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A guiding light on the biomedical research career path

Professor Martin Humphries FMedSci, Academy Vice President (non-clinical) discusses how the MRCs new Interactive Career Framework can help shine a light on options at all stages of the biomedical researchers career path.

Join our twitter chat on this topic Finding your way with the MRC career tool” from 12.30 – 13.30 on 29th July 2015. Follow @acmedsci and tag comments with #MedSciLife


“I don’t know what my career options are, who to talk to about the options, or how to approach these individuals!”

This plea is a non-verbatim version of many comments I heard while gathering evidence for an internal Academy Task Force on Engaging with Early Career Researchers back in 2012. Specifically, the individuals that my group consulted across the UK identified a range of issues related to career guidance, including the need for information about how to progress in a non-clinical career, and gaps in career support and progression, such as advice on promotion at the institutional level. Participants also felt there was a significant need for greater inter-disciplinary collaboration, including promotion of clinical and non-clinical collaboration, and the desirability of researchers in medical sciences to work closely alongside industry and the NHS. Nevertheless, they were unclear how job transfers between academia and industry could be achieved.

Biomedical research remains an exciting career option to pursue. Like many other careers, success of course requires dedication and competitiveness, but it is frustrating to many that the career path is unclear and unstable. Successful navigation of the path would be facilitated by information about:

  • The full range of careers in biomedical research, as there is often a focus solely on the university academic career path.
  • The options available and choices that need to be made at different career transition points.
  • The qualifications, knowledge and skills needed to enter different paths at different points, and how to move between what may appear to be very different career tracks.

In theory, these points could be addressed by providing information about the spectrum of rewarding biomedical research careers across academia and industry and different roles capturing multiple career stages. Such information could also seek to expose the extremely varied range of paths taken by individuals, which can see them moving between sectors, and signpost careers outside of research. However, a lack of information is not the only, or even the main, reason a biomedical research career path may be unattractive: there are challenges for funding, job security and job opportunities in research, particularly in the PhD/post-doc/research group leader pathway.


Recent progress

The Academy is committed to this area. One of its strategic objectives is to nurture the next generation of biomedical researchers. It runs a Mentoring and Career Development programme, funded by the NIHR and the MRC. Very significantly, in May 2015, we secured agreement with the Wellcome Trust to initiate a new scheme of starter grants to support early career (non-clinical) Biomedical Scientists. The scope and logistics of this scheme are currently under discussion and we aim to issue the first call this autumn.

The objective of nurturing of the next generation is shared by other organisations in the sector, as outlined by the following examples.

  • The Wellcome Trust provides flexible support for women and men at all career stages. The Trust has refreshed its funding framework, and some of these changes impact directly on career planning. Changes include increasing funding for post-doctoral fellows; merging their New Investigator and Senior Investigator Award schemes into a single Investigator Award; new schemes such as SEED awards, to enable researchers to develop a novel idea to a position where they would be able to be competitive for a larger award; and new Collaborative Awards to provide groups of researchers with the support to pursue key research questions where a team effort is required.
  • The MRC has recently removed the time-bound criterion from its fellowship schemes and replaced it with a definition of the skills and experience applicants are expected to demonstrate at the time of their application.
  • The MRC has also carried out a review of next destinations to explore the career choices and barriers faced by non-clinical medical researchers in the first 10 to 20 years following their MRC-funded award, and a strategic skills review aimed at identifying vulnerable capabilities and skills within the UK bioscience and biomedical research base. The latter has identified key priority areas including quantitative skills, interdisciplinary skills and whole organism physiology (including training for research in vivo).


A new interactive career framework tool

One of the conclusions from my 2012 internal Academy Task Force was that the sector needed a toolkit that would operate as a ‘one-stop shop’ for earlier career researchers. We envisaged this toolkit being written as an evolving wiki and incorporating:

  • A framework for progression through academic career stages, including career pathway maps/networks
  • Real-life case studies of researchers to demonstrate successful (and unsuccessful) career pathways
  • Information on funding opportunities
  • Guidance on recruitment of staff, building a group, forming collaborations and media engagement
  • Information on who to contact for advice.

Fortunately, the Medical Research Council recently launched a resource that aligns closely with this concept. The Interactive Career Framework aims to help current or potential biomedical researchers at all career stages to identify the research career options available to them. The framework was created following informal consultation from a broad range of groups including the Academy, charities, industry, other Research Councils and the research community. It outlines a range of career routes including non-traditional career routes, such as careers for doctoral-qualified individuals who have specialist technical expertise, and real-life case studies of researchers to demonstrate successful career pathways. The tool also indicates where these structures are flexible and where there are alternative pathways (through technical competence, etc.).

The MRC is currently populating the framework with additional case studies, and a group of organisations (Academy of Medical Sciences, Wellcome Trust, Association of Medical Research Charities, National Institute for Health Research, and Royal Society) are now working together with the MRC to consider how to develop the tool into a shared resource kept up-to-date by a consortium of organisations, including a wider range of career paths and links to relevant funding opportunities at each stage. The aim is to create a ‘one-stop shop’ of links and information.

The MRC is pro-actively seeking feedback on the tool, and is dedicated to its ongoing development. We understand from the MRC that feedback on the first phase of the framework has been positive so far. We are keen for people to provide feedback directly to the MRC to inform further development of the framework. The MRC is also keen to think about developing an analogous tool for clinically-qualified researchers. A group has formed to develop this idea, including the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal College of Physicians (who recently produced and published a ‘research toolkit’ for clinicians) and the National Institute for Health Research.


#MedSciLife - join our twitter chat to share your views

In recent years, the Academy has held a number of careers-based Twitter ‘chats’. These have proven to be a useful way to raise the profile of an issue on social media, particularly in a target community, and to source opinion. We will be holding another chat on the new MRC interactive resource entitled “Finding your way with the MRC career tool” from 12.30 – 13.30 on 29th July 2015.

The purpose of the chat is to encourage you to use, share and provide feedback on the MRC online interactive career framework tool. As a starter, we will ask you to think about answers to the following questions:

  • What are your initial thoughts about the MRC online career framework tool? 
  • How useful is the overview of careers shown?
  • How useful are the career options shown?
  • How easy is it to find your current role on the framework?
  • How useful are the case studies featured in the MRC tool? 
  • Are there any career paths missing in the MRC tool? 
  • Are there any parts of the framework we can improve? 
  • Are there any career paths missing in the MRC tool?
  • What resources or websites have you found that have helped develop your career? 

Remember to follow @acmedsci and tag your comments with #MedSciLife


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