A new skills challenge

I’ve recently found myself skills challenged. There’s not that many times in my short academic career that I’ve felt I’ve lacked the skills to get by.

When I first travelled overseas as a PhD student to spend some time at a collaborator’s institution, I had a significant skills challenge. I was coming in with a strong quantitative background, with a solid grasp of physics and maths from my undergraduate days. But I had very little experience with programming and was thrown into a project requiring high-level coding skills.

It was a tough and rewarding few months. I made it through with a 1960s book on FORTRAN, a lot of encouragement and the space to make mistakes and develop a new skill set.

I encountered another big skills challenge during my first postdoc when I was teaching a third year course on climate change. I was a mentor for a class that was offered as part of the university’s distinctive curriculum structure. It was provided as a course that allowed students from diverse disciplinary backgrounds to undertake an intensive research project in small groups. My group of four students focused their research efforts on the viability of a transition to renewable energy sources in Australia in the coming decades.

This was my first experience in such a position and my group had a difficult working dynamic. My group fought intensely and was often rude to me. I had no idea what to do and was envious of the other groups having fun and producing fantastic quality research. My group did poorly and by the end of semester, I had compiled a huge list of ‘what not to dos’ for future teaching.

I’m now facing another skills challenge. I pride myself on my organisational skills. I could make lists in my sleep! My favourite childhood activity was organising my mum’s button collection. My favourite grown up activity is crossing items off lists. But now I’m finding that my organisational skills aren’t up to scratch.

I’ve recently taken on a new service commitment that is immensely time consuming but is also a “lumpy” commitment. I have emails coming in all the time that require attention and I have to liaise with a wide variety of people on different matters of differing urgency. Each tasks acts to fragment my time and thought. I’ll think I’m finally on top of everything, only to get an email at 10 pm asking about something I’ve totally forgotten. I’m well and truly out of my skill depth and have been scrambling to work out the best way forward.

  • First, I’ve given up on the idea that I’m an organised person. There’s no such thing! Instead, I’m doing a good job of balancing new and challenging tasks with existing commitments. And there’s always consolation in remembering that I’m awesome at organising button collections. I hate forgetting things or missing deadlines, but I’m coming around to the idea that sometimes this is an inevitability and that there’s not actually a special place in hell for people who let self-imposed deadlines slip. Life goes on.
  • Second, I’ve had to rethink the way I organise my days and weeks and the way give priority to tasks and emails. There are a lot of resources around to help implement and stick to new workflows and data management approaches. They won’t suit all individual or situations, but they are a good starting point for balancing a multitude of projects.  In the last couple of months, I’ve overhauled the file structure on my laptop, my email folders and my endnote notebooks. I’ve changed the way I manage my calendar and my data backups and I’ve also installed Omnifocus to help with more complex projects. I’ve imposed some limits on times of the day when I respond to emails and what I say ‘yes’ to. Or at least I’m trying.
  • Third, I’ve been honest with collaborators and ‘stakeholders’ about the situation. I haven’t pretended that I’m on top of everything and always know what I’m doing. This has been very useful – people expect you to be competent and hardworking, not a super-person. As a result, I’ve had a lot of help and a lot of understanding during the handover period.

It seems like an academic career will always throw up an occasional skill challenge. After a short period of feeling defeated, embracing a challenge can improve your work and work habits. As long as nothing challenges my button organising, I think I can live with that!

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