Friday, 28 October 2016

Early career advice time

Its been almost 3 years since I handed my PhD in, and I've completed my first postdoc. I've thankfully gotten another one offered (although awaiting my contract) so should be continuing in academia. 2 months ago I wasn't sure this would be happening so I am very thankful to have one less thing to worry about. I thought I'd chuck out some of the advice I'd give to anyone who wants to read.

1) Academia is a great career
People laughing please stop now. It is. Flexible work hours, doing something you love, discovering new things out about the world, travelling the world for free (or cheap), amazing conferences etc etc.

2) Academia is an awful career
People who were laughing before can laugh again. The early career part is tough. Short term jobs lead to a lack of permanence. There is a never ending need to publish and prove yourself, whilst also balancing applying for grants and permanent positions. Throw in all the other odds and sods which come with it (relatively low pay for such high qualifications, sometimes working stupidly late to get stuff done etc.).

3) Make sure you are doing it for the right reasons
PhDs are major commitments and take at least 3 years of your life. In the USA and Canada it can be 5 or 6. Make sure you are ready and able to one. Do it because you love it, not because someone said you should. Everyone goes through ups and downs in work (even when you love it most of the time), but if you aren't in it for the love of it, the bad will heavily outweigh the good. This applies for postdoc positions too.

4) Find a work/life balance
I have no idea how anyone really manages this properly but everyone should try. I struggle as what I am doing has been my dream for so long it becomes tough to untangle it from who I am. Work often comes home with me, and even on weekends if I am not doing it, my brain is often thinking about work. It is tiring. Academics in general find their coping mechanisms and have to long term. Many of my friends are crazy fit, running 10km (or more) regularly, climbing weekly, gyms regularly, that sort of thing. Additionally nearly every one I know is in a serious relationship. I know people have said that maintaining a relationship during your PhD is hard (I never managed to), but I think it is definitely helpful for those who have/can.

5) Don't do work you wouldn't try to publish
Ok, so this needs clarification. Don't do primary research you wouldn't try to publish (do outreach though, see below). This was something Mike Benton taught all masters level students at Bristol. If your research question isn't going to be publishable, why are you doing it? It is a symptom of academia and the publish or perish mentality. Jobs look at your publications, and particularly those in the high impact journals. This means you need to be thinking of new and interesting questions that are worthy of publication.

6) Try to get in lecture experience
It will be good on so many levels. You can't teach unless you understand things, so spending the time planning a lecture should ensure you know and understand all of the material. In the UK particularly, with such short PhDs, we don't do the typical teaching assistant roles found in many North American universities and lecturing experience is hard to come by. In addition, postdocs (in the UK at least) get very limited teaching experience as that generally falls to the permanent staff - the first permanent post many in the UK get is a lectureship (lecturer). It's a trade-off as UK academics tend to have more publications than a person the same number of years since the start of their PhD, but they miss out on many countless hours of lecturing experience. But to get to the next step you need teaching experience. How can you prove you can lecture, without lecturing? But at the same time how get lecturing experience when you can't lecture? Take advantage of any and all chances. Volunteer if there is a chance, do practicals, do anything you can.

7) Do outreach
I beat this drum all I can (for example, see here). The world needs scientists, not just the current generation, but the future ones. Our ability as academics to inspire the next generation is vital (I smiled when I was told that a young family friend was visiting the American Natural History Museum and told them her friend [me] was digging for dinosaurs in Argentina). Our ability to explain to the public what we do and why they should care, and want to keep funding us is of the utmost importance for our ability to ever expand human knowledge. In addition to those obvious points, on a somewhat selfish level, it gives you a chance to do lectures to the general public, and work on your communication and understanding of your science. Einstein was a great proponent of being able to explain things simply (and usually so a child could understand), whether it was racing a light beam, or the bending of space-time, and so should we. Try it! We have our next big outreach event coming up in November which I will almost certainly blog about.

8) Get involved in side projects
This adds to the list all the things you should do, and thus flies in the face of the work/life balance points above. If you get spare time, or a chance to work on a project that doesn't hamper your own project you should do it. It is useful to collaborate lots, and who knows when one of those collaborations may lead to something major (even a job) down the line. If nothing else, it helps the publication count which we all know is a big deal.

9) Supervise students
Fits with lots of the above themes: you learn lots; get involved in side projects; and get experience in supervising which will hold you in good stead for future careers. It should be noted that having someone doing work for you doesn't actually reduce your work load unless you get a highly competent student. I've had a spectrum from those I had to walk through absolutely everything, to those who needed minimal assistance. Sometimes it is a good thing if they don't need help, but often in means they aren't pushing themselves. I was lucky enough to get a student who managed to turn my project into 2 papers I was directly involved in, and an additional one beyond the scope of my project, but he required help because he was pushing his limits all the time and getting the most out of the research. Suffice to say he is now working towards a PhD and I think has as many publications as I do.

10) Read lots
This is obvious, but finding time for it is tricky. At the start of a project it is always useful to write a literature review to get an idea of the main literature for the research. It comes in very handy for introductions in papers, and gives you a quick catch up to the literature for the project. Inevitably you will miss things, but can expand out from your core literature to fill in the gaps. Thankfully I've always been part of groups that do reading groups and that really helps to motivate you to read papers, particularly in areas you may not normally read.

11) Use your advisers/advisors 
They are useful for so many things, whether it is guidance in reading, improving writing, reading CVs, advice for grants, helping supervise etc. They've been through it all before, have many years of experience and are worth listening to. I've been lucky to have had lots of involved supervisors and feel sorry for those who miss out on that.

12) Apply for things, regularly and often
This advice comes from Anjali Goswami who encourages her group to apply to lots of jobs, particularly permanent positions. You can't get a job if you don't apply after all. Even if you don't get the position it helps to get your name out there and hopefully they keep you in mind for the future. Obviously don't apply outside of your field, but for jobs you are qualified/able to do.

13) Review papers
This is a multi reasoned thing. Reviewing is vital for science to function. It's why there are 2 reviewers for every manuscript (minimally). Help the community out and review what you are qualified to review (see advice here). In addition reviewing for journals looks good on your CV as it shows you are considered an expert, and also it gives you a chance to potentially become an editor one day. From what I am told, good reviewers at more senior levels get invited to become editors for the journals which again looks great on CVs. Additionally it helps with point 10) reading lots. What better way to read cutting edge research, than to help edit it (obviously you need to understand the research to review, but the principle applies).

*14) Broaden your horizons
Don't just focus on your skill set. I did lots of finite element stuff for my PhD, but it meant starting my postdoc I was a long way behind on coding (both R and Matlab, and soon to be C++). Obviously I am not saying do all of them, or indeed do coding, but take additional courses that may be beneficial. In palaeontology it is worth doing field work, in other fields it may be worth spending time in industry. These things may come in incredibly useful later in projects, or even for spawning new ones, and your skills and drive to learn look great on the CV.

*15) Go to conferences, and speak to people
I debated splitting this into 15 and 16, but lumped them together as lots of the speaking to people outside of your groups happens at conferences. Going to conferences allows you to broadcast your work to a wide audience, whether that is just by talking to people, giving a talk or presenting a poster. Giving a talk will get lots of people listening (although at my only SICB the room probably had only 20 people in it), but only a few will ask questions during your allotted time (assuming you've not gone over) and is considered more prestigious. Giving a poster lets lots of people see your work, and with you being there allows a lot more interaction, although your method for attracting people may not be the same as mine. I will suggest getting a few friends to come over every once in a while to ask you to explain things (even if they've heard it hundreds of times before), as groups tend to attract more attention to people. Conferences also have the benefit of  allowing you to see loads of research that may or may not be applicable to you, interact with the presenters, and job hunt. It is worth getting to know the big names in your field and find them at conferences to talk work whether in a coffee break, or in the case of palaeontologists more likely over a drink. You never know what may happen.

I'm sure there are many other things that are worth talking about/adding to this list, so if you have any feel free to message me/comment and I may add them. Thanks for reading!

*Added advice post original publication. Thanks to those who have suggested them.

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