Advice to my younger self

I’ve finally to attending a networking event for Early Career Researchers at the conference I’m at, having decided that I’m far enough down the line to have something useful to say.

(Why yes, I have recently had a birthday. Why do you ask?)

The idea is a pretty standard one: speed-dating round the room to make some contacts and share some ideas. It’s a really good format for semi-structured getting-to-know-yous.

Of course, me being me, I’ve spent a couple of days talking through ideas with my partner, who’s also an academic: what is the most useful advice you could give someone if you only had a couple of minutes?

Since I don’t see why I should limit my unburdening to the ECRs at the conference, here’s my shot.

Firstly, do what you like doing. If I followed all the instruction I’ve been given over the years about what I should be doing, then I’d not be doing this. At all.

Sure, there’s stuff you have to do, although it’s always good to try and work whether you really have to do it, but as an academic you have a lot of freedom to carve your own path. To a very considerable degree, you can make your own choices and I can speak from experience when I say that things you like doing are much less of a chore than those you don’t.

Secondly, make friends and build networks. One of the greatest joys of academia is discovering the other people in the world who are crazy-keen on the same stuff you are.

This blog is testament to that: a random meeting at a conference in New Mexico, a half-idea to keep in touch, and here we are, seven years later. And Victor still not posting that much.

No matter how great your university or your department, don’t make it your only circle. Get out there, meet people, talk with them. It turns out most people are really nice and interesting, and you never know what context you might next them (like an interview panel).

And finally, and more pessimistically, remember that the only person definitely looking out for you, is you.

The flip-side of your freedom is that you have to take responsibility for your career and your work: your choice means you own it.

Your friends and networks can help you, but only if you help yourself: there will be frequent points where it’s all about you and what you do.

And that can be really tough because, as my partner put it, academics often find themselves putting a pile of work into something that comes to nothing: a funding bid, a publication. And worse, you often will get no useful feedback on it.

A lot of people find being an academic a psychologically tough job, so you’re not alone (that’s why your friends and networks really matter), and it’ll only be by facing up to this we can all work to making the profession a better one, for all of us.