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Research Culture Blog: ‘Research Careers – Learning from Setbacks on the Road to Success’

Part of our 'Research Culture Conversations' Series

‘Research Culture Conversations’ is a series of events taking place as part of the University’s Research Culture Action Plan and is aimed at normalising open and honest conversations about issues and challenges facing our research culture. This year the plan focuses on ‘Reward and Recognition’, ‘Responsible Research’, and ‘Research Careers’.

‘Research Careers' was the focus for semester one, with activities including the launch of an institutional Postdoctoral Development Centre in October 2021, the launch of a new Concordat Action Plan, and an awareness campaign involving short videos of established academics discussing early career experiences.

Building on these activities, in November 2021 we held our first ‘Research Culture Conversations’ event titled ‘Research Careers – Learning from Setbacks on the Road to Success’. The objective of the event was to identify tangible actions which can be implemented to address common issues encountered on researcher’s career paths.

A full video of the event can be viewed here.

Common Themes

The well-attended event was an opportunity for all staff including postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers, early career researchers, academics, and non-academic from Queen’s and beyond to engage in a discussion about the realities of building a successful career in research and exploring how we can overcome challenges. The keynote speaker, Dr Fatima Gunning from the Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork provided an insightful and inspiring presentation, sharing some of her experiences in building her own career and mentoring others.

The common themes which emerged from the discussion included:

  • The challenges faced by ECRs, especially postdoctoral researchers
  • The hyper-competitiveness of the research environment
  • How to create a better work/life balance
  • Diverse career pathways
  • Mechanisms to support ECRs, including mentoring, training, bridging funds

Key Considerations

Following Dr Gunning’s presentation, a panel discussion was chaired by Professor Emma Flynn, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise, during which, key considerations were identified and dissected in an honest and reflective discussion by the panel.

Some of the key points that arose were:

  • Time: One of the biggest challenges within academia is time, particularly maintaining a healthy work/life balance. Some of the ways to support this include collaborating with others and creating a sense of teamwork; taking time away from work, for reflection; minimising the amount of work you take home; and setting a good example to colleagues, around answering emails outside of work hours, leaving work on time etc.
  • Diversifying career paths: When considering career options, the fear of change and uncertainty can impact decision-making. Diverse career pathways can be made more attractive and supportive, by breaking down barriers; having entrepreneurs in residence; engaging within industry via studentships or KTPs; and actively collaborating with external companies.
  • Success can take many forms: While a degree of competition is crucial in any sector, including academic research, it is important to recognise that high-performing teams are increasingly critical to research success. It is important that we recognise the full range of contributions and consider levels of job satisfaction for all members of the wider research team.
  • Learning from setbacks: It is often those researchers who are the most successful who have encountered the most setbacks. It is important to be both strategic and agile during your career. For example, it is important to have goals and a clear idea of what you wish to achieve in life, but also to be mindful of changing priorities and pressures, both personal and professional, and to be open to other opportunities and career pathways.


Having identified the challenges and key considerations, attendees were asked to propose solutions that could feasibly be delivered and achieved by universities, departments, research groups or individuals, rather than recommendations for government policy and/or funders.  

Attendees were then surveyed to rank a consolidated list of proposals in priority order, based on which they deemed most likely to deliver lasting change. These included:

1. Explore mechanisms to support those in between fixed-term appointments e.g. bridging funds,        enhanced redeployment processes

2. Consolidate existing mentoring and coaching schemes to make better use of resource (especially time), thereby ensuring researchers have ease of access to the best support and peer networks

3. Provide more opportunities for internal and external (national and international, academia and industry) networking to facilitate career development

3. Provide more opportunities for those on fixed-term research contracts to develop their skills through hands-on experience e.g. research bid development, including clear guidelines on what they can and cannot do, and how they are recognised for their contributions

4. More tailored career progression/ development models aligned to the needs of fixed-term research staff, e.g. a formal research-only career pathway as part of academic progression process that allows individuals to specialise over time

5. Provide more information and training opportunities on non-academic career pathways, and do more as a University to promote the skills of our researchers to external stakeholders

6. Lobby government and funders to change the standard terms and conditions for grants to address issues of career precarity by e.g. extending standard length of postdoc appointments

7. Improve mechanisms for reward and recognition for all those that contribute to research outputs through standardised approaches e.g. the CREDIT Taxonomy

8. Improved training for research managers and leaders around leadership, management, mentoring and coaching skills

9. Develop standardised policies and procedures for postdoctoral contributions to teaching to ensure that there is fair access to opportunities to build experience, but also ensure that postdocs are not unduly burdened with work that should be covered by e.g. a teaching assistant

Attendees also highlighted some areas, through the feedback form, which were not adequately covered through the event or the ranked list, including around climate action and its inclusion in all University plans and policies; more opportunities for career advice; and more support for international researchers, including around visas and immigration matters.

Next steps

The results from the post-event survey will be taken into consideration when planning our activities and priorities for Year 2 of the implementation of the Research Culture Action Plan, and some aspects will also be considered by the Postdoctoral Development Centre, as part of the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers.

Additionally, the University has recently launched the Research Culture Seed Fund, which provides support for innovative approaches to improve our research culture. A second call will be opened in the coming months, and we would encourage those with ideas around the solutions and issues discussed at the event to consider the fund.

Keep the conversation going

Queen’s wants to achieve a healthy supportive and inclusive research culture, which offers dynamic, varied, sustainable and fulfilling career pathways, with opportunities accessible to everyone with ambitions for a career in science and innovation.

The next event will be focused on reward and recognition for non-academic staff who provide research and innovation support within universities. The event aims to improve awareness of the different contributions to research and help us understand how non-academic staff working within a research environment can be better supported, recognised and rewarded.

To keep up-to-date with all news and events, follow us on Twitter - @QUBResearchPol, or visit our webpage