Life as a medical researcher is both rewarding and challenging. It is challenging not just because researchers in this field pit themselves against some of the world’s deadliest diseases, but also due to the realities of research funding. Competition for grants is fierce and awards are usually for relatively short periods, with limited funds. As such, researchers have to make the most of the opportunities that come their way to hone their skills, grow their knowledge, expand their network and develop their CV in order to increase their chances of continued employment and to offer choices in what they can do next.
The Nuffield Department of Medicine is committed to supporting the long-term development of its researchers wherever possible. ‘Development’ in this sense is much wider than attending courses, conferences or seminars. The Staff Development website explains the wider definition of development. It also points out that much of your development will take place through undertaking challenging work and from interacting with colleagues and others within your field, with only a small part coming from formal study or courses.
We have created this section of the department website to set out some of the ways in which you can seek support for your development and to signpost you to additional sources of help.
The prime responsibility for your career development lies with you. Each researcher should make the most of Personal Development Reviews (PDR) and of the sources of support within the department and across the university. There are no set pathways for career progression. Some of you will stay in academia, some will leave. The Medical Research Council‘s interactive diagram of potential pathways outlines some recognised routes, but other routes are possible.
Roles and Responsibilities
A PI provides the intellectual leadership for at least one defined area of funded research and is the named person to whom a grant is awarded by the funder. PI funding in medical sciences often includes funding for a team, which might be anything from one or two DPhil students to a complement of students, research assistants, technicians, admin staff and postdocs. PIs should actively seek to develop their staff, providing support through regular feedback, one-to-ones and PDRs. While it is primarily the individual staff member's responsibility to identify their career goals and possible ways of achieving these, it is the PI’s responsibility to provide advice and guidance where possible and to support development goals where these fit with the needs and resources of the team and the department. Research funders see the PI role in developing researchers as absolutely vital to capacity building and the future of the UK economy. Funders are increasingly seeking evidence that this development is happening. Those PIs who can demonstrate that staff development is part of their planned activities are likely to add to their chances of being funded. PIs also have responsibility to develop their own skills and abilities in those areas that may challenge them such as how to manage staff, entering into and managing collaborations, working with the media or exploiting intellectual property rights.
Fellowships typically provide funding for the Fellow alone. Sometimes seen as a stepping stone between postdoc and PI, a fellowship offers the chance for research independence and safeguards the time needed to acquire the skills and experience needed for pursuing scientific enquiry and establishing academic credentials. Fellowship applications commonly include a section where the applicant must outline plans for their development. A Fellow takes full responsibility for their own development, supported by their department and by the advice of colleagues and, if they have one, by a mentor.
A postdoc is a member of staff who has a PhD and is employed to do research under the guidance of a PI, most usually on an externally funded contract. They are each responsible for their own development, but are entitled to the support of their PI in the form of advice and guidance, and time to undertake agreed development. Postdocs are rarely a permanent member of academic staff. Many will be on fixed-term contracts. As such, they should seek to invest in their future by identifying career goals and potential pathways and by maximising their opportunities to acquire and further strengthen the skills and abilities they need to succeed. They can expect the support of their PI where their development needs fit with the needs of the team or department, or where the development is such that it can be accomplished without undue detriment to the research. Postdocs may also support the development of other researchers such as research assistants and DPhil students and may undertake some supervisory or teaching work.
Other Research Staff
Other groups include research assistants, technicians, and admin staff. Again, the prime responsibility for their development lies with each individual, supported by their designated line manager. They should make the most of PDRs, one-to-ones and other opportunities to seek and act on feedback, and their line manager should provide advice and guidance where possible, or suggest where further support might be found. They can expect the support of their line manager where their agreed development needs align with team or department goals or can be met without detriment to these goals and within any resource constraints.
Planning Your Career Development
Every now and then, it is worth standing back and asking what you want to get from the next year or two in terms of your development and progress. This is particularly the case for postdocs who often have a limited number of years in the role. A postdoc position is usually thought of as a stepping stone to, or preparation for, a more permanent role choice. We strongly encourage postdocs to create a personal development plan (PDP) at the start of their post-doctorate that sets out what they want to get out of doing the role, asking question such as:
- What experience do you want to gain?
- What specific skills would you like to learn or sharpen?
- What contacts would you like to establish and develop during this time?
- How will you build your network?
- How will you build your research credibility and profile?
- What does your CV need to look like by the end of your postdoc to help get you to the next place you want to be?
Having created your personal development plan, re-visit it at six monthly intervals. Are you on track? Are other opportunities presenting themselves that might open new doors and lead to possibilities you hadn’t thought of when you started your postdoc?
Postdocs in the USA are encouraged to produce an Individual Development Plan (a personal development plan by a different name). The IDP encourages them to think about their key objectives, identify people who might be able to mentor them, carry out a skills assessment and then produce a plan for the year ahead to develop in specific areas. It also encourages them to think longer term. What do they see as their longer-term goals? There are many examples of IDPs on the internet. This example IDP from UC San Diego is typical.
Don’t keep your plan to yourself. Share it with your PI, and with your mentor or any other supportive colleague. Seek advice, feedback and guidance. And don’t simply create your plan then file it away. Review it, update it and use it to judge your progress. In particular, use it in preparation for your annual PDR review.
If you need guidance in identifying directions for your career, contact Claire Conway at the Careers Service and arrange an appointment to discuss your possibilities.
Personal Development Review
Personal development reviews are a year-round process with an annual review meeting to summarise the year gone and plan the year ahead. During the year, the plans made at the annual review meeting are discussed and adjusted as necessary. PDRs are a key process in which to participate for your career development as it helps identify areas to focus on, realistic goals and the support needed to help you succeed.
It is your responsibility to contribute fully to PDR by reviewing what has gone well/less well over the past year and what you should realistically try to achieve in the year ahead and discussing these with your PI. It is your PI’s responsibility to make sure that reviews take place and are followed up on, and to offer what support and guidance they can both during the annual review and then during the year as you seek to develop the relevant experience and opportunities to move your career forward.
For more information on PDRs and how to make the most of them, consult the resources on the Learning Institute’s website or discuss it with your PI or department Personnel support.
Sources of Advice, Guidance and Support
Within the department, you can seek advice and guidance on a number of topics linked to supporting your development from your Business Manager, your Human Resources team, your Group Leader or your peers. Your local grants team can help you with planning and submitting an application.
The university has substantial provision for the support of researcher careers. The list below identifies the key sources, but there will be others. Some groups arrange events for their staff, and self-help groups blossom every now and again.
Support for researchers is the main page on the university website for all things to do with researcher support. You will find links to many of the other sources linked below on this website, as well as information on a number of key areas. Bookmark this page as it will help you at various times in your career.
Oxford Learning Institute is the main central provider of courses and workshops on topics relating to managing, leading and personal effectiveness. The Institute also leads the provision for Aspiring PIs and New PIs. It also runs a series of events for postdocs and other research staff under the Research Connections banner, as well as running programmes and workshops on a wide range of topics. The Institute’s events are free.
IT Services offers a range of support on topics relating to the use of technology in research, from how to store data securely to using high performance computing power to choosing software use to data visualisation.
Finance division run a number of courses linked to research. Often, our department administrator will help researchers understand the financial aspects of research and support research groups, but if you want to develop your own knowledge base in relation to finance you could consult the training offered by Finance.
Medical Sciences Division provides a range of support for researchers and signposts other provision. The division offers skills training for researchers in both general and technical areas.
Oxford Research Staff Society (OxRSS) acts as a hub for researchers at Oxford. It provides researcher representation on a number of key bodies as well as organising social and networking events and keeping researchers informed.
Careers Service offers support to researchers through one-to-one guidance and various events.