Tag Archives: what I wish I had know when I was younger

If I could go back, what would I tell my younger self about a career in research?

I often get questions from students that I work with, asking if they should pursue a Master’s degree or doctorate. While I believe that the Master’s degree is a significant educational and professional goal, I’ve coached more than one student away from doing a Ph.D. For most of their life goals, a Ph.D. simply wasn’t necessary. In fact, it would have been overly confining and damaging. While they may have had the intellectual capabilities to complete such an undertaking, I was pretty certain that they would have been distressed in the long run.

I’ve been thanked more than once for pointing them away from that career path.

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So I thought I’d write a few things to my former wide-eyed, young self who was about to embark on her career in a research arena. I want to tell her somethings that I wish she could have known and braced for along the way. I want to give her some advantage in a system that would ultimately be stacked against her.

And so here it goes — some advice on weathering that research career.

Research isn’t exactly the noble profession that you thought it might be. The notion of generating knowledge for the sake of improving society isn’t always at the forefront of many scientific endeavors. There is a lot of selfishness amongst scientists, and the competition for increasingly reduced funding will be cut-throat. Not all successful grant proposals are based on merit. Sometimes it IS about who you know and how well the game was played. You will need to network like crazy, and find your way into the good graces of those controlling the monies. This will be one of the more difficult tasks for you, an introvert. But it will be so, so crutial if you are to get ahead.

You will need to do an ungodly amount of fundraising. This will become increasingly critical over time. At some points in your career, you will spend more time on contracts than on research. You will begin to wonder why you are fundraising when the organization that you work for isn’t all that helpful in the process. You will wonder why you are actively fighting your organization to get the job done.

Hamster, meet wheel.

It is all about publications. Anyone who tells you differently is leading you astray. They may tell you that public outreach and consultation are viewed as equally important outcomes — this means crap when you are up for review. Sadly, you will be writing for maybe a couple of hundred people in your field. No one else will read your papers. It’s a hella lotta work for such a small reach. You can do better than this. Stick to your guns when thinking about what is most important in your work and who your audience should be.

You will need to choose between having a life and doing research. It will be impossible to do both. Your work life is always on — it cannot be turned off. There is no such thing as work-life balance. This is an idea thrown out by administrators to put the blame back on you while you are struggling to do it all. They will tell you that you need to find that balance somehow, while dumping another data call on you as they leave at 5 pm. 

Relatedly, think twice about having a family if you stay in research. You will end up regretting giving your boys the short shrift.

Scientists are human and display common human fragilities. Some scientists you will meet are insecure. Most are socially inept. Some are just plain assholes. There are a lot of them out there, and it will be difficult to avoid them. Be aware and do not trust any aspect of your career to them.

Sexism is very real in research and will cost you a great deal. It is embedded in everything, and it will range from heinous acts to everyday microaggressions that will tear at you. You will be passed over for opportunities and will never see the same level of support as your male colleagues. You will have a few disgusting supervisors, one who will physically threaten you. Take a lot of notes and have witnesses.

The power disparity as a student is immense. But remember that your advisors rely on you to get things done, to expand their publications record, and provide another notch on their scientific belts. They will need you more than you need them.

People will take your stuff and not give you credit. This will come as a shock to you at first, that others in your field would actually do this. Yet it will happen more than once. You will find entire sections of your papers lifted and put into project reports — word for word. You will find your data in other’s papers and realize that it was shared more widely than you had intended. Sharing is important, but so is getting credit for your work.

You have to be able to do it all. In addition to producing new research paths, you will need to understand statistics and mathematics, follow cutting edge technology, write well — and do it all quickly. You will continuously read and evaluate all the other works in a growing and overly broad field. People will expect answers from you that you simply do not have, from parts of your field that you do not directly work with. If you are unable to answer a question from the top of your head or, worse, be wrong, you will forever be seen as incompetent. There is no “do-over.”

Don’t expect to be praised. Ever. Sometimes it will happen and someone will pay you a compliment. But then you can never actually believe that they meant it — there may be something else that they want from you and they are just buttering you up.

Not all criticisms are valid. Some people will have a stake in seeing you fail. Ironically, these same people will later use your data to support their work. They will fail to see the irony. Mainly because they are assholes (see above).

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And most important to my former wide-eyed, young self:

It really would be okay to do something else.

Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash