In this series, I’ve given my not-so-pro tips to enjoying the experience of being an early career researcher. I’ve talked through some of the key points of thriving when being thrust into a Phd, and then into postdoc. I’ve discussed how I started to prioritise my physical and mental health, how I learnt to be a useful and supportive supervisor, how I have sought out and used mentors, how I’ve reigned in my jealousy and tried to be collegial, how I’ve tried to learn how to think long-term and some more general tips for enjoying writing when it’s just not your cup of tea.
I’ve left the most important post in my How to ECR series to last. This is How to be Yourself. Although this topic is trite, I genuinely think it is worth emphasising.
At most workshops and conferences, there is a one way transfer of information directed to ECRs that reinforces the idea that there is a singular way to “make it” as an academic. In Australia, you must be awarded a DECRA grant from the Australian Research Council. You must have a Nature paper and X number of papers a year in good journals. You must undertake onerous service commitments that are often ill-suited to your skills and interests. You must teach and supervise, regardless of whether you enjoy or are invested in students. In this academic trope, this is the short-cut to success. With hard work, a bit of good luck and this winning formula, an academic career is possible.
It’s pretty easy to see that this well meaning advice is flawed. For example, some young Australian researchers are rewarded with a DECRA grant, only to stumble at the next hurdle, whether because of family commitments, waning interest, or poor luck. Meanwhile, another young gun might miss out on a DECRA, only to be the right person at the right time and be rewarded with an ongoing faculty position.
Furthermore, this “winning formula” won’t necessarily lead to a win. A singular formula for every ECR, regardless of skill and interest is a recipe for boredom, dissatisfaction and wasted opportunity. Although I appreciate the generous advice I’ve been offered during my early career, I would far rather enjoy my experiences of participating in academia, then defer my interests for now in a high risk gamble of “winning” through to the next career phase.
Here’s my alternative advice – don’t be afraid to say yes and don’t be afraid to say no.
In my last postdoc, I tried a bit of everything. I was vastly under qualified to sit on university, national and international committees, but I did so anyway. I didn’t know how a formal meeting worked, but I learned along the way. I did radio and TV interviews that absolutely terrified me and I was barely able to speak. I bumbled my way through teaching a 3rd year class. I started supervising. I said “yes” to just about everything. It was exciting! It was frightening! But I got a real sense of what I enjoyed, what I didn’t and what skills I valued most.
In my current postdoc, I was aware that I couldn’t live at the pace of crazy my whole career. I learned to say “no”. I was offered several opportunities that I’d already had, or that I wasn’t interested in, or that I didn’t have time for. Several times, I turned things down and tried to keep focus on what I enjoyed and valued. Saying no is a lot harder than saying yes, and you will get some push back from supervisors or colleagues. Nonetheless, learning to say “no” is a core skill – no-one else will protect your time and interests except yourself.
Time spent being an ECR is an opportunity to not just carve out a research area, but to carve out a way of practising academia. It’s worth giving it some thought and working out how you want to live in our professional world. The way you ECR likely reflects the way you will research later in your career. Habits are damn hard to break, so it’s worth thinking through now what you would like that to look like. Enjoy it!