Knowing what I know now: The carnival


Ever since I posted some retrospective advice for grad school last month and Scicurious proposed a Carnival of Advice, folks have been sending in reflections on their previous career stage.

The result is exactly what I’d hoped for — a chorus of advice from different perspectives, out of which you can start to hear common themes: the importance of self-discipline, but also self-care; the value of professional and personal relationships; and the stress-relieving power of time in the kitchen or outdoors. To write this up, I’ve pulled a single bullet point from each contribution, but everyone had far more to say than I can render into neat little sound-bites. As with all blog carnivals, this is really just a series of prompts for you to go Read the Whole Thing.

Without further ado, here’s what we’d have done differently, if only we’d known then what we know now:

Right here at the Molecular Ecologist, Aleeza Gerstein advised grad students that they should be their own top priority; Sean Hoban pointed out that it can pay to e-mail folks whose work you admire; and Katie Lotterhos reminded us all to pay attention to grammatical detail.

Bjørn Østman says he would’ve done more reading.

Jeremy Fox tells us that teaching your first class is terrifying — for everyone.

Arthropod Ecology reminds us to know when to say no.

Christie Wilcox advises grad students to take charge.

Brash Equilibrium — aka Benjamin Chabot-Hanowell — wishes he’d taken more time for his social life.

Scicurious recommends keeping a bible (not that kind) to help stay organized.

BabyAttachMode points outs that it pays to write everything down.

At My Laser Boyfriend, KK reminds us all that imposter syndrome is real.

Bashir suggests keeping a close eye on the folks in the cohort just ahead of yours.

If you’re an undergrad thinking about grad school, gigglenoodle advises you try the research experience in more than one lab.

The Infactorium reminds us that the only good reason to start a doctorate is because you really want a doctorate.

And at Lost in Transcription, Jon F. Wilkins lists all the reasons not to go to grad school.

Edmund Hart politely suggests that graduate students get out while they still can.

But Steve Hamblin says that, looking back on his Ph.D., he wouldn’t change a thing.

And, in a late addition (my fault, not hers): Joanna at squirreledthoughts says that, in hindsight, she wishes she’d planned ahead more.

Thanks again to everyone who sent in contributions!


About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy Yoder is an Assistant Professor of Biology at California State University, Northridge. He also blogs at Denim and Tweed, and tweets under the handle @jbyoder.

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  • Shawn Lewis

    I left a postdoc for a position in industry three years ago. This is what I wish I’d known or understood better when I made that leap:

    1. The biggest difference is over goals. Scientists are remarkably homogenous in what they want to achieve, in that we want to uncover the true nature of the universe, become famous and get tenure (maybe in that order). Out there in the real world there are a lot of different motivations, like security, power, or becoming rich. It seems obvious to say it, but once you leave academia don’t assume that everyone will share your (lingering) desire to establish the truth, and indeed some may be actively working in the other direction.

    2. Scientists tend to respond well to arguments over why they might be wrong, and they’re also are able to adopt a new viewpoint fairly painlessly. Furthermore, this largely applies no matter what the difference in seniority between the two parties – some older faculty may take a little more convincing, but if you’re clearly right and they’re wrong, the chances are that they’ll change their mind and be somewhat grateful to you for enlightening them. This is not true out there in the real world. People have all sorts of preconceived ideas, pet projects and beliefs that are full of gaping holes (especially to someone trained to look for them), but extreme caution is required if you have to change their mind. If you don’t have to change their mind, then just walk away. Some people hold onto their ideas and beliefs very strongly, and a helpful hint from you can seem like an attack on their identity or competence to them.

    3. Become a diligent student of communication, especially email. What information should I present so that someone skimming my message will still understand it? Can I leave anything out that’s not important? Is the tone right? If this is an email that won’t be well received, does it just make a single simple point? (Tempting though it is, including lots of corollary arguments just increases the risk of an ever-lengthening back and forth.) Do I use an ugly font or a provocative signature? Read every email through twice before you send it, and prepare really important ones offline so that you can a) review it again before you send it and b) avoid accidentally sending it before it’s ready. Spell everyone’s name right. If you think ‘screw it, I’ll just hit send’, do not hit send and walk away from your computer. It’s these emails that will do you the most damage. (Also, never do work email after drinking alcohol or when you’re fried on caffeine.)

    4. Appearance. Academics are good at looking past appearances, but others might not be. Pay attention to your wardrobe and iron out all the bad personal habits acquired when you were alone on an island for three months. Don’t give anyone an excuse not to take you seriously.

    5. I’ve seen this advice elsewhere directed at undergrads going to grad school, but it applies just as much when moving out of academia too: don’t underestimate your colleagues. Sure, they may not have a PhD, but they’ve been doing this for years and know many things that you don’t. Be humble, and pay close attention to everyone. This counts double (if not triple) for administrative staff – they know about the business or department in unrivalled detail and can become invaluable allies.

    6. Use numbers. You spent years in academia battling uncooperative datasets, so use that experience. Identify the data you need to understand a problem and marshal it into clear, simple graphs. Go easy on the statistics, but have them ready in case someone asks. Having strong data on your side (or indeed, picking your side on the basis of strong data) will go a long way to avoid problem (2) above: you don’t need to change people’s minds if compelling data can do it for you. It’s amazing how many people out there rely on rhetoric or hunch as a basis for their opinion, and you can therefore get a long way with a data-driven approach.

    7. In business or industry, money is the main preoccupation. It only figures peripherally for postdocs and grad students, either when you’re personally broke or when using your budget to get supplies. In business you have to be constantly aware of where it’s coming from and where it’s going. Moreover, being very careful with the company’s money will increase the chances they’ll make you responsible for more of it. Having a keen sense of how money moves in a corporation will also show you who holds the deciding vote in a particular decision.

    • Thanks, Shawn — the move from grad school to somewhere other than academia is ground we hadn’t covered in the other submissions, so this is a nice addition.

  • Thanks for pulling this together!

    Link to the Ostman post seems to be broken–there’s a quotation mark at the end of the URL.

    • Thanks for the heads-up — think I have the link fixed, now.

  • Tim Vines

    When I moved out of academia I found the ‘Career Change Handbook’ by Graham Green to be really useful. Not sure if it’s easily available outside the UK though.

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