Formerly: a Postdoctoral researcher in the Institute of Bioengineering
Currently: a Senior Lecturer in Biological Sciences, Department of Biosciences and Chemistry, Sheffield Hallam University
This is first in a series of Career Transition pieces, where I chronicle the career moves made by QMUL researchers in a series of three interviews when they begin, at 3 months and finally, at 6 months after starting their new post.
Dr Nicholas Peake began his second postdoctoral research post in 2011, with the Chowdhury group at QMUL’s Institute for Bioengineering. He started his research career in immunology and progressed on to inflammation and rheumatology as a postdoc. After 10 years as a postdoc, Peake began to consider his options in academic research. Like many postdocs with that level of experience, Nick had a decent publishing record, with several first-author publications, but no real funding or teaching track record to speak of. Nick’s strategy was to pursue a lectureship in a middle-tier university in the UK as he was concerned that his track record wouldn’t make him competitive enough for a position in a research-intensive institution.
When he began applying around, he noticed that there seemed to be a fair number of teaching and research posts amongst the former polytechnics. He assumed, “that it was a given that [he] would get a position like that”, given his research CV. This would prove to be a depressing and eye-opening experience for Peake, as the institutions he had assumed he would be a shoo-in for weren’t responding to his applications with the zeal he’d hoped they would. “I applied for tonnes of positions. I asked for feedback on tonnes of [applications]. I didn’t get a lot of feedback, I didn’t get a lot of interviews […] I wasn’t getting interviews at places that I didn’t think were particularly high-ranking universities […] I was looking for job security. I was prepared to do research on a part-time basis. I was prepared to do teaching. I needed stability for my family. But not getting anywhere was soul-destroying. It was very very unnerving.”
Reflecting back on that time, he admits to a certain naïveté, assuming that his publication record would cover for his lack of lecturing and teaching experience.
Then several things happened that would begin to open some academic doors for Nick. While his group leader went on maternity leave, he was given the opportunity to lead a Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine course that she ran. This meant gaining practical experience in organising an undergraduate module, coordinating the lab practical sessions and becoming more familiar with the inner workings of the teaching side to university life, including all of the inherent structures and bureaucracy. While initially “nerve-racking”, this experience would bolster Peake’s confidence in lecturing and academic leadership. Secondly, he applied for his first small research grant as a burgeoning independent researcher in collaboration with researchers at the University of Southampton and got it. Finally, that same collaboration published some work, giving rise to his first publication as a senior author. With these key academic milestones achieved, he could begin to apply and interview for lecturer positions from a more confident and experienced perspective.
When Nick first applied for a lectureship at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU), he made it as far as the first interview stage, but didn’t yet have his funding, or his senior-author publication. However shortly following that, another post was advertised at SHU, which seemed that it would be a good fit, given Peake’s expertise.
This is another factor that some early-career researchers overlook when applying for their first lecturing posts: the fit of your skills and expertise with those of the department. From Nick’s job search, he noted that job descriptions could be written vaguely, allowing the departments some “wiggle room” in terms of desirable expertise. “They almost always specify that they are looking for someone that fits into their departmental interests, whether that’s the lecturing series that they are wanting someone to take responsibility for, or whether it’s a research area that fits with their strengths. […] It was down to you to sell yourself as the person who fits with what they are looking for, and that’s hard. My first instinct in interviewing and not being offered a position is to assume that […] it’s my fault; where did I go wrong? Sometimes it’s not like that. Sometimes it’s about seeing whether you fit with what they are looking for.”
Selling yourself to a perspective academic department requires looking into their research outputs, their staff and infrastructure, and their teaching ethos and programmes. “Before you get a foot through the door at interview, in your application form, [consider] who do you see there that you could work with? What skills and equipment could you take advantage of? What courses do they offer […] that I would be highly suited for?” Armed with this information you can begin to understand where you may fit in, as the prospective new addition to the group: who potential collaborators could be? What courses in their prospectus do you possess the knowledge and experience to potentially teach?
These themes of selling himself as a candidate, his skills as a lecturer, and demonstrating the fit of his research interests within department featured prevalently in his first interview for his senior lecturer’s post at SHU. For his second interview, he was asked to speak for 15 minutes about an aspect of his research as if he were delivering an undergraduate lecture. Peake was reminded of exactly how much work he put into those 15 minutes. “I decided to take a gamble and I decided to be kooky and thought it might blow up in my face but [as] lectures can be dry and boring, I decided to try to brighten things up a bit. I focused on the extracellular matrix, and subtitled it ‘More complicated than we first thought it was’.” Including graphics and references from the film ‘The Matrix’ in his presentation, Peake chose the subject because it gave him a platform from which to deliver a message in addition to information related to the subject matter. The extracellular matrix is a component that provides biochemical and structural support to cells in tissues. It’s a subject, like many in science that was initially judged to be less important and complex than it actually is in tissue maintenance, development and disease—a metaphor that Nick liked because of the wonder he feels when his work reveals a little of life’s complexities. These added extras and his this sense of wonder and passion for his work, help to engage an audience in a lecture setting; tricks he had picked up in the previous year in organising the regenerative medicine course. This was all part of what he hoped to communicate to the interview panel, and it would seem he was successful. Dr Nicholas Peake began as a Senior Lecturer in Biological Sciences at SHU in October of 2015.
I finished off this first interview by asking Nick to give advice to postdocs in the same position he was in at the beginning of his search, before the teaching and funding opportunities happened. “People should put more thought into where they want to wind up, and the skills necessary to make that next step. When you’re on a temporary postdoctoral contract, [eventually] that temporary postdoctoral contract will come to an end and you’ll need to have already laid the groundwork for that next step. So I would encourage people to do that.”