“Hurray for more honest, encouraging, ‘human’ and hands-on training!”

This was a testimonial from one of the delegates at an event I ran last weekend in central London at the University Women’s Club*. Under the umbrella of the Female Researcher Network (FeRN), which started in 2014, the event was designed for early career scientists & engineers (graduates, MSc, PhD students and Post-Docs too!) to learn about employability, and making decisions on future career steps. The event was in collaboration with the British Federation of Women Graduates (BFWG), and proved to be a landmark occasion for their organisation as male students were invited too! FeRN is an initiative to improve diversity, collaboration and outreach in STEM – and an important part of building diversity is ensuring that all gender identities are at the table.

Attendees talked to recruitment professionals from London Business School (LBS), got help on CVs or cover letters, and listened to advice from speakers in industry, academia and business. It was also an opportunity to learn about funding opportunities for early career researchers, and placements across different sectors.

As a PhD student myself, my aim was to bring together speakers who would provide honest and accessible insights into their career journey. We did this not through an hour-long lectures in a seminar room; but in a shorter, informal and engaging sessions that enabled dialogue, group discussion and open questioning. This applied to the workshops as well, and we were very lucky to have the support of Heather White (Networking Architect and CEO of Smarter-Networking), Michele Asbury (LBS) and Sarae Pratt (b-elastic) who all led wonderful sessions during the day.

To summarise the excellent talks from our speakers:

Our keynote speaker was Prof Alex Blakemore, Head of Life Sciences and Brunel University. Alex’s unconventional career journey was inspiring, as she overcame both personal and workplace challenges to become a leader in her field.

Dr Jack Hannam (Senior Research Fellow in Cranfield University’s Soil & Agrifood Institute) gave us her advice on making the most now, and striving to find the best opportunities.

This also resonated in Margaret Ajibode’s talk (IET Women’s Network & General Secretary of INWES), who reflected on her own experiences in leaving engineering in academia and industry to set up her own business.

In addition to career perspectives, this event was about networking. Students of nearly 20 nationalities and from 8 different universities were in attendance (including UCL, Kent, Cranfield and Leuven). It was clear that getting early career researchers from across many different disciplines and campuses to discuss employability challenges that we all face (and learning together) was an important part of the day. I firmly believe that building effective networks is essential. There are many individuals without which this event itself would not have been possible. As well as the speakers, facilitators, and organisations already mentioned, much of the advice and support (admin or emotional!) comes from my network. So at this point I’m going to take the opportunity to say a huge thank you to Aisha Alsawaf (VP, BFWG) and Theresa Smyth (Employability Education Manager, Cranfield) for your patience and enthusiasm.

Networking is a two way street, and we are in a privileged position to reach out to new professionals and collaborators, as well as be mentors ourselves to support the STEM skills pipeline.

As well as the resounding notion of “more please” from all attendees, there was a consensus that that the programme for the day was contrived by someone who is the target audience. We as students need to feed back information into university training centres to ensure that we get the training we want and need to prevail in the workplace. Universities are aware that the training needs of today’s early career researchers have changed, and are working hard towards creating structured and robust doctoral colleges and training centres that fulfil these needs. However, this does admittedly take some time – and we need this training now.

My advice is, if you feel that a particular type of training you need is not being provided by your workplace or any other organisations that you may belong to – tell them, network and bring together professionals in academia (and beyond) that can. You will be surprised how much help and support you will get!



*Thank you to Dr Elizabeth Poskitt and Dr Gloria Banner for sponsoring and securing the venue