Some sporadic insights into academia.
Science is Fascinating.
Scientists are slightly peculiar.
Here are the views of one of them.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Startup Advice

What was the most helpful advice I got when starting my group? There is no answer to that question because, like most of my colleagues, I didn’t get any. I got the keys to the lab, a nice pub lunch, a PC, a small amount of start-up money and a seat in a shared office in which the most commonly used word was “fuck”.But while there is no disgrace in lying for comic effect, I should confess that, in reality, I did get two pieces of advice. One was a not-so-helpful recommendation to never become a PI in the first place because it was hard and getting harder. The other, much more helpful recommendation was to read Kathy Barker’s book At the Helm: Leading Your Laboratory. It is thorough and thought-provoking, and covers the whole spectrum of the academic experience from situations you will have considered to those that you will never have imagined (and hopefully will never be in).
In the absence of any further second-hand advice to pass on, here are the key things I had to learn the hard way:
Learn to say no
New staff represent a brilliant opportunity to offload unpopular lectures, roles on health and safety committees and other rubbish no one else wants to do. Do not unwittingly take on busywork in an attempt to be popular with the cool kids; otherwise you too will end up having to dump it on the next generation.
If you do say yes, do it well
Being a safe pair of hands is a valuable skill. If you can be trusted to deliver something tricky, you will raise your profile in the department. But be aware: competence can lead to an even heavier workload.
Get some top cover
From providing lab space and access to equipment, to mentoring and speaking up for you on promotion committees, you need someone senior to look out for you; find someone simpatico.
Build a brand
A dirty word in academic circles, but important. It’s a big and competitive world, and being known as the expert in a particular area or technique will lead to collaborations and conference invitations.
Recruit the right team (for you)
I am lucky enough to have a fantastic team. But picking the wrong people will lead to a toxic lab culture that will sink you. The first person you recruit sets the tone for the rest of your career. Get experience of interviewing by being on recruitment panels for colleagues. Think very carefully about the process, particularly the questions you ask and what characteristic they actually probe. Then choose your recruit very carefully.
Toughen the heck up
You are going to fail, often. Even well-established PIs fail. It is part of the process. Learn methods to deal with it.
Be a tiger
Remember that you earned this position on your ability; try not to let impostor syndrome overcome you.
Have fun
Academia is tough, but there are good bits: don’t forget to enjoy them.

This first appeared in the Times Higher Education on 8th September 2016

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Cheer up its only brexit

On the slow return from the long vacation, as a community, we academics find ourselves in a bit of a post-referendum pickle (I think it is a reasonable assumption that most academics were anti-Brexit).
Put aside the shock that “not everyone thinks like us”. Regardless of the final outcome of Brexiting, we are in for a time of uncertainty. We can face this uncertainty in two ways: hand-wringing pessimism or fatalistic optimism. In private, I find myself swinging between these viewpoints; but in public, I take on the role of departmental pessimism-eater: for every “woe is us” I respond with “it’ll be OK”; for every cloud a silver lining and for every hand-wring a cheery backslap.
I admit this Pollyanna approach can be quite annoying.

Reasons not to be miserable
The silver linings feel few and far between. However, I take hope from the following:
  • Thirteen non-European Union nations, through one mechanism or another, can access Horizon 2020 funding, suggesting that it will be possible for the UK, too
  • At present, due to government imposed restrictions, we are basically limited to recruiting from within the EU. In the future, employing non-EU nationals may become easier, broadening the talent pool
  • The arguments for and against the EU were tight, and while to us Remain felt like the least bad option, not everyone voting Leave was a frothing-at-the-mouth Little Englander
  • The pound diving means that grants won in foreign currencies are now worth more, and a possible reduction in house prices and interest rates may allow “generation rent” to get on the property ladder (provided that they haven’t spent their deposit money on Poké Balls).
Ultimately, in the months since the referendum, unless you are a politician, nothing has actually changed: Blackshirts have not been marching in Whitechapel, countries in the EU still need to sell us cheese, wine and fast cars, and as far as I can tell the stock market is at exactly the same place as it was a year ago.

Things can only get worse
Of course all of the above may be bollocks, and Brexit should be seen as another contributory factor to the inevitable decline of British universities. For example, economic uncertainty may affect medium to long-term investment, some British-based scientists have been dropped from Horizon 2020 projects, the economy has slowed down prompting the record low interest rates, and the rhetoric from some EU politicians has been fairly acerbic, prompting fears that the exit process will not be pain-free.
You no doubt have your own personal favourite reason that we are all DOOMED, but I believe that optimism can break the debilitating miasma of gloom (perpetuated by social media) that is hanging over the ivory tower.
Critically, our happiness is – mostly – under our control, we can become more happy by doing more of the things that make us happy (reading, exercising, enjoying our jobs, pausing to notice the little things). Moping around, blaming the government/anyone who voted Leave/Donald Trump for all that ails you is, a bit like fast food, satisfying in the short term, but leaves you bloated and sad.
But don’t just take my word for it; TED talks are littered with talks about the value of positive psychology.

The wind in academia doesn’t blow, it sucks
This optimistic mindset extends beyond the current crise du jour and is a core skill for a better, happier, more productive career.
Academia is characterised by a string of events over which we have little control: student expectations, student realities, grant panels, peer reviews, promotions boards, Tory governments, global recessions, equipment not working, experiments not working, students not working, the lack of a tea room on campus and exponential increases in teaching load because in a moment of weakness you said yes to a pleading colleague.
You can throw your hands in the air, say “this is all shit” and run the clock down to retirement on your ever-decreasing pension pot.
Or you can brush yourself off and start again.

Best foot forward
Do not let each negative comment eat away at you and become embittered. Although tempting, especially when reviewing too soon after your own work has been rejected, poisoning the well for others with angry reviews, adding to a vicious cycle of rejection and recrimination, ends up making life terrible for everyone.
If you are not concerned with the general mental well-being of the body académique, there is a more selfish reason to be optimistic: pessimism directly affects your ability to succeed. Simplistically, you will never get funded if you don’t apply for grants because “no one ever gets funded”.
But additionally, if you don’t believe in a grant or paper, then why would the reviewer? So, cheer up. It’s a new academic year after all, and we have just had eight blessed weeks with no students to fix all the things that they have broken, catch up on all the paperwork they have generated, and maybe squeeze in some uninterrupted thought before the next intake.

Finally, don’t mourn, organise
I want to clarify something here.
I am not endorsing accepting the current state of affairs and doing nothing. Get out there and do something, anything: join a political party, write to your MP, contact the Commons Science and Technology Committee, demand that your professional body canvases Parliament, take to the streets and engage with others.
I am, however, endorsing a mindset to deal with the state that we are in. Look for the positives in the situation and do not let things that are out of your control affect your ability to manage the things that are in your control. To paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr: “Have the strength to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to tell the difference”.

This article first appeared in the Times Higher Education on 1st September 2016