Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Careers Advice

Here is some advice that I gave to doctoral and postdoctoral researchers at a recent Careers Day.

The 'sunscreen song' begins with the following lyrics, and then continues with a melodic backing track:
“If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it
The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists
Whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable
Than my own meandering experience, I will dispense this advice now”
Every now and again I get asked to give a ‘sunscreen’ talk, and to share some of the lessons that I've learned. Here are a few:
Do things that interest you.
The more you like what you do, the better you will be at it.
The better you are at what you do, the more successful you will be (for a broad definition of success - fulfilled, satisfied and financially rewarded).
Life is too short to spend a lot of time doing things that you hate. Although you'll be lucky to love everything that you do at work, you've definitely got to like it enough that you don't dread going into work in the morning. There are also opportunities in most organization to take on certain tasks and responsibilities (organizing an event, establishing a new team, leading a new venture). If these overlap with your interests or your desire to try something new, then why not try it? Someone's got to do it, and it's possible that you may really enjoy it. Some of them may also open up new career possibilities that you may prefer.
Don’t saturate your time with activities. (Learn to say no)
Everyone is very busy. When we get too busy, we end up sacrificing a lot of things that we consider to be important- creativity, a sense of purpose, time for family, physical health, mental health, and ‘workplace’ health.
The difference between working at 97% capacity and 101% capacity (whatever that is) is much greater than 4%. Exceeding our capacity results in a general lapse in productivity, as well as severe stress and anxiety.
A former boss and mentor of mine advises people to work at 90% capacity. This is because he understands that a) that 10% of ‘spare’ time is not to be spent on unproductive tasks, but is time that should be channelled into important and not urgent tasks e.g. strategic planning, career development and b) unexpected events will happen, and will easily turn your workload to 110% capacity, with detrimental effects. 
The Pareto Principle is your friend. (Learn what to say no to)
The Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In other words, 80% of your research impact may be gained from 20% of your research effort. Although the percentages may need a pinch of salt, the general pattern is true. Thus, dramatic improvements can be gained by focusing on the most effective areas and eliminating, ignoring, automating, or delegating other activities. The key issue here is a self-assessment and clear definition of what constitutes impact in your research or your job. Whatever else you do, protect the current 20% of your effort that generates the majority of your impact. Then, re-channel your efforts to best support the outcomes that represent impact for you. Tying in with the previous point, discarding low-priority or low-impact efforts can help you manage your time, work less frantically, and be more productive with less time.  
Schedule meetings with yourself
When I was working on the BIODEPTH project with Sir John Lawton, one piece of advice that he gave me was to always make time for writing. And he advised that the best way to do this was to make meetings with yourself. If someone wants your time from 9-12 on Thursday morning, and you tell them that you are writing, then they will probably expect you to re-schedule your writing time. However, if you say that you “have a meeting”, they will not question the fact that they have to find an alternative time. This is not a strategy to be abused, but making meetings with yourself (real meetings, in your diary, with a specific purpose) is an excellent time management strategy. It also helps guarantee time for the things that are very important to you (see previous point), but are less important to other people. (But you can be guaranteed that those other people make meetings with themselves for *their* important tasks!) 
Develop networks with the best people in your field.
Modern research involves a lot of collaborative research, so work to ensure that you are collaborating with some of the best people in your discipline. This will need to start by networking with them in some way. Link with them on social media (e.g. LinkedIn, Twitter), make a point of meeting them at conferences, and see if you can get a travel grant to visit their research lab. Include them as a member of a Steering Committee for a project. Eventually, this may lead to a research collaboration.
Be great at working in teams. Then, learn to be great at managing teams.
There is a lot of info on teams and teamwork, so just google it.
The achievements that got you your last promotion won’t get you your next promotion
This is self-explanatory. As you progress in your career, you will need to contribute to your organisation in new ways if you are to advance your career through promotion. Even if you are less concerned with promotion as a primary source of motivation, it is also likely that you will want to do new things and expand your interests to maintain your motivation and sense of fulfilment over the course of your career. Take time to plan this progression (strategic planning) and engage with professional development to help fulfil your plans.
Don’t be too afraid of risk
At the start of a career, there can be a lot of pressure to not make a mistake. For example, if you have had only three projects, you can’t tolerate a project failure if it is 33% of your output! However, greater ambition is usually associated with risk. When you have a number of research projects or accomplishments under your belt, and especially if you have some job security, be prepared to give more consideration to projects that are more ambitious even if they have some more risk involved. Of course, no-one is advocating reckless risk-taking. On the other hand, funding agencies and research managers are prepared to recognise and accept that greater ambition sometimes requires some more risk.
Seek out a mentor, and use them
Mentors are intended to provide the benefit of their experience to help explore career and work issues. Good mentors will challenge you to think about your career, your plans, your big decisions and your preparation for these.
A mentee with the British Ecological Society provided this reflection on their experience:
"The main benefit is support, and also to get the chance to discuss and plan my career. Otherwise you spend too much time doing work, and not thinking about what you want to do later on, and how to get there. "
See ‘Career toolkit: mentoring’ and the references therein at

Useful links
‘Tooling up’ – excellent online material on careers from Science is a useful source of career info and advice (and job ads!) has regular blogs with career advice – scroll through the archive on right hand side of page, and follow threads or tags when you see a topic of interest.
Careers advice from New Scientist:

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