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.