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The world inside academia

29 April 2020

Careers inside academia

Last week, we looked at how a postgraduate degree equips you for theworld outside academia. This week we turn our attention to becoming an academic. We invited four academics from outside the MeaseyLab to zoom into our meeting and asked them: (i) the course of their career that took them into their current position; (ii)  the reasons why they think they were hired (and insights into how they hire others); and (iii) skills that they think were important during their post-grad positions that they continue with today. There then followed a Q & A session where they revealed key insights into their world.

As previously, I had the benefit of a recording of the session in putting this blog together, and the participants have all had the opportunity to correct my quirky interpretation. 


Name

Graham Alexander

Katharina Wollenberg Valero

Aaron O’Dea

David Blackburn

Current position

Professor of Herpetology


Lecturer, Ecology and the Environment

Deputy REF lead

Staff Scientist

Curator & Professor

Institution

University of the Witwatersrand

University of Hull

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

& University of Bologna

University of Florida

The path to current position

Given a snake as a pet

Was given lots of advice and interest nurtured by two mentors

Gained advantage through passion of subject

Was hired at Wits

Got interested in phylogenetics at university

Got into a lab which studied phylogenetics of frogs (Germany)

Switched from frogs to anoles (US)

Interested in genomic reasons for adaptation to climate 

Pregnancy interrupted career

Took tenure track position at a teaching university (US)

Teaching and research position at U Hull (UK)

Studied maths [exited mysteriously]

Ecology at U Liverpool

Paleobiology at U Bristol

11 years of postdoc and started family

[applied for many jobs, but didn’t get called to interview]

Hired into Smithsonian where postdocs were conducted

Lives and works on ismuth of panama

Anthropology

Paleontology

Evolution & development

Better at keeping animals dead than keeping them alive

Got insight from museum specimens

3 one-year post docs in same place while family started

Few jobs offered

CalAcad curator & scientist

Moved to Florida to museum and have lab group

What you need to get a job

Passion for your subject will make you stand out above others

Possession of certain traits including good work ethic, intelligence, logic and creativity  

Competence in a suite of skills including good writing skills, numeracy and ability to synthesize ideas

Products that you can show: papers, infographics, engagements, evidence of productivity

Good work ethic

Technical proficiency

Teaching experience

Demonstrate that you are committed to the position and place

Research productivity (starting and finishing projects)

Evidence of grant writing

Key Insights

Here is a list of key insights that our team shared. They are in no particular order, but each one probably deserves a lot more information. 

  • Academics often suffer fromimposter syndrome
  • A suite of skills that are all are required:
    • Need a logical mind: even OCD
    • Good writing skills
    • Computational skills
    • Attention to detail
    • The importance of finishing the job
    • Being creative (not just for arts students)
    • Need to read (a lot)
  • The coolest job in the world as you’re paid to learn
  • Research has to be fun 
    • Once you have a tenured position metrics are unimportant
    • Have to produce a publication that you are proud of
  • You have to tolerate rejections
    • Papers
    • Conferences
    • Positions
    • Don’t be harsh on yourself - it happens to everyone
  • Don’t rely on how people used to get hired, or that positions you see now will become available in the future 
  • Don’t ignore the importance of natural history observations (theMartin Whitingapproach)
    • Write the notes as they demonstrate productivity
    • They make your CV look stronger in the early stages
    • Use them to get things published strategically
    • Don’t fill your CV exclusively with these notes (there are more important things)
  • There is still a glass ceiling in employment institutions
    • Things are improving
    • Don’t allow comments phase you - many people don’t understand their own prejudices or discriminations.
    • Share the down sides, you’ll find out that lots of other people experience them, and not just you
  • Role models are very useful in science
    • Especially someone that you can identify with from your own background
    • Use your network to explore which role model might fit best
  • Someone needs to fit into the context of the job
    • This means that not every job will be right for you as other people might fit better [not the fault of you or your CV]
    • Could be why lots of people get jobs from the inside - they are already known to fit into the team
    • Many institutions pride themselves on their position in the community, and will look fondly on people who are clearly committed to the place. This could include:
      • Speaking the local language
      • Writing popular articles for a local audience
      • Engaging with the local press and media
      • Giving talks to local groups
    • Give back into the faculty or institute - can you demonstrate that you do more than just conduct research and write papers. Are you active in your community (both big - academic community & small - departmental community)
  • Learn about opportunities & take advantage of them [you make your own luck]
    • Many people don’t know about opportunities that are out there. 
    • Meet people one on one at smaller meetings [big meetings aren’t good for this]
  • Moving around [in postdocs or between jobs] can make it more difficult to get accepted into some places that have a culture of staying put
    • If you know where you want to be, it’s worth investing time to that institution and community [but don’t count on it!]
    • Try to keep multiple irons in the fire
  • Even though career paths look linear, this is really only in hindsight. In reality they are wondering paths that sometimes wonder right out and back in again
  • Writing small grants isn’t a waste of time as it develops this as a skill 
    • Grant writing is different to thesis writing or paper writing
    • Having a CV with evidence of lots of grants gained (even if they are small) demonstrates to people that you know this stage of the process
    • Showing that you can finish the same projects and produce outputs is even better
  • Try saying yes to opportunities (especially early on in your career)
    • You never know where it will take you
    • Establish collaborations outside your direct circle
  • Creativity includes reinventing yourself and your science as you move through your career
    • Each grant proposal is to do different work and take you into new paths and directions
    • Some will work out and open up whole new areas or specialities. Others won’t
  • It’s easier if you can describe exactly what you do early on in your career
    • A very mixed up CV leaves some people unclear about who they are hiring and for what
    • This doesn’t mean that you have to be overly focussed, but early on it’s useful to have a tag (or a few specific categories like “systematics”, “comparative anatomy”, “natural history” to organize your publications if they’re really different from each other)
  • What type of job do you want?
    • Teaching - then get teaching experience 
    • Research - then make sure your CV is strong
    • There are more types of jobs out there, but if you know what you want (or don’t want) then make sure that your CV reflects this
  • Your first job is not necessarily your last job 
    • But it could be if you love it (like Graham!)
    • You can use it as a springboard to go elsewhere
    • You might need to take the first job to get somewhere else
  • Learn about what you are good at and embrace it
    • This might require some honest reflection
  • It’s totally possible to have a job outside academia and then move back in
    • Some jobs might even give you an advantage in getting an academic position
    • Many academic subjects are applied, and so experience in the relevant jobs really help [industry relevant experience]
      • You may then have inside knowledge to subjects that are taught
    • Maintain your understanding of the field (to get back in)
    • Make sure that there is a continuing narrative, a reason why you left and why this helps you come back in 
  • Keep irrelevant jobs off your CV
  • Knowing what you don’t want to do can be as helpful as knowing what you do want to do
    • Internships are great opportunities for this
  • Get feedback on the letters that you write when applying for jobs
    • Ask people whether they will give you a letter of reference, and if that will be positive 
    • Different regions of the world have different styles for letters of reference
      • US letters are thorough [and often over the top, even flamboyant] and very long
      • Europeans tend to be understated and more direct
      • Some parts of the world may provide just a few sentences
    • I ask students to draft their own letters that accentuate what they themselves want to underline about their experiences. I won’t use the same words, but it will help remind and inform me of what colleagues have done.


Thanks very much to all of our guests for their insights into how to get and retain an academic career.


It was great to see everyone - even if we were all zoomin around. Dave grew a moustache [maybe not for this occasion] but it’s questionable if it’ll ever be seen again


During the meeting, Aaron mentioned that very few people from Africa apply to go to the Smithsonian to study tropical biology. This could be considered one of those opportunities. Both internships and fellowships are available.

Here are the links to internships at STRI

https://stri.si.edu/academic-programs/internships

And Fellowships at STRI:

https://stri.si.edu/academic-programs/fellowships

For both, the trick is to communicate with the potential advisor before submission. Staff at STRI and their research focus are listed here:https://stri.si.edu/staff-scientists

  Lab  meetings

The world outside academia

23 April 2020

Careers Outside Academia

For this lab meeting, I invited three former MeaseyLab members who have now left academia and gone into the wonderful world of work. Each left at a different level and has been employed in a different work sector. To prepare for the meeting, each was asked to think of skills that they had gained during their time in academia and how this has (or hasn’t) prepared them for the work that they do now.

I’ve chosen to produce a table to list their responses. I’ve also allowed them to edit what I’ve written here.

Name

Alex Rebelo

Mohlamatsane Mokhatla

Ana Nunes

Left MeaseyLab

MSc 2016

PhD 2018

Post Doc 2017

Current employer: job title

Enviro Insight: junior specialist

SANParks: Scientist - Social Ecological Systems

IUCN: Programme Support Associate (Invasive Species)

 

 

 

 

Current tasks

Field work

Report writing

GIS work

Social ecological systems

Ecosystem services

Cultural ecosystem services

Amphibian monitoring Garden Route NP

Working on projects:

EU regulation on invasive species

Import regulations on soil

Humane ways of managing vertebrate species

Invasion impacts on pollinators

EICAT implementation

 

 

 

 

Skills gained in academia

Working in unfamiliar field sites in adverse conditions

People skills

Report writing

 

Report writing

Analytical skills

How to start on a new topic from scratch

 

GIS work

Data management

Data management

 

Programming

Correlative & Mechanistic modelling

Presenting data with graphs & statistics

 

 

Communication of scientific results to a mixed audience of stakeholders

Time management skills

 

 

Learning to learn

 

Key Insights

Here is a list of key insights that our team shared (together with some from Jonathan Bell - NCC). They are in no particular order, but each one probably deserves a lot more information. 

  • The importance of the networks that they had made during their times as academics. In addition, the importance of how to manage and grow a network.
  • Many jobs these days involve project work, and include generating the funding from donors as well as completing the project and writing the report. Post graduate degrees really help with learning how to start, manage, and complete projects.
  • Although papers and citations gained during academic life won’t help with some jobs, they allow flexibility in the job market (potentially to re-join academia). They also demonstrate your ability to write. More papers are likely to improve your chances and some jobs include writing research papers as part of the job.
  • Employers are interested in the experience and skills that you’ve acquired during your academic work. Instead of just listing papers you need to sell what you’ve done in cover letters and interviews:
    • What kind of experience do you have with invasive species?
    • Do you understand about management of invasive species?
    • Do you have good organisational skills?
    • Have you done fieldwork?
    • Have you managed students (particularly important as you might be required to manage personell in your new position)?
  • Regardless of your academic background, you should expect to enter into your job at quite a junior level or even as an intern, and then work your way up
  • Employers are looking for ‘emotional intelligence’ (the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, and those of the people around you). They will expect you to be a good team member, work with different stakeholders and clients. Conflict management skills are important.
  • In South Africa, if you are going into a process specialist role (e.g. Environmental Assessment Practitioner)you should think of becoming registered with respective (EAPASA or SACNASP)
  • You might not need to wait for a job advert. Use your contacts and write to people who are employers
  • You might need to become ‘comfortable with feeling uncomfortable’: your work might be so different from what you’ve done before that you should and you should be able to adapt
  • There are expectations from employers that you will meet challenges that your employers place before you (and not shy away)
  • You might need to get used to different working cultures that are meeting focussed (even when you have meetings about having meetings)
  • The working culture might not be static, and could change with the replacement of a manager or director.
  • If you are employed by a governmental agency, it will be expected that you are accountable to your employers as well as the public that pays through their taxes
  • The position you are employed in will likely involve you constantly acquiring new skills, such that you feel like more of a student then when you were studying. This really adds to the interest in the working life, and allows you to meet new and unexpected challenges.
  • New subjects and other areas might be well outside your expertise, but can be just as rewarding once you rise to meet the challenges.
  • Jobs outside academia are especially challenging in working out how to apply the results of scientific studies.
  • Your employers might expect you to conceive your projects, as well as carrying them out.
  • You are expected to be an authority in your work, and interpret your results with reasonable confidence

It was a very illuminating session, and I think that there was a lot of interesting to and fro between current and former lab members. Although none of these former lab members were present together with current lab members, they are still part of the MeaseyLab network, and you can use them! The alumni pages have contact details of all former MeaseyLab members, and where they are working now (I’ll try to keep them up to date, but let me know if they aren’t). Also, don’t forget the the CIB has a far bigger network with hundreds of alumni. It’s worth asking me (Dave or Sarah) about past alumni if you are looking for someone in a particular organisation. Your link with the CIB is very valuable, and you should use it.

Thanks again to Alex, Mac & Ana for making this meeting so interesting and informative. 

Next week, we are going to follow this format again, but this time talk about how to stay in academia.

  Frogs  Lab  meetings

A very memorable and toady Cape Herp Club

08 April 2020

The Toad Team pull off a spectacular presentation for Cape Herp Club

In these times of uncertainty, there are opportunities to do things differently. Normally, the Cape Herp Club meets every other month in the lab of one of the host groups. This month, we couldn't meet as we are all confined to our homes to comply with the government emergency legislation to fight COVID-19.

As it was the MeaseyLab's turn to host the Cape Herp Club, we decided to have a whole bunch of talks about Guttural Toads, Sclerophrys gutturalis, and the work that the lab is currently engaged in. Because we weren't allowed to meet in person, we decided to do a video conference, and that allowed us more opportunities to get creative about the talks we could give.

Many blog readers will remember the visit of Carla & Adriana last year from Brazil (see blog entries here, here and here). You will also remember that last month, Max had to go back to Germany before finishing his experiment (see blog post here). We were able to invite them them all to participate in our presentation.

Interrogating an invasion: details on differences between native and invasive populations of Guttural Toads

Giovanni Vimercati (couldn't make it but sent a presentation from Switzerland)* - Insights from more invasions

James Baxter-Gilbert (in Stellenbosch) - Morphology and performance of native and invasive populations

Max Mühlenhaupt (in Berlin) - Breaching the gap: From egg to toad

Carla Madelaire (in Arizona) - Water seeking behaviour of native and invasive toads

Adriana Barsotti (couldn't make it but sent a presentation from Cyprus)* - Challenges of a novel range

Carla Wagener (in Bellville) - Shit don't lie

Sam Peta (in Stellenbosch) - Proposed work on dietary niche and trophic interactions

Natasha Kruger (in Mosel Bay) - Parasites of native and invasive populations

It was amazing to see more than 30 people join this Cape Herp Club meeting.

But because we didn't have to have people physically present, we could invite our collaborators from all over the world. 

In attendance were Guttural Toad collaborators:

Claudia Baider & Vincent Florens (Mauritius)

Morne du Plessis (Pretoria)

Fernando Ribiero Gomes (Sao Paulo)

Louis du Preez (Potchefstroom)

Of course, most people were alone in their houses, but a few were able to show us how (and how not) to do social distancing.


Keep productive during lockdown

03 April 2020

Making a schedule of work to do...

Lockdown has come to us all. At the time of writing, we (in South Africa) have just completed our first full week of lockdown due to the emerging Covid-19 pandemic. Almost everyone has returned home to self isolate. Some lab members are back with their families, others are in their accommodation in Stellenbosch. The university has closed its doors during this period, and all experiments and practical work has stopped. 

Whether we wanted it or not, we now have an opportunity to write up completed projects, or plan the work that we want to do. While the lockdown might come with many unwanted restrictions, it does allow all MeaseyLab members to concentrate on analysis and writing.

But how should we remain productive, or (for some of us) how do we even start getting into a productive cycle? 

Try to enjoy your lockdown period, and make it as productive as you can. Everyone has their own way of working, but if you are struggling here are some tips that I find useful:

Schedule your work & mix it up

There are some tasks that we have that are more fun than others, and it's nice to have something that you can look forward to. Thus, making a simple schedule for your work where you indicate what you are doing and when can really help.

  • Know when you are more productive, and plan accordingly
    • some of us work better first thing in the morning, and others in the evening. Get to know yourself and plan to do the difficult stuff when you're fresh - or warmed up!
  • Make a "To Do" list
    • this will help you know what some of the little tasks are as well as bigger blocks.
    • If you really only have one thing to do (e.g. write PhD proposal), then break this up into smaller workable chunks so that you can start ticking them off
    • don't underestimate the importance and satisfaction of ticking off items on a to do list. Put it up on your wall, use coloured pens. Anything that makes it more satisfying for you
  • Don't become a slave to any schedule that you make
    • when you are being really productive, don't stop just because your time is up. 
    • conversely, when you're failing on a task don't stay with it when its time is up. Move on and come back to it soon. Even when you aren't doing this task, your brain will continue working on the problem.
    • Some problems do much better after a nights sleep, so if something is really bugging you then distill it and read this summary before you go to bed. Let your brain work on it overnight and reflect on what you think in the morning. It's worth having a go!
  • Be aware of what eats into your time (e.g. social media!)
    • if you really need to do this, then put it into your schedule for a less productive time when you know that you'll be flagging. 
    • When it's not scheduled, keep it off your desktop and avoid having alerts on your phone
  • Be logical in what you choose to do when. 
    • Don't plan to write your results when you haven't analysed your data.
  • Include items that are non-work into your schedule: 
    • such as coffee/tea breaks, social media fixes or exercise slots, and communicate these with anyone that you are in lockdown with (especially if they are prone to interrupting your most productive periods).
    • and include little things like writing or updating your profile for this website or the CIB website. Part of remaining productive is achieving little things on your to do list, as well as the really big items.
  • Plan meetings with other lab members (on zoom, skype or whatsapp), and keep communicating with your advisor, even if it's just to check in. It does help to chat about what you are doing as it helps you to verbalise and forces you to put it into another perspective. 
  • Don't spend too much time in this scheduling - it could end up eating all your time!

Don't forget that there is information on writing elsewhere on this website: 

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