As a proud non-academic scientist, I find some of the short-hands (shorts-hand?) for career stages don’t really mesh with my experiences so far. I got my PhD in 2011, didn’t have a career break, and am in my second permanent job, so I’m not really an “early-career researcher” any more (or at least, I don’t really feel like one). One big difference between the academy and science writ large is the presence of permanent staff that one manages. I have five permanent staff in my team. For that reason, I’ve sort of dubbed my current career stage “early-career management”.
But whether you’re managing a team of staff, or of research students and postdocs, there are still some common threads and challenges. One of the biggest that I struggle with, be it with staff or the grad students I co-supervise, is how to balance our collective ethos for the way we work with that of the broader community.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that scientific research as a whole has some pretty significant issues, particularly around power dynamics, valuing contributions, and the pressure to produce. Many of these are analogous (or directly applicable) in other fields as well. I, and many others, have been fighting back against these broken systems in our own way, making our little corner of the world just a little bit less crap. And I think I can safely say that the people we work with in building A Better Science World appreciate, and thrive in such environments.
But what about when we come into contact with the brutal, oppressive, harsh “outside world” of the current orthodoxy?
Two examples come to mind. In our lab, and where I work, we often work by consensus, especially on larger cross-cutting issues that affect everyone. Achieving that consensus is important because it means that decisions aren’t regarded as edicts promulgated from upon high, arguments are made and heard, and everyone has a chance to weigh in. This, of course, takes time which is often at odds with the desire of others for a rapid response, or a quick turn-around and if they’re not used to this kind of system of working, it can be seen as needlessly wasting time, or putting decisions off.
The other example is around writing manuscripts which will eventually (hopefully) become journal articles or book chapters or monographs. I’ve alluded to some of this before. Trying to be inclusive with who gets credit (go read Max Liboiron’s blog and paper on equity in authorship… it was quite honestly revolutionary in my own thinking about this), or making sure everyone has a chance to comment, feed back, and sign-off on things like the text, images, and plan (e.g., where to submit it, or whether they agree with the responses to reviewer comments).
Now on the whole, I think our approaches work well, and they are important to me as someone who manages staff and supervises research students and postdocs. But having experienced some situations in the last 2 years that have been so counter to my own approaches, I’ve been left wondering how I can become more resilient to these transgressions, and also prepare my staff and students for their own encounters with a less inclusive, less consensus-driven science world. Some were small (a paper was submitted to a journal other than what we had agreed), others were larger or more chronic.
Because if I find it jarring and upsetting, so will the folks in the work environment I try to nurture. And trying to push back (again, and again) with institutions or a myriad of coauthors (often new, and sometimes one-off) just isn’t sustainable.
I genuinely don’t know the answers, but until Science™ is more inclusive, diverse, and compassionate, and less cut-throat, metrics-driven, and injurious it’s something that those of us trying to change the system, or hold the ladder for those coming behind us will need to think about. And it’s one of my biggest struggles as an Early-Career Manager.