the original six (and leader of the group since 2014), am proud of what we have achieved. We helped several students and staff make career decisions that led to them successfully moving on to positions in and outside of academia.
Students at an early stage of their Ph.D.s are given perspective on the wealth of career options within their reach, and tools to prepare for their chosen path. The same goes for long-term postdocs for whom it is often more difficult to transition. We have also created a community and safe space to talk about the worries, pressures and uncertainties often associated with our career choices. We developed a supportive network that is valued and backed by our senior management.
We link all the way up to the university steering group for early career research. So, if your place does not yet have an early career group, and you would like to set one up, or if you have a different structure in place and just want to chat, please get in touch. Drop us a line, or follow us on Twitter.
Let’s support each other. Thanks for reading.