Leading the way to…job security?

meisha and her team at the forum
Meisha with Elena Martin Avilda and Lily Chen at the 2016 Science Pathways conference

Meisha-Marika Holloway-Phillips
Postdoctoral Researcher—Plant Physiology
ARC Centre Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis

Tweet. Blog. Media releases. Committees. Network. I used to revolt at the branding mantra responding with ‘my science will do the talking’ i.e. through publishing. But a) I haven’t got a Nature paper to wear around my neck and b) publishing is not all that matters. Yeah I agree, when you get pedalled with publish or perish at every waking moment, it certainly feels that way, and yes, without a healthy list of papers good luck getting someone to listen to your ideas. But I guess what I’ve come to realise is that they are all just another form of achieving science impact and for others to see what interests and drives you.

I went to the Science Pathways 2016 conference with Elena Martin Avilda and Lily Chen (pictured) put on by the Early and Mid-Career Researcher (EMCR) Forum, which is supported by the Australian Academy of Science. If you haven’t heard of the Forum, I recommend signing up. The EMCR Forum advises the Academy on issues relevant to EMCRs, to help inform its policy recommendations to government and develop its EMCR activities. So don’t put it on your to-do list, just sign up.

The theme for this year’s conference was Leadership. An EMCR is categorised (formally) as anyone up to 15 years post-PhD. So as you can imagine the issues raised were diverse. There were researchers already heading lab groups, managing large grants and with publication lists 5 pages long. And they still felt insecure. Seriously? How were they still part of the ‘how do I stay in the game’ conversation? Leadership in science, as I came to appreciate over the two days, serves a critical role in the system. Without it, no one benefits. Why? Because it’s a team sport. It’s very unusual for an individual to have lasting impact on their own, although you wouldn’t know it when the funding system preferentially rewards and accolades reflect the individual. To gain momentum in science you’re going to have to assemble a team of people whether that is done in the form of a lab or via collaborations. If the team doesn’t work, then output is diminished and you lose funding momentum. Members of the team suffer and so does the ‘team leader’. Sounds obvious. But does that mean ‘all teams’ are always working well? No. As postdocs and PhD students, we all too regularly feel like under-appreciated work horses; if we ‘fail’ it’s of no consequence to the system.

A good leader will encourage, empower and engender ownership in individuals. They will be inclusive in sharing their vision and are generous with their expertise and time. They will be sensitive to what people in their team or collaborators want out of the experience. They tend to be creative, resourceful people with a positive attitude. Above all, they are willing to sacrifice personal gain for members in order to achieve overall gain by the team. Emma Johnston, an amazingly inspiring and insightful professor at UNSW, made the point that as knowledge creators the perception is that we should be able to self-teach leadership. Instead we need to train and reflect on leadership practice. And there are leadership courses available for researchers to attend (e.g. CMBE Preparing for Leadership training program; The Australian Higher Education Sector Leadership Colloquium). But formal workshops are only one way to gain leadership skills. Sport was key to Tamara Davis gaining her leadership skills, having a mad passion for the much loved game of Ultimate Frisbee. Others suggested that with greater flexibility in career pathways, gaining experience through industry jobs and government positions may provide academics with different perspectives on leadership and people management. There are also tools available to help you identify areas that you need to improve on, e.g. 360-degree feedback. Heard of it? No, neither had I. It aims to get feedback not just from your direct supervisor, but from peers and colleagues. Performance reviews are obviously a good place to start. The bottom-line though is that like anything, you’ve got to work at it. To have the opportunity to be a leader you obviously need to stay in a job, and to stay in a job you need to develop a profile. Similarly, to continue to grow as a leader you need training as well as a profile to continue to attract students/collaborators/funding. So leadership and communication (in the broadest sense) are inherently intertwined.

So I’m five years out of a PhD. I can feel myself progressing and improving and that’s self-motivating and a shift in itself; if you had asked me two years ago you would have found me hidden under my desk crying doom and gloom. The optimism hasn’t come from suddenly tripling my output (although crikey, I wouldn’t say no to that!), and it certainly doesn’t feel warranted when you look at the current research climate. Instead I think it’s a little bit of ‘I’m still here aren’t I’ and a lot of ‘I’m enjoying this too much to walk away’. But I need a plan. And I need to become more science present. By that I mean, no one knows about your work and achievements unless you communicate it; similarly, you can't receive information and be available to respond to opportunities if you're not engrossed and connected to the broader science community.

As researchers we have the unique opportunity to experience what it is like to discover something new. So what do you plan on doing with the knowledge you gain (good or bad)? Translating Ernest Rutherford’s wisdom to the 21st century, science serves no purpose unless it can be explained to the person next to you in a bar over a drink. So get tweeting, get blogging and put yourself out there, because what we all do is worth sharing.

In researching for this piece I had a number of how-did-I-not-know-about-this moments, especially with regards to career development opportunities and communication activities. In reflecting on this, I came to the following two conclusions:

  • Information needs to be curated—information often gets to us in the form of emails or lists of opportunities, but which ones do you normally follow up on? For me, it’s the ones that have been endorsed by others or suggested by mentors. There are so many training opportunities, short-courses, information sessions, interest groups out there etc. it just becomes overwhelming. So next time you share/post/forward on information to someone, reflect on what it did for you at that particular time of your career. Most of us work with negative time and usually have to make sacrifices in terms of following up on experiments and writing that paper in order to attend career development opportunities, which brings me to my next point…

  • You are receptive to information when you know what you’re looking for—how many of you go back to a paper you’ve read ages ago with new purpose and come out with a completely new perspective and wonder how you didn’t see the information there in the first place? Drawing the parallel to career development, I think you can make useful time-efficient choices about opportunities by understanding what you’re lacking and what you find challenging. This is where feedback via our performance and development review and mentors can be really useful IF taken seriously by all parties.

We’ve heard it time and time again that YOU NEED A CAREER STRATEGY. For those of you who are progressing nicely (i.e. according to my definition, got a sweet fellowship, permanent job even or just managed to land a longer than 2-year contract), what has been your experience?  For the rest of us, what are you doing about it

So what have I done/am doing in response to attending the Leadership Conference:

  1. I’ve gained a twitter account!  (aside, deciding on a handle is a humbling reminder that you’re not the first to think you’ve nailed a good idea!) Follow me @meishdoescience
  2. Working on my RSB profile page

  3. Said yes to helping out with the RSB EMCR conference

  4. Set myself a work target by registering for an international conference

Key messages

  1. Leadership training is paramount especially as the system rewards the individual.
  2. You need to be visual both within the science community and within the public for your science to have impact: 

  3. Manufacture opportunities and target lots of small things to gain momentum:

    • Identify a gap in need and take the initiative

    • Be present and put yourself out there e.g. committees, conferences

  4. Know what you’re striving for and communicate it, especially to the people employing you and who may end up employing you!

  5. Find a good mentor that will champion you and coach you on decisions (you can’t do everything so we all need help in making those wise choices).

  6. Partner with industry and look outside the main funding streams e.g. SMEconnect, venture-capital.

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