Early-career physicists to explore setting up IOP group after town meeting backs the idea

30 October 2017

Early-career physicists are to explore setting up a group within the IOP to focus on career opportunities, building networks and collaboration after members from schools, academia and industry gathered for a town meeting to discuss the idea on 27 October.

Early-career physicists to set up IOP group after town meeting backs the plan
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The day of workshops and presentations included input from the IOP’s chief executive, Professor Paul Hardaker, who told those taking part that early-career members have a particularly important place in the work of the IOP.

He said the Institute aimed to provide opportunities for early-career members to come together to share their experiences, to help them to establish themselves, develop and grow in their careers, and to support them in the challenges that they faced. The proposed group was one way to achieve these aims, he said.

Dr Rob Thompson from University College London, who chairs the steering committee that is helping to set up the new group, said that as a member of the IOP’s Science and Innovation Committee he had realised that there was an opportunity for the Institute to offer a space for early-career members.

Christine Thorogood, an assistant research scientist who is an RSciTech and apprentice at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), said she became involved in particular to advance career progression for apprentices, and Joe Beaver from Rolls-Royce, who is also on the IOP’s Science and Innovation Committee, said he saw a need for a group to support people who lacked help in career progression at their workplace.

Professor Stephen Watts, Head of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester, who has also joined the steering committee, said it was important that senior staff should give help and guidance to people in early career. When he started as a researcher, there were no real systems in place to do this, he said.

He took part in a panel discussion with Becky Parker, director of the Institute for Research in Schools and a former researcher, lecturer and schoolteacher, and Sally Williams, head of people at CSR Group, which delivers scientific training to apprentices.

Early-career physicists to set up IOP group after town meeting backs the plan
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Among the questions put by audience members were how and at what stage the panellists knew what career they wanted, what challenges they had encountered in trying to move into a different field and what support physics departments should give to people who knew they did not want to pursue a career in research.

Describing the somewhat serendipitous routes their careers had taken to date, all of them urged early-career physicists to grasp the opportunities they were given and not be afraid to change direction if necessary. Williams said: “It’s not always about stepping up but about stepping sideways sometimes.” Hardaker, who was chairing the discussion, said that people who were successful were often willing to take such sideways steps rather than sticking to safe choices.

Watts said his department had taken several steps to encourage students to realise that “there’s more to life than becoming a researcher”, including professional placements for MPhys students, which was “something almost unheard of for a Russell Group university”. Almost half of postdocs went to work in industry at some point, he said.

The panel’s views differed, depending on their sector, on whether it was advisable to stay in one place or move on in early career. Postdocs in academia tended to be looked on more favourably if they had gained experience around the world, Watts said, but Parker said the situation was different in school teaching. “They will be desperate to keep you so you’re in a position of strength and you will probably be a head of department very quickly,” she said. “Each school is different and it’s important to find a culture in which you will be happy.”

Small-group discussions took place to suggest ideas for what the new group or the IOP generally could do to better support early-career physicists. Popular choices included peer-to-peer support online or face-to-face, frameworks for dealing with discrimination more effectively, opportunities to network with senior physicists, a mentoring network, online case studies and more conferences. There were also suggestions for unconscious bias training and small funding pots to enable people to demonstrate that they could obtain research funding.

In a vote to choose the best of three ideas, the most popular was holding seminars in which one member would talk to other members about their current job, their experiences and their opinions about different career paths, which was suggested by Christopher Parkinson from the University of Birmingham.

Summing up, Hardaker said the steering committee and the IOP would review and provide feedback on all of the suggestions and would put resources into implementing some of them within the next 12 months.

The plan will be submitted to the Science and Innovation Committee for final approval. For further information, or if you are interested in joining the committee that is shaping the new group, contact Anne Crean, the IOP’s head of science and innovation.