How to maximise your chances of an academic career

Cat Horswill
University of Glasgow, U.K.

The life of an Early Career Researcher in ecology has its ups and downs, we all have things we worry about from time to time. To support the ornithologists of tomorrow, the British Ornithologists Union holds an evening event for Early Career Researchers as part of their annual spring conference. During #BOU2018, the ECR workshop was entitled “Preparing yourself for a career in 21st century ornithology”. At this event our future hopefuls got a chance to grill some of the attending experts for career advice. Our panel of eight experts were chosen to represent different career stages and career paths, and after the event I approached each of them for their three top tips. As an extra treat I also asked Hugh Possingham, who threw the cat amongst the pigeons, or should I say puffins, with his plenary on using decision science thinking to pose and solve conservation problems. His controversial directions for the long-term monitoring of UK puffins certainly got a lot of people talking!

To condense the advice received, I’ve done a fairly coarse grouping of themes. The caveat here is my interpretation, but to allow full transparency and repeatability(!) please see Table 1. There are some common themes that appear and the age-old adage, “publish or perish”, did not come out on top. In fact, the topic of “Publishing” was mentioned fewer times than “Enjoyment”. The stand-out piece of advice was “Visibility”: put yourself out there, be visible, get out of your comfort zone, connect with people, join everything, and take part. In joint second place was “Community” and “Enjoyment”: be nice to your community, support your community, work with good people, find your niche, enjoy your science and don’t be afraid to follow your interests. In joint third place we had advice on “Grants”, “Integrity”, “Publishing” and “Skills”, and in joint fourth place advice on “Communication”, “Dissemination”, “Family”, “Job Applications”, “Opportunities”, “Persistence” and “Progress”.

We have to acknowledge the limited sample size of experts (n=9) when considering the trends in advice that are identified here. Furthermore, the most innovative ideas may not be ones that everyone thinks of. For example, there are some excellent pieces of advice that were only mentioned by one of our experts; Rosemarie’s advice on starting a family, Hugh’s advice on making your own job and Juliet’s advice on how to approach job applications. Therefore, I do not necessarily recommend prioritising any single piece of advice, although if visibility and community do play a key role then being a member of the BOU is a great place to start.

Dr Jose Alves (@_JoseAAlves_) – Senior Research Associate, University of Aveiro and University of Iceland

  1. Be persistent
  2. Put yourself out there, talk to people, go to conferences
  3. Be nice to your community when you review papers and grants


Dr Francis Daunt – Animal population ecologist, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

  1. Demonstrate loyalty and commitment and the job may follow
  2. Write loads of great papers
  3. Be visible


Prof. Jennifer Gill (@JenGill3) – Professor of Applied Ecology, University of East Anglia

  1. Honesty along your career path
  2. Writing funding applications is a long process to learn
  3. Support your community


Dr Rosemarie Kentie (@RoosKentie) – Newton International Fellow, University of Oxford

  1. Write your own grant applications
  2. Connect with as many people as possible
  3. Don’t be scared to have a family


Dr Cat Morrison (@CatMorrison18) – Lecturer, University of East Anglia

  1. Work with good people
  2. Get out of your comfort zone; network, present, ask questions at conferences
  3. Find your niche. Something that you are good at and enjoy doing – pursue that!


Prof. Hugh Possingham (@HugePossum) – Professor of Mathematics and Ecology, University of Queensland. Chief Scientist, The Nature Conservancy

  1. Focus on communication skills (writing and speaking)
  2. Turn up to everything, join everything, join every queue
  3. Make your own job. Send your research to relevant researchers in your field, but make sure you tailor the email to the recipient, show that you know their work


Prof. Bill Sutherland (@Bill_Sutherland) – Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology, University of Cambridge

  1. Enjoy your science
  2. Take part
  3. Take advantage of opportunities


Dr Juliet Vickery (@Juliet_Vickery) – Head of International Research, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

  1. Hold on to your science and analytical skills for as long as possible
  2. Publish
  3. Don’t worry about not hitting all criteria for job applications


Dr Kevin Wood (@drkevinwood) – Principal Research Officer, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust

  1. Research is a marathon not a sprint, so pace yourself
  2. Maximise the training opportunities that come your way
  3. Don’t be afraid to follow your interests even if they lead you away from your original research goals


Table 1 Grouping of advice themes. Numbers reflect the question number listed below the authors name


About the author

Cat Horswill is a research associate at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on investigating the mechanisms that regulate and determine the population dynamics of marine top predators. She has worked extensively on the population dynamics of temperate and polar species of seabird, and more recently on the life history profiles of tunas and sharks. She is currently a NSF and NERC funded post-doc (2016-2019) with the University of Glasgow, Rutgers University, University of California and Simon Fraser University, in collaboration with Jason Matthiopoulos, Holly Kindsvater, Marc Mangel, Nick Dulvy and Maria Jose Juan Jorda, working to develop a cross taxa method that combines incomplete and multi-species datasets in order to reconstruct full life-history profiles for data-limited populations. Cat is also a member of the BOU Engagement Committee, as Conference Support Officer.
View Cat’s website
Follow Cat on Twitter @catrsw

Blog posts express the views of the individual author(s) and not those of the BOU.

If you want to write about your research in #theBOUblog, then please see here.

Find us on . . .

Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | Weibo