Less obvious signs of reaching a new career stage

Something I’ve been thinking about lately are the less obvious signs of reaching a new career stage. I don’t mean the obvious things like being accepted to grad school, or defending your PhD, or signing your first job contract. I mean things that aren’t generally listed as major milestones but that felt important or noteworthy to you (e.g., the first time you bought coffee for someone who was at an earlier career stage than you were).

I’ll give some more examples:

As a graduate student, I remember other students talking about the first time they did an experiment without running it by their advisor first. The two particular stories I can recall were both senior grad students (one may have been a postdoc) who had a hunch about an interesting thing that might be going on in their system. In one case, the person did the experiment, then went to talk to their advisor, proposing the idea. The advisor said it would never work, leading the advisee to get the extreme satisfaction of dropping a figure showing it did work on the table.

As another example, for me, the point that I felt solidified that I was no longer early career was when I was reviewing the application file of a graduate student applicant and saw that one of the letters of recommendation had come from someone who had been an undergrad in my lab (and who now has a faculty position).

To use some I’ve seen recently on twitter:

Having someone seek you out at a meeting to talk science:

(And, since Rachel was my first PhD student, her experience also felt kind of significant for me!)

Your first paper is perhaps an obvious academic milestone, but your first last author paper also feels big!:

(Related: I remember being extremely happy about the first paper that contained data collected entirely in my lab.)

Receiving your first review request is an academic milestone; a less obvious one is reaching the point where you receive too many review requests to handle:

And here’s one based on a recent Eco-Evo, Evo-Eco blog post: being able to stand in one spot for a day and a half and have non-stop conversations seems to be a sign of having reached a particular (well-known!) career stage. (ht for this one goes to Jeremy!)

So, I’m curious: what were some of the less obvious milestones for you? (Update: If you want to tweet them, use #lessobviousmilestones)

46 thoughts on “Less obvious signs of reaching a new career stage

  1. My best one is: the kid you coached in Little League baseball when she was 13 takes a class from you.

    One that hasn’t happened for me, and never will: your former graduate supervisor stops picking up the check for you when you go out to lunch or dinner together. As far as Peter Morin is concerned, once you’re his student, you’re always always his student when it comes to picking up the check.

    I guess “being asked to serve as the external examiner for a PhD defense” is kind of an obvious one. As is “getting asked for a tenure reference letter”.

    Having a stranger come up to you to say hi at a conference didn’t mark career progress for me, it marked blog progress. That never happened to me until after this blog took off. It was a very flattering but also very weird feeling the first time it happened.

  2. Via Twitter:

  3. Love this post! Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what is my current career stage. In the first years after I got my first academic job for “black belts” (i.e., Ph.D., first dan), all signs pointed to me being an early career professor. Recently, I’ve noticed that I cannot apply to some nice early career grants and fellowships anymore, because 12 years have passed since my Ph.D. And some former students of mine now have their own students. Does it mean I’m mid-career now? 🤔

    🎵And then one day you find
    Ten years have got behind you🎵

      • Some people have mid-life crises in the days leading up to their 40th birthday. I like imagining someone having a mid-life crisis in the days leading up to the call for OPUS proposals. 🙂 Like, stereotypically, people who have mid-life crises do things like dye their hair, buy sports cars, etc. Is that what people do when they discover they only have 10 days of OPUS eligibility left? 🙂

    • In the past two years, I started writing some posts focused on the first years after tenure for Brazilian professors. Nevertheless, the main audience of my blog are still undergrads, grad students, and postdocs. Here, tenure-track lasts only 3 years and is not as harsh as in North America. So the main filter in the career is getting the job and surviving the new responsibilities.

    • This one hits too close to home! I’ve recently had conversations about:
      1. how someone really needs to write a “how to write a strong tenure/promotion letter” post,
      2. how hard it is to figure out whether to try out administration (and, if so, at what time/career stage),
      3. how lonely it can feel as one moves up the ranks, particularly as part of an underrepresented group.

      • Wow, topic 3 resonates with me. Climbing up the academic ladder is like growing as an emergent tree in a forest. You still have your roots and value them, but communication with other other trees becomes difficult, as you rise above your original canopy in some sense, and the crowns of emergent trees are all distant from one another. Loneliness is a very common feeling among people from underrepresented demographic groups who become professors.

    • You start having to ask if your undergraduates have seen “Jurassic Park” before you refer to the scene in which Jeff Golblum hits on Laura Dern as part of your lecture on chaos.

    • Similarly, I remember my undergrad advisor noting it was weird when he started having undergrads in the lab who were born after he got his PhD.

  4. A major milestone for me was when the Masters student I cosupervised published her paper as first author (myself second, her supervisor last). But a less obvious one, but just as important, was being able to have “lab meetings” with the students I cosupervise – three of them in the same research project – or collaborate with without cosupervising. Feeling like I have my own research group and people working under my (co)supervision was really, really cool.

  5. * Students who took undergrad classes with me are now professors and professional colleagues.
    ** First year undergrads are now born in a different Century

  6. This thread is reminding me of a discussion I saw (sorry, can’t remember where) about just far back in history you can go by chaining together the overlapping lives of long-lived people. For instance, there are people alive today who, when they were growing up, knew people who were alive in the early 19th century. Those people in turn are old enough to have overlapped with people who were alive in the early 18th century–well before the American Revolution.

  7. When the first paper shows up on your desk for revision with your name on it, that you weren’t even aware was being written. Similarly, when you start forgetting publications that you’ve authored when trying to construct the report for your annual review.

  8. This one might be a bit abstract, but when I was able to start thinking about my career progress in terms of average productivity over multiple years rather than in terms of the fates of individual papers/projects, that definitely felt like a new career stage. (It was also a big relief and helped me understand why more senior people often seemed more relaxed than junior people, even as they experienced similar challenges.)

    • Oh man, I never thought of that! In a few years, I will be hiring summer undergrads younger than the microscopes in my lab. Wow, that is going to make me feel old when it happens. “Here is the equipment you’ll be using. Treat it with respect. It’s older than you are.”

      Semi-relatedly, I sometimes tell summer undergrads how much my microscopes cost.* I now feel like I need to start adjusting my cost statement for inflation, since I bought my microscopes 14 years ago. If I don’t adjust for inflation, by the end of my career, I’m going to be telling my undergrads that my scopes cost X, and they’re going to draw completely the wrong lesson because in nominal terms X will be the cost of a cup of coffee or something. 🙂

      *both as a way of impressing on them the importance of being careful with the scopes, and as a way of making them feel good about using them (since my scopes are much nicer–and more expensive–than the ones our students use in their lab courses).

  9. The biggest milestone of my graduate career was late in year 3, when I felt like I had an original idea/ hypothesis/plan for future study. That is, figuring out what to do “next” without being told, or reading about it in a review paper or Discussion section.

  10. Pingback: DoctorAl Digest #27 – DoctorAl

  11. I’m a research scientist at a non-academic institution. The one I’m going through now is not ever have time to actually work. The transition is I’m still responsible for getting dirty (metaphorically—I’m a modeler), but much if my job has become planning, collaboration building, and some mentoring. In academia, this would’ve been marked by a transition to tenure track I think, but I’m experiencing it organically and it’s (exciting and) disorienting!

  12. – When you look at a panel in some special meeting and realize that they are not just “names” but that you actually know each of them personally.

    – You are waiting for the elevator. The doors open you walk in and notice one of your students and the first thing that comes to mind is “How’s the paper going?”. Then you remember how horrible that feels… you have turned into your advisor.

  13. A recent milestone for me, as a senior grad student: I’ve just reached the stage where I now have data coming in faster than I can hope to write it up and publish it. One consequence of this is that I can no longer just say ‘yes’ to any vaguely interesting idea or collaboration that anyone pitches.

  14. Meg reminded me of this post after I quipped that I spend far, far more time reviewing/editing the work of others rather than writing myself. This sentiment brought to you by the 4 manuscripts I’ve moved off my desk this week (collaborators, students, reviews)

  15. Pingback: Reflections on 13 years as an out scientist | The Lab and Field

  16. My personal career milestones included the decision to switch from formal to informal education, getting a job as Curator of Education at an art museum, and most recently the realization that informal education can really be whatever I want it to be. I’m still trying to pin down a few other ways to continue to educate outside of an institution. If anyone has advise or recommendations PLEASE give me a holler!!!

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