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Career planning and support

Discover how we can provide the support you need to plan and develop your career in research. 

  • What is an early career researcher (ECR)?
    For SoARs purposes we use the term ECR as shorthand to indicate our focus and type of individuals who might expect support from SoAR, and form the primary target for our activities. SoAR’s community of health-related researchers includes nurses, midwives, allied health professionals, doctors, pharmacists, biomedical research scientists and healthcare, behavioural, social and health data scientists. An ECR in the eyes of SoAR is any individual who is not yet an independent researcher/leader, and therefore includes anyone who is progressing up to, and including, the first 4 MRC phases. Namely Pre Doctoral, Doctoral, Immediate post-doctoral and Transition to Independent Researcher. Further detail: SoAR was formed to support health-related researcher career development across the Southampton partnership (i.e. between UHS and UoS (specifically FoM and SHS). It aims to support the development of all health-related researchers, and in particular nurture our Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and existing staff who wish to initiate (or re-establish) a research-related career. The term health-related researcher includes nurses, midwives, allied health professionals, doctors, pharmacists, healthcare scientists and behavioural, social, health data and biomedical research scientists. There is no one single accepted definition of what constitutes an ECR. This differs across various organisations for example research councils, the Research Excellence Framework and higher education institutions. The UK Research Councils and the Research Excellence Framework in the past suggested an ECR be determined by the length of time since the individual completed their PhD, for example: Those with a doctorate who had their doctoral viva not more than 5 years from the application closing date - Leverhulme. A maximum of four years’ academic research experience following the completion of their PhD, or be of equivalent professional standing - AHRC. But ECRs are not a homogenous group, they come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, not to mention disciplines, and these definitions are rather rigid, could sustain inequalities of opportunity, and fail to encapsulate our diverse research, academic and clinical community. Increasingly a temporal approach to defining ECRs, i.e. having doctoral/post-doctoral status for a defined period of time, is being abandoned as the main way of characterising this group (see this blog from the perspective of a radiographer and this blog by our own Kim Meeking). SoAR, in line with a number of other organisations and the Vitae Researcher Development Framework, considers researcher development to be on a continuum and consist of five phases (critical career steps) referred to as: Pre-doctoral Doctoral Immediate post-doctoral Transition to independent researcher Transition to leadership This aligns with the MRC career framework stages: education (bursaries and MSc courses), training (PhD fellowships), consolidation, exploration, progression, independence and leadership.
  • Who can I talk to if I have questions about how I might progress my research career?
    There are several sources of information and advice. You might have questions like; when might be the best time to make my next career move? What kind of move might I make next? What should I be doing now to put me in the best position to make a move in a year’s time? What local career opportunities are available? This all depends on your individual circumstances and what you want to explore and find answers to, as to who might be in the best position to give you advice. You might want to talk to more than one person. These include: Your manager Your supervisor (if you are registered for an undergraduate or post graduate degree, or already in receipt of a fellowship) Academic career development leads Your mentor A senior academic SoAR early career researcher champions Career frameworks map out different career pathways. They illustrate the range of opportunities available at different points of a career and often describe the behaviours, knowledge, skills and/or qualifications required. The Researcher Development Framework (RDF) is a professional development framework for researchers in higher education. It articulates the knowledge, behaviours and attributes of successful researchers, helping them to realise their potential.
  • How do I get started if I am thinking about applying for a research training award?
    There are a range of fellowships available from organisations e.g. National Institute of Health Research (NIHR), the research councils (like Medical Research Council (MRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)) charities (e.g. Cancer Research UK, British Heart Foundation, Dunhill Medical Trust) and professional organisations (e.g. Florence Nightingale Foundation, The Physiotherapy Research Foundation. Fellowships are intended to provide training and career development opportunities for individuals who wish to pursue a research career. Doctoral fellowships are designed for individuals to undertake a higher degree. You will need to investigate eligibility criteria carefully including: stage of academic career, whether they pay salary costs or a stipend, target professional group(s), type of research funded, whether the application is made by an individual or by prospective supervisor. Specifically, The NIHR Fellowship Programme supports individuals on their trajectory to becoming future leaders in NIHR research. The four fellowships are designed to support individuals at various points of their development in becoming leading researchers, from initial pre-doctoral training to senior post-doctoral research. Pre-Doctoral Fellowship Development and Skills Enhancement Award Doctoral Fellowship Advanced Fellowship These fellowships buy out salary costs, meet training and development costs, and also contribute to the research costs needed to complete an identified research project. As well as potential funding sources, other important considerations to the research question you might address are; who would constitute an appropriate supervisor, which institution might host the award and when might be the right time to apply. People you might wish to talk to if you are considering developing an application and to find out what it involves include: NIHR infrastructure Academic career development leads. The Programme officer for a particular fellowship scheme. Contact details will usually be found on the webpages that detail a particular award. Others at your institution who have experience in applying for a fellowship. The most important thing is to plan ahead. It is never too early to start thinking about an application. It generally takes at least 6 months to prepare an application of the necessary quality. There also will be other aspects you need to pay attention to besides the research project. These include looking at aspects that will put you ahead of the pack like; presenting at conferences, contributing to research projects, prizes and awards, publications. These facets demonstrate your commitment to a research career and your standing in the research community appropriate to the stage of your career. Additionally, NIHR Research Design Service (RDS) – South Central, based at Southampton General Hospital also run workshops and will be happy to arrange one to one appointments to advise about applying for a NIHR training award and lots more. The University of Southampton has developed a fellowship support guide. Please note: If you are considering making an application you should submit an Expression of Interest to the University of Southampton or University Hospital Southampton, depending on who is your current employer at least 6 months before applying.
  • Why is a mentor recommended and how do I go about finding one?
    Someone once said “The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves”. Some of the reasons why a mentor is a must for people wishing to achieve success in their career include: Mentors can provide you with information and knowledge relevant to your own personal circumstances Mentors can often see where you might need to improve, when you might not Mentors find ways to stimulate your personal and professional growth Mentor offer encouragement and help to keep moving forward or consider a change of direction Mentors are sounding boards you can bounce idea off them for an unfiltered opinion Mentors have experiences you can learn from Mentors are trusted advisors Mentors can connect you to people you might not otherwise have the opportunity to meet Mentors are free which makes them priceless in more ways than one Who you might approach to act as a mentor is a personal choice. Think about what you might be looking for from a mentor. Mentoring brings mutual benefits. A mentor might agree to take you under their wing for the personal satisfaction that it brings. They may be delighted to give something back after having received similar positive support themselves earlier in their career. There are several ways by which you might source a mentor: Schemes run by external organisations, like the Academy of Medical Sciences Schemes run by the University of Southampton Ask one of the SoAR training leads (email If you are a NIHR BRC Academy Member see here If you have an award from the NIHR School for Primary care see here If you have an award from the NIHR Southampton BRC or NIHR ARC Wessex ask the Academic Career Development Lead for suggestions Pluck up the courage and just ask someone In looking for a mentor, it is important to be clear what you want, find someone you want to be like, and equally (if not more importantly) find someone you like! Remember that while a mentor can offer you invaluable advice and perspectives, they are not there to make your choices for you. A good mentor will leave you feeling empowered, encouraging you to take full responsibility for your own career decisions and the consequences that come with them.
  • How do I work out if I am eligible to apply for an award from the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) Training & Development Fund?
    The eligibility criteria are included as part of the application guidance. You do not have to hold or be in a post funded by the BRC, although these individuals do take priority. In the event there were more applications deemed suitable than funds available, those in BRC funded post would be prioritised. Essentially, you are eligible if you meet one or more of the following criteria You are in receipt of a BRC funded fellowship You are employed in a post funded by the BRC You are undertaking research that aligns with and is connected in some way to the BRC’s strategic objectives You are an employee of either University Hospital Southampton or University of Southampton If you remain in any doubt, contact one of the BRC academic career development leads or our team and they will be able to help you determine if you are eligible. It's always better to ask than to miss out!
  • I am not sure who is funding my PhD fellowship. How do I find out?
    In our experience, the people who most often ask this question are individuals who have applied and been awarded a fellowship advertised through the university or the Trust. The most likely person to know who provides the funding for your fellowship is your supervisor, so it is best to start there. Also, look carefully at your letter of award for clues as to who the funder(s) might be. The most common sources of funding for a PhD are: National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Medical Research Council (MRC) A national or local charity A pharmaceutical or other commercial organisation A university an NHS Trust If having spoken to your supervisor you still remain unsure and/or confused, the school or faculty where you are registered for your PhD will usually have a record of the funding source. Multiple funding sources Sometimes a fellowship can have more than one funding source. The cost of a PhD is expensive and thus costs can be split between different funders. Funds pooled from a variety of sources by your supervisory team in order to support the costs of a fellowship are often referred to as PI funds or services rendered accounts. Sometimes an award is made to a supervisor in order to appoint a PhD fellow to undertake a specific research project on the understanding the supervisory team also contribute a proportion of costs from another source, an arrangement called co-funding. Some of the PhD fellowships in the NIHR Southampton BRC and NIHR ARC Wessex are offered to supervisors on this basis. It is important to understand who funds your fellowship so you can appropriately acknowledge your funding source(s). For example, sources of funding need to be acknowledged on any publications that result from your fellowship and when giving a conference presentation. It is often a condition of an award that appropriate acknowledgement is given. Many funders have specific statements they ask are used to make clear who funded the work, and take a very dim view if individuals fail to acknowledge the funder(s). Elements of costs included in a fellowship can include: salary or stipend, PhD fees, costs associated with undertaking the research, conference attendance, open access fees, additional training and development. Because a fellowship ‘package’ can vary quite considerably in terms of what provision is made for these various items we advise people to carefully clarify at the point of making an application what will be covered. This will help to avoid misunderstanding and disappointment later and help you weigh up if this is the right kind of fellowship for you. It is also useful at the start of your fellowship to establish with your supervisors, and where relevant the Finance department responsible for administering the fellowship award, exactly what funds are available, how these can be used, if they have to be used in a specific time period and procedures for reimbursement.
  • I have had a grant application rejected. What support is available to help me learn from the experience and have better success next time?
    Whilst it is hugely disappointing to have an application rejected, this is exactly the right attitude to have. You will only improve your chances of success by examining any feedback received, reflecting on the experience and making a plan to increase chances of success next time. Unfortunately, rejections will happen – both in your personal life and your professional life. When it comes to applying for grants, rejections can be particularly dejecting. But a “no” from a potential funder doesn’t have to be the end of the process. Don’t take it personally. They rejected your proposal – not you. Pursuing a research career can make you feel isolated at times, so remember the SoAR office and Early Career Research champions can put you in touch with others in similar positions. Here are our top recommendations on what you should do with a rejection letter from a funder: If you did not receive any, request a copy of the reviewer’s comments. Ask the funder if you can resubmit in the next funding cycle and how you might strengthen your proposal. Research the competition. Learn from the strengths of other proposals and try to apply that to your grant writing. Seriously consider resubmission, lots of people enjoy success after repeated attempts. Get advice from the NIHR Research Design Service if you are applying to an NIHR scheme. Ask for another set of eyes. Approach a senior academic to look over your application and make suggestions on how to revise or reshape an application based on the feedback. If the application is for a training/career development fellowship, make an appointment with one of the SoAR academic career development leads. Consider undertaking some feasibility or pilot work or a literature review to underpin the work. Reconsider the team who make up the project team (including supervisors and advisors if for a fellowship of some kind). Is there someone with an essential skill set missing who would add credibility and give panel and reviewers more confidence? The team includes people with all the necessary experience to conduct the project to a high standard. Reconsider the funder. Does the research you are proposing fit firmly within remit and stated priorities of the funder? Some funding schemes (like NIHR Research for Patient Benefit programme) regularly make available Chair’s reports. These summarise observations on the most frequent mistakes applicants make, and set out the areas to pay attention to when making a new application. Discuss your experience with your mentor and get their help to formulate a plan to improve your chances next time. We wish we could tell you that you will receive a successful award letter for every grant you submit. Sadly, that isn’t reality. However, how you handle the rejection will make a big difference. We have had our fair share of rejection letters, but getting that one successful reward letter makes it all worthwhile. Take a deep breath and follow the steps above.
  • How can I get to know people who are in a position like mine, and at a similar point in their career?"
    Contact us and we will be able to put you in touch with people in similar positions to your own. Our Early Career Researcher Champions are keen to hear from you. They also hold events designed for you to meet people, network and learn from each other.
  • How do I learn more about doing my own research and developing a research career?
    Please contact us to talk to a member of our team. We also have regular drop in advice clinics you might find useful. Please remember at this stage it is not necessary to have a research question or firm idea about the project you would like to do. Most important is your enthusiasm for and interest in research, and a desire to develop your skills and knowledge with the aim to improve patient care or population health.
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