Climbing the Ladder

It has been a while since I wrote about the challenges facing those setting out on the academic ladder. Those who, having got past their PhD viva are now starting to progress through the ranks of an Early Career Researcher (ECR) as postdoc or beyond, trying to establish a niche for themselves in the tricky world of departmental politics, fellowship competitions and the like. This post is triggered by various articles I’ve read recently, reminding me of the challenging, scary world these people encounter on a daily basis.

Firstly there was a cri de coeur from a postdoc struggling to find a new position. He states that

‘it seems that the most important relationship in my life, the one I have put above all others — my love for academic research — is falling apart, owing in no small measure to circumstances beyond my control.’

For him, based in the US and working in the life sciences where an expansion of postdoctoral positions has not been matched by any increase in permanent positions, the problem has been compounded by the threat of sequestration due to the mire of US politics. In similar vein, I came across a sad but well-argued piece on Zinemin’s blog who had thought long and hard about the pros and cons of staying on in yet another postdoc and decided on balance sticking with research science just wasn’t worth the battle for her.  She points out that many people advance arguments to justify staying in academia that aren’t really sufficient and may often be self-deluding.

These laments can be paired with a piece I came across on the LSE Impact blogs about the casualization of labour, zero hours contracts and unpaid positions. As with other parts of the economy, where unpaid internships have been common, so the university sector seems to have been heading down the same path. The idea that a university should expect PhD students (in this case in Theology and Religious Studies at Durham) to work for free in order to gain experience is dispiriting. But, as has been seen in journalism, banking, politics and the like, not taking on such positions in order to acquire the skills future employers require can have a high opportunity cost. Nevertheless, I hope it is a move that the academic sector firmly and loudly rejects.

There are too many people chasing too few jobs in academia. That is the long and short of it. So it is worth considering what can make a difference on your CV beyond assuming some formal but unpaid labour of love. A recent post from the US highlighted this point, although in a way that I felt came across as rather smug. Nevertheless, the writer points out that there are ways to distinguish yourself from the crowd and it is worth thinking this through. She obviously felt that some of her colleagues moaned about their lack of success without really looking at why their actions were liable to lead to failure to progress. As GMP put it on her blog

I am smart and I work hard, and most importantly — I am aware of how the successful people around me are, and what games they play, and I try to learn how to play them well, too.

This sentiment strikes me as putting it a little strong. Playing games is not what progression should be about but nevertheless it is naïve to assume that natural brilliance will out simply by virtue of existing.  However it may well be that some people are sufficiently arrogant that they come across (to quote GMP again) as

‘too vain to try and find out what the missing parts were or were too stubborn to implement the needed change’.

She highlights relatively basic skills such as the ability to write and present clearly as ones some people just don’t bother to try to perfect.  I wonder how true this is, although it is undoubtedly the case that some people manage to do better than others. Practice does help, but most people who have passed through my group have tried to work at this. Some clearly find the English tongue harder to get around than others, but I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t want to be able to deliver a cogent talk or write a paper with punch. I think it is dangerous to assume those who aren’t too brilliant at delivery are failing through laziness.

However, I think there are other aspects of the job not everyone takes as seriously as they might. These include being willing to take on roles, which may not in themselves seem glamorous but which may confer valuable experience. As a local example I could cite postdocs whom I have seen take the lead on organising our annual contribution to Physics at Work. Each year the sector in which I work, Biological and Soft Systems, puts on what is essentially a ‘show and tell’ session for a flood of schoolchildren. Our talk has been well honed over the years, but with every season there are new students who need to be taken through the delivery of it and encouraged to try out their own talents at outreach. The organiser gets no formal kudos, but a lot of respect and it is undoubtedly something to put on the CV. Equally, the research fellow who does a little voluntary (but paid) teaching may feel that that is taking valuable time out from their research; or they may feel (as I feel they should) that being able to demonstrate both experience and commitment in this sphere may count for something as they apply for permanent positions.

I think there is a real danger in being uncompromising about what you are prepared to do or coming across as overly focussed. Learning new skills is always likely to be of benefit, directly or indirectly, and if all you do is concentrate on your own narrow concerns this narrowness may be seen as representing an unwillingness to grow or a lack of interest in some of the skills academics need. One immediate benefit of trying out new things is you find out your strengths – and weaknesses. Better to become aware of what you should never try again and what you are really rather good at sooner rather than later. If you don’t practice getting your voice heard on some committee whose work you aren’t that bothered about, how will you get your point across when it is something close to your heart? If you don’t try talking to small groups of the public, you won’t know if you should be participating in major talks at your local science festival. And these different experiences will, once again, be beneficial on that CV that may yet represent the passport to a faculty position.

Or, on the other hand, you may discover that nothing will make up for the long hours, the lack of job security, and the unattractive habits of your colleagues. In other words, academic science really isn’t for you; you should stop burying your head in the sand about this and explore the wider world.


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16 Responses to Climbing the Ladder

  1. Jenny Koenig says:

    I wonder, Athene, what you think about the need to attend conferences and/or participate in blogging/tweeting in order to raise your profile? I gave a talk on this recently and was quite taken aback when several women commented that they couldn’t possibly make time for this because they were too busy in the lab getting data for papers.

    • Jenny
      I wrote about the question of travel a while back and the advantages of tweeting more recently here and here (on sites other than this blog). I think both can be useful but they do have to be balanced against other things. However I certainly think doing nothing beyond being chained to a bench and analysing data is not a good thing. Breadth of experience does matter.

  2. GMP says:

    I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t want to be able to deliver a cogent talk or write a paper with punch.

    While this is true, everyone wants to deliver a cogent talk or write a paper with a punch, I find that many people have a huge blind spot when it comes to assessing their own ability to speak or write. For instance, I have had more than one student fight me when I argued that slides were unclear or the message wasn’t coming across in the talk and that they needed to fix parts of their presentation — they were passionately arguing that it’s the basically the fault of the presumably dimwitted audience members for not grasping what they were actually hoping to convey.

    The problem is that most people think they are much better writers and presenters than they actually are. Realizing you are just not very good or not as good as you fancy yourself to be is a hard thing to do. From there on, it takes a growth mindset, quite a bit of introspection, and great tenacity to really make great strides in improving oneself for someone who is not naturally talented in these areas or has considerable difficulty with the language.

  3. Susan Lea says:

    For me the key is being truthful with yourself about your own strengths and weaknesses. Do they really match those needed for any particular role? Neither false modesty or unreasonable overconfidence will help you find the place you’ll enjoy being in for the long term. I find that early career folks are often not keen to accept that being a successful academic is not just about bring good at science – there are many other skills required and we must be honest with ourselves about whether we also have these.

  4. Laura says:

    I’m not sure why academic researchers think they are special in this regard. At some point, there will always be more aspirants than available positions…

    For every athlete who makes the Olympic team, there are several who have devoted just as many years and just as much effort and passion, but were just very slightly less accomplished and/or lucky. Many more dropped (or were pushed) off the ladder along the way: some at a young age, others after many years of hard work and forgoing other alternatives.

    But no one seems have much concern whether talented young people should be allowed to devote themselves to sport. Arguably this IS a real problem: Young athletes are much more vulnerable than academics — footwork almost good enough to be play football professionally is unlikely to impress many employers, especially if it has come at the expense of developing other skills.

    Would you consider this ‘cri de couer’ to be evidence of an significant problem if it came from a gifted and passionate musician who has devoted years to developing her art, but in the end fails to find a position in a symphony orchestra? Or a (not quite) Olympic class athlete? Or a young person who aspires to be a physician and studies hard, but isn’t admitted to a university program?

    I think part of the problem is culture – not getting an academic position is often the first time these students have actually failed at something important that they have worked extremely hard for. So even though they have seen it happen to their friends at other steps along the way, it is a shock when they themselves don’t make the cut. I think that there needs to be a better balance between encouraging PhD students to have confidence and ambition and making sure they understand that many (or even most) of them will need to have a backup plan…

    • Alasdair says:

      Agree with much of this. PhD students need to be given plenty of information about other careers so they don’t become fixated by the lab or ignorant of what jobs are out there. Athene’s well made recommendations that students should look to broaden their skills by sitting on committees or doing outreach (amongst other thing) apply equally if not more to getting jobs outside of academia.

      Many PhD students already grasp this reality. I helped run a careers event at my University earlier this year, we had over 100 people attend out of 160 chemistry PhD and PDRAs (a bit more here I also attended an event on science policy run by RSC and the Centre for Science and Policy open to chemistry ECRs which was so over-subscribed they are thinking of running a second session.

      My question would be whether enough academic supervisors understand this need for their students and post-docs to develop “transferable” skills and look into other careers for them to advise appropriately. After all, most academics have only done the one thing in their career.

  5. GMP says:

    although in a way that I felt came across as rather smug.

    🙂 God forbid that a woman should ever toot her own horn, without qualifiers or apologizing for it.

    • If you think I believe that, try reading The Self Promotion Stakes.

      • I think I agree with GMP here. You can say one thing in a blog post and still unintentionally put women down for speaking up.

        I read her original post as primarily being about how important it is to have a growth mindset and to be constantly improving. And politics etc. are important whether we want them to be or not. When you’re at the top it helps to be able to play the game, even if it isn’t a fun game. These things are true.

        She didn’t qualify her post saying that of course luck and privilege are important. Of course, doing that is part of the game too if you’re a white woman or minority. Somehow white men seem to be more able to get away with blithely saying all their success is because of their smarts and effort. Lean In spent entire chapters on those qualifiers because you can’t make points about effort without getting a huge backlash when you’re a women (witness the negative press before anyone read her book and how people changed their tunes after reading it citing those qualifiers). Male CEO books never get that backlash for failing to note luck or privilege.

        So I would introspect deeply about the use of the word smug in this instance and why it might be gendered even if you think you aren’t sexist. I recently refereed a paper that showed that the people who think they don’t have implicit biases were much more likely to unfairly discriminate that those who do.

        • Point taken. Indeed there are studies which show that being aware of unconscious bias is far from sufficient to eradicate it. But on this occasion none of the post was about gender and I don’t think GMP’s gender had anything to do with how I quoted her. Furthermore, since I found myself using the word ‘smug’ to describe an eminent male scientist this very afternoon (and then spotted that’s just what I had done) I think I can feel secure that I don’t use ‘smug’ in that gendered way in general.

  6. Bat says:

    After a phD, 5 years of postdoc in 3 institutions and 2 countries, it seemed that the only pathway for moving forward was academia, and we’re bred this way… I found an academic position, started there to realise that there were other options in life. I ended up dropped down after 6 months, leaving the spot open for someone else.
    I think it’d be crucial for supervisors/advisors to also open the eyes of their group members to other options in life… What going through university and research teaches us is how to learn and we end up being much more flexible than we think!

  7. Duncan Hull says:

    See also How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang for a summary of some of the points you make above.

  8. Laurence Cox says:

    I would like to play Devil’s Advocate here. Whilst I agree with pretty much everything you wrote and the comments BTL, I think that unpaid positions are not a new development in Academia. When you finally decide to retire, I suspect that the University will recognise your achievements by awarding you the title of Professor Emeritus (or is it Emeritus Professor) and you will still have an office, a computer and access to the Library, but will no longer be paid (apart from your pension). You may well accept this, regarding it as an opportunity to give something back to the University, but I suggest that apart from the timing there isn’t really much difference between this and an unpaid internship.

    More importantly, I think that this is not the most serious threat to the academic hierarchy. When you look at the availability of open online courses, often taught by people who are leaders in their field, it is apparent that the only teaching-related functions that have to be carried out at a university are practicals in the science subjects and examinations (or at least their marking). Even tutorials could be held by video links. It seems to me that the lecturer/senior lecturer roles are also in danger of being hollowed out and current PhD students and even post-docs could find the academic ladders disappearing in front of them.

  9. Th says:

    There are many pertinent points here. One I’d like to expand on further is the purpose of putting those “extras” on your CV. I’m often struck by how many postdocs and PhD students aren’t really aware of what an academic career actually involves (I count myself among them – I was, frankly, clueless).

    Implicit in the academic “career ladder” is that a permanent position is a way to continue carrying out your research. This is only partly true, as a professional academic will eventually take on a much wider role – e.g teacher, planner, communicator, personnel and finance manager…- and these are not necessarily skills that are well developed in a research context. I would like to see “academia” better defined as a profession – I don’t think any of us are *only* professional researchers, as we all end up doing other things within the higher education sector, and it is rightly expected that we will do those other jobs well, and professionally. But I don’t think that being a postdoc researcher is always a particularly good training for that. So the other jobs/activities that really make you stand out from the crowd would be those jobs that demonstrate you understand not just your research, but the job of an academic.

  10. Dear Athene.
    This is a very powerful blog and I hope you don’t mind me promoting it onto The Postdoc Forum on LinkedIn. I think it too will provoke lots of comments. On a more specific note, you say “Learning new skills is always likely to be of benefit ….” This point is so important and cannot be overstated. In business, junior professional are encouraged to develop through formal and informal training and by gaining management experience. In academia, this is ad hoc and so it is essential that early career researchers take control of their careers and seize every opportunity to develop themselves, so they move forward during each contract. Even if they feel exploited at the time, if it serves their own personal agenda then they will reap the benefits in the long term.

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