Mind Your Language: Managing career-related conversations with researchers

This is a Pathfinder Expert Voices post, by guest blogger Dr Holly Prescott, Researcher Careers Specialist, at the University of Birmingham

A close-up of a crossword showing "Choose your words"

“With my PI, there is this penalty for thinking about or going into industry…like, you are dead to me” (Hayter & Parker, 2019).

If I could choose one quote from my reading around researcher career development that’s stuck with me the most, I’d have to go for this one. This response from Hayter & Parker’s international survey of 180 research staff left me with endless questions. What had the Principal Investigator (PI) – this researcher’s manager, said? Was this messaging intentional? Surely none of us want to be ‘that’ manager… so how had this happened?

The paper cites other comments that I’ve heard from several postgraduate researchers (PGRs) and Research Staff in my own career guidance practice. Things like “If I need to go to a [non-academic career] workshop, I just lie…it’s easier that way,” and, “The [academic] culture looks down on jobs in industry […]. Like, you are at [a prestigious research university], why would you even consider anything else?” (Ibid.)

Thinking about these cues that researchers had picked up through interactions with their managers brought me back to something called Community Interaction Theory (Law, 1981). Fundamentally, this theory argues that our career choices are determined via messages we pick up within our community, be it through:

  1. Expectations, i.e. what our community(ies) deem to be ‘acceptable’
  2. Feedback from our community
  3. Support (or lack of support) received from our community
  4. Access to role models
  5. Our access to information and, importantly, where or who this information is coming from

As someone whose doctorate dabbled in narrative theory, what spoke to me when I put this research and theory together was something about language… the words that Research Staff might hear managers use in relation to career exploration that could convey certain expectations, feedback, and (lack of) support when it came to certain career choices.

It was driven by this that I devised a short training session “Managing Career Conversations with PGRs and Research Staff” for PGR supervisors and PIs. Several key learning points emerged from running this training: small yet significant things we can do to make sure that researchers don’t come away from career-related interactions with quite such a sense of existential dread.

1) Don’t ask ‘why’
Career guidance training recommends, nay, demands, that we avoid questions beginning with ‘why.’ ‘Why’ can feel accusatory and uncomfortable. Consider the quote above from the researcher who felt their career interests had been questioned: “Why would you consider that option?”. Instead, questions beginning with ‘what,’ ‘who’ or ‘how’ can open up the conversation without communicating value judgments. Examples include:

  • What are your thoughts about longer term career ideas?
  • How could you look into that? What or who could help you?
  • Who else could you talk to for support with next steps?

2) Don’t feel you need to be an ‘expert’
Open questions are also useful because they don’t put the onus on you to find the answers. In fact, prompting someone to find the answers themselves (a classic coaching technique), may mean that they are then more motivated to act, since they have devised the actions themselves rather than being told ‘what to do.’

Being able to say things like ‘I don’t know about that option, but who could you talk to who might?’ avoids shutting down career-related conversations due to lack of knowledge or information. Questions like this can also lead to signposting, for example, to a careers service or researcher development team.

3) Know your institution
When it comes to signposting, it helps to know the main teams in your institution who offer careers and professional development support to researchers. If you don’t know, perhaps a colleague will, especially a colleague who may have used these services as a PGR or postdoc.

Keeping a list of ‘alternative’ ways that researchers have found experience and CV development can be useful too. For example, if your department simply isn’t able  to offer PGRs undergraduate/Masters course teaching opportunities, then perhaps you could explore gaining teaching experience elsewhere in the institution such as academic writing support, skill development, or maths and stats support.

4) Check your language
Being aware of the words we’re using to describe professional development and career options is key. In my supervisor training, attendees have checked themselves for habits such as:

  • Using terms such as ‘non-academic,’ ‘plan B,’ (or even ‘the dark side’) to refer to career options beyond academia, unintentionally inferring that these options are inferior to academic jobs.
  • Referring to Continuous Professional Development (CPD) exercises like Training Needs Assessment or a Performance Development Review as an ‘annoying form to complete’ or a ‘box-ticking exercise,’ unintentionally conveys a negative attitude to PGRs and Research Staff around professional development.

Being aware of these kinds of verbal habits can help us to adapt our language to avoid giving researchers the impression that their professional development and aspirations may go unsupported.

5) Use your networks where possible
Asking PIs about their current practice has thrown out some great examples of facilitated networking. For example, putting their PGRs or Research Staff in touch with contacts in different workplaces; or suggesting potential mentors. Hence, another useful open question to use in career conversations can be “Are there any ways in which I can help you in your career development?” If the response, however, is something you can’t take on, then… see the points above.

We certainly can’t expect the managers of researchers to be careers experts. That feels a bit like boarding a plane and while expecting the pilot to fly the plane, you’re also expecting them to have your accommodation and holiday itinerary planned out for when you arrive. It’s just not feasible, or fair. But what we can do, as I hope the points above show, is support PIs and managers to facilitate a proactive approach to professional development, to encourage their direct reports’ involvement in wider departmental and university activities, and to help them to build their networks, skills, and plans.

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