• Marc Abernathy

Career management for early-career researchers

Updated: 2 days ago

Scientists and researchers love their work - and they usually enjoy it or they wouldn't still be in academia. What they're sometimes not so good at is all the administrative tasks involved in being a successful researcher: creating and sticking to a publication plan, applying for grants and funding, and maintaining their online presence.

These tips can help you keep your career on track as you continue to focus on your important research.

Tip #1 - Start your day with one hour of admin tasks

Admin tasks are the things that you don't want to do; the ones that pile up and get so overwhelming that you'd rather just dive in to R and ignore it all. In the long run, though, ignoring these tasks can hurt your career. And letting them build up makes it harder to work through them when you actually do get around to doing them. Try ticking off one hour of admin tasks at the start of every day. I call this a microtasking approach because it breaks down tasks into manageable and less-intimidating units, making it easier to progress and generate momentum. This approach also helps make an hour of admin tasks part of your regular routine. Here are some tasks to get you started:

  • Create one professional email and centralize all your accounts. Most researchers have multiple email accounts, and managing them can be a hassle. Since early-career researchers move around a lot, you may have active email accounts that you've forgotten about. You probably regularly check only one. In not checking the others, however, you may be missing out on important messages from universities, journals, colleagues, or professional associations who have this account in their system. To help manage your inboxes, set up your own professional account (e.g., "<first name>@<website-domain-name>.com") and then forward all your university accounts to your professional account. You can still log in and send emails from your official account if you need to, but at least you won't be missing important emails.

  • Create a basic CV-style website. Reviewers, hiring committees, and funding review panels will probably search for you online when they receive a paper, application, or grant proposal. Having your own website (separate from your university profile page) gives you a space to tell people about your research, post your online CV, and list your publications and key career milestones. Invest in a good photo from a professional photographer (it's worth it!) and keep your site simple (even a one-page site will do), updating it when a paper is published or you get a new grant.

  • Sign up for key newsletters and feeds. Stay on top of funding, publication, and conference calls by signing up for a few newsletters and following the social media accounts of organizations and publications that are important for your field. Put the deadlines in your calendar (one week before the actual deadline, to give you a buffer). Remember to look for internal university or institute newsletters and feeds as well, since research and funding offices announce calls relevant to researchers there.

These three admin tasks can get you started (or give you ideas for others). The important part is sticking to the one-hour-a-day plan for at least a week. Your goal should be to build momentum and make it a regular practice.

Tip #2 - Create a publication plan

Feeling like you're "in charge" of your publishing might sound laughable to those who instead feel like they're at the mercy of editors, reviewers, and coauthors. One source of that feeling is the reality of academic publishing, a good deal of which is out of your control. Dealing - at the same time - with multiple revise-and-resubmits, two or more multiple-author papers, or more than one rejection can be frustrating, maddening, disheartening - you choose the adjective that fits best. But you do have control over some aspects, and these are the ones you should be actively working to control:

  • Create a master list of your next projects in a Gantt chart. Include a list of (potential) collaborators and realistic (i.e., generous extra time) timelines. Your Gantt chart (a series of horizontal bars representing timelines) should also include overlapping commitments such as conferences; teaching schedules; and work, professional, or personal obligations. This visual breakdown of your writing projects can also be revealing: If you have three overlapping papers in the middle of the semester just before a conference, then you need to scale back.

  • Work on a mix of multi- and single-author papers. Save yourself some headaches by working on a single-author paper at the same time as multi-author papers. This mixed approach will help you make the best use of your time: While waiting for coauthors to reply, you can work on your single-author papers and use your time productively when your partners are procrastinating or are too overworked to write or revise.

  • Talk about roles, timelines, and commitments with coauthors. A contract between coauthors is ideal, but not realistic. The official formality of it is a bit off-putting for an endeavor that's meant to be collegial and cooperative. At a minimum, though, have an honest, direct conversation about how many hours per week you can commit to writing and working on the paper, when you want to submit, and what other projects you're working on (which could delay work on the paper). Also clarify who will do what, by when, and specify what can be done simultaneously by all (or some) coauthors and what part of the work will have to be done serially.

  • Prepare a worst-case scenario plan for each paper. If your paper is rejected at your top target journal, where to next? Plan to revise and rewrite for at least a month to incorporate reviewer and editor comments. You might even want to skim the submission guidelines of other journals and make notes of what you'll need to change and modify so you can be prepared, such as word or page limits or changes to the abstract, introduction, and conclusion/discussion section to match the journal focus.

  • Submit to a mix of journals. Despite all the advice from journal editors and academic writing books, researchers will continue to submit to the top journals in their field rather than finding a journal where your paper really fits. Still, you can save yourself some frustration and publication gaps (it might take a few R&Rs to get into a top journal) by including a range of journals in your publication plan, especially since submitting only to top journals can require substantial - and time-consuming - changes and revisions. If you invest all your time and effort on submitting to top journals, you may be waiting a year or more before you're finally published. Mix it up and keep your publications flowing by submitting to newer journals or journals with a solid reputation that have higher acceptance rates. Publication times will be shorter and you may get more support from reviewers and editors. Don't risk a publication drought by waiting to publish only in your top choice.

In choosing a journal, Thomson and Kamler (Writing for Peer-Reviewed Journals) suggest asking yourself "Does this feel right? Am I a good fit here? Do I want to be here or somewhere else?"

Tip #3 - Be social

If you haven't already, create an ORCID account and edit all the relevant fields. Do the same at Research Gate, and if you work with data, set up a GitHub account as well. Become a member of a professional society for your field and post an online public profile. Check your online public profile at your university (and all other profiles) to see if it's up to date. They might be due for a rewrite. Link all these profiles on your professional website. Pitch a perspective or opinion piece to a journal relevant in your field. Create and maintain your online social media profiles. Tweet or post one to two times a week, and include a mix of work-related posts and personal reflections.

Tip #4 - Teach & mentor

When you apply for jobs and grants, reviewers will want to see not only a solid publication record; they'll also want to see that you've made an effort to become part of your research community by teaching and mentoring students. Rounding out your CV with teaching and mentoring experience can give you an edge on applications by showing and reinforcing your commitment. Offer to guest lecture in a course taught by your advisor or someone else in your department. Tell your research group about the projects you're working on and offer to take on PhD students, or contact the right department at your university to find undergraduates interested in working on research. Not only will you get some extra help with your project, you'll be giving back to your field and bolstering your CV and credentials.

Tip #5 - Speak and present at conferences

Early-career researchers need to be seen and heard by their research communities, both to communicate their work and interests and to get feedback on their research. Yet sending proposals and abstracts to conference organizers can get pushed down to the bottom of your task list. Move it up a few notches. Send an email to colleagues at other universities or institutes that are working on similar topics or whose research might complement your own. Ask if you can give a talk on your current research at conferences or colloquia. Talks are a great way to get early feedback on papers and to expand your network, an important part of your academic career. These contacts can lead to advance notice about funding or job offers, or to collaborations.

Small investments accumulate

Academics have to juggle a lot more than people outside academia are aware of. Early-career researchers often don't get the resources, training, or mentoring they need to help them navigate their career path. The small investments of time described here can advance your career and pay off over the long run. So start with Tip #1 and work through them all to take charge of your career today.