Universities and other providers are striving to address a lack of essential, transferable ‘soft skills’ training for EMCRs in STEM, promoting entrepreneurism and career diversification for the benefit of all Australians.
For example, with funding from the Theo Murphy Initiative (Australia), Deakin University and Macquarie University have developed a series of seminars on leadership, communication, networking, project and finance management, career development, and time and stress management.
‘The traditional research career path is changing, for the better,’ said Professor Aaron Russell, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Researcher Development and Integrity, at Deakin University.
‘These seminars will help EMCRs to diversify their thinking, expand their skillset and extend their networks beyond academia to find new collaborators in industry, the non-profit sector and government.’
Swinburne University’s innovative Bioreactor PhD Program was launched only four years ago with funding from the ARC, but the benefits of its entrepreneurial focus are already clear.
‘Our students have been encouraged to look outwards, to investigate industry problems and seek solutions specific to target markets,’ said Professor Paul Stoddart, Director of Swinburne’s ARC Training Centre in Biodevices.
‘Our first cohort of ten students is completing their diverse PhD projects and many have already lined up ongoing employment or consulting work with their industry partners. Their research outcomes include six provisional patents and seven registered designs for innovative biomedical products and processes with real market potential.’
Dr Julie Wheway wishes she was offered training like this during her 15 years in medical research. ‘I knew that I needed well-rounded skills if I wanted to progress my career, whether within or beyond academia.’
She had to develop essential soft skills and an entrepreneurial outlook through self-guided learning, part-time work and volunteering to manage a successful move out of research into commercialisation. Julie has some advice to offer for EMCRs seeking to expand their career options.
‘Develop your psychological flexibility and agility. Put your hand up for informal learning experiences and sign up for any professional development or training that will develop your skills in other areas.
‘An essential soft skill that many researchers avoid developing is networking. But networking is the best way to find collaborators, investors, employers, service providers or customers.’
Julie helps EMCRs to develop confidence and capacity to network effectively. She recently facilitated a successful networking event for the University of Sydney, bringing researchers and potential industry partners together to discuss collaboration.
‘The good news is you can definitely improve your networking skills through practice. And with the right preparation and support, in the right environment, networking is positive and productive, not painful.’
Natalie Chapman began her career in chemistry and followed a winding path to become the Managing Director of gemaker, a STEM commercialisation consultancy.
‘I’ve had 12 jobs with nine employers. Although my degree is part of the foundations on which I’ve built my career, my diverse work experience has been more critical to my success.
‘If you’re interested in applying for jobs outside your core research area, understand your full skill set and communicate it. Your valuable skills may come from part-time or volunteer work, internships, overseas exchanges, team sports or any other life experience.
‘New paths require new proficiencies, so take every opportunity to expand and update your knowledge and skills. Discomfort is a normal part of learning, so get used to it.’
Natalie and the gemaker team have trained around 200 researchers in industry engagement at six Australian universities and a research institute. In 2017, gemaker’s training received three Asia-Pacific Stevie Awards for Innovation.
‘I help EMCRs to research and develop a plan for engagement and coach them to clearly communicate the value of their research to industry,’ Natalie said. ‘I explain the personal, organisational and national benefits of better industry engagement. It will advance their careers and secure Australia’s future.’
Professor Russell is on the same page: ‘Our aim is to enhance the career prospects of EMCRs and improve their research outcomes and real-world impact. We want to build their capacity and confidence to conduct high-quality research to benefit the wider community, in Australia and internationally.’
Professor Stoddart agrees: ‘Not only is our industry-focused research having a positive impact on public health and wellbeing, but it’s also helping to build new industries, create jobs and future-proof our economy.’
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© 2021 Australian Academy of Science