In which I look back in… stunned disbelief?
It has been a rather strange week here. The main reason, I think, is that last Wednesday, on Feb 1st, I passed a rather unnerving landmark – twenty-five years working for the same employer.
Indeed, you might almost as well say ”twenty-five years with the same job”.
I certainly have essentially the same job title – “Lecturer in Physiology” – as when I was appointed in those distant days when Mrs Thatcher, now immortalised in a weighty biopic, was still running the UK, and indeed had yet to win her third general election. Actually the original appointment letter from late 1986 said “Lecturer in Biomedical NMR Spectroscopy in the Department of Physiological Sciences”, but that title was short-lived (probably just as well given its length) , and when I was appointed permanently a few years later (1991?), that letter said “Lecturer in Physiology”. Or possibly just “Lecturer”
And so the job title has stubbornly remained these subsequent twenty years and more.
Now, you might think I must have learned a few things in my quarter century on the Faculty that I could pass on – but I struggle to think of many.
And in fact, I am often loathe to dish out advice at all.
There are a few reasons for this. One is in case I communicate to my younger colleagues too much of what some people (typically members of the senior management) call my “well-practised cynicism”. My younger colleagues don’t need that, after all – they have, on the whole, quite enough **** to deal with already.
[I recall that when one of my ex-PhD students (by then a postdoc in another lab in the department) was being appraised by one of our department's most dynamic and going-places Professors, my ex-student was asked "Is the reason you want to quit research because Austin was your PhD supervisor?".]
Another reason I don’t really “do” advice is that I am mindful that University Departments tend to be rather full of people who are only to keen to dish out advice at the drop of a hat – to the point that junior academic staff may well be swimming in the stuff, much of it probably conflicting One of my ex-Heads of Department used to quote a line to the effect that “the only advice worth having is advice someone actually asked for”, and I reckon that is a good maxim.
A third reason is that it is arguable that, as a junior staff member, you’d be best advised to get your advice from those who have demonstrated an ability to rise purposefully through the system – on the obvious basis that they must have been getting things right. In the light of that logic, a man with exactly the same job title after twenty-five years in the University perhaps wouldn’t be the best source of sage council – as I point out to any who ask, as a kind of Caveat Emptor.
A fourth reason is that I’m never terribly sure what advice to give. I’ve certainly received plenty of bits and pieces of it myself here and there, and I have to say that a lot of what I was told was not all that useful. Apart from the obvious stuff like:
“Guard your time zealously”
“Avoid department politics”
“Don’t give up at the first, second, or even third setback”
“Don’t agree to write a review article unless: (i) you’ve written it already or (ii) you really want to do it and you’ve got several months free”
“Never, ever, lend your colleagues money” and
“If someone tells you you should do something because ‘it’ll be good for your career’, you almost certainly shouldn’t touch it with a barge-pole“
However, the ongoing discussion at OT about ‘What am I doing here?’ did bring back one piece of advice I was given, back when I was suffering from what I might now identify as an early career bout of Impostor Syndrome.
This dates from when I was a final year PhD student, and was talking to an older colleague with whom I was co-authoring one of my earliest papers. At the time I was having some doubts about whether we needed to do lots more stuff, use more sophisticated methods, add n numbers, more elaborate data analysis etc etc.
“Look” my colleague said “Do you REALLY think that these experiments of yours were somehow done worse than the other labs we know doing similar things do theirs?”
I had to admit that they probably weren’t.
“Well, just stop over-thinking all this and get on and write the paper.” he said.
And that advice, at least, I have occasionally been able usefully to pass on.