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4 tips to get your dream job in research

Three research pros who love their work offer their advice on finding a position that works for you

Clockwise from left: Alison Cotton, PhD, Polly Comptson, PhD, and Dr. Duncan Casey
Clockwise from left: Alison Cotton, PhD, Polly Comptson, PhD, and Dr. Duncan Casey

For some, a dream job is about about working with cutting-edge research. For others, it’s the day-to-day difference they can make in the lives of others. It may be about solving practical problems, or delving into deeply theoretical research. We asked three people in the research community who recently shared their dream job with us what advice they would give to others.

1. Innovate like a start-up.

Dr. Duncan Casey attends a presentation at the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials.

As an Industry Fellow in the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials (BCFN) and a visiting lecturer at Imperial College London, Dr. Duncan Casey connects industry to academia. Many of the students from his PhD cohort will go on to form their own start-ups, and he has some advice for making a success of that.

Unless you’ve got Apple’s marketing budget, you can’t sell shiny tech to people who don’t need it – so find out what people want and then go make it. Start from the problem people are having, find out what the challenges are, and then see what you can do to solve it. Look around where you are at the moment. If there’s something around that bugs you, fix it – don’t accept something that’s rubbish.

From there, Dr. Casey explained, finding backing is not so difficult. “Raising £300,000 straight away to make a product is hard, but raising the first £50,000 to build a proof of concept is pretty easy – you may be surprised at the amount of ‘fail fast, fail cheap money,’ – and because you’ve spend time identifying a problem that needs solving, it backers will get behind your idea.”

Read about Duncan Casey’s work inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs.

2. Get networking.

Polly Compston, Research Coordinator for Brooke, in Afghanistan (Photo courtesy of Brooke)

“If you know what you want to do, do everything you can to meet people who do it already,” says Polly Compston, Research Coordinator for Brooke, an international charity that protects and improves the lives of horses, donkeys and mule:

Those people can give you advice as to how to get into the work you’re interested in. If you put yourself in a community – whether online or through meetings and conferences – and find people who understand what you want to do it can make a huge difference. Those are the people who can really help you achieve your goals.

Read about Polly’s work improving animal welfare in communities worldwide.

3. “Think outside the academic box.”

Dr. Alison Cotton observes the African penguins – an endangered species – at the Bristol Zoological Society.

Dr. Alison Cotton, a Lecturer in Conservation Science at the Bristol Zoological Society, advises that it’s not always about doing research. She teaches undergraduate students from three universities and heads the zoo’s South Africa Project to save endangered African penguins.

Sometimes it pays to think outside the obvious academic box for jobs. There can be non-traditional research and teaching opportunities in different places, which can provide a unique working environment. To get there, skill-mapping can be a useful tool to identify key areas that might need to be improved in order to land your dream job or allow you to map your skills to identify a particular job you hadn’t thought about before.

Read about Alison’s work.

4. To find meaning, think small.

For many people, a dream job is about being able to make a difference, whether that’s through building a new type of medical dressing, improving the lives of animals, or building prosthetics for Paralympians. Making a big difference, however, can often mean thinking small, as Dr. Casey points out:

My advice to people wanting a role that means something is to pick a project where your role will make a difference. If you join a huge consumer goods company as chemist 436 in a project that’s a back-up for a back-up, you may find it difficult to motivate yourself, unless you really do just like cooking chemicals. If you do – fair enough. But if you know that your output is critical to the success of the product, you have a real motivator. That typically means joining a small company, or a small squad in a larger company. After all, as the saying goes, small groups of determined people are the only agency by which the world is changed.

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