As I highlighted back in December, 2015 is my 10th year as a practicing scientist. I’ve not reflected on this milestone all that much, and with the field season
sneaking barrelling up on me, I thought I’d change that. To start, some thoughts on lessons I’ve learned about Science™ since I began in 2005. This isn’t advice, or necessarily representative, for everyone, but a reflection on my experiences.
Things take a long time
Longer than you think. In fact, Scotty’s advice to multiple estimates by a factor of 4 is not that unreasonable (miracle worker or not). Whether this is the amount of time to hire a field tech, publish a paper, get reimbursed, write a paper, get results back from the lab, or nearly anything else involved in professional science, chances are you will underestimate how long it takes. Even now, 10 years in, there are still things that take longer than I had expected. One day I might get it figured out. Hopefully in the next
10 40 years.
There are far more excellent scientists than there are jobs
I’ve seen this from both ends – as a job applicant, and as the person hiring. And it covers the gamut from field techs to grad positions, to postdocs, to term jobs, to permanent positions. Yes, there’s a degree of stochasticity, but to chalk it all up to chance does a disservice to the applicants and the folks hiring. It’s bloody hard when faced with 60+ applications for 2-3 positions to separate the “Yes” pile from the “Definitely Yes” pile (and then the “Absolutely Definitively Yes” pile). I don’t have the answer to this problem (I don’t think anyone really does).
I moved 225 km between B.Sc. and M.Sc., another 1700 km between M.Sc. and Ph.D., a massive 5500 between Ph.D. and postdoc, and over 6300 from postdoc to permanent job. None of them were stress-free or all that enjoyable. That’s about one third of the way around the world at the equator just in relocation (to say nothing of field travel, conferences, visits home, … I am now an Airport Pro™). Because of the intense competition for jobs (or just plain lack of them in the first place), scientists often move long distances between positions. This is tough. As someone who grew up in small-town-suburbia of the Maritimes (if there is such a thing), I found it challenging to get established, forge new friendships, and feel “at home”. Based on our three big moves, I’d guess it takes me about 2 years each time. And it still sucks.
Some people are jerks (but most are amazing)
Just like everywhere else, some people involved in science are jerks. Some like to pontificate from upon high. But there are far more, in my experience, who are supportive, fantastic, and encouraging. Just like Real Life. Shocking, isn’t it? Illegitimi non carborundum, I always say. Forge links with good people, and when jerks do show up, you’ll at least have someone to rant to.
There is no shortage of cool amazing science that needs done
I have, on several occasions, been searching for a reference for something in a paper I’m writing, only to come up empty. “Someone should do that” I quip to myself. Sometimes it’s good for that someone to be me. There’s heaps of science, from natural history to histology to physiology to statistical and mathematical biology to be done. One person obviously can’t do it all, but a team of the right people can do some pretty cool things. I’ve collaborated with many of these people and it’s been fantastic. Not only does the science get done, but we both/all learn heaps in the process.
Collaborate. Often. But carefully.
This sort of follows on the last point, but I think it bears repeating. As a grad student I sought out a couple of external collaborations or otherwise got myself involved in projects outside my thesis, which was a great experience. Many of these collaborations have continued for years, and been highly productive. But a small minority have been dead ends, but that’s OK as long as I’ve learned why they stalled. In some cases, it’s been everyone’s other commitments, while in others, it’s just dropped off the radar of all involved. Very rarely (only once?) have I ended up “burned” by a collaboration gone south.
Each career stage has been the best of my career (for different reasons)
As a M.Sc. student, I had the opportunity to explore research for the first time. As a Ph.D. student, I had the stability to dedicate 4 years to a series of related questions. As a (NSERC-funded) postdoc, I had the freedom to plot out my own research program. Now as an NGO scientist, I’m involved in shaping policy and on-the-ground conservation. Each also had/has their downsides, but these have been/are outweighed by the good things.
Productivity isn’t just measured in papers published
My first draft of the paragraph above included that my postdoc was “the most productive time”, which just isn’t accurate. I’ve been productive for 10 years, but in different areas. Some of it has been in publishing, but some has also been in teaching, developing curricula, contributing to larger projects (particularly when I was a postdoc at Environment Canada, and here at the RSPB), supervising others, and learning new tools. Just as each career stage has been “the best” in different areas, each has been productive in its own ways.
I have some more thoughts on some of the particularly frustrating parts of the last 10 years (job searching, publishing, and our professional culture), but will save those for the next post.