Authors: Janet Daly (University of Nottingham, UK)
It pains me to say it, but I started my research career almost three decades ago. I have followed a somewhat stochastic career path, but I am a firm believer in having no regrets – who knows what the outcome may have been had I made different choices at various junctures.
What I do know is that research is becoming increasingly competitive in nature – grant success rates are lower than when I was first applying (to the point that they are almost a lottery) and in line with the rest of society, we are increasingly target-driven (e.g. minimum requirements such as at least one 3* paper for the next Research Excellence Framework return). Therefore, the three top tips below represent the advice I’d give my former self imagining that I was embarking on my research career in the present time.
Don’t let research take over your life.
Like many scientists, I love doing research – in fact, it’s positively addictive. There are highs – submitting your dissertation, passing your viva, having a paper accepted, winning a grant – but these are invariably interspersed by the lows of revisions and rejections. Try to make sure you maintain a healthy balance of research and other interests to help keep things in perspective.
Building a support network can help with this. While doing a PhD, it can be very helpful to be in a cohort of students with whom you can compare experiences and realize that you are not the only one going through a certain phase. However, if you move on to a postdoctoral position at another institution, you may lose this support network. If a mentor is not organized for you, consider approaching someone to take on the role. In many cases, people will be flattered to be asked, but it is important that you clearly define what you want to get out of the relationship.
Avoid making comparisons with others.
I mentioned above that it can be comforting to know that other people go through similar ups and downs during their PhD studies, but you need to take care not to fall into the trap of feeling bad if others seem to be faring better than you. In these days of Facebook and Twitter, it is easy to start feeling inadequate when a productive colleague is always posting or tweeting about their latest accomplishments. If this is the case, try reminding yourself that someone else’s success is not your failure. Some areas of research lend themselves more to producing lots of papers. If it is really beginning to affect your confidence, try to limit the amount of time you spend looking at social media and instead try a more constructive distraction like listening to a TED talk.
It is OK to say ‘no’ sometimes.
This follows on to some extent from the previous point – you may find it difficult to say no because you don’t want to be seen as someone who cannot or does not pull their weight. Academia relies on people undertaking voluntary service to the community (e.g. reviewing grants and manuscripts) and performing these functions provides us with valuable insight into what makes a good grant application or paper (or the converse). However, there are only so many hours in a day and if you say yes to everything, something is going to have to give!
So try to be strategic in responding to requests to take on more work or responsibility. If you are asked to take something on, review how many commitments you already have and consider how likely agreeing would ultimately be of benefit to you. If you already have too much on your plate, consider nominating someone who may be flattered to be asked or more appropriate for the task. Most of the time, it is best to politely decline a request without justifying your decision – making elaborate excuses could trip you up or appear feeble. Sometimes you just have to be a little bit selfish – if you’d really like to take on a new challenge but don’t have time, you may have to say no to something else.
I have to confess that all of the above advice is very much do as I say not as I do!
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