Research intelligence: setting a path for early career scientists

Written by: Jack Grove
Published on: 21 Jan 2021

Young tourists walking down big stones while hiking

Source: IStock

With laboratory leaders often spending weeks shortlisting and interviewing candidates, recruiting early career scientists can be a time-consuming process. But is the same diligence applied once researchers are in the building?

“Many of us invest time and resources into recruiting the ‘right person’ but then fail to define the expected metrics of success and milestones,” explained Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford. “As a result, a weak probationary performance can lead to disappointment on both sides and a haemorrhaging of enthusiasm and resources from the group.”

So how should principal investigators structure probationary periods to enthuse incoming researchers, helping them to achieve their own professional goals while contributing to the success of a research group?

Think beyond high-impact publications
While early career scientists will inevitably need to help advance the main goals of a group, team leaders should take a longer-term view on researcher development, said Professor Foster, who is head of the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology.

“For early career scientists currently working within a lab and paid from grants, the key criteria are that you deliver on the science, and write or contribute to papers − essentially, that you fulfil your contract,” explained Professor Foster. However, some lab leaders “treat early career scientists as technicians − the view being that they are paid to do a job and nothing more”, he added.

“A good line manager or lab head should ensure and encourage broader career-promoting activities including teaching, grant-writing and public engagement activities,” Professor Foster said, noting that “despite a more enlightened perspective in recent years, many group leaders actively discourage these activities”.

Network without conferences
Presenting a paper or interim findings at an academic conference is often a goal that early career scientists and senior researchers alike can support. But the suspension of the traditional conference circuit has led some lab leaders to urge their staff to think more creatively about networking.

“Some people in my group have expressed frustration that they can’t go to conferences, so I’ve suggested that they set up their own for early career researchers in their field,” said Lee Cronin, Regius chair of chemistry at the University of Glasgow.

“One of my group members is now having one on digital chemistry, held on Zoom on two consecutive afternoons, and has convinced some of the principal investigators from the bigger groups to present. Everyone is desperate to get on a plane again, so I’m pretty sure conferences will eventually come back after vaccination, but we need to get creative in the meantime as some scientists will have lost a year and a half of networking,” added Professor Cronin.

Think beyond research groups
With lockdowns also limiting networking between team members, Professor Cronin has encouraged researchers to look beyond their immediate circle of collaborators. “I’ve been asking them to second on to other teams or, at least, ghost into meetings of other groups to hear what is happening,” he said.

Researchers have also been asked to go beyond their immediate research by spending 25 per cent of their time outside their own project. “I’ve tried not to scrutinise what they’re doing too much, but they might spend the time learning a new programming language, for instance,” said Professor Cronin, who nonetheless asks researchers to be “as open as they can” with team members about their own projects.

Encourage professional growth
“I try not to set people too many metrics – I prefer to ask them on day one what they want to do when they leave the group,” said Professor Cronin. “I don’t want to manage their careers, but if I know what they are interested in, then I can help to create opportunities for them.”

A similar approach is taken by Anant Paradkar, director of the Centre for Pharmaceutical Engineering Science at the University of Bradford, who requires postdoctoral researchers to spend one day a week on their own project. “Many have spent time with a regulatory agency or a company, or they might spend five hours a week working at the university – that depends on conversations at the start of their time with me, where I will ask where they want to end up.”

Admittedly, some young researchers might not have a grand project of their own up their sleeve when they begin, but time should be allocated to help scientists formulate their projects, said Professor Paradkar, whose work typically involves industry partnerships. “I might suggest a problem but ask them to think about what the commercial market might be for a product or what companies are competing in that area,” he said.

Think beyond academia
While early career scientists are usually recruited for a specific research project, helping them to explore other career options is paramount − and not just for individuals but society more generally, said Professor Foster. “Having well-trained scientists outside academia is immensely important for society as a whole and is something academia can deliver − the scientific tools of formulating questions, integrating information and devising solutions to problems are key skills necessary in most walks of life, including industry, education, business and especially government,” he said.

“Perhaps part of the problem is that we have not fully defined what we, as a society, want to achieve with our outstanding scientific infrastructure,” Professor Foster added. “It could deliver so much more than outstanding science”.