In hindsight

It’s time for another blogging carnival! As with the previous time I wrote for one of these, it came to my attention via Scicurious (who also wrote her own post). The topic for this one looks really cool:

“So the plan is now that The Molecular Ecologist will host a “Knowing What I Know Now” carnival on Monday, December 10, and if you’re working in science at any career stage, you’re invited! All you need to do is write up a few things you wish you’d known in your previous career stage that would’ve helped you prepare for your current career stage. (i.e., grad students, write about undergrad; postdocs, about grad school; and so on.)”

So, as a PhD student in the UK, here’s my contribution. Although it is primarily aimed at undergraduates, I’m going to try taking my own advice during my PhD…

Start thinking of your next career step early on. Although the second term of your first year as an undergrad may seem too early (it’s really not), any time before your last couple of terms beats that last-minute panic of “am I going to move back in with my parents or sell my soul to a temping agency” you get around the time of final year exams. The independence, freedom and excitement of being an undergrad can be so intense that it’s really easy to seize the day and conveniently forget about the future. Getting a good degree from a great university is all well and good but those are actually not that uncommon and getting a good job straight out of uni depends on a lot more than your transcript and diploma. Of course, there’s passion, enthusiasm and doing well in an interview situation but other stuff also helps.

The things I did that were of the most help in fluffing up my CV were the extra-curricular bits: as a psychology student, I did some volunteering with the National Autistic Society and a university-run community project which involved socialising with in-patients in a local psychiatric hospital. I also got a cool part-time job with my University’s “Widening Participation” office and got paid to talk to, do activities with and give tours to primary and secondary school kids aimed at encouraging them to consider higher education. I found out about and applied for a Wellcome Trust summer research scholarship and spent the summer before my final year helping with a research project (a big part of which involved suffering the biggest heat wave I’ve witnessed in the UK, while preparing stimuli: taking photos of carefully measured portions of food, which refused to look photo-worthy, in a tiny attic room full of equipment emitting even more heat). These things were all interesting and looked pretty cool on my CV but when it came down to job-hunting, I really wished I had done more. Those weeks of 9-hours of lectures, which seemed so awesome and liberating at the time, could really have been spent doing more than sleeping in, studying and having fun.

If you see something that looks interesting and has potential to give you some good experience, go for it. Seek out exciting opportunities. My university had a job search webpage for students, with many quirky part-time posts and various opportunities. My department also had noticeboards which occasionally advertised useful things and some things (e.g. seminars and talks) got advertised before/after lectures.

The main problem I had as an undergraduate was that I was clueless as to where I saw myself in even 2 years’ time. I felt like I had used up all of my life-decision-making potential through choosing a course and a university. The most useful help I got was from talking and listening to people. I went to a very informative talk on being a clinical psychologist, which basically made me cross that career option off of my infinite-seeming virtual list. Still, a helpful thing to do. I spent some time hanging out in the University Careers Service, which was useful for things like CV-making but utterly useless for working out how to go about choosing a career and finding a specific job I was actually interested in.

One thing I didn’t do enough of, which might have been a lot more profitable, would have been to talk to more people (i.e. older students, lecturers…). I had a great personal tutor/advisor and really nice dissertation supervisor but I never really asked them what options I had. I did talk to my tutor about PhDs but I did so far too late for it to be of much use, in the end of my 3rd year, when all the funded places for the coming year had been filled months before.

In the end, I applied for any and every vaguely interesting job around for a couple of months until I “got lucky” and was offered a social work type job, which was alright to start and paid the bills. It took some crazy applying to get back into academia after. It was particularly difficult because the research assistant posts I was applying for were getting filled up with post-docs who were more qualified than me by at least a whole PhD… But I am so glad I persevered as in hindsight, I really should have been more organised and just stayed in academia in the first place.

So, my advice is: don’t get complacent. Just because your current rung on the career ladder feels secure and cosy for now, if you don’t start thinking about taking that next step ahead of time, the steps ahead might start seeming out of reach by the time your current rung starts dissipating. Having gone through the stress of desperately needing a job, any job, and then having a really stressful and dissatisfying job and not being able to move on to something better for a while, I think I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’m still in the first year of my PhD but that next step is always at the back of my mind.

P.S. If you haven’t come across it yet, do read the text of Dr Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”, which you can find here. It is awesome 🙂

Diversity in Science – Feeling like an imposter

One of the bloggers I follow (scicurious) is hosting a blogging event this month as part of the Diversity in Science Blog Carnival. I’ve never taken part in anything like this and am quite new to blogging so thought I would give it a go as the theme this month (Imposter Syndrome) is a good one.

I’ve only recently started making my first small steps in academia after an attempt of doing some post-undergrad community work, but I can already tell that the pressure to excel in my new chosen career path can be terrifying. The need to keep on top of all the new literature coming out every day, come up with your own original and exciting ideas, execute them and then publish top class papers, while working on creating collaborative links, doing teaching, public engagement and a host of admin work seems like a lot all at once. However, my responsibilities and day-to-day life pale in comparison to what I see my supervisors doing – rushing from meeting to meeting and contributing to ten different projects at once, writing books and reviews, supervising thesis vivas etc. etc. The pressure to do well and be of value to others is immense.

However, the thing that is possibly the most stressful for me is the fact that other people are relying on me. Even though a PhD is generally a fairly solitary undertaking, my previous position as a research assistant on a big project means that I am one of the few people around who know a lot about said project. Mostly, this isn’t an overwhelming responsibility and I am happy to share what I do know and even share data for specific purposes (which obviously don’t overlap with my own interests too much). However, I occasionally mess up and that’s when the feelings behind imposter syndrome really come out. I manage a number of databases with over 1000 children in them, with very thorough phenotypic and whole genome data. Creating these databases was a terrifying task and working on any one of the files with so many numbers can be daunting and dizzying. It really is quite easy to make mistakes after staring at the computer for several hours in a row. But still, that sudden realisation that somebody you sent a file to has been working on the wrong dataset or the wrong variables for the last couple of months and that the numbers in the paper they are about to submit are actually wrong, is pretty horrifying. No matter how small the mistake (a few cases that accidentally got included which shouldn’t have been, a tiny change in the calculation of a variable etc.), it really is quite easy to feel like you have let people down, you are an imposter and as soon as you admit it, you will be branded as such and your reputation will be destroyed forever. Perhaps it’s just easier to cut your losses and find an alternative career path? Personally, I can’t stand knowing that something is not correct so I will always strive to fix it. How can we publish something even slightly incorrect? It’s anathema to scientific rigour.

Fortunately, after working yourself up about all this, once you find the courage to tell people, you quickly realise that it’s all ok and you made a mountain out of a mole hill. Mistakes happen. People are generally glad to fix them. In fact, I’m lucky that people where I work genuinely value honesty in such situations and don’t appear to judge you for making mistakes. I think the pressure to do well and keep up a good reputation is so strong in academia that these situations are not easy to deal with. But having a supportive bunch of people who are also human and make mistakes really helps to be practical and tackle the consequences and hopefully stop feeling like an imposter.