An Academic Career

Skills and knowledge

Dr Andrea Simpson explains why resilience is important in academia.

Do you have the confidence to defend your work effectively?

As a doctoral researcher, you will already know about the traumas of subjecting your work to the scrutiny of others in your field, whether in writing or orally. As this is an essential part of an academic's life, how will you develop the confidence and resilience to cope with this? Many successful academics continue to find this challenging throughout their professional life, but develop coping strategies and a veneer of confidence to present to the outside world.

Presentation skills training for researchers should include help with how to deal with challenging questions. Watch academics or other researchers presenting their work and note which strategies are most successful for dealing with challenges. Talk to academics to find out how they cope with rejected funding bids - even the most successful academics have been through this.

How appropriate are your research skills and subject knowledge to the field which interests you?

If you are using cutting edge research techniques in a field which is growing, your skills are likely to be relevant to post-doctoral or academic jobs.

Issues do arise though where you wish to change fields, or where funding or limited job opportunities in your specialist area mean you have to alter your research interests. If this is the case, in what ways can you apply your current skills and knowledge in your proposed field? What similarities are there, and what new insights could you bring from your current research? If your preferred research interests are significantly different to your current research, is there a half-way house option, maybe applying some of your specialist skills and knowledge in an area related to both your current research and where you would ideally like to be?

Talking to academics in the field you would like to enter and looking for connections with your current work may uncover some unexpected links or opportunities - and may give you some good contacts.

How effectively can you communicate your work to a range of audiences?

There is increasing pressure on academics, including from potential funders, to communicate about their work to non-specialists. What have you done to show that you could engage researchers outside your discipline, a group of applicants to undergraduate degrees, a class of primary school pupils, lay members of a funding panel?

There are many opportunities for doctoral researchers to do this throughout your research degree. Take whatever chance you can to practice, as these skills will also come in useful explaining your research to an interview panel.

Professor Adrian Armstrong describes how he improved his teaching skills at the start of his career.

What evidence do you have of your ability to teach?

For humanities subjects, a common first role after finishing your doctoral research is a temporary lecturing post. Ideally you need to develop these skills during your doctoral research, most commonly taking undergraduate tutorials or seminars. In science and engineering disciplines, whilst your next step is often a post-doctoral research position, developing teaching skills early in your research career will help once you apply for lecturing roles.

Take whatever teaching assistant training is offered by your institution, ask your department (or related departments) for the chance to teach, try out different teaching methods (eg. use of audio-visual materials, problem-based learning, on-line modules or tutorial support), learn from tutors, demonstrators and lecturers who are highly rated by students, collate your student feedback (learn from the negative feedback, use positive feedback to support your applications), offer to cover the occasional lecture (however, you may not get chance to teach a whole lecture course, unless you have previous relevant experience).

If you have exhausted the opportunities at your own institution, explore possibilities at other local universities, or look out for tutor positions with the Open University.

Have you started to develop your ability to compete for funding?

Writing successful research bids is critical for most academics. Learn from your supervisor when they are applying for funding - what could you do to offer support?

Additionally, you could start to develop your own track record by applying for funds to support conference attendance or postgraduate funds and awards. This helps you develop the skill of writing persuasively to a tight brief - and probably starts you on the road to developing the thick skin you will need to cope with rejection. Look out for postgraduate awards and prizes from professional or scholarly societies, or in funding databases for instance on the Research Professional website.