Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Taking control

Posted by Jean Adams

Being an early career researcher (ECR) isn’t always easy. So much emphasis is put on finishing your PhD, you slog your guts out getting the thing done, then a bottle of champagne and a long sleep later and life doesn’t seem to have changed much. As an early post-doctoral researcher you aren’t paid a whole lot more than a PhD studentship. And whilst that studentship might have been three, or even four, years of fairly secure ‘employment’, now you are suddenly in at the sharp end of short term contracts. On more than one occasion, I got sent a redundancy notice before I’d received the relevant contract to sign. You are generally beholden to more senior colleagues to find money to pay your salary and the dark arts of patching together pots of money from here and there to make a job can seem incomprehensible, sinister and even vaguely illegal.* It is easy to feel like your career is suddenly way out of your control.

It ain't easy being an ECR
At the same time, the demands can be overwhelming. The PhD that you thought was going to be the crowning glory of your CV suddenly feels as irrelevant as your GCSEs were the day you got some A-levels. It now has to be added to with teaching experience, publications, grants of your own, and examples of impact, engagement and outreach. All at the same time as fulfilling the demands of the day job, or jobs, that the person, or people, who have found you a salary require.

High demands. Lack of control. Sound familiar? It’s not surprising that so many ECRs feel totally stressed out by the whole thing. It is the very definition of a stressful working environment.

Of course the story above is a gross over-simplification. There are all sorts of pathways by which people come to the role of ECR. Just as there are all sorts of pathways that ECRs take from the point of PhD onwards. I don’t know the magic formula for ‘making it’. But I would suggest that if you want to get a grip on the stress, there are two things you can do: reduce the demands, or take back some control. I am not too great at moderating the demands of academic life. There always feels way too much to do, I’m hopeless at saying ‘no’ (and make it worse for myself by using synonyms for ‘no’ and then getting pissed off when these are interpreted as ‘yes’), and I’m never sure who I could or should delegate to. So my main strategy is to try and maintain a modicum of control.

Here is my five-step plan:

1. Decide what you want to do. Having a PhD doesn’t mean you have to stay in research, or that you will have failed if you don’t. It might feel like that in a university, because that’s what the people who seem to have the most status do. But I know lots of people with PhDs and MDs who have fulfilling lives and careers outside of university research. On the life achievement side, all of them have more children than I do.

2. If you want to stay in research, decide what sort of role you want. Not everyone has to be a professor. In fact, it’s quite obvious when you look around any university department that it’s pretty unlikely that every ECR could become a professor. Without a massive expansion in the sector, there will just never be enough professorial positions to go around. But there are other jobs within research - either within the ‘lab’ as a career researcher, or outwith it in research support.

3. Work out a plan. Once you’ve decided what you want to achieve in the long term, work out what the main steps are for getting there - say over the next 5 to 10 years. Then work out a more detailed plan for achieving the first of the steps - say over the next couple of years.

4. Make sure you have formal and informal mentors and support groups. The ‘answers’ to steps 1 to 3 are going to be obvious to some people and totally opaque to others, with a range of experience in between. Throughout your career (just as throughout your life) you are going to need advice and support. Make use of all the advice and support you can to help you work out where you want to go, how to get there, to keep you on track, and to remind you that you are awesome. It’s way too easy to forget, in an environment full of high achievers and extraordinarily clever people, that you too are amazing.

5. Reappraise regularly. If you’re not getting what you want from your chosen plan then go back to step 1 and reconsider.

*I promise they aren’t. They just seem that way.

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