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The University of Southampton
Working as a Researcher

Career steps

The Early Career Researcher (ECR) stage is where your career should start to take off. During your doctorate you will have acquired disciplinary knowledge, perhaps with a first opportunity to branch into an interdisciplinary area. Now, as an ECR, you should begin to develop and improve your professional skills and to manage your career with a greater sense of purpose and direction. Think of this, as ‘becoming a professional researcher part two’ (Professor Lynn McAlpine).

If you are aiming for an academic career, there are two routes to becoming a PI:

  1. the funding / fellowship route - see RIS for information about fellowships and other sources of funding, including generating funding by collaborating with other sectors 
  2. the HR route - this will mean taking on teaching and/or enterprise roles as well as research. Explore our career pathways for further information.  

Please note: The PI role is a leadership one, so you should use your time at Southampton developing your leadership skills and gaining relevant experience.

See the ECR Development Hub for leadership training resources.  You can gain experience through getting involved with public engagement, policy, enterprise, contributing to education, supporting students or putting on conferences/events. 

ECR Development Hub

A Postdoc is where an academic career should take off. ECRs have the time, the energy and the ideas – "this is where it all should happen!" paraphrasing a comment from Professor Philip Nelson CBE FREng, Professor of Acoustics and former Chief Executive and Deputy Chair of EPSRC.

The first five years after completing a doctorate are the most critical for building a track record and for positioning yourself for the future. So making the most of your time at Southampton is essential – it is not enough to keep your head down, to keep working hard, and hoping for the best. You need to maximise your chances.

If you are only just starting out as a researcher, begin by watching our cartoon which gives 7 essential tools to progressing your research career.

Alternatively, here is a checklist:

  • Have a career plan for the next 3 for 5 years
  • Find yourself a mentor
  • Network and build a range of professional relationships
  • Seek out opportunities to develop professionally and to grow your CV
  • Use the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF) to understand your strengths, areas of improvement and to map your progress
  • Be familiar with the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, and understand how it can help you.

Building your track record includes: publications, evidence that you can bring in funding (no matter how small it will be better than nothing), raising your profile, building your network, adding value to your team and/or University.

You should use this time to position yourself for future roles as a PI or manager of research – that is you should identify and acquire the range of skills needed for such roles.

Disciplinary differences

Be mindful of disciplinary variation – so if you take a postdoc in STEM, don’t get stuck with serial contracts. You must have a plan to move on (either to a mixed portfolio or research post elsewhere). If you are in a discipline where you may have more than one postdoc, remember that your first post-doc will be working for a PI, and your the second should be working with them.

If you take a teaching fellowship in Social Sciences, Arts or Humanities, as may be more likely than a research fellowship, you will need to keep up your publications. Be prepared – this might have to be on your own time.

You need to plan your next few years according to the reality of research in Higher Education – there are probably as many research roles outside of academia as there are within it.

Try not to confuse a ‘research career’, which will stretch over decades, with doing a ‘research job’ (such as a postdoc contract). Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser DBE FRS, Chief Executive of UKRI, once expressed the view that to be a researcher you need to be able to move or drive the discipline forward with your research, if you are not doing that then you are a ‘super-technician’ and not a researcher! Would you agree with her? 

This is a good time to actively explore your options and to begin applying for additional funding. You may want to seek out a Principal Investigator (PI) or manager to work with you on a new research idea. Or you may want to position yourself in readiness for applying for jobs when they appear.

It is unwise to wait to the very end of your contract and hope that your PI will find you another job.

Using your Appraisal: The Appraisal is the place where your professional development and career aims and prospects are reviewed annually. Use the appraisal process to explore key areas that help you to:

1) Identify your strengths and weak areas

2) Seek opportunities for ‘continuous self-improvement’ or CPD

If you have not received an appraisal this year – ask for one!

Promotion: Research staff, even ECRs and staff on Fixed Term Contracts, may apply for promotion – if you are doing the job, you should be recognised and paid for that. The promotion rounds begin in October.

Self-assessment: Outside of the formal appraisal mechanism, you should also review your own progress against your ambitions – and half-way through a contract is a good time to take a realistic assessment of where you are and what you need to do next.


  • Discuss your progress and prospects with your mentor (in addition to your PI) – if you have not got a mentor, you can approach someone you could learn from, of join your Faculty's scheme
  • Continue to build your CV –what have you added to your CV this year?

You will have acquired lots of transferable skills and specialist knowledge, and will be able to choose a number of pathways. Moreover, there are plenty of resources and opportunities available in the University of Southampton that can assist you at this stage.

At this stage, you should be collecting or reviewing job descriptions that attract your attention, so you are clear what the current requirements and trends in research are. Even if the jobs are above your current skill set, they will give you an idea of what you need to develop.

Use the Researcher Development Framework (RDF) to review the full range of your current skill set, including your behaviours and personal qualities. You are not required to ‘tick-off’ all 63 descriptors, but you should have strengths in all 4 Domains and in many of the sub-domains too. Pick 3 to 5 areas that you would like to improve on and would help you in your career.

Questions to ask from time to time:

  • Are you on the right career path? Are you ready for the next step?
  • Why do you enjoy what you do? What are your strengths? What motivates you?
  • Is your work/life balance as you want it to be? What needs to change to make it more the way you want

Resources to plan your next move

Six months before the end of a fixed term contract, your line manager will have a conversation with you about what is likely to happen at the end of the current contract.

The University does not provide ‘bridging funds’ but your local department or Faculty might, so you should enquire in to this now! If there is not much prospect of bridging funding, you will need fall onto your back-up plan.

Seeking permanency: If you have been continuously employed at the University for four years or more, you are entitled to request a permanent or ‘open-ended’ post. This will enable you to have priority on the ‘redeployment’ list for recruitment.

Please note, being moved onto an open-ended contract or permanent post does not guarantee retention, that is – you can still be made redundant if there is insufficient funding to cover your salary and other costs.

DO NOT WAIT until the end of your contract or when you receive the formal notice letter, before looking for another post if you are not going to be retained.

Try to apply the ‘monkey principle’ – i.e. make sure you have fully got hold of a new branch before you let go of the current one! So seek Careers Advice early to ensure that you have something to go to/grab hold of – don’t leave it until the last minute.

Consider that you may need to take a position ‘temporarily’ for financial purposes, whilst still applying for the roles that you really want. This may not be your preferred choice but remind yourself that a ‘career’ is a long haul flight not a quick trip.

Vitae: Vitae have information and resources for ‘What next for research staff?’  on their website. If you are a member of the University of Southampton, you can access the resources for FREE.

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