I Wish I’d Known Then What I Know Now

There are many questions which are easily posed, to which I don’t find answers come easily. One of these is ‘who inspired you?’ (answer: no one very obviously); or ‘why did you decide you wanted to study physics?‘ to which the feeble answer that I liked it doesn’t seem nearly meaty enough. But there are other questions and issues which I should have thought about much earlier in life but which with hindsight perhaps I do have some answers to, or at least reflections. So here’s a brief list of things I wish I’d known when I was a student or an early career researcher.

1 Confidence is often only skin deep.

Those people you observe and admire because they are so sure of themselves, scratch a little deeper and you may find they are as confused and uncertain as yourself. Perhaps the only difference is that they have decided to fake it in the hopes that the imaginary will become the reality. It is all too easy to be intimidated by other people’s apparent self-assurance; don’t be fooled by appearances.

2 Confidence can be dangerous.

By which I don’t mean that if you’re confident you’re necessarily wrong, but that sometimes some suitable uncertainty can be a better platform on which to build. Those of us who do a lot of interviewing (for whatever type of position) will have seen only too often the person who walks into the room oozing confidence and then failing to answer the simplest questions. Confidence can lead to a lack of preparation in a situation like that with outcomes that can shake the confidence – and they certainly should. This really amounts to pride comes before a fall.

3 Not knowing what you want to be doing in 5 years’ time isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

It’s probably a good idea to have a direction of travel, and a list of criteria you’ll factor into decisions about where to go next. But I feel those people who say they want to have made their first million by the time they’re 30, or to have got a URF or whatever it might be are possibly kidding themselves and also quite likely to be closing off some good options because they feel they’ve got their life mapped out. Chance may come knocking at their door and they won’t recognize it – and yet they may still fail to make their chosen goals.

4 Few skills or facts acquired won’t come in handy at some time or another.

As an undergraduate I remember being deeply disappointed that I was expected to study chemistry in my first year as one of my three chosen sciences in the Natural Sciences Tripos. I had hoped I had shaken the dust of the subject off my heels with A level. Yet, by the time I was researching polymers that additional year of chemistry was hugely helpful to me. Nor have I ever regretted my Latin O Level since it’s taught me a lot about the roots of words (and grammar), even though I’ve not read a line of Virgil since.

5 There is a rarely a single right way of doing anything.

It is all too easy to look at someone doing something you’d like to emulate – giving a talk, sounding persuasive on a committee, running their group meetings, writing reports or whatever – and think that since you would never have thought of doing it that way you must be wrong and useless. The reality is what works for the other person may have no bearing on what works for you. Persuasive arguments only work if you believe in them and you can find a style in which to deliver them that fits with who you are. Watching someone else tell amusing anecdotes by way of making a point may look very impressive, but if anecdote-telling isn’t your forte, don’t go that route. Find ways that work for you. I think this problem is particularly pernicious because it is all too easy to be frozen into immobility by thinking ‘I couldn’t do that‘. Maybe you couldn’t, but maybe you could do something else equally powerful and possibly even more so. Don’t be intimidated.

6 Some corners really can be cut.

If you have perfectionist tendencies, then this remark is really aimed at you. It can be tempting to think that nothing less than total control is adequate, and that all the i’s have to be dotted and the t’s crossed or the world will fall apart. Rarely is this true (unless perhaps you are an accountant balancing the books). The trick is to learn which are the corners no one will notice are missing. Get things wrong and you can end up looking silly, but often people are just glad that some of the work has been completed at all and are grateful to you. I suspect that with seniority comes, not only the knowledge that missing corners aren’t going to end your career, but a general feeling that one can wing things if someone does notice. This can still go horribly wrong – but with luck not too often.

7 Be willing to take on tasks you’re not sure you’re completely qualified to do.

If you never do this, not only will you not discover what your strengths are but you also won’t ever acquire these additional skills. Should I be apologetic that the first Research Council committee I chaired I didn’t know what a lot of the acronyms meant when I first sat down to read the applications? No, I don’t think so. I did my homework and took advice from those who could explain what MALDI-TOF and similar terms meant, so that by the time the committee meeting came around I was on top of the necessary material. If I had waited to accept such a role until such time as I knew the whole field of biological instrumentation back to front I would never have started chairing committees at all. The important thing is to be willing to put in the hours to acquire the knowledge you need. That requirement never goes away, however senior you are (subject to the comment above about ‘winging’ things occasionally).

8 Asking questions is not an admission of weakness but of strength.

Everyone will have encountered that mild-looking professor, possibly the one who looks like they’re asleep through most of the seminar, who at the end says ‘I may have missed something but…‘ and nails the speaker’s pretensions to the mast in a very obvious if non-aggressive way. These people have the confidence to admit that maybe they really did miss something, although they rather doubt it, but they are not going to let themselves be bamboozled by fancy words without any content behind them. In most situations asking questions is a perfectly reasonable thing to do — as in, what is MALDI-TOF, see above – although one should try to avoid asking the same questions multiple times.

No doubt other readers will have other ideas of things that should be added to this list. Please add them in the comments.



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5 Responses to I Wish I’d Known Then What I Know Now

  1. Catherine Sorbara says:

    Fantastic blog — thank you for sharing! Along the same lines I would add: “it is OK to change your mind.” I often hear from colleagues in academia or elsewhere that they are miserable doing what they are doing but “its too late to change career paths now” or “if I try something else I can never turn back.” You will never know until you try and you might be missing out on something special by being paralyzed by fear of failure.

  2. Rick Hall says:

    this is brilliant Athene, thanks so much.
    Could I link it on the Lab_13 website please?

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