Advice for early- and mid-career researchers from a diverse thinker (and doer)

The following is based on Natalie Chapman’s keynote address at the most recent EMCR Forum Science Pathways 2018: Diversify your thinking.

I love my job. I am fortunate to be able to help some of Australia’s most inspiring researchers and innovators to improve lives and build new knowledge-based industries. The path that led me here included plenty of ups, downs along the way. To find my way, I’ve had to diversify and redirect my thinking many times.

If you’re an EMCR who’s considering changing direction and wondering how to reach your desired destination, then the following four tips gained from my successes and failures may help you:

Tip 1. Value experience over qualifications

During the Honours year of my science degree, I realised that I didn’t want to work in a lab for the rest of my life and wondered: Had I wasted four years by choosing the wrong tertiary training?

The idea that you train for one job and stay in it for life is a very old school notion.

In today’s world, you can expect to change jobs 12 to 15 times before the age of 40.

I’ve had 12 jobs with nine employers. Although my degree is part of the foundations on which I’ve built my career, my diverse work experience has been more critical to my success.

I worked at KFC for seven years while studying. After graduating, I scored a short-term contract in a chemistry lab at the University of Wollongong, as a demonstrator and tutor. I discovered that I really enjoyed communicating with people about science. Then a job came up in the marketing department of UOW, promoting university courses to school leavers. They wanted a graduate ­– with any degree – and would prefer someone with experience managing a team and be presenting to large groups. My experience as a KFC Store Manager, directing teams and working with customers, won me the role.

If you’re interested in applying for jobs outside your core research area, understand your full skill set and communicate it. Your valuable skills may come from part-time or volunteer work, internships, overseas exchanges, team sports, or any other life experience. A qualification can tick a box on a job application, but there are many other factors that determine whether you are the best candidate.

Tip 2. Develop a flexible, ‘can do’ attitude

What sort of people do you like to work with or manage? Those who just get on and do it, making your life easier, or constant whingers who say it can’t be done?

I hire people who fit with my company’s values – flexibility, quality and customer focus ­– and who can think on their feet, solve problems, and communicate well with customers. I’m far more interested in the experience and attitude they bring to the team, than in how many letters come after their name, or the level they’ve reached in an academic hierarchy.

Tip 3. Embrace life-long learning

Some professions, including academia, have a standard career path that you can follow without much consideration. But if you think a better future may lie in a different direction, how do you get off the beaten track and onto an alternative path?

New paths require new proficiencies, so take every opportunity to expand and update your knowledge and skills. This means moving out of your comfort zone and onto a learning curve, which usually descends into a pit of despair as you realise how little you know. Discomfort is a normal part of learning, so get used to it. The best way out of the pit is up the long slope towards mastery.

When I joined the marketing department at UOW, I started my Masters degree in marketing. From my studies and through relentless questioning of my colleagues, I learnt about event management and sponsorship, database management, web design, newsletter editing and graphic design. When I later worked at ANSTO, I offered marketing assistance to all the different research groups on site and consequently learnt about other fields of research, as well as all the stages of commercialisation, from idea through to licensing or spin-off company.  I continued to put my hand up for new, challenging projects and so was part of the successful $100m tender bid to operate the Australian Synchrotron, for example.

Another underrated way to increase your capabilities (and networks) is by volunteering for organisations/causes. As a volunteer, I’ve edited the Materials Australia Magazine, managed online media for the Southern Strength Manufacturing Association, acted as a business mentor for TechGirls are Superheroes, guided marketing strategy for Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia, and supported the Parents and Citizens Associations at my children’s school. This breadth of experience and networking underpins the success of my business.

Tip 4. Bounce back from adversity

The media focuses on ‘overnight’ success stories. In reality, rejection happens often, to everyone; we don’t get jobs or promotions, we miss out on funding, or we might be made redundant. It’s how you deal with these failures that counts. I try to learn from my mistakes and move on from disappointment by telling myself that ‘something better was meant to be’. It usually turns out to be true.

For example, early in my career, I was made redundant after only 11 months in a role. The loss of self-esteem and the financial stress were hell. Once I’d finished crying and venting my anger, I put my pride aside and realised that I had been given time: to accelerate my postgrad studies, to be with my daughter, and to carefully consider what I wanted to do next. Then I tapped back into my networks and found a better job. This experience has also made me mindful to hire people at the right time and grow my business sustainably, so they have stable employment.

Apply for promotions and positions outside your comfort zone – don’t wait until you have 100% of the selection criteria. As an employer, my selection criteria are a wish list. It’s rare to find someone with everything I want, so I compromise and take the best candidate and they always have a can-do attitude.

You’ll be rejected. It’s never fun. But you have zero chance of success if you don’t put yourself out there, and you never know where failure might lead. I didn’t know that KFC + a chemistry degree + enjoying talking to people + redundancy would set me on a path to founding an award-winning technology commercialisation company that helps take Australian innovations to global markets.

For those of you contemplating where you might go in your career and how to get there, start by asking yourself: What do I love doing? Then move towards that by seizing every opportunity to gain relevant experience and knowledge, develop a ‘can do’ attitude and build your resilience.

Recommended Read: How to turn your research career into a launch pad to alternative worlds of employment