Three cornerstones of a successful research career

Success in academia requires much more than topical expertise. Jackie Carter shares three vital areas of focus for building a research career

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25 Oct 2022
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This video will cover:

00:50 Developing resilience or “bounce-back ability”

02:30 Building your professional support networks

04:26 Honing your craft


Hello, my name is Jackie Carter. I’m a professor of statistical literacy at the University of Manchester in the UK, and I’m author of several recent articles and a book, which is behind me, on work placements, internships and applied social research.

So, my advice today is coming very much from my own lived experience but also having taught social science students research methods to enable them to do social research and go into careers in research.

I wanted to start by saying, sometimes our careers do not work out in the way we plan. And so, my first piece of advice to researchers is to develop a way of dealing with setbacks. And call it grit, resilience, bounce-back ability, whatever you like, but one of the most critical aspects of my own success, which didn’t come until later life for me – I didn’t become an academic until I was in my 50s, even though I got my PhD when I was in my 30s, I did my PhD as a single parent – was to deal with setbacks.

And I wrote a LinkedIn post once called “Bouncing back in 24 hours” about how I’d received bad news about the outcome of a position I’d gone for and hadn’t got. I was abroad at the time, away from family, I’d suffered an illness, and it could have really got me down. And it did initially, but one of the things I took from that experience was how important it is to get back out there. And the post talks about getting back out there and getting back up quickly. So, my first tip, I suppose, is to develop that skill and develop it sooner rather than later. So, whatever works for you, and I’ll go on to how you might do that, develop the skill of dealing with setbacks in any shape or form, because they come up at you thick and fast in the research environment, in an academic environment.

Leading on from that, I think my second tip would be to find your people and your tribe and network and use them to provide the support that you will need. We all need support. We might think we are autonomous individuals who can deal with things on our own, but every single one of us needs some element of support, and particularly for women in academia.

So, this is my big shout-out to the network group Women in Academia Support Network (WIASN), which I’m part of; I’m an active participant in. It’s set up by women who understand what it’s like to be a woman in academia, and a network like that – it doesn’t have to be that one, it can be a more specific one to your subject area if that works better for you – but a network like that will enable you to develop all of the tools and techniques that will help you succeed in your career.

So, find your network, be part of it; you can lurk in the network, you don’t have to be an active member of the network. But most of us at some point in time do want to give back. So, if you’ve experienced adversity or challenges or difficulties and you want to share your advice, you can do that in a safe, supportive space.

So, find your network and use it and contribute to it. And I do that outside of the academy as well. I’m part of many female networks fighting for gender equality and, yeah, some of the posters behind me, I get involved with a women’s network looking for equality in the region in which I live. So, there are, you know, multiple ways you can do that. It doesn’t just have to be in the academic context.

And the third piece of advice, I think, it is to hone your craft. Whatever it is you do, perfect it, OK. Not in a perfectionist way, but do it to the best of your ability.

So, if that’s writing for academic journals, then become a really good writer. Look at models of people who have written well in your field and emulate them, OK. Again using your networks or having internal support groups that can help you write well. If you’re in a performing-arts area, then again hone your craft, get really good at what you do, because part of being a researcher is to stand out for the thing that you’re known for, OK.

In my case that is I build bridges between worlds, OK. I’m somebody who exists in liminal spaces, I work between the academy and between the workplace and I develop these amazing opportunities and relationships that I’m able to build on to benefit my students, the students that I teach, both the undergraduate and postgraduate level. But I also maintain and sustain those relationships with those organisations and with those students when they graduate.

So, I have a network of over 300 students who have taken through my work-placement programme, who I’m now in touch with. Some of them feature as case studies in the book, some of them feature in academic articles I write. I do a lot of public engagement as well, so I use other platforms outside of academic platforms to write about my work. And I often do co-production of knowledge with the, particularly with the students I come into contact with, but also the organisations.

So, hone your craft. My craft is, you know, developing those really strong relationships between industry and academia, and writing about them and publishing about them and speaking about them, including in my case internationally. I’m now doing a lot of work in Colombia, which is leading to some incredibly exciting opportunities.

So, they’re my three top tips. I could give you more and I’d be really happy to talk to anybody, should they want to reach out, particularly those of you in academia, or hoping to get into academia, who see a role in the wider landscape, particularly in terms of those bridges I talked about, building links into non-academic spaces.

All right. They’re my tips. I hope they were helpful. Thanks for listening.

Jackie Carter is a professor in statistical literacy and co-director of the Q-Step Centre at the University of Manchester.

Jackie’s advice draws on insight she shared in the book ResearcHER: The Power and Potential of Research Careers for Women, authored by the Women in Academia Support Network.

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