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Career advice from a Blocked Frog

7 June 2016

Contributed by Dr Matt Smalley (with marginalia from Douglas Adams, Blackadder, J.R.R. Tolkien and Machiavelli)

I came across a quote from Douglas Adams this week, while thinking about what to put into this piece.  “Anything invented before your fifteenth birthday is the order of nature. That’s how it should be. Anything invented between your 15th and 35th birthday is new and exciting, and you might get a career there. Anything invented after that day, however, is against nature and should be prohibited.” It’s a sentiment I fully agree with. I distrust Facebook, I don’t “Tweet” and I don’t actually know what “Blog” is a contraction of (Blocked Frog?). Nevertheless, I have been asked to write a Blocked Frog on careers and career advice and so I shall proceed by my usual method. Namely, not reading what else is on the website or following the instructions I have been given but instead just writing what I think needs to be written. I call this the “unbiased approach”; others might call it “not bothering to read the literature until the last minute” (I am reminded of Captain Redbeard Rum in Blackadder II, who puts to sea without any crew. “I thought it was customary to have a crew on a ship,” says Blackadder. “Ahhh, well,” replies Rum, “there’s two schools of thought on that. All the other Captains says it is – I says it isn’t.”).

But I digress (as usual). One reason why I am always cautious about offering advice for the future is exactly because I do feel that early career researchers are actually the people who are often best placed to understand and exploit the possibilities of new research and new technology and drive science in directions that I cannot begin to see. I am also wary of telling people how to shape their lives – ultimately, what path you go down is your decision and it is not one that anyone else can (or should) make for you. All an advisor or mentor can do is clarify the choices before you and perhaps help you to identify your strengths as well as areas where you might benefit from training. What he or she cannot do is make the decision for you. As summed up in the Lord of the Rings, if you go to the Elves for advice “they will say both No and Yes.”

That said, there are some things that I look for when recruiting an early career researcher which make the candidate stand out in application and in interview. For me, enthusiasm, drive and passion are number one on my list of desirable qualities. Good lab experience is obviously key and, the further along in your career you are, this should be shown by the quality of your publications. One thing that often worries students looking for their first postdoc or new postdocs thinking about their future going forwards is how to show that they can win grant funding. The answer is to start small, with travel awards and seedcorn funding (if possible) and then as you go on persuade your PI to let you be co-applicant on a grant. Collegiality and a desire to collaborate and help your colleagues both in the science and also the more mundane aspects of the lab are really important. Indeed, I cannot recommend highly enough networking both within your own institution and externally. The more you engage with your local, national and international research community, the more you find it benefits your ability to contextualise your own research, as well as your future job prospects. Go to conferences, spend time in other labs learning techniques and get old friends to invite you to speak at their new research institutes.

Also, as you progress in your career, don’t be afraid of management. If you get opportunities for management training, take them. I have seen, again and again, labs made unhappy because the PI cannot (or will not) accept that they are now a manager as well as a scientist. I have always admired a piece of advice on management from Machiavelli: “A Prince [or Princess] must learn to act like both the fox and the lion.” That does not mean going through the bins at night and then sleeping during the day while someone else does all the work; rather, (I think) it means the good manager must be (small p) politically aware and also not afraid to deal with difficult issues. These are keys to success. The word “manager” by the way, comes from ‘manége’, a training arena for horses, and a good manager was originally someone skilled at making a horse perform in the arena.

Finally, we all must recognise that not everyone gets to be a PI – so have a backup plan. Make sure you equip yourself with a skillset that, combined with your science background, enables you to be employed in any field you find yourself in.

For anyone who thinks my stream of consciousness is worth listening to, or who would like specific advice on applications, CVs or any other aspect of a science career (providing you understand that you risk an answer of both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ – Schrödingers career advice, possibly), I am available for a chat the first Monday of each month in the Hadyn Ellis coffee shop from 12 – 1. Or drop me an e-mail and we can arrange another time.

About the author:

Dr-Matt-Smalley-sDr Matt Smalley is a Reader at Cardiff School of Biosi and Deputy Director of the European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute