Impact, Initiative and Ideas

Posted by on Nov 12, 2015 in Academic | No Comments

I gave a talk yesterday at a great event run by the Institute of Physics with the aim of helping women physicists, particularly PhD students, take control of their careers. A variety of speakers spoke about their careers, the opportunities in their sectors and giving advice (and smashing myths) about doctoral employability. A highlight for me was hearing Professor Dame Athene Donald give her perspectives on the theme of taking control (in typically proficient style this was published on her blog within a few hours).

A few themes emerged in conversations I had during the day:

  • Most PhD physicists leave academia, yet many current PhDs still feel guilty about considering other options and find it difficult to discuss with supervisors
  • The pressures of academic life are being felt by early career researchers and putting many of them off despite their love of science and research
  • Being able to talk about careers, imposter syndrome, funding and general frustrations in a supportive and like-minded community is energizing and reassuring
  • Social media is seen as something that is valuable for career development, but many present were sure what they should engage with and where to start.

I suspect that the best outcome from the day for many who attended will be the sense of community and I hope that they keep in touch with each other and with the speakers.

My talk was on the topic of using funding as a career booster. The IOP have recently published a guide to funding aimed at ECRS which I wrote and which was written with female researchers in mind. I’ll set out the key points from my talk here but also weave in a few other messages which came up in the during some individual careers appointments I ran.

What do employers want?

I started with a quote from Carl Gilleard, who was Chief Executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters for 15 years. I met him just after he was appointed in 1998 when I was still relatively fresh into my job as a careers adviser and asked him if he could sum up what recruiters were looking for. Expecting the usual slightly tired lists of skills, instead I got a fantastic answer which has stayed with me and informed a lot of my career choices.

Employers want to see a bit of oomph.

I’ve spent the intervening years thinking about this and what it looks like when I see it. I put forward my deconstruction of oomph but encouraged the audience to start looking around them for the characteristics of people who were successful.


This is top of my list. I want to work with people who see that something needs doing and do it. In order to show initiative you need to be aware of your surroundings and the opportunities that are open to you. This means being ready to take opportunities or persuade people to give you chances. It’s about showing independence (this was almost on the list in it’s own right but I think the overlap with initiative rules this out) which convinces me that you can work without close supervision and get on with things, sometimes with minimal direction and instruction.

In funding terms this is about deciding to pursue funding to do more than your PhD or project requires; it’s about seeking out funding which isn’t immediately obvious and making the connection with your ideas.


A room full of researchers is a room full of ideas, but I want to see that you can turn these ideas into something tangible. To do this you need to involve other people and to convince them that your idea (and you) are credible, exciting and worth an investment. The process of articulating an idea into a funding proposal and the achievement of securing funding suggests that you are going to be able to push forward your agenda in future. It’s a great answer to the dreaded application form question “Tell us about a time where you convinced people to do something” which always flummoxed me. The review process associated with funding also gives you a track record of managing criticism, equipping you to deal with this in different situations.


The final “I” is about delivering results. If I’m going to take a chance on you by giving you a job I am taking a huge risk. If you can show me that you’ve taken opportunities and turned them into new knowledge, which has had an impact in your community, I feel reassured. I can see that you are the sort of person who makes a difference – although it’s an appalling phrase to use about people, I feel more confident that I’ll see a “return on investment”.

Underlying all of this is the fact that securing funding demonstrates ambition – what I have been given isn’t enough and I need more to achieve my vision. I like that sentiment and would want to draw it into my organization.

But what if….?

I know enough about funding to know that the current success rates make depressing reading, so the final part of my talk looked at the value you get from engaging in funding even if you don’t get the money.


Applying for money forces you to turn an intention to do something into a set of actions. This focus on the criteria and expectations for a grant may well be the impetus you need to get things done and to stop making excuses to yourself. Get that paper written because you need a minimum number of papers for a fellowship application. Talk to that potential collaborator and start developing ideas because you need them to write a letter of support. Ask to co-supervise an undergraduate or master project because you need to present proof of concept data. Deadlines create a sense of purpose.

Develop your thinking

As soon as you start to write down an idea you will see the gaps and the flaws in it. I can still remember with horrible clarity a moment when I was writing my thesis when I realize I couldn’t finish a sentence because I hadn’t done the right kind of experiment. If we are forced to construct a written argument and plans for our ideas we see the weaknesses and we can work on them,


It may seem disingenuous to suggest that putting your precious flower of an idea under the dirty boot of a reviewer is going to build your confidence in the short term (it probably won’t, so see the sister post to this one…) but in the long term, the more we put our ideas “out there” and find ways to cope with the criticism they receive, the more confident we can be next time of making a stronger case. You will also become more articulate and be able to present your ideas more elegantly and engagingly (especially if you find opportunities to review the work of others).


Funding processes are all about comparisons with others. Job searching is all about comparisons with others. Promotion is about comparison with a set of criteria. This will be done to you repeatedly in your career, so start doing it to yourself as early as you can. Do I stand out from my peers? Am I taking all the opportunities that are offered to me? Am I finding additional opportunities that aren’t obvious? If you aren’t regularly benchmarking yourself, there may be a blind spot in your development.


No day aimed at early career women can pass without a reference to the value of mentors. A major theme of Navigating the Funding Landscape was the role they must play in your funding strategy and the same message applies to your career. Find one – use the IOP or the networks and societies you have access to. Talk to people around you and get advice. Don’t work in isolation.

I finished my talk with a few key messages, but frankly this post is already too long, so they are in a separate post.