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How membership of professional Societies can enhance career development

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Published: 24 Nov 2020
By Craig Davison

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Professional Societies, such as the BPS, are crucial for promoting research in basic and clinical science, driving future scientific direction and bringing researchers across the world together. As an early career researcher, there are many opportunities to get involved in Societies that are relevant to your research area. However, your time is limited and I was interested to find out how membership of Societies can contribute to your experience as a researcher and assist with career development. To help answer this question, I had a conversation with Barbara McDermott, Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Pharmacology at Queen's University Belfast. She has had a highly esteemed academic career and has been involved extensively in a number of Societies, both in the national and international arenas.

What made you first join a society?

The first question I asked was an obvious one. Barbara's answer and all of the conversation that followed highlighted that engagement with Societies had played a significant role from the very beginning of her university career. Previous to this, she had worked in the coking industry, in the analytical laboratories, where "exchange of research ideas took place mostly over a good pint in a Yorkshire pub".    

Barabra said: “I first joined a Society to present somewhat preliminary findings towards the end of the first year of my PhD programme. I started off my academic career as a cancer researcher although ended up a cardiovascular pharmacologist, which is a story in itself. I presented my first paper on 5-fluorouracil pharmacokinetics in breast cancer patients to the British Association for Cancer Research (BACR). It was the first time I’d experienced giving an oral presentation to an imposing audience and this gave me confidence that the research I was doing was relevant and important. I also received very helpful criticism that fed in to how I pursued the work going forward.”

Barbara elaborated that the initial experiences of attending conferences during her time as a PhD student set her up perfectly for her viva: “before completion of my PhD work, I already knew the person who would be appointed as external examiner. I had met him at a number of conferences, so when looking through the final thesis draft I could see the deficiencies that he would pick up on. I then made sure to prepare myself thoroughly for discussion of these points.” Anyone who has been through a thesis defence would know how much of an advantage this would be.

At that time, Barbara already had a postdoctoral position lined up and this again was made possible by way of professional contact through the BACR. The post was unusual in that she was asked to set up a new laboratory for therapeutic drug analysis and given all the finance and technical help needed to do this. "The easy part was ordering and setting up equipment. When it came to the detail of development of new assay methodology and getting patient samples, the importance of contacts and collaborators came to the fore". It is without doubt that post-PhD it remains crucial and increasingly important to get information and feedback from experts in the field, beyond usual contacts.

How have Societies shaped your career?

Looking at Barbara's CV, it was clear to see how active a role she had played in numerous Societies. I was curious as to how much of an impact they had on her career as it progressed. On appointment to an academic position, Barbara “changed research field quite quickly, radically. There was a major emphasis in the department I joined in carrying out Phase 1 trials in the development of new drugs for cardiac conditions. As one of the few scientists in a largely clinical environment, I thought that I could make the best contribution by carrying out underpinning mechanistic research in cardiac dysfunction. I had gained a strong background in protein biochemistry during my undergraduate degree and there was growing awareness of the importance of peptide mediators in the heart. This is where I decided to carve out a research space. I joined the International Society for Heart Research (ISHR) and went to a meeting to help establish what related work was going on. There I met a few people and one in particular from which I was able to learn a huge amount by going to spend time in their laboratory.” It was clear that this was a significant moment in Barbara's career moving from a post-doctoral position to being an independent researcher and setting up her own research group.

From that meeting at a conference, a collaborative relationship was born with a laboratory in Düsseldorf, and from that collaboration came another which led to a laboratory exchange programme with the University of Hamamatsu. “I and my first two PhD students individually went to and from Japan a number of times during that period. We were able to build up knowledge of techniques and equipment that were needed to set up a platform for cardiomyocyte research.” Becoming an independent researcher and starting a laboratory is a goal that many early career researchers have, but few achieve. Barbara made it clear that it is vitally important to associate with other key workers in the field in order to be able to develop as an independent researcher.

Should you get involved?

Speaking with Barbara has made me reconsider just how central being active within Societies is to career progression and the importance of collaborations when transitioning to becoming an independent researcher. However, there are even more advantages to belonging to relevant Societies, which Barbara wanted to emphasise.

“Another thing that I think is hugely important is to get involved in one or more mentoring relationships. I think good mentoring is vitally important for everyone, particularly at an early stage of their career, but indeed at any time.”

Societies often have formal mentoring schemes through which Barbara has mentored early career researchers. You can also identify someone yourself who may be happy to provide mentoring in a less formal sense.

If you are still unconvinced about getting involved with professional Societies, then there are yet more benefits. There are grants for everything from travel (once unrestricted travel is again possible) to laboratory training. For example, as an early career researcher, Barbara obtained a grant from the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) to train at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Tel Aviv-Yafo, which is a world leading multidisciplinary basic research institution. There are also prizes and competitions for presentation of research papers, and such highlights are great for bolstering your CV at any stage of your career. “Societies are usually very supportive of promoting the careers of younger people and inviting early career researchers to organize and speak at conferences. This is particularly true of the BPS."

Career balancing and your CV

A theme that came up in our conversation was that of maintaining proportion in how you develop your career: "Work-life balance is of course so very important, but in the working environment, balance is also about being intelligent and strategic in how you build up your CV". We discussed how Professor McDermott’s role within Societies changed as her career progressed. “I have spent a lot of time doing work, and hugely enjoyable work, for Societies, especially during my term as Vice President (Meetings) for the BPS. I personally got a huge amount out of this role, because I was able to immerse myself in what was actually happening at the forefront of research in many different areas of pharmacology and clinical pharmacology". Previous to her time at the BPS, Barbara was Secretary of the ISHR European Section, which was "also a fascinating experience, although with an additional role in conference budget control, it could be a challenge. You need to get the balance right as Society committee work can be hugely time-consuming and can get in the way of the main job, which is of course putting together grant proposals, supervising and mentoring research students and staff, writing research papers and contributing to all the rest of University business.”

We also talked about the travel opportunities that come with Society activity, again keeping a work-life balance came up. “I think it is important to maintain work-life balance especially as your career progresses and you do more work in organizing conferences and speaking at them. It has been my pleasure to visit many interesting places around the world. I also spent longer periods away when I took sabbatical leave, firstly at Carleton University in Ottawa and then for a shorter time at the Medical University of South Carolina. I made a point of trying as best as I could to have my family with me. If you ask me the question, ‘did I travel a lot and enjoy it?’ Yes, I did, but I wouldn’t have liked to have been constantly on the go and not been able to maintain more of a balance with my home life.”

Conclusion

It was clear from this conversation that membership and executive roles within professional Societies been important in Barbara's career. If you are an early career researcher, having an active role within Societies is not only rewarding in terms of enjoyment but can also help push your career to the next level.

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Published: 24 Nov 2020
By Craig Davison

About the author

Craig Davison


Craig Davison completed his undergraduate degree in Biomedical Sciences at Plymouth University where he conducted research in Dr. Simon Fox’s lab into the role of the bone microenvironment on prostate cancer metastasis. Following this Craig completed a PhD in 2019 from Queens University Belfast (QUB) conducting research in Triple Negative Breast Cancer investigating novel treatment strategies targeting nucleotide metabolism. Craig is currently working as a postdoctoral research fellow funded by the British Lung Foundation conducting research into Mesothelioma focused on developing novel biomarkers and treatment strategies.

Outside of research, Craig is on QUB’s School of Medicine Staff Council and a committee member of the Postdoctoral Development Centre (PDC) representing the needs of postdoctoral research fellows within QUB School of Medicine. When not working, Craig can be found out walking his two dogs or playing football.

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Another thing that I think is hugely important is to get involved in one or more mentoring relationships. I think good mentoring is vitally important for everyone, particularly at an early stage of their career, but indeed at any time.