Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Notes to my grad researcher self (Erika Duan)

Image/doodle by Erika Duan
They say that hindsight is always 20/20.

So, this is the list of hard-won insights I would like to send to my graduate researcher self, if only time machines had been invented:

1. Fighting off the graduate student blues

Looking back at my PhD experience, the aspect I wish I could've changed was my study outlook. Rather than taking all the dead ends to heart and aiming for a magnum opus, it would've been more efficient to round off unexplainable observations much earlier.

The ability to remain positive and move forward - even incrementally - is not only the best antidote to scientific despair (and the fastest way to accrue scientific data), but also a means of demonstrating your ability to organise independent projects and meet expected deadlines to future employers. Twenty years down the track, it is far more likely that these skills and a resilient outlook, rather than the number and impact factor of your PhD publications, will govern your career success and progression. And, to the scientific idealists out there, I felt great satisfaction in pursuing my research questions as far as I did, but this enjoyment has all been retrospective!

2. Pursue and demonstrate your master ideas

A PhD is and should be viewed as your masterwork, an individualised account of how you took on a hypothesis and turned it into a series of valuable and evidence-driven findings about your field.

The best PhD project is one which produces new insights in your field of research, whether by presenting new or re-interpreting old hypotheses or, to give a science-based example, creating new tools for the investigation of biological phenomenon.

Even the unluckiest PhD project is still an account of how you took an unknown project and systematically tackled it to produce a final set of valid conclusions.

Plan your thesis and paper submissions early, and keep to the timeline when you can, but also finish with your signature on the work.

3. Get digitally organised

The internet can be a useful place for building your future job profile. LinkedIn, at the very least, will allow you to practice creating a non-academic CV about yourself.

Connecting with a wider circle of people may also provide useful insights about their career trajectories and backgrounds. For example, I've noticed that people who transitioned into industry early were the ones who proactively sought industry-related internships before thesis submission and presented CVs that emphasised project and team leadership skills the most.

Many academic platforms also exist that can help you connect with your academic peers (although the best way, of course, is still directly talking to them!). Some, such as ResearchGate, will allow you to follow the publication updates of your colleagues, mentors and personal scientific heroes. ResearchGate also contains a forum where scientists can ask each other technical questions, with an in-depth archive of responses to be found.

In terms of polishing up on future skills, the internet also contains many free educational courses on specialised areas such as bioinformatics and data science. Coursera, in particular, contains some good introductions to the latter subjects.

Lastly, there is Twitter, which may appeal to those interested in scientific communication and public policy. Twitter has connected me with some unexpectedly helpful movements this year, particularly #366papers (which is an online resolution by scientists to read one new scientific paper a day this year). Most conferences also now have specific Twitter hashtags, which can be used to connect with other attending scientists in your field.

4. The great beyond 

In science, we have entered a paradoxical time when the odds of advancing in academia have never been smaller, yet the world of research never more exciting to inhabit. This can make career planning a rather bewildering and even paralysing task for final year PhD students.

Establishing a financial plan for the post-submission job-seeking period is an important buffer, as financial difficulties will affect your perceptions about desirable future career paths. Staying on track is greatly aided by the formation of an early thesis submission timeline, and the willpower to stay close to this deadline.

Approaching senior scientists and non-scientists for career advice will be helpful, especially when talking about possible job opportunities. Although networking is important, it's worth noting that a good reputation achieved by honest and smart work will carry you further in this regard.

Remember to make use of the programs available only to PhD students, especially PhD travel scholarships. These will not only allow you to visit different laboratory environments (and gain insight into what kinds of places would let you thrive), but also to interact with people in non-academic positions, especially when attending large conferences. Your faculty or university may also provide graduate skills programs, such as the RED team's here at La Trobe University.

Finally, it's worth noting that a new environment, project or mentor can greatly influence your future career perspective as well as track record. A well-chosen, positive post-doctoral experience is still the best opportunity for discovering new and tangible insights about human health, the natural environment or society itself. This alone can be of meaning and value.

Image/doodle by Erika Duan


Erika Duan is a junior postdoc in the Chen T-cell laboratory, Department of Biochemistry and Genetics, LIMS, La Trobe University. 

Her major research interest lies in lung innate immunity, which is central to the development of both acute and chronic inflammatory lung diseases. 

When she is not in the lab, she is probably doodling things or working on her blog, A Scientist Appears. Erika tweets at @Inscientist1

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