Career development

Last changed: 11 May 2021

Navigating a career in science and applying for funding is not a trivial task for early stage researchers. Over recent decades, we have moved from a setting where most people who obtained a PhD could look forward to stable employment within academia, to a reality in which young researchers are faced with a highly competitive job situation, but also with opportunities reaching far beyond academia. To find your way and build a career in research, it is therefore almost equally important to plan your career, as it is to plan your research experiments.

As a young researcher, you must try to inform yourself about the huge variety of career paths that can originate from doing a PhD. You will realise that besides becoming an expert in your research field, your PhD training helps you acquire many other skills that make you attractive in the job market. These include project management, communication, mentorship and writing skills, the experience of international working environments and relations, as well as in many cases, innovation and entrepreneurship.

To increase the possibilities reaching your career goals you should regularly reflect on your goals and identify skills that will help you to achieve them. If you already have a defined aim for your career, make a master plan to get there - and if your ideas about the future are unclear, try to build a broad competence base that will support multiple career paths.

Building a competitive CV

When analysing the CVs of successful researchers, it is clear that most of them can present several skills that together build the profile of a highly experienced and engaged person. Someone who is dedicated and can meet deadlines, who is an active member of the research community and relevant networks, and who shows dedication in supporting faculty issues and fulfilling commissions of trust. Each of these experiences and skills are laid down like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, collectively contributing to form a strong CV.

To build such a competitive CV, you need to be open to new challenges and proactively identify activities that will support your career goals. Hence, as a young researcher, try to keep yourself updated about (and attend) courses, seminars and workshops in relevant areas, sign up for departmental duties, help out at a local conference, visit new research environments and engage in public outreach activities, contribute to teaching and/or mentoring of younger students, learn new and state-of-the-art methods, engage in discussions with your departmental peers and with invited guests. Another key competence when pursuing a career in research is the ability to write competitive grant proposals, so as soon as you can, practice this skill and start applying for your own funding - initially focusing on travel grants and small foundations, before targeting larger awards. By actively participating in such activities and broadening your network, you will not only add important pieces to your CV puzzle, but most likely also come across new and unexpected opportunities that will further boost your career development.

If you are a PhD student or postdoc, your first-hand advisor in career development is your supervisor or mentor, but the head of your department is also responsible for your personal well-being and development. You can seek further support among your more senior peers and from the support units at SLU, such as the SLU Grants Office. However, it is primarily up to you to make sure that you acquire the skills and experience that you will need to take the next step in your career.

Key pieces in your CV puzzle

1. The right education and training

To be successful in any job, the knowledge and skills acquired through training form the very foundation for reaching your career goals. After all, these are key enabling factors that most likely will determine if you are eligible to apply for a future job position (or a research grant). Besides a degree and PhD in relevant fields, you can also boost your CV with courses in relevant areas, for example relating to specific methodologies or techniques, statistics, leadership and management, innovation and intellectual property rights, ethics, communication, languages etc. Do not go overboard, but think strategically and take upcoming opportunities to broaden your skills base in relevant areas. Most importantly you must focus on your research, on becoming an expert in your field and achieving your research aims - but do not forget the small things that will support your originality and provide you with a unique and competitive profile in the future.

2. Experience and skills

When spending time in an academic institution, you often come across learning opportunities that you can engage in to proactively build your CV. This could be learning a new technique, participating in collaborations that allow you to visit and maybe even stay for a period in a new research environment, signing up for teaching and mentorship responsibilities, or applying for funding alone or together with colleagues. In addition, you will most likely have extensive opportunities to improve your presentation and communication skills by attending conferences, taking part in outreach activities and writing press releases about your research for the SLU web and various magazines. By taking part in such activities, you will enhance your so-called soft or transferrable skills, which will strongly reinforce your CV and potential of reaching your career goals.

3. Dedication and meeting deadlines

The timeline of a person’s career, commonly outlined in any CV, can say quite a lot about their personality, dedication and ability to complete tasks on time. Therefore, it is something to which your future employer or funder will pay close attention. It is critical to be clear and honest when presenting your timeline and not to leave any unexplained gaps that may evoke unwanted questions. Provide an unbroken overview of your whereabouts from graduating high school up to the present day, and clearly indicate if you, for example, have been on parental, military or sick-leave for longer periods.

You may feel that it is critical to explain particular steps in your education and career. In that case, most CV structures can be opened up to include a narrative where you, in your own wording, can explain the different stages of your career history.

4. Leadership and supervision

If you are aiming for an independent research position or any higher position within the industrial or other societal sectors, it is very beneficial if you can provide evidence of training and/or experience in leadership, management and supervision. You can acquire these skills through courses provided by SLU (and many others), but also by engaging in teaching and supervision of younger students, as well as getting involved in the management of research projects, relevant networks or in other organised groups. Remember that leadership experience gained in the private sphere can also support these type of skills in your CV - for example engagement in the board of a sports club, student association, local community or in other types of organisations.

5. Being an active member of the (research) community

As a researcher, the more senior you get, the more you are expected to contribute to the common research community. This includes, for example, assignments for commissions of trust, such as being on evaluation panels for graduate students and research proposals, taking on departmental responsibilities and acting as a reviewer for scientific journals. You are further expected to expand your collaborative interactions and be visible at relevant conferences and meetings, as well as within subject-specific networks. Here it is again important not to take on too many responsibilities, but to engage selectively in a few key activities, both to build your skills toolbox and to support your career development.

6. Ability to acquire external funding

To survive long-term in an academic environment, you need to develop skills to write convincing grant proposals and acquire external funding. Since learning how to structure competitive grant proposals is an art in itself, which commonly takes some training to master, it is wise to start practising proposal writing as early as possible. So, even if you often do not need independent funding as a PhD student or postdoc, start writing proposals! Start small by applying for travel grants and small grants from local or subject-specific funders, and if possible, participate in larger proposals with your supervisor or other senior researchers. Applying for your own funding will give you a head start in writing good grant proposals, and if you are successful, it will both strengthen your CV and allow you to gain some level of independence, possibly by enabling you to visit a conference or a new collaborator, or to carry out a small independent side-project to test out your research ideas.

Besides learning by doing, there is also a multitude of seminars, workshops and courses in grant writing offered both in-house at SLU and by other providers. Read more here.

7. Mobility - a key route to new knowledge

One of the best ways of learning new things is to leave your comfort zone and expand your horizons by working in a new research (or other) environment. By experiencing how research is performed or utilised in a different country, in a new research field, or another sector (such as an SME, i.e. a small or medium sized company, a large industry or a policymaking authority), you will gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics in the scientific community, as well as its interaction with and impact on the “real world”. Besides strongly contributing to your skills toolbox, mobility will also strengthen your CV with:

  • New knowledge and methodologies
  • Hands-on experience of different ways of working
  • Evidence of dedication to research and learning new things
  • Expanded networks
  • New potential collaborators
  • Opportunities to obtain independent funding
  • Independence from your previous supervisors/mentors
  • Novel entry points into research (e.g. possibility of designing a unique research profile/programme)

Since mobility between countries, sectors and disciplines is recognised as crucial for fostering creative and excellent researchers, many funders specifically support mobility. Such funding opportunities are already available in the form of exchange programmes for students, industrial or interdisciplinary doctoral training, and many different postdoctoral fellowships. However, they also stretch to sabbaticals for senior researchers and staff-exchange programmes, funded for example by Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions.

So, if you have the opportunity - try something new, learn something new, and enhance your competitiveness for future research positions and research funding.

In summary, there are many things you can do to improve your profile, your CV and your competitiveness, to support a successful career in research. As a young researcher, it is most important to focus on becoming an expert in your field. Still, it is also good to spend time on planning for the future and identifying (and acquiring) skills that will help you to achieve your career goals. Remember that you are not alone - do not be afraid to ask for advice!

Page editor: lars-erik.lindell@slu.se