In the United Kingdom, "chartered status" is a common and well-known credential in exacting professions like surveying, accountancy, and engineering; indeed, for some aspects of these jobs it is required. Perhaps less well known is that some scientific fields also offer chartered status; several U.K.-based professional science bodies, including The British Psychological Society and the Society of Biology, have awarded chartered status for more than 25 years (see list for examples of non-U.K. institutions that offer similar schemes).
In 2004, following discussions with scientific bodies (whose board members include representatives from companies and institutions that employ scientists), the Science Council, an umbrella organization for U.K. science professional societies, established a broad accreditation for scientists. The idea behind the Science Council’s Chartered Scientist (CSci) scheme, says the Science Council's registrar, Alisdair Orr, is to provide scientists with a professional accreditation that is independent of discipline, promotes ongoing professional development, and increases scientists' appeal to employers.
Currently, some 13,000 scientists are listed on the CSci register; approximately 20% of them are based outside the United Kingdom. Chartered scientists work in industry, academia, and public health, in a range of fields from veterinary practice to school teaching.
I achieved CSci status in 2004, as a science writer and broadcaster. Recently, for a profile on the CSci Web site, the Science Council quizzed me about my career, why I decided to become a CSci, and what aspects of the scheme I find most valuable. This got me thinking about my experience with CSci accreditation and made me curious about other scientists' perspectives. I am presenting my findings here for the benefit of others who may be considering seeking CSci or similar accreditation.
Continuing professional development
Anyone who is a member of one of 27 professional science bodies that are based in the United Kingdom and licensed by the Science Council can gain CSci accreditation, provided they can demonstrate the level of professional competence and seniority established by the constituent professional body, typically a master's degree with 4 years of work experience. They must also demonstrate a prior commitment to continuing professional development (CPD), and to keep the CSci certification they must meet Science Council-stipulated CPD requirements every year.
To me, the most valuable aspect of becoming a CSci is the structure it provides for CPD. There are five categories of eligible CPD, and every year a chartered scientist’s achievements must include a mixture of activities from at least three of these categories. The Science Council provides many examples of activities to suit a wide range of science-based professions. Here is a selection:
Work based learning. This includes in-service training; presentations to external clients, regulators, or policy makers; and supervising colleagues or students.
Professional activity. This includes organizing a conference, scientific meeting, or course; being an examiner; and lecturing or teaching new material.
Formal/Educational. This includes attending conferences or scientific meetings; undertaking distance learning or e-learning activities; and writing articles or papers.
Self-directed learning. This includes reviewing and summarizing books and articles; upgrading knowledge through use of electronic information sources; assessing the benefit of CPD activities to self, client, or employer.
Other. This includes leadership skills; organization and planning skills gained through voluntary work; and strategic thinking.
For my CPD, I attended the 1st UK Conference of Science Journalists in 2010 and the 20th International Conference on Medical Physics in 2013. I learned about biology topics (I am trained as a physicist) to prepare for video interviews for medical research charity, the Myrovlytis Trust. I gave a physics talk with accompanying demonstrations for my local cub scouts. I am also taking a course in basic Italian, and continue to practice my French reading skills.
The Science Council does not require chartered scientists to have a mentor, but some of the professional bodies that participate in the scheme, including mine, advise CSci applicants to find someone to guide them through the initial application and annual revalidation. I find my periodic meetings with my CSci mentor—Stephen Keevil, a professor of medical physics at King’s College London with significant experience in dealing with the media—extremely valuable.
I find that the most challenging thing about the CSci scheme is the time it requires. You need to learn how to manage your regular work alongside your CPD activities—which in itself is a transferable skill.
The CSci scheme does not require a set number of hours of CPD activities per year; rather, the Science Council prefers participants to "focus on demonstrating a benefit." On average, I tend to complete the equivalent of at least 2 working-weeks’ worth of CPD each year. Rick Morris, who also attained CSci status in 2004 and is now a senior vice president for membrane development at Pall Corporation in the United States, says he carries out 2 to 4 weeks per year of CPD in the form of conferences and courses.
Some employers are more helpful than others when it comes to carrying out CSci-related activities. Robin Price, regional quality manager at Anglian Water Services, recently attained CSci status. Price’s CPD activities "are entwined in my working day, and the things that I do as part of my CPD are things I'd generally be doing to take my role at Anglian Water forward anyway," he says. Morris's CPD activities—those conferences he mentioned—are also scheduled during his usual working time, but "normal work awaits me when I return," he says. Depending on the activity—and especially if you are freelance—you may also need to carve out time outside of work.
One core aim of the CSci program is to offer a quality stamp that makes scientists who have the credential more attractive to employers. "We often hear from employers that they are having difficulty recruiting people with the right level of competence, knowledge, skills, and professional attributes to survive in the workplace," says the Science Council's Orr.
The CSci credential, Price says, singles out scientists who have "the drive and determination to continue to develop themselves," a quality that he finds "hugely attractive" in job candidates. "If you continuously innovate and look for opportunities to develop yourself, you’re constantly bringing in new ideas. Those around you learn from you and feed off you, so the company benefits, and your industry benefits," he explains.
Price manages a team of 35 scientists who advise private consumers and industrial customers on water quality and distribution issues. He recently developed an in-house CPD program to help the members of his team achieve CSci status via the Institute of Water; the program includes "testing their ability to make decisions based on scientific evidence, and their leadership behaviors," he says. Price also serves as vice president for science on the board of the Institute of Water, and has been helping the institute develop the necessary forms and processes for CSci applications. The drive for water scientists to obtain CSci, he says, is strongly supported by their industry regulator, the Drinking Water Inspectorate.
Price, like me, is already convinced of the credential's value. But what do other U.K. employers think? "Having chartered status provides independent assessment of the on-the-job learning," says Orr, the Science Council's registrar, citing an anonymized telephone survey of 100 employers carried out for the Science Council in 2011 by an independent market research company. In the survey, 69% of respondents said they found this feature valuable.
I decided to do an informal survey, contacting press offices or others at eleven employers, most of them multinationals, and asking for their views on CSci status. Only three responded. Two said they were not aware of the scheme, and the other said CSci was not a designation they would look for in an employee.
Is it worth doing?
If much of the CPD that chartered scientists carry out is part of their normal working life, and the only employers who responded to my informal survey were either oblivious or indifferent, then why become a CSci?
Some scientists prefer to go for a discipline-specific chartered status, as the Institute of Physics’ 2011 decision to pull out of the program shows. While IOP itself liked the idea of the broader CSci certification, "the vast majority of our members continued to identify more closely with CPhys and CEng," an Institute of Physics spokesperson wrote in an e-mail.
But CSci may offer some unique advantages. According to Orr, because it encompasses a broad range of scientific disciplines and sectors, CSci can help scientists transfer their skills. "Part of the initial vision for the CSci scheme was to allow practicing scientists to move across different sectors and different disciplines," and many registrants have done so in the course of their careers, he says.
The reasons I, and the scientists I spoke to, attained CSci credentials go beyond the accreditation itself, and are not necessary exclusive of other chartered schemes. Morris, a U.K. native working in the United States who travels the world for his work, believes that CSci status helps scientists gain credibility. "Having chartered status shows you have reached a high professional standard," agrees Kelly St. Pier, a neurophysiology professional service manager at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. St. Pier is also vice-chair of the Association of Neurophysiological Scientists (ANS), which obtained the license to award CSci status in 2012. St. Pier, who is a CSci herself, has included a year-long leadership course and a research project in focal epilepsy among her CPD activities.
The commitment to lifelong learning that is intrinsic to CSci—and, at least to some extent, to most discipline-specific chartered programs—is another virtue. Following the CSci scheme can help you home in on what skills you need to improve, and the annual requirement for CPD evidence keeps you moving toward your career goals. Finally, the CSci program provides some of us with a sense of achievement and community that is well worth the time and effort. Morris tells me that his CPD program has motivated him "to get out there and attend some conferences, which has been very beneficial in terms of keeping me connected to the technical community."
As Price puts it, "CPD enables me to stop once in a while and reflect as to whether I'm moving forward individually, and whether the new things I'm doing are helping my team, the company, and my industry. This helps me to stay focused and forward-looking."
*Some non-U.K. science bodies offering CPD-based professional programs
These scientific bodies are among those offering professional programs which, like CSci, offer a quality stamp and involve CPD.