Developing my portfolio career

Ian StreetIan Street is a postdoc at Dartmouth College working on how plant hormones affect plant development.

He is the writer of The Quiet Branches plant science blog and is looking towards a career in science writing or editing.

In his time away from the lab bench and writing, he’s a runner and cat owner.

Ian tweets from @IHStreet.


Photo by Ian Street

Photo by Ian Street

First, let me state my situation and some of the things I am assuming as I develop my career:

  1. Most postdocs do not go on to jobs as Primary Investigators (PIs).
  2. The longer you’re a postdoc, the less likely #1 becomes.
  3. Major depression ground me down mid-postdoc. Having a lot of support and writing has helped me recover some momentum.
  4. Deciding to leave academia is not easy. Introspection and experimentation are required.
  5. To find a job/ career outside academia, network, yes, but it is also important to gain experience in fields of interest if possible.
  6. The Internet is the key to my efforts from the small-town college where I’m a postdoc.

The career I’ve settled upon to pursue beyond academia is perhaps obvious: it is the world of science writing and editing.

Addressing Doubts

It seems obvious. Too obvious, for a few reasons.

This is the “Who are you to break out into a new field?” anxiety narrative I have in my brain:

It’s writing and editing. Who can’t do that, and do both well, in academia? Besides, the written word is apparently dying because pictures and video are more important/ compelling in the digital age. Writing is more than putting words on a page, of course. Getting things out of a brain in a coherent form (it’s always perfect in my mind, why can’t that just pop out on the page?!), letting an editor’s brains see it, review it, suggest changes, or say “no” (it’s almost always a “no”) is daunting. Then there’s the exposing of your ideas to a wider audience – this might be exciting, but it is also fraught with fear of rejection.

The path of a career transition is far from certain. Read more of this post

What’s in a researcher induction kit?

"Pool of Knowledge" (Detail from the "Pool of Knowledge" sculpture by Stacey Spiegel, Living Arts Park, Mississauga, Canada) Photo by Ian Muttoo | www.flickr.com/photos/imuttoo

“Pool of Knowledge” (Detail from the “Pool of Knowledge” sculpture by Stacey Spiegel, Living Arts Park, Mississauga, Canada) Photo by Ian Muttoo | http://www.flickr.com/photos/imuttoo

When I started a new research fellowship in a new institution and city, it took me at least a semester to find my feet.

In that time, I felt the full force of ignorance as I flailed around trying to find out who should review my grant applications (beyond my own collegial networks), what I might be entitled to as a staff member, and trying to get a handle on the new university’s structure.

More importantly, I needed to spend time learning the culture of the place: the person who occupies a certain role may not be the person you’d expect to do the work, etc.

Any expectations that a new staff member (in this floundering state) is going to immediately be productive and successful are not the most realistic. Even if they’ve got grants that they’re carrying over from one place to another, there’s a lot of information that they’ll need to establish themselves.

The earlier that incoming researchers know this information, the more quickly they’ll be able to gain momentum for their research planning and writing.

For a new-to-institution researcher orientation kit, then, these are the basics that I’d include:

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Work backwards

Path through a paddock leading to a house in the far distance. Beautiful blue sky above.

Long road home, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

If you want to submit your grant application on time, it pays to create a reverse timeline.

That is, start from the end result – submission of the application – and work backwards.

Let’s say that you want to submit your fabulous application to JustGiveMeAGrant [not a real funding body], and their deadline is 29 February 2016 [not a real submission date].

Working backwards from that, how much time do you actually have to write the application? Let’s work it out.

At the moment, your timeline looks like this.

  • 29 Feb 2016 – Submit application to funding body.

Who will sign off?

For most government funding bodies, you are not the applicant. Your university is actually the applicant. This means somebody in your university will need to check and sign the application. In my university, the research office asks for 10 working days to check the application, get back to you with any last-minute questions, then get it signed by a very senior person.

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3 ways to fix those meetings

[Image origin unknown]

[Image origin unknown]

Every academic I know loathes meetings. Loathes them.

They view meetings as obstacles to (rather than elements of) work, wasted time, forced upon them, and – even worse – as forums for awful colleagues to showcase their awfulness.

Having attended many meetings in my academic and other professional lives, I can’t rally much of a defence for meetings. They are the bane of many working lives, academic or not.

Now, I’m not talking in this post about getting together with collaborators, new colleagues, or catching up with buddies under the guise of ‘meetings’. These could turn out badly, but they’re more likely to be energising and fun events. And they’re often by choice.

However, no-one’s ever said that of the majority of work meetings, particularly those regular committee and staff ones.

Some of the meetings I’ve enjoyed the most are the ones I don’t attend. They’re the ones being livetweeted (or subtweeted) by my buddies on Twitter (often behind locked accounts because, you know, #clm).

But, despite initial appearances, this post isn’t just another long whinge about meetings!

This post is about how to try to fix the main things that are wrong with meetings. I want to help you help others make meetings useful. Oh yeah, I said it: useful. As a baseline, you should be observing meeting etiquette no matter how cheesed off you are that you have to attend.

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Dividing up the money

Australian 10, 20, 50 and 100 dollar notes

Poster money, by Michael Coghlan on Flickr

Dear applicant

Congratulations! We have decided to give you a grant.

Unfortunately, funding is tight, so we have cut your budget to the bone. Sorry about that.

Yours truly,
The funding agency

Sometimes, you can win only to lose.

One of the trickiest times for any research team is when you have to work out what you can do with a reduced amount of money.

The decisions that you make at this point will shape your whole project. They may also have repercussions for the team dynamic. If Professor Needs-Grant feels that they didn’t get their fair share of the loot, they can get grumpy. Their enthusiasm for the project may disappear, or at least diminish.

There are ways to improve this situation.

Before you submit the application 

First of all, when you are designing your project, assume that you won’t be fully funded. After all, it is the norm for funding agencies to cut budgets so they can fund as many grants as possible. Assume that will be the case. Ask each of your research partners to provide the costing for their part of the project. This should include the correct figures for their time on the project, as well as the funds that they want to spend. Then talk to everybody about where things overlap and how different elements might be combined. Work out, with your co-researchers, what will happen if things get cut. Talk about what the project will look like if the postdoc isn’t funded, or if you don’t get all the fieldwork money.

Imagine the possibilities and talk about them with your team. Work out what is the minimum amount that would make a viable project.
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Deadlines schmeadlines

Photo by Levi Saunders | unsplash.com

Photo by Levi Saunders | unsplash.com

[An earlier version of this post appeared on the RED Writing Blog.]

My greatest achievements in academia are produced by my fear of shame and humiliation.

I said this to a colleague recently, and we had a good laugh.

The moment has stayed with me, though, because it’s kind of true.

Our lives are filled with commitments, and we carve our days into brightly coloured slices with the aim of fitting everything in.

The fact that we live lives where we need to ensure we ‘fit in’ relaxing and spending time with friends and family disturbs me on a level that this post isn’t up to articulating.

Instead, I want to talk about deadlines.

Everyone has them. Very few like them. Deadlines set for me by others tend to be much more effective, usually, but I still find myself standing at the edge of the abyss. You can ask for extensions from others, or allow yourself to extend a deadline, but nothing good really comes of doing that.

READ MORE

Hardest things we learned in 2014

The Research Whisperers have had a big year, both on the blog and Twitter, and in their everyday whispering jobs.

This year saw an increasing number of Research Whisperer gigs where lovely people invited us to speak about research + social media, crowdfunding, precarious academic workers, and strategies for grant funding.

We had a lot of fun at these events, and it has been a privilege and pleasure to be involved.

We like the idea of pausing and reflecting and the last post for the year is a good time for it. Last year, we talked about what was best for us in 2013.

This year, we thought we’d talk about what was hardest.

Read more of this post

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