Choosing your Path, Seizing Opportunities

I gave a talk today with this title at the Institute of Physics’ Careers Day ‘Taking Control of Your Career as a Female Physicist’. What I said is relevant to anyone setting out regardless of gender and, I suspect, regardless of discipline. They are, I believe, home truths from which most of us can benefit. Although women (and other minorities) may face more substantial obstacles than men simply by virtue of being present in small numbers in physics, often feeling isolated and unsupported, the basic ‘rules’ for what you need to do to take control are pretty generic. In writing my talk I came up with a list of ten such rules. There are no doubt more and the whole issue could be tackled in many directions. But, for what it’s worth, here are my golden ten.

  1. Don’t be passive: Ask questions of yourself and others.

If you don’t know what you want to do next it’s important to try and work it out. Sitting around waiting for a bolt from the blue to reveal all is not a good strategy so it is wise to start by asking others the questions that are bubbling away inside. Ask anyone and everyone (and particularly those just a little bit ahead of you) about what they do and what skills they need to do it. Ask the careers service for advice. Ask your supervisors and those around you what your strengths and weaknesses are. All this will help you build up a picture of what might be the next step you want to take.

  1. Don’t be passive: Don’t sit and wait for things to happen.

There’s no point just waiting for that next step magically to happen, for someone to tap you on the shoulder. You have to keep an eye out for the opportunities. You do. Not your supervisor, your best friend or the head of department. Perhaps one of them will come up trumps and draw a good opportunity to your attention – if so you’re lucky. But it doesn’t always happen that way and the more proactive you are the more you can make things go the way you want. Even if the first thing you do isn’t your ultimate goal it may help you in the right direction and alert others to what it is you’re trying to do next.

  1. Seize opportunities.

And if someone does draw something to your attention you then have to be willing to give it a go. You may feel it’s risky but could help you on your way. If you turn it down you’ll never find out. (Of course sometimes it may be risky and irrelevant, in which case you’d be right to turn it down). But doing something that isn’t quite what you want but could take you nearer your goal has to be wise. If you feel it will stretch you – that’s healthy. If you only do things that are obvious and easy you are not going to progress very far.

  1. Don’t assume you’re stupid just because things are tough.

On the other hand, if you do things that stretch you it will feel difficult. You may know, indeed are likely to know, less than those around you when you first start a new role. This is natural. It does not mean you’re stupid. Stretching is all about learning new skills (and knowledge) and it is inevitable that it will take you a while to master these. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of thinking because you aren’t as good at something as others around you, that somehow you’re a fool. Wait a while and you’ll find you improve. Maybe soon it will be you helping the next newcomer and trying to support them.

  1. Don’t assume other people are ‘better’ than you because they act confident.

Some people’s way of coping with difficulties and novelty is bluster. They cannot lose face by admitting they haven’t a clue what’s going on and so they look ultra-confident. If you yourself are shaking in your shoes, this can be very dispiriting. However, a loud voice does not mean the content is right; answering a reasonable question by raising eyebrows and looking shocked that you don’t know the answer already is almost always a sign of someone who doesn’t know the answer either but isn’t prepared to let on.

  1. Networking is not a dirty word.

Somehow people seem to associate networking with sucking up to people. Maybe some people use it like this, but I see it as little more than taking an interest in the people you meet. If sometime later you can be useful to them or they vice versa, so much the better. Talking to your peers may be illuminating in the present and provide you with names of people to invite to conferences/give seminars etc in the future. So, when faced with a roomful of people you don’t know (as at a conference) take your courage in your hands, introduce yourself and see where it takes you. The worst that can happen is that the conversation goes nowhere.

  1. Failure in one situation does not mean YOU are a failure

As with rule 4, if you are pushing yourself to try out new things it is likely that sometimes you will fail. Failure is not unusual nor is it a sign that you will always fail. The author Samuel Beckett said ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ In science failure is a necessary staging post in the development of new ideas. The important thing is to learn from failure and do something that gets nearer the truth. In the wider world, this is equally true. Do not give up at the first setback, but learn from it and try to get nearer the right answer next time.

  1. What matters is not failure itself, but how you cope with it.

And that leads directly into my next rule. If you give up at the first hurdle you will never get to where you want to be. Failing is always unpleasant, but so is not getting to where you’re aiming. So, it is worth picking yourself up and either trying again or finding an alternative route to your goal. Despairing, assuming you’re rubbish is simply self-destructive. It takes courage to keep going, of course it does, but you have to convince yourself the goal is worth the effort of dusting yourself down and trying again.

  1. Always be true to yourself.

People, blogs (like this one) are liable to give advice. You’re entitled to pick and choose what bits to follow and to reject things that don’t fit who you are. In particular, if someone tries really hard to convince you to do something your inner self says is not right, ignore them. Ultimately you have to be the judge of what would work for you. If you feel you’re forcing your round self into a square hole you are likely to be right. Seek further advice, keep working on what you’re told until you feel comfortable. This is as true if someone says be loud and extrovert when you know you’re an introvert, as when they try to convince you that you really do want to take up that position in Alaska.

  1. Rule 10 Don’t kid yourself luck doesn’t have a role to play.

It’s always easy to assume everyone else got where they did solely on merit and it’s only you who has succeeded because of a bit of luck. That’s rubbish. Most people will have been affected by luck at some critical juncture (just as they will also have been set back by bad timing, ill health or some other kind of misfortune). You may ‘make your own luck’ as they say – and I would agree, particularly if you start networking, seizing opportunities and being willing to be proactive about looking for opportunities – but for just about everyone at some point chance will have contributed to their progression. Just because luck has played a part doesn’t mean that merit hasn’t too.

I hope the early career physicists who heard me illustrate these rules by my own examples this week felt reassured. Life is uncertain and frequently does not go according to plan. But you have to live with the hand you’re dealt with and get on with it. Good luck!



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5 Responses to Choosing your Path, Seizing Opportunities

  1. Peter Chapman says:

    Excellent post!

  2. Beth says:

    This is great, I’m 6 weeks into a postdoc feeling like someone is about to jump out and tell me I shoudn’t be here. Points 4 and 5 are particularly relevant as is the comment “Despairing, assuming you’re rubbish is simply self-destructive.” Will be returning to this I feel!

    Thanks 🙂

  3. Georgia Chronaki says:

    Wonderful and insightful – thank you!

  4. Rob Kitromilides says:

    This is solid advice for any career, not just physics.

    Many thanks

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