Sagacity or Self-Centredness?

What should one talk about when asked to talk about one’s life, career path and general advice to a group of young persons? I use that awkward term advisedly to cover the range of categories that encompass schoolchildren, students, postgrads and/or postdocs. In the past few months I have received invitations to talk to groups of all of these. This week it was the turn of engineering postgrads in Edinburgh, next week it is young women in the physical sciences in Manchester.  I may have views about what has worked – and what has signally failed – for me at different career stages, but does this mean I am well-placed to give advice to others whose backgrounds, challenges, disciplines and personalities may be wildly different? I understand the logic in inviting me to talk; nevertheless I don’t have any certainty I can say much that is useful to the majority of any audience I speak to.  Some of what I want to say should be self-evident, but perhaps is none the worse to be spelled out because of that. However, where I talk about things that have worked for me personally that is exactly what they are. There is no guarantee tips that I have found effective have any wider applicability. I have asked for feedback from the Edinburgh organisers, because it would be useful to know what sort of stuff actually helps.  Part of the motivation for this blog post is to widen the debate about what it is that people may find useful from such a talk.

There are different categories of things one might offer. First of all career planning. I for one didn’t have any, when I set out my limited imagination didn’t extend beyond marriage plus a family a few years after graduation, possibly with a few years as a tax inspector in between university and the standard life of a woman of my generation. That is not the message I will be conveying in my talks of course, nor indeed in things I have written on this blog where I encourage people to visit their careers’ advisers (maybe I did that once, I can’t remember), ask pertinent questions of all and sundry about how the world works ‘out there’ and make sure they are constantly upgrading their skills base. All very wise things to say, and perhaps my defence about my miserable planning (or lack thereof) has to be life was different when I was setting out. The idea of a ‘skills base’, let alone transferable skills or any of these other phrases just hadn’t entered the collective consciousness.  So I just followed my nose and things panned out in unexpected and unintended ways that happen to have been extremely satisfying.

What about attitudes towards progression? A couple of years ago, when preparing a press release for the L’Oreal/UNESCO prize, I was asked for a pithy one sentence piece of advice for those just entering the career pipeline. I remember well what I said

It is the things one doesn’t do that one regrets, not the things one does.

I think that is also a very valuable piece of advice, but I am not sure I have particularly followed it, or even thought in those terms. To be honest, the comment was in large part prompted by an incident when I was about 16 when I turned down an opportunity to go water-skiing, mainly due to cowardice but also because the weather was nippy and windy and I wasn’t sure I fancied it anyhow. The offer was not repeated and to this day I have never water-skied and no doubt never will. It did teach me that one should think very hard before rejecting opportunities that fairly obviously are unlikely to recur, but I could not truthfully say I have lived by the advice ever after.

A much more useful piece of advice that ought to be given and one I hope I  have finally learnt to follow – the hard way – is what to do when things go wrong, as they will with monotonous frequency.  Gnash your teeth by all means, weep, wail, hit your head against the wall and generally rail against the unfairness of the world. But ultimately you either have to pick yourself up or give up completely. No one who has succeeded has done so without being kicked at regular intervals, in visible  – they didn’t get that job, fellowship or grant they really, really wanted – or not so visible ways, the latter encompassing the vicious rejection letters from journals and audible snide remarks cast casually in their direction by colleagues.  So the more useful piece of advice I feel should be given to all is to this effect: don’t assume the successful have never had knocks, don’t assume the externally confident don’t sometimes quake inside, and find ways of fighting back. Such ways may include boring your friends for a week or two with your rants after a knock, but must also include ways of re-establishing your sense of self worth even if ultimately it is by cocking a snook at those who’ve trodden on you by walking away. But these are fine words, because what works for me may have no resonance for others; everyone’s circumstances are different and I don’t particularly think I am a shining example of combatting fears (no comments on that statement from friends or enemies please). So I can identify what needs to be done, not how to do it.

Finally, and perhaps this is the other side of not saying no to things, I am a great believer in seizing opportunities. It doesn’t matter that the particular thing on offer may have had no place in your original game-plan; life is so full of twists and turns that you never know who or what may be relevant and useful in the future. It is part of the element of luck I have discussed before. If someone suggests you work on carrots, as long as you can see some way in which carrots look interesting, go for it. If someone offers you the opportunity to sit on some committee, the graduate student liason committee perhaps, or the departmental safety committee, it’s well worth giving the matter serious thought. Something which at first sight may not look as if it will be a ball of fun may yet offer all kinds of plusses, ranging from getting experience of holding your own in an argument to meeting people who you might otherwise not come across who could turn into mentors, friends or collaborators. One much-cited paper of mine grew from meeting an expert in algal spores at another university on a committee dispensing equipment funding. We didn’t talk about our own research at the committee – no time as there were dozens of proposals to review – but much later I came across some microscopy he had done on his algae and I felt convinced we could do a better job using our (then new) environmental scanning electron microscope. Because I ‘knew’ him through the committee I felt much more confident sending him an email out of the blue than I would have done had he been a complete stranger. And the outcome was satisfactory to both of us, with a decent paper forthcoming in a rather short space of time. You just never know what’s round the corner.

So, how should one put this across in a coherent and succinct manner to an audience whose backgrounds, personalities and motivations will be so different? And different not only from me, but from each other? All I can do is stand up and talk ‘with passion’ , or at least enthusiasm, and say that I love my job, that there is no single right way to tackle science or an academic career, but constantly questioning yourself and all around is a good way to proceed. (With an aside to state that combining families and science is not impossible.) Maybe, someone will benefit, and at least it shows that someone cares enough about the next generation to turn up and try to be sage (rather than just self-centred), however inadequately.

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15 Responses to Sagacity or Self-Centredness?

  1. Frank says:

    i think part of the benefit is in hearing someone speak about their career and realising that successful people are in some way ordinary, real human beings. Much of what you say above is about avoiding making assumptions – don´t assume that all advice given is right for you (your mileage may vary), don´t assume that further water-skiing opportunities will come your way, don´t assume that carrots are uninteresting.

    Having the confidence to seize opportunities is a great quality. Perhaps you could say something about impostor syndrome too?

  2. Stephen says:

    “So, how should one put this across in a coherent and succinct manner to an audience whose backgrounds, personalities and motivations will be so different?”

    How about “Shit happens – some of it good, some of it bad. Roll with it and try to have fun.”

    Not your style perhaps. ;-)

    But on a more serious note, I think it is very powerful when someone in your position — eminent prof — call tell the younger generation about the tribulations you have had to deal with along the way. It can be a real eye-opener. To give one true, if rather odd, example, I was taken aback at the surprise uttered by an undergraduate student when I informed him that, for part of my commute into work, I took the bus. He had no conception that a professor might do such a thing. I think any kind of reality check is a good thing.

  3. Katielase says:

    As someone who is just starting out on a career and has recently read/heard a lot of advice on the subject I would say that the most helpful and liberating idea to share is that life will not always follow a career plan, and that the successful people you respect, admire and hope to emulate didn’t necessarily sit down at your age and plan out their career so that it would take them precisely where they are today. Instead they were simply open to opportunities and they worked hard at doing a job they enjoyed and felt engaged with. It’s the idea that it’s okay not to know what you want to ‘be when you grow up’, and that you aren’t a failure if you graduate without knowing what you want your career to become.

    It’s also always extremely liberating to hear that a particular career doesn’t preclude raising a family, that takes the pressure off being in your early 20s and feeling forced to decide whether you are a family or career orientated person. Personally I was advised when going for MRes or PhD interviews to remove my engagement ring, so it’s good to hear someone state the opposite side of the story.

    For the record, I thought this was a brilliant post. It made me feel considerably more positive about my career path so far and the decisions I’m taking about where you go next. It’s really just good to know that other people have gone through the same (but different) dilemmas and come out the other end successful and happy.

  4. cromercrox says:

    Fabulous post, Athene – I write as one who is often asked how I got to where I am today, and how one should get into a career as a science journalist or editor. It’s hard for me to answer, as my break into journalism came from a lucky break, and did so almost a quarter of a century ago, when things were different. You write that ‘Some of what I want to say should be self-evident, but perhaps is none the worse to be spelled out because of that’. Very true – cliches are cliches because they are true, and two very hackneyed pieces of advice always stand out.

    Q: How to I gt to Carnegie Hall?
    A: Practice.

    It takes years of failure, disappointment and sheer hard work to become an overnight sensation.

  5. David Stephens says:

    Great post. Love the (modified) Oscar Wilde quote – one I use myself too.

    Regarding the comment from cromercrox: perhaps also important top mention that
    “It takes years of failure, disappointment and sheer hard work to become an overnight sensation.” …..and sometimes, even that is not enough…….

  6. Ed Yong says:

    Loved this post. The points about seizing opportunities and not following a game plan chime with my own philosophy.

    In terms of career advice, based on a laughably small amount of life experience, I would add the following: Since I was young, and right through uni, the only question that I and other people asked of me about careers was: What do you want to do?

    I think this is the wrong question. A better one is: what are you good at? Because if I really thought about it, I would have realised early on that I shouldn’t have gone into bench research. I don’t have the patience, the manual dexterity, the creativity for it. I think kids are taught to focus on topics and dreams rather than skills – if I’d done the latter, I might well have realised that the things I’m good at, like communicating and looking at broad areas of knowledge, are better suited to someone who talks about science, instead of actually doing it.

    • Rachel Coleman Finch says:

      Ed, I agree that “what are you good at?” is a vital question. But I would add to it “what do you enjoy doing?” It’s the overlaps between the two that you want to head for.

  7. Helen says:

    Thanks very much for this post – as ever I find your posts on careers both encouraging and full of useful advice. I’m very much at a cross roads, looking at academic and non-academic routes, but I am finding the statement ‘there is no right way to an academic career, very comforting!

    I hope you do get to go water-skiing one day!

  8. @stephenemoss says:

    Athene – this is an interesting topic, and you ask questions I also get asked that probably deserve greater thought. You mention the role of luck in any successful career, and I know I’ve had more than my fair share. But at the same time I’m always reminded of the quote (perhaps now also cliche) that “If I have had any success, it’s due to luck, but I notice the harder I work the luckier I get.”

    Working hard would seem so obvious a piece of advice as to be redundant, but luck is surely less likely to favour those who passively wait in hope. To close with another quote, I find myself in complete agreement with Noel Coward, who was spot on in saying that “work is more fun than fun”.

  9. Lots of thoughtful ideas in these comments, not to mention quotes I could usefully use. It clearly has struck a chord with both young and old alike (by which of course I really mean early and not-so-early career people, since I don’t want to be ageist), and I’m glad to find readers thinking it helpful. For me, that was the question. Not least, because I have to decide how many such talks I should accept, since they are time-consuming, take me away from the day job etc, but invitations keep coming in.

    Frank, I thought about putting something about the impostor syndrome in that post, but actually it would have been along the lines of feeling that I was the impostor being asked to talk like this, rather than advice not to the students not to let it get on top of them. I have mixed feelings about the impostor syndrome, which I didn’t come across until a few years ago (I suspect when I heard Vivienne Parry speak, but I may be misrembering). It explains so much of how we (well I) react to things that there is the danger of it becoming something to hide behind rather than something helpful. So I am never sure if it is actually useful to spell out or not. It’s a revelation the very first time you discover it exists, but after that……?

    I’ve written about the importance of luck before, but there is no doubt ‘you make your own luck’ does come into things. I think that really underlies several of the comments.

    Ed, I think you make a very interesting point about the difference between what you want to do and what are you good at. I recall reading a post somewhere (but not where, or I’d give the link) that said they were fed up with hearing people being advised to follow their dreams. They pointed out that following dreams is useless on its own, unless you practice (as @cromercrox says), practice, practice. Nevertheless, although working out what you are good at – so minimising the practice requirement – is a vital ingredient, you still need to have dreams. One can never ‘practice’ at something effectively unless motivated. Which ties in with @stephenemoss’ comment that ‘work is more fun than fun’. Brilliant when you can work out what the right kind of work for you is, and circumstances permit you to pursue it.

  10. MGG says:

    Great post as always.
    it is important to stress that even successful people like you have gone through bad patches. It seems so obvious, but in times of doubt it is so easy to believe that everything works differently for successful people. It doesn’t matter that your experiences are unique, the fact that you did what you did and that took you to where you are now is quite inspiring, and tells us that we should continue to work towards our dreams and follow whatever path that seems to lead to it.
    I have one additional comment.
    Though it is very easy to get completely burried in work, developing hobbies and interests outside of one’s career is extremely important. When things don’t work out, such hobbies help sustain feelings of self-worth and maintain perspective.

  11. I think it’s very useful for women to be open about their careers and their choices. When I was at university, I used to devour biographies of female scientists because there were so few real-life role models, and it was not clear to me at all whether it would be possible to have a career in research and a family. Seeing how different women managed to have both – and, more importantly, seeing THAT they managed – was absolutely crucial and encouraged me to navigate my own way through the maze.

  12. J Elliott says:

    I think that for talks like this, all you can ever do is to relate your own story, and maybe to emphasize that individuals are different so that what worked for you may not work for others. Hopefully the audience can look at their own issues through the glasses you present and make up their own minds if that is a relevant perspective or not. I think that the chances are that afterwards there will be many different versions of what you said, with people remembering one or two points that struck a chord with them, and some versions that were not what you meant at all.

    We can talk about the content, but I think there are other angles on the value of such events: One is that they address people’s instincts to incorporate a social dimension to their career decisions, and having an eminent speaker probably helps there. Another benefit is that they are a little like going away on holiday, when you get the chance to view your life at a distance and less caught up in the details: maybe these occasions give people the chance to sift through their own decision-making in a more objective, or at least different, mode.

  13. J Elliott
    I like the that someone else talking can help people to reflect on their own decision-making and look at ‘life objectives’ from a different angle. I’m off to talk to a girls’ school prize giving next week and I’ll think about those remarks as I prepare my speech.