Recently I was asked to describe what professors do day-by-day in 200 words. I declined; I felt it was an impossible task. Some days are spent being ground down by committees of the sort that sap all one’s energy and produce nothing of value but ticking someone’s boxes. Those, fortunately are not that common. Some days one sits on committees which are useful but still leave one feeling totally wrung out and exhausted, but at least something worthwhile may have been accomplished. Sometimes one does what the general public think professors do, namely teach or guide the novices through the intricacies of tackling research, although for me at least there are few enough days which contain only that. But many more days are spent in a wealth of diverse activity that are not easily pigeonholed. I love the diversity, it can be immensely rewarding, but some days are odder than others.
So this post is prompted partly by that first question, and partly by the post I read recently by Lizzie Crouch asking scientists to indicate if they had ever thought as a child they would indeed be scientists when they grew up. However, I want to rephrase this question in a different way and ask: had I known I wanted to be a scientist when a child (which I didn’t) could I possibly imagine some of the kinds of days that I actually turn out to have? The truthful answer to that question is absolutely not. Even when I started as a new lecturer I couldn’t have imagined the strange collection of things that I find myself dealing with. There was a day earlier this week which had a particularly unusual mix to it and, atypical though it may be, I thought I’d discuss it to show what a broad range of skills professors may need to accumulate through their long years of experience. Being a bench scientist is just what gets one onto the bottom rung of this particular ladder of quite responsible roles for which, too often, you find your training has completely omitted to prepare you but which you find there is no way to wriggle out of. Actually, if one can quell the feelings of blind panic, it can be really rather fun.
1 Creating a podcast
As I have discussed before, I am leading a project for the IOP about teaching Biological Physics, heading up the team who are preparing material to enable departments which have no (research) expertise in the topic to access and hence incorporate some key ideas into their undergraduate syllabus. The project is progressing well, and some of the material is already on the web, and more will be added over the months ahead. Now the IOP team have decided to liven up the Powerpoint lectures and text with some podcasts, and Cambridge (with two ‘authors’ of material, myself and my colleague Pietro Cicuta) is being used as a guinea pig to trial the creation of small films, talking about our research and, in my case, also about the project overall. These will be very brief videos, of only a few minutes, but it still requires one to have mastered the skills of talking to camera without all those annoying personal tics we each have. So, yet again I am grateful for the media training I have had over the past year, preparing me for very different sorts of interviews but nevertheless conferring a degree of confidence that I am not going to dry up and say something too utterly daft. The interviews seemed to go smoothly enough although, as always, an inordinate amount of time seemed to be required to set up the equipment and carefully select exactly the right flavour of backdrop (including making sure a few, but not too many, students walk insouciantly across the back of the field of view). I think the moral of this part of the story is – use an opportunity to get some media training so that you have some awareness of what is involved in speaking without hesitation, deviation or repetition in 60 seconds (or a bit longer).
After that was wrapped up, it was time to talk to one of my new PhD students who has the unenviable task of trying to revive a project on cell mobility which has stalled for the last couple of years after a previous student left unexpectedly early. This was followed by attending an intriguing talk on mechanical properties of E coli colonies given by a student in the sector (our students are expected to give an informal seminar each year to everyone in the sector, so typically upwards of 50 people turn up). I don’t think I have ever previously attended a student seminar that has received so many intrigued questions: it was such a simple talk with so many fascinating possibilities that everyone was buzzing. At least this part of my day I do feel is what my job might be expected to contain, and for which I am allegedly properly prepared.
3 Dross of significance
Interspersed through the day there is of course the endless drip-drip – sometimes turning into a deluge – of incoming emails to be dealt with, this time including composing a long and complex one myself about the REF (I chair our departmental committee, for my sins, my sins being having sat on the last RAE panel and the Physics Pilot REF). The REF is clearly going to absorb a lot of my energy over the next year and of course lines me up as a wonderful target for complaint if the Cavendish does not ultimately score well. What courses have I ever been on that have trained me for any of this stuff, including how to develop a Teflon-like skin? None of course, all one does is learn through experience: experience of watching other people, experience of sitting on panels, experience of sifting through evidence. But was this what I thought a scientist did when I was 12? I think not.
Yes I got outside for a damp cycle ride to the railway station in the gloom and managed to manoeuvre my bike into a legitimate place to lock it up, by standing over someone else as they left: it really is no better than car parking at the station, and annoys me intensely. Cycling should be something to be encouraged instead of the source of yet another headache. My undergraduate life trained me for this – as an undergraduate at Girton College, the furthest college from the centre of Cambridge, I developed ‘Girton thighs’ at an early age.
5 Head down
Train to London with my head down dealing both with emails and a load of external job applications I’ve been asked to comment on by another university. Nearly completed them; journey much improved by my headphones managing to drown out the loud, nasal tones of a woman across the aisle talking about job issues on her phone. This has been a skill I have come to rather late in life, but I find a computer and headphones make for a much more productive travelling life than when I thought I would be able to read (hard copies of) papers/theses etc and ended up staring out of the window eavesdropping on conversations I really didn’t want to hear.
6 An evening at the Royal Society
Sadly this was not a delightful relaxing soirée, but hard work from the moment I stepped out of the Spartan bedroom that I can enjoy as a fellow for overnight stays (with delightful views of the London Eye and Big Ben; the views from the top of Carlton House Terrace are stunning even on a dank November evening). First off to the Education section to deliver some paperwork relating to my January talk in Liverpool at the ASE Annual Conference. Then time to discuss diversity issues (things are developing fast and well on this front) but intercepted en route by someone wanting me to sign off a press release, but this had to be deferred. An hour or so on diversity and then downstairs for a dinner involving Baroness Gillian Shephard and Jim Al – Khalili amongst others, to discuss science education. No sooner introduced to them than whisked off to deal with that press release and persuaded to agree to do yet another podcast (around the ASE event). I have got more used to the preparation of quotes, but the press team at the Royal Society are great at producing a skeleton draft which I can then try to tweak to make it sound like something I might genuinely have said. No training for any of that, just practice. The dinner conversation was very stimulating with much to think about, but also a long and tiring evening.
So you can see how little my degrees and my early life as a bench scientist have really adequately trained me for the multitude of things that I find I am actually required to do. Bearing in mind all the previous posts by me and others about what skills postdocs may and should gain beyond pure research techniques, it is obvious that beyond the obvious one has to pick up a great deal on the fly. Perhaps most importantly what one has to get comfortable with is a) the ability to multitask and switch rapidly from one stream of thought to another and b) have the confidence to do and face up to whatever and whoever comes your way. Maturity does have its advantages. Things that would have left me shaking for a week at 21, and for a day or two even at 31 and 41 too, I no longer have time to worry about (much), so by and large I don’t. My advice is assume that whatever you do now, you may find at a later date comes in useful, however irrelevant it seems today; conversely, skills that may seem central to you as a person and in your career today, you may subsequently find have little actual bearing on the tasks you are expected to perform.