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Thing 11: What if I could? Career Development for Researchers

Updated: Apr 18

Rana Marrington, Researcher Careers & Employability Consultant, University of Surrey

Yvonne Gaut, Graduate Career Coach, University of Otago

a model of a treehouse with two stairs by Donaghy & Diamond Architects
Treehouse or House with Two Stairs: an experiment in whole life dwelling (Donaghy & Diamond Architects, RA Summer Exhibition, London 2021) 

Mā te whakarongo, ka mōhio, mā te mōhio, ka mārama, mā te mārama, ka matau, mā te matau, ka ora.   

Through listening, comes knowledge, through knowledge, comes understanding, through understanding, comes wisdom, through wisdom, comes wellbeing. 

The journey of development as a researcher, experienced as a journey of intellectual and personal growth, is encapsulated in the above Whakataukī, Māori proverb. The pathway from listening to wisdom, can be a guiding light, illuminating the way toward a flourishing and enriching career.   

However, it has been a tough year of global shifts, with disruption caused by, for example, conflict, AI, and the challenges universities are experiencing adapting to and managing change.  Competitive environments have always caused shifts, whether it is people who need to change or organisations that need to transform themselves. Nothing stays the same. It is easy to be distracted by these events and to allow external pressures to divert us from personal and professional development.  It can be challenging sometimes, faced with the ups and downs of research and the precarity of postdoc careers, to sustain focus on longer-term goals. 

What originally motivated you to engage with 23 Things International?   The desire to improve digital literacies and harness appropriate tools to support your research?  Or was it the opportunity to expand your network? Are you hoping to build skills to enhance career progression?  Is there a feeling that you may be at an impasse in your career and doing something different might stimulate ideas?  We suspect we are preaching to the converted when we promote the benefits of taking time out from core research tasks to invest in professional development, but this year we want to highlight the extent to which engagement in extracurricular activities adds value to career capital, the personal and professional resources which support progression.  This concept is illustrated in the Career Capital Portfolio framework below. It is based on research into factors contributing towards career progression for business leaders but can be applied to research careers (Hooley et al, 2020): 

An illustration of the career capital portfolio conceptualised in Hooley et al, 2020. The capitals are: human capital and cultural capital, under knowing self and knowing how, and social capital, under knowing whom.
Career Capital Portfolio by Hooley et al, 2020

You can use this career model as a foundation for evaluation and planning. If you would like support to work out where you are in the three areas in the model, discuss with a mentor, supervisor, or career coach to identify strengths and areas for further development.

What do you enjoy doing?  What do you hope to achieve?  It is a privilege earned through honing researcher skills and specialist knowledge that, driven by personal values, you can be ambitious both for yourself and in relation to broader societal and economic goals, even contributing directly to the 17 UN sustainability goals (101 jobs that change the world – UKRI). The skills developed whilst doing a doctorate and consolidated by post-doc research are transferable to a broad range of contexts. However, it is additional skills development and investment in building professional networks that can make a key difference in terms of the ability to perform at a high level and across functions to ease progression to senior roles and influential appointments.  

In the past we have focussed on self-assessment, looking inwards to inspire career planning and establish goals (Thing 15: The Career Necessities), and looking outwards to identify and access opportunities (Thing 19: Planning your Career).  The glue that binds these things together, that facilitates the journey, is professional development activity. If you have an ambitious goal, it may not be achievable immediately, but if you put the appropriate scaffolding in place, step-by-step experience and skills accumulate to position you for the role you aspire to.  It is important to acknowledge that we do not all start from the same position. If you are from a less advantaged background you may want to take advantage of opportunities aimed to broaden participation and combat systemic inequalities (e.g. 10,000 Interns Foundation) 


Wellbeing in the realm of a research career transcends conventional measures of success and resides intricately balanced between professional achievement and personal fulfilment.  Achievement and job satisfaction are not always founded on status and influence - many researchers choose to prioritise factors such as stability, family, relationships, and work-life balance in their careers.  Participation in extracurricular activities does not have to be entirely instrumentally aimed only at strengthening the CV.  Opening oneself up to new experiences and following passions can lead to unexpected synergies and outcomes as explained in planned happenstance theory, which promotes the benefits of chance encounters and experiences (The Happenstance Learning Theory - John D. Krumboltz, 2009).

In addition to expanding our networks new experiences can also expand our understanding of self and our capacities.  Self-knowledge is the foundation for career development as it helps us to be better prepared for what the world may throw at us in the future. Self-knowledge supports our well-being. Knowing how we behave in certain circumstances and reflecting on this is important to manage ourselves effectively and identify activities and environments where we will thrive. 

Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei.  

Seek the treasure you value most dearly: if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain.

Aim high for what is truly valuable, and meaningful for you.

two person standing on gray tile paving with the word 'passion led us here'. only the feet and parts of the legs of the people are visible.
Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

We compared notes on some of the activities researchers participate in at our institutions. You may be dedicating some of your time to reviewing journal articles, sitting on committees, organising events, working as a STEM ambassador as well as connecting with professional networks. In the UK, for example, postgraduate researchers can participate in programmes run by an organisation called The Brilliant Club where they are paid to run a series of tutorial sessions for school students – this provides an opportunity to explore ways of making research more accessible. The more adventurous can practise their presentation skills through comedy with the Bright Club where research meets stand up (You’re so hip, darling: Materials researchers do stand-up comedy; Startup Dunedin) or compete in the national Vitae Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition, for example.  Other opportunities include doing an international placement or developing enterprise skills. ECRs can consider a commercial fellowship. What examples can you give from your institution?

 In your pods ask each other: 

  • What activities energise you? 

  • What is the most meaningful part of your research?   

  • What new things beyond research would you like to try in the next 6 months?   

  • What are the milestones you need to reach to achieve your goal? 

  • Who would you want to be your mentor and why?  

  • How do you like to be recognized and celebrated for your accomplishments?   

Below is a sample of career tools.  Contact a careers coach at your university if you would like to discuss professional development in more depth and for more tailored resources. 

Explore career options 

Explore your values

The assessment on this platform, although targeted at social sciences and humanities researchers, can provide useful insights to researchers from other disciplines too: Welcome | ImaginePhD.  

Make use of the Lightcast library of 32,000 skills

You do not need access, just scroll down, and click on the red box related to your interests, then subcategories, and then skills, to lead to data on related job postings such as top companies, job titles, trends, and live job adverts to help identify who is hiring researchers. Lightcast, previously Broken Glass, specialise in labour market analytics. 

Career development tools

Further Support

Rana Marrington joined Surrey University in March 2019. She is a professionally qualified careers professional with extensive experience working out in the labour market and education with a broad range of adult clients, including professionals and managers from sectors ranging from engineering and IT to education and the arts, providing careers counselling and coaching and outplacement support.

Yvonne Gaut has worked at the University of Otago’s Career Development Centre as a career adviser since 2001. She has a Bachelor of Education (Teaching) as well as a Master of Career Development. She is passionate about the work she does to support the careers of the people she works with.

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