I am a basic research scientist, studying how the cells of our immune system detect and respond to pathogen-infected cells. Using new approaches to explore this important question at the molecular level has driven my research career over the last 13 years, from starting my PhD to becoming an independent group leader recently. Although the path from university to postdoc is reasonably clear and established, the latter transition from postdoctoral researcher to an independent position is not always well guided or supported. This is an important and critical milestone in anyone’s research career but it is also a time of great uncertainty about how to achieve this change of roles, with many scientists ending up doing both jobs to try to get ahead! For me, this was compounded by having done my postdoctoral work in the US, where the move to independence is quite different to the UK, so I had little frame of reference to other postdocs in the lab.
Finding that this sense of apprehension on how to make the transition to independence was a common theme for scientists in Cambridge when I arrived home, a group of us thought it would be important to help organise some form of support network to alleviate some of this concern. We now have an informal group of researchers within the Clinical School at a similar career stage who have formed a peer-support network. We have set up an email network, where questions or problems are posed to the group and solutions sought either from our peers or, if needed, from more senior people within the Clinical School. We also meet once a term to discuss topics that we feel are important to our career progression both within Cambridge and in the wider scientific community. In addition, we organise career development and social events at least once a term, the last one being an Elevator Pitch session where we listened and provided constructive feedback to each other’s brief research snapshots. In feedback from these sessions individuals have commented that their confidence to apply for senior fellowships has increased, so we know we are providing much needed support. This is enabled by the backing provided by the Clinical School who support us with administrative assistance and catering for our events.
One of the largest developments to come out of the network has been the implementation of the Clinical School Mentoring Programme (mentoring.medschl.cam.ac.uk). When we surveyed the network to assess how they felt they could be best supported, the need for mentors was by far the most predominant request. As a result the Clinical School initiated a Mentoring Programme for ‘mid-career’ researchers. Many of us have now been matched with some of the ~100 senior researchers who agreed to be mentors.
This career support network has been invaluable as an opportunity to meet other researchers within and across our departments who we may not normally interact with, helping to foster potential new collaborations and friendships. The arrival of my first child has also made the network very useful for navigating the other potential issues of supporting career and family successfully!