Our research focuses on the population dynamics of plants and how they are influenced by impacts of natural disturbances and global environmental change. We are particularly interested in the interactive effects of fire, grazing and drought in grasslands and woodlands in southern Australia, and how climate change, fragmentation and shrub encroachment affect ecosystems.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Advice for new academics [or what I reckon I've got right, and wrong]

One unintended consequence of working with small plants
has been that my knees are now not so forgiving of a day's
work doing small quadrats!
In late 1998 I was lucky enough (looking back on it) to be appointed as Lecturer in Plant Ecology at La Trobe University. Really, I had  no idea what I was getting into. I'd spent the previous 6-7 years undertaking research, followed by a 6-month Lecturer appointment at Deakin University (filling in for someone on maternity leave). In many respects, I knew I wanted to be an academic but my training really had totally under-prepared me for the actual job. Much of it has been on-the-job learning.

Becoming an academic means you're doing research (and guiding student projects) and teaching (which includes marking, subject co-ordination, subject review, student interactions, etc).  You’re also expected to write grants, serve on a myriad of committees, advise students and review the work of others (manuscripts, proposals). Each of these can take up a lot of your time each day. And there is only so much time in the day to get everything done.  So, I thought it might be useful to list some things that I think I could/should have done better, and some things that I think I've done OK. This might help new academics transition a little easier than I did.

Fifteen years down the track, I'm pretty happy with where I'm at. But, there are definitely some things I could have done better (and if I had my time over again, probably would have). Here's a few things that come to mind:

1. Learn to say no, at least to some things. When you first start up, you feel like you have to impress your workplace, so you tend to end up saying 'yes' to everything. Either that, or like me, you didn't realise you could say 'no'. While busy people make time to do all the tasks they take on, in academia this actually comes at a cost. By agreeing to every committee you're asked to sit on, and doing all the admin jobs around the department, as well as lots of teaching, you actually cut into your quality time to do research, and to hang around with those who do your research (your Post-Grads). It is good to be busy, but not at the expense of the most important task on your Job Description. I have been poor at saying no and now have learnt to say "I'll get back to you on that" or "I need to check my diary first". I still say "yes" way too often. Saying no shouldn't be a reflection that you're not a 'team-player' but rather, you are trying to get a good balance between research, teaching and admin.
2. Team up with a senior academic. Life is pretty lonely in academia sometimes. You feel time-pressured, pulled from all sides, developing subjects with little help, and worry that your research is not going as well as it could. Indeed, you might even feel career success competition from other academics. I felt this way too, mainly because my University didn't really have a mentor programme in place to guide me through the complexity of academic life. So, for many years, I just put up with this. I assumed that you just got on with things. It wasn't till I teamed up with a senior academic (from another University), in what really was a chance interaction, that I started to get some mentoring that helped me figure out 'my job'. This mentoring, unofficial as it was, made a huge difference to how I felt about my place. How to think about priorities, how to see my role in academia, and how to interact in my research field - none of this was ever made explicit.
3. Unfinished projects. I've had lots of great students through the years and we've published lots of good papers. But invariably I've started new projects before wrapping up old ones. This comes at a cost. Some of that great work has yet to be published and, if I'm honest, probably won't ever be now. This is disappointing for everyone as our science, the reason for being in academia, won't ever be scrutinised nor made available to the wider community. I once waited for the student to take the lead on writing up their papers. This has rarely worked. They move on to new jobs, etc and don't necessarily have the same motivation for publishing that I do.  So I'm now much more explicit when it comes to writing. I tend to say that "you've got 6 months to prepare a manuscript. If you don't I will take over the paper and will be first author if I deem I have to re-write the data and general story". I think this is helping getting those unfinished manuscripts written.

The things I think I got right are quite personal, and possibly won't resonate with everyone. But in my case, they have allowed me to stay positive, productive, happy, and to feel like I'm making a contribution to academia and my field of ecology more generally.

Field experiments have been at the centre of my
research world for two decades.
1. My research is diverse, sort of. I tend to work on vegetation dynamics, mainly the role of recruitment processes and how they affect local abundance, species coexistence, range limits, recovery after disturbance, invasions, restoration. I've tended to focus on herbaceous ecosystems. I've branched out into interesting related areas - the role of plant traits in predicting responses to perturbations, or the reversibility of ecosystem states,  for instance - and it is this variety of general questions that continues to drive my curiosity. This is crucial. It means I might have forsaken answering one 'big' ecological question, but being a generalist means I still get really excited about plants every day of the week!
2. Read! I try and read one scientific paper every working day of the year. It's hard, and doesn't always happen. Indeed, it's closer to 3-4 per week. But I find it helps me to keep abreast of the literature, and I feel like I'm up with current ecological discussions. That makes my job as a reviewer, grant applicant, advisor, lecturer easier - because I know where my discipline is at. But I like making lists too! So maybe it just says something about my personality type.
3. My Lab is a small lab.  I take research mentoring seriously. For me, research quality over quantity is paramount. I've never had more than six PhD students at any one time and I like this - it gives me time to be involved in their work at a meaningful level. That way, I can spend lots of time discussing their data, musing over experimental design, and getting to know them as individuals. I think the best thing I can do is invest my time in people and a small lab suits my hands-on style. It also allows to do some of my own research too, and this keeps me sane.
A recent botanical expedition to the Snowy River led us to some
surprising findings!
4. I go into the field. I'm a field biologist afterall. I got into plant ecology because I like nature and being in the field observing patterns and processes. So, I make time (frequently) to go into the field to continue to hone my craft. I find observing plants, away from the distraction of the office admin, is where I have my best ideas. It's where I can mentor students, engage with managers, and see how the research we do in the Lab impacts. I get excited by ideas in the field and probably wouldn't be in academia if my main source of inspiration was removed.
5. Find time to write. I really like writing (hence, the Blog) but almost feel like it is a luxury in my job. Time doesn't permit me to sit at my desk and just write. So, you need to find a way to write, and on a regular basis. I do that two ways. I try and write (or edit) for at least one hour of every second morning (first thing). I also try and work at home one day a fortnight. This mightn't seem much, but you'd be amazed how quickly a month flies by without having worked on a paper when you've got teaching on, grading, theses examinations to do, grants to prepare, etc etc.
6. Make time for family and friends. At the end of the day, they get us through the lows in life, and share our highs. Don't neglect them because you have 'urgent' work to do. That should be done in work time. I've found that working 70 hrs a week isn't actually very productive. I reckon I work 50 hrs a week and even this is probably too much. Weekends are 'me time' as best I can manage. I haven't always done this but I'm seeing the benefit of getting away from academia and enjoying life. For me, that's wooden boats (I have a plan to build one soon), sailing and bushwalking. Surprisingly, I usually come to work on Mondays all invigorated and happy, and that can only be a good thing for my health, sanity and productivity.


Nick Schultz said...

Hi John,
Thanks for a really honest and useful blog. I will certainly be taking this advice on board.

John Morgan said...

Thanks Nick - it came about talking to a friend at a new uni who really felt they had been thrown in the deep end and expected to 'work it out' themselves. It's a personal account, but one that probably also has some wider applicability. JOHN