UK researchers must pay as much attention to networking and building their profiles as to academic work if they are to make the most of their careers because word of mouth remains the most common route to jobs in the sector.
This is one of the conclusions that can be drawn from the Careers in Research Online Survey (CROS) 2009, officially released last month at the Vitae researcher development conference in Warwick and now the subject of debate among researchers.
The study is based on responses to a questionnaire answered by about 6,000 research staff - roughly 16 per cent of researchers in the sector.
It indicates that although universities are taking researchers' development seriously, when it comes to individuals climbing the career ladder, it can still be a case of who you know rather than what you know.
The report shows that although respondents identified job opportunities for research posts through a wide range of media outlets, "word of mouth is the most common route".
"A fifth of respondents (were) informed by word of mouth only," the study notes. "Institutions should ensure that all recruitment policies are open and transparent - for example, all vacancies should be promoted and advertised externally."
Janet Metcalfe, chair and head of Vitae, and co-author of the report, said: "Researchers need to be more informed about what openings are available, and institutions have a responsibility to help them in this process."
But she added that researchers would do well to become more engaged in career development activities such as networking and reputation-building. They need to "take ownership" of their own careers more proactively than they have been doing.
"Research careers are highly competitive and researchers will need to actively participate in these processes if they are to succeed," Dr Metcalfe added.
The report states that the provision of guidance for research staff is at an all-time high, with 72 per cent of respondents participating in training activities within their universities in the past year, up from 36 per cent in 2006.
It adds that the majority of researchers feel valued, are satisfied with their work-life balance and are happy with their prospects - 75 per cent of them have discussed career-development opportunities with their manager or principal investigator, compared with 50 per cent in 2006.
There has been a "marked improvement" in the uptake of initiatives such as appraisals and training, Dr Metcalfe said.
'True plight' is obscured
David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London and an outspoken critic of much human resources-based training in the sector, said he was surprised that such a high percentage of researchers rated positively the training they had received, and criticised the report's methodology.
"The results just paper over the cracks and don't reflect the true plight of what researchers really face," he said, adding that the numbers surveyed were unrepresentative of the sector.
However, not all CROS 2009's findings are positive. Nearly one third of respondents state that their wider contributions, such as the supervision of doctoral and masters students, go unrecognised.
More than half say that they do not feel they are treated equally to lecturing staff when it comes to promotion or progression at their institutions.
The results also show that more than 38 per cent of respondents aspire to a career primarily in research, and 51 per cent desire a lectureship within higher education.
According to Dr Metcalfe, this is "unrealistic" given the limited opportunities in today's sector.
A total of 51 institutions participated in CROS 2009, including 28 Russell Group and 1994 Group universities.
Points of view
- Thirteen per cent of respondents currently visit their careers service and 23 per cent seek advice from development staff regarding their careers
- Two fifths have had training in research skills and techniques, and less than one quarter have undertaken other training and development activities
- Ninety per cent believe their institution is committed to diversity and equality
- Three quarters of respondents do not know if they are treated equally in terms of eligibility for performance-related pay
- Ten per cent believe they have experienced discrimination in their current post.