Knowing what you know now: what career advice would you give your former self?

Over at The Molecular Ecologist, Jeremy Yoder asks a great question: Knowing what you know now, what career advice would you give yourself at the career stage immediately preceding the one you’re currently in? He’s organized a blog carnival for the answers, submission deadline is Dec. 8, instructions on how to submit your advice are in the linked post. Advice can be for any career path, not just academia.

My advice is below. There are two sections because I wasn’t sure how finely divided “career stages” are supposed to be. As a tenured associate professor, am I supposed to be giving advice to untenured faculty? Or to postdocs? I’ll hedge my bets and give some advice for each. I’ll also cheat a bit; not all of the advice is stuff I only learned after I’d left the career stage in question. Some of it is things I didn’t know at the beginning of the career stage in question, but learned during the course of it.

All of my advice assumes that your long-term goal is an academic career. Purely because that’s the only career track I know enough about to look back and give sensible advice about.

For postdocs:

Branch out for your postdoc, but not too much. In retrospect, I didn’t branch out enough during my postdoc as compared to my PhD. I picked up some modeling skills during my postdoc, but on the empirical side I was running the same sorts of microcosm experiments I’d run for my PhD (and continue to run today). I think this led to an understandable perception during faculty job interviews that I was something of a narrow, one-trick pony. But conversely, there is such a thing as branching out too much. If you use your postdoc to totally change directions and drop your previous interests in favor of new ones, you risk being seen as a dilettante. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not uncommon for people to change direction in fairly radical ways when going from PhD to postdoc–but ideally I think there’s some strong common thread linking your PhD and your postdoc. Attacking the same basic problem or question, just in a very different system or using very different skills and techniques. Taking transferable skills learned during a PhD (say, modeling or programming skills learned as a physicist or computer scientist) and applying them to ecology. Etc.

Be realistic about your small chances of eventually getting a tenure-track faculty position, and have a back-up plan. I talked about this in my best post ever.

Seek out postdocs that will let you take a true leadership role in the direction of a research program–your own, or a key part of someone else’s. Something where you get to make big decisions as to what gets done. I think that was a big plus of my postdoc, to an extent I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. I was a free agent, able to pursue whatever research I wanted (as long as the director of the institute approved it, so I could spend money on it). It showed that I could think of my own questions and run my own research program.

For assistant professors:

Ok, this is something I knew at the time, but I know it’s something other folks learned only after it was too late, so I’ll share it anyway. When negotiating startup, do your homework (e.g., by having a quiet word with other new faculty in the department you’ll be joining) and find out about how much money you can expect. But then don’t just ask for that amount of money. Instead, give the Dean or whoever you’re negotiating with a detailed budget that adds up to roughly however much money you know you can expect, or a bit more. You basically want to say to the Dean, “We both want me to succeed. Here’s what I need to set up a successful, sustainable, long-term research program, and here’s how much it costs.” The Dean won’t necessarily give you that much money just because you’ve backed it up with a budget. But now you have a basis for negotiating (e.g., can you make do with sharing some equipment, etc.). If you just ask for $X, and the Dean offers $X-Y, you can’t just reply “No, give me $X” (well, unless you have multiple offers, I suppose). That’s not negotiating, that’s just making demands.

Teaching your first class will be terrifying. It is for everyone. You’ll be fine as long as you put in the effort to prepare (and to improve over time). Ask your colleagues for advice, ask to sit in on their classes, ask to borrow their notes if they’ve taught the class in the past, consider a short course on instruction techniques if your university offers one (and you haven’t already taken one as a postdoc), think back to the techniques of your best profs when you were an undergrad, etc. At Calgary, where many courses are team taught, in my first year I sat in on every single lecture of the profs who were teaching before me in the two classes I was assigned to teach, and took detailed notes. Not only was this great training, and a great way to ensure that my teaching “meshed” with theirs, later I was actually able to teach from those notes when assigned to teach other parts of those classes.

That kind of leads to a broader point: it’s not a sign of weakness to ask colleagues for advice. On anything. They’re your colleagues, and they were once in your shoes.

When teaching, remember that, as a student, you almost certainly were an extreme outlier in terms of your academic ability, background preparation, interest in the material, study habits, everything. You can’t just aim your teaching at the few students who are like you were.

When looking for grad students, meet every prospective grad student face to face, ideally via at least a full-day visit to your lab. Any money you have to spend flying in promising prospective grad students is money well spent, and is chump change compared to the amount of money, time, and effort you’ll be putting into training the students you choose to take on. Taking on a grad student is a big commitment for both of you. It’s to the benefit of both of you to be as sure as you both can possibly be that you’re a good fit for each other. Do not rely solely on letters of reference, no matter how positive, perhaps unless those letters come from close colleagues whom you know very well.

6 thoughts on “Knowing what you know now: what career advice would you give your former self?

  1. Related to your first piece of advice for postdocs: Advice that I was given that I think was very good was to view the postdoc as a time to learn a new skill or a new system, but not both. If you don’t do either, you risk not seeming like you’ve branched out at all. But if you try to do both, you risk not getting enough done, simply because you have so much to learn.

    I decided that I wanted to use my postdoc to learn more theory, which is why I did my postdoc with Tony Ives. But I stuck to the system I had developed for my PhD research, which let me still be productive. And I continue to work on that same system, which could potentially be viewed as a drawback. I think it has worked for me in large part because my PhD advisor (Alan Tessier) is not known as a disease person, and so I could continue working on that system without it seeming like I wasn’t independent.

  2. This is pretty specific, but when I was negotiating the terms of my faculty job, I wish I had focused more on salary and less on start-up. I was hung up on the start-up package because it was half of what my friends were getting at non-land-grant (meaning richer) universities. But your start-up package is gone in a few years whether it is big or small. In contrast, your starting salary sets the baseline for the rest of your career and, given the compounding nature of raises and interest, a difference of $1,000 turns out to be really important over the long term.

    • You’re absolutely right that your salary starting point will ramify throughout your career. But even knowing that that would be case, I didn’t bother to negotiate on salary. I just didn’t care enough about it (plus, having only one offer I didn’t have any leverage anyway, but that’s a separate issue…). Not that I don’t care about money at all, and when I got the salary offer I did check that I wasn’t being lowballed. But my attitude was that any salary offer would be a big bump up from my postdoc, and in the grand scheme of things would be very good money (the large majority of people in Canada or the US make substantially less than an assistant professor). So I was much more worried about getting as much startup as possible, because I felt like a few thousand extra in startup could well make a material difference in getting my lab up and running, and thus to my long-term happiness. An extra thousand in starting salary wasn’t going to make the same difference to my long-term happiness, not even with compounding.

      I might make an analogy to many faculty on 9-month contracts, who look at their salary as their “annual” salary, with any summer money they’re able to get from grants being a “bonus”. It’s not that such people don’t care about money, or don’t care about having a summer salary. But for some people, that point of view is the one that makes them happiest.

      I hasten to add that attitudes to money are very personal things. And further, external circumstances often dictate our attitudes–had my personal circumstances been different, I might well have felt obliged to negotiate harder on salary. In noting my own attitude, I’m absolutely not saying that it’s wrong to take a different attitude.

  3. My comment concerns the transitions from PhD to postdoc and from postdoc onwards (maybe to Assist Prof in the USA or to a research fellowship in the UK).

    When moving between stages, there is an obvious trade-offs associated with publishing lots and gaining independence. I think they key is to be honest with yourself about where you lie on the trade-off and do all you can to break free from it.

    I am currently a postdoc working for Meghan Duffy (*waves at Meg in above comment*) and I work on Daphnia-disease systems from the USA. I did my PhD with Tom Little looking at Daphnia-disease systems in the UK and In January I will be starting my own lab, again working on Daphnia-disease systems back in the UK. I’m sure you can spot a theme.

    Although there is broad overlap in my research foci, I have asked different research questions at each stage – my PhD questions were very different from all my other lab mates. I think some PhD to postdoc overlap can yield considerable benefits. These include higher productivity, better ideas for future research and the chance to build a name for yourself as a focussed researcher. Focussed is good – when you have the good ideas, you’ll be better able to convince people you’ll make them work.

    I think I have been particularly fortunate in that I’ve had great advisors over my career. I have had a lot of independence, so I feel I own the research I have done as much as my advisors. I think if you a) work for nice people b) work hard for them and c) do work that is a bit different from the others in the lab, you can develop independence and cash in on overlapping research foci from PhD to postdoc. In short, don’t let yourself just be an employee of your postdoc/PhD advisor; be a collaborator.

    Of course you can’t just develop independence; you have to convince others you’re independent. Make a website, have a research interests page and pubs page and link to it on job applications, talks and on social media (and get your current boss to link to it from their website). Force others to see you as independent and, in the main, they will.

  4. Pingback: Knowing what I know now: The carnival | The Molecular Ecologist

  5. Pingback: Grad School Application Process, some thoughts and experiences | Lisa Johnson Cohen

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