An Academic Career

Seek advice and support

Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami explains why her top tip for early researchers is to gather a support network.

Learn from others

Many successful academics credit the advice they received from a more experienced academic early in their career as being invaluable.

If you are concerned about asking for help, think about your academic research and how it develops - you test out your ideas by presenting your work to others, and seeking feedback and comment.

Consider applying the same philosophy to your career goals, your longer term research strategy or any aspect of your daily work - find someone you respect, ask if you can bounce ideas off them and listen to, and learn from, their responses.

Is there any formal support available?

Your supervisor should offer support for your development, but some doctoral researchers feel they would benefit from an additional or alternative sounding board. 

Your institution may have a formal mentoring programme for doctoral researchers - ask your supervisor or those who look after training for researchers.

If you are a member of a professional or scholarly association, they may offer a mentoring programme.

Take advantage of whatever student support services your institution offers - most are open to postgraduates as well as undergraduates. If you are concerned about your career, your university Careers Service may be able to help - particularly useful if you want to discuss, confidentially, the possibility of moving away from academia. There may be a Counselling Service or support for those with disabilities for other personal issues which may impact your academic career.

Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami talks about the informal group of mentors she has gathered in her academic career.
Dr Caroline Bowsher explains how her informal network has helped her.

Where could you get informal support?

Traditionally, early career researchers tend to find informal mentors themselves. Where someone acts as an informal mentor, it is unlikely that there will be any agreement on how often you will meet or what the process is. It is quite possible that neither of you will realise that you have been in a mentoring relationship until later in your career.

Ideally you want someone you trust, who knows you, who understands the type of issues you are dealing with but who can also view these issues objectively (mentors from outside your immediate field can sometimes be very helpful).

If you have a good relationship with your supervisor, they may act as a valued informal mentor throughout your academic career. However, even if this is the case, most academics have more than one person to whom they turn to discuss ideas. You're not looking for a substitute parent or a life partner - a support network can be just as effective as an individual academic counsellor.

Who are the people you respect and admire, and what is their particular expertise? If you want to develop your teaching practice, find out who are the excellent teachers in your field and ask if you can observe them. If you want to develop links beyond your department, talk to the academics in your field who have a track record of developing strong collaborations, and learn how they did this.

The people you turn to for support don't have to be senior academics. Your peers or those with just a bit more experience may be just as helpful for certain issues, and the value of this network will grow as you all progress in academia or beyond.

Professor Adrian Armstrong explains how his mentor helped him learn the conventions in his new Department.

What help could you get from a mentor?

Many early career researchers internalise anxieties about their research, their achievements (or perceived lack of them), their future.

A mentor can help you avoid getting trapped in a never-ending internal debate by acting as a sounding board, offering their experience as an example, and giving guidance on both intellectual and career problems. A good mentor often asks the right questions rather than providing ready-made answers.

Mentors can also be extremely helpful with helping you understand how a new institution or department operates - the unspoken but critical cultural norms or simply important administrative minutiae.

If you have a good relationship with an informal mentor, they may be prepared to offer you feedback and coach you with your written work - publications, grant applications etc. Whilst any co-authors (your supervisor or other collaborators) will want to discuss content, improving your writing style may be something where a mentor is more helpful.