what i would tell my younger self about academia

What would I tell my younger self just getting into academia? I’ve been working away at this post for some time and coincidently there are a few others floating about at the moment too. I’ve tried to keep it as subject specific less as possible

Basically, you should expect to be treated fairly and inline with your pay grade. In return, you should always act courteously to staff and students, be collegiate (while you don’t want to become the ‘yes’ person in the department who gets dumped all over you don’t want to be known as a pain in the ass slacker either). Be professional, be honourable, be inspiring.

1)      Learn what works for you. Do you have your best ideas, clearest mind in the morning, afternoon or evening? Work out which time of day is best for writing and only do it then. You can fit everything else in round it. For example, I only write papers and grants first thing in a morning. Admin, teaching, answering email, reviews, editorial work, etc., comes later in the day when my mind isn’t as sharp. These latter things may seem more urgent, but if you clear these off your desk during your best hours then you’ve wasted the rest of the day. If you do writing when you’re not as focused or clear minded you’ll just end up deleting it all the following day.

2)      As long as you turn up for meetings and teaching you can structure the day to how it suits you. If you’re a night owl, so what? All your HoD cares about is that you publish and get grant money. So long as you turn up at work when you have to it doesn’t matter if you’re working at home the rest of the week. People I the office have a tendency to get collared for admin. So don’t be there. The only exception to this is if you are new in your department. For the first few months be visible. After that, stay clear.

3)      Try to do work as it appears on your desk. Don’t leave things till the deadline as you won’t be able to do (1).

4)      Thinking is not procrastination.

5)      If you start to get headaches, stomach pains and upsets, insomnia, take this as a warning sign and do something about it now. If you develop an RSI sort it out now. Do not think you can start using your other hand. You’ll just get it in both.

6)      Lunch is important. It means you get up from your desk. If you don’t eat your stomach will devour itself. Vending machines don’t count as lunch. Do not drink vending machine coffee if you like your stomach lining.

7)      Some of the best work comes from collaborating with the least excepted colleagues. Find out what they are doing.

8)      Top rank journals normally approach superstars to be associate editors. Most of us are not superstars. If there is a journal you want to do editorial work for, ask them. They can always say no. Try to pick a journal that has a good reputation but is not top rank as your dirst post. Firstly, because unless you’re a superstar, you haven’t a chance. Secondly, top rank journals get thousands of manuscripts a year. It will swamp you. Pick a good specialist journal. They are more likely to say yes to your offer, and the manuscript load is manageable. Pick a journal that you can realistically review articles for as you may need to make difficult editorial decisions.

9)      Likewise, if you want to review for a funding body, ask them. If they don’t want you they can say no.

10)   If you’re really junior and (8) & (9) are out of the question, some journals take postdocs on as administrators, who send manuscripts to assistant editors, etc. Consider doing this

11)   If there is a professional society magazine that goes to society members contact them and offer to write an article. Again, if they aren’t interested, they can say no.

12)   Basically, if there is something you want to do, but you don’t know how you can wangle an invite to do it, be cheeky and ask. While some people do get approached to contribute to things, others get cheeky and ask. If you don’t ask you might never get invited. Or you can shave a few years off of that invite by being cheeky.

13)   The best advice I was ever given about academia was that you need to find your own reward in teaching and admin because your boss is never going to do it.

14)   Being a good lecturer doesn’t come instantly or naturally. You have to work at it. The first year you might be focused on actually knowing the material. Being able to perform it comes later. So expect mixed feedback in the early years, don’t get too focused on it as some students are just twats with axes to grind. But take note of any constructive feedback like too busy slides or monotone voice. Inevitably someone will say you’re reading off the slides. If you do, try not to. But if you know you don’t ignore it.

15)   Don’t treat students as though they are a nuisance. They may be, but how would you feel if your boss did this to you? You have the opportunity to make a massive difference in someone’s life. That is a privilege. Don’t abuse it.

16)   If you feel out of your depth, say something. Don’t struggle on. You’ll just make a pig’s esr of it and get a rep as useless. Relatedly, don’t take on senior roles unless you’re chasing promotion, and only roles that are one step up. That way when you apply for promotion it looks like you’re already doing the job up from where you are already. If you think you need training to do it then say you’ll only do it if it is provided. If you genuinely think you can’t do it or the job is inappropriate for your level them say so sooner rather than later, and keep saying no. It is harder to back track than to be firm from the start.

17)   Relatedly, don’t change your mind on anything. Senior staff will work out whether you’re the type that can be talked round and this’ll mean you are the first port of call for every crap job going. If you are always clear and firm they’ll stop hassling you once you’ve made your position clear.

18)   Sometimes unique once in a lifetime opportunities come your way. No matter how busy you are take them. But for more routine ones, or say forging a new collaboration off your own back rather than being invited, don’ take it on if you can’t follow through. Generally, don’t take something on if you don’t think you can complete it.

19)   Collaborations don’t materialise out of nowhere. In the earlier years you’ll probably have to be the driving force in collaborations, meaning you might generate ideas with your collaborator together, but if they are senior, you’ll probably do the bulk of the work. Suck it up. If you want to benefit from a senior person’s experience, contacts, and wisdom, you’ll have to do the grunt work. If there is someone you really want to work with, ask them. Email makes it very easy. But have a clear idea about what you want to do first.

20)   Don’t get a rep for being an asshole, either in your department or in your wider profession. Be collegiate with your colleagues. Be professional with reviews and at conferences.

21)   Don’t get a rep for going out boozing with students, or at conferences. This is an extremely difficult label to get rid of. When you come up for promotion senior staff remember these types of things. Don’t make offhand comments about having a hangover or joke about being hung over or pissed in conference talks. If you are teaching the next day or giving a talk don’t go out on a pub crawl the night before and crawl home at 2am. It is extremely unprofessional. And people remember it for a LONG time.

22)   This one is going to be controversial, but unless it is really really serious and you’re not coping, never admit or discuss your mental health. If you admit to this them, yes, your boss will take your teaching and admin off of you, but you’ll get a rep as someone who is vulnerable and can’t cope, and you’ll never get promoted. If this affects you, then you’ll need to make a decision on this, a balancing act on your sanity vs your career. You’ll need to decide which one is more important. If you think that it is temporary then do what you can behind the scenes to try and make things better. If it is something that you can’t deal with yourself then get help. Unless you just want a moan, staff counselling is crap and a waste of time. There is a lot of leeway to modify your work schedule to take the pressure off that your boss need never know about. And, seriously, if you think I’m talking outa my ass on this one, I do actually have experience in this one 😊

23)   Don’t volunteer to do more teaching. You don’t want to get a rep as the ‘teaching person’

24)   In a lot of departments there is someone who is known as ‘the fountain of all subject specific knowledge’ or ’stats person’. Try to be that person. If you are that person, you are indispensable. In the case of stats, if you are looking for your first lectureship, even if you really don’t want to do it, say you’ll teach stats. Such people are a rarity and instantly you look more appealing

25)   Be food to junior staff/administrators/secretaries/teaching fellows. Your department doesn’t function without them. Try to mentor junior staff, PhD students and final year project/dissertation students. They will always remember you. Have a conversation with your final year students about careers. If you see staff or students struggling, intervene. You might not be able to solve their life problems, but then again, you might. But just being a shoulder to cry on resolves a lot of problems

26)   Fights between colleagues are not your responsibility. Keep clear, don’t take sides and don’t get involved. You should never be asked to resolve such a situation. That’s what your boss and HR are for.

27)   When you see a job being advertised, phone the HoD and ask about it. Have some questions that you want to ask but this is merely a pretext to see whether they’ll give you some insider info on what they are looking for, such as whether this is a new post to increase research capacity in an area or to replace someone leaving (i.e., you’d need to take over their teaching but they may not care about what your research is). Or you’’ find out that although it is open to all areas they actually want someone specific. If you get an interview, try to organise to meet for coffee with someone in the department, i.e., look interested in the staff and their research area. Your actually job talk may not be as important as how you perform in the interview, but outline at the start what your areas of interest are and how they fit together. Include how your research fits in with department, faculty and university strategy. Lots of people do the first, but few do the latter two. At interview, there may be some skills or roles you have that you haven’t been asked about because they don’t know you have them. At the end when you get asked if there is anything else you’d like to add make sure you mention it. They’ll also ask you if there is anything about them that you want to know. Have some questions ready, even if it is only about doctoral training centres. Beware of competency interview question from HR. HR should keep their gobs shut, but some uni’s HR do ask these silly questions. Google them and figure out what you’re gonna say beforehand as they are a bit difficult to provide on the hoof. For example, I applied for a lectureship post, and HR asked what I would do if I was asked to resolve a dispute between two colleagues. My answer that as a junior lecturer I should never be placed in such a position tanked. Apparently the answer they were looking for was that I would take advice and guidance from HR. Sorry, hun, but that type of thin it 100% your problem, not mine.

28)   Don’t take a job at a department that doesn’t already have the resources for your research. For example, if you do fMRI work and the department doesn’t have the equipment or no hook up with somewhere else that has it, find out before you apply. I’ve seen staff at all levels take job offer where there is zero chance of this kind of tech ever materialising, and it torpedoes their careers.

29)   When just starting in your career try to say yes to as many reviews fro journals and grants as possible. Do them well, and submit early, and they’ll ask you to do more. Always respond to requests, even if it is to say no, and suggest alternatives. You’d be surprised how many people expect others to review their papers but won’t actually do so in return. These people are assholes and you don’t want to get a rep for it. Also, don’t get a rep for being Dr. Nasty Pants. If you are then you can’t take the hump when the editor edits your review. Do not agree to review unless you can really get it down in the time frame. The editor is then in a bad position if them have to reject a paper that has been in review for 9 months because of you. And you’ll never get asked back.

30)   Do not block a paper, and then go and run the study yourself and submit it, and ask the editor not to send it to the people who actually had the idea in the first place. This sis fraud. And it is just nasty behaviour. The people you stole it from will find out and then they will torpedo all your future papers and grants while bitching to everyone and their aunt Betty about what a snake you are.

31)   If you find that your moans, complaints, irritations, are gradually ratcheting up and no one is interested in doing anything about it, or if your workplace is becoming unpleasant, start looking elsewhere. Eventually it will become toxic and you’ll start making crazy decisions about going to a teaching uni, or quitting and living of savings. It will not end well. So, it may be a difficult decision, but start applying elsewhere before you hit breaking point. You’ll get depressed, anxious and stressed, and may even start thinking that your boss is out to make your life miserable. This is the point that you start to make crazy decisions because you let it get to an intolerable state. Jump before it gets to this stage. And I speak from the voice of experience on this one having been through two burnouts in eight years at my last place.

32) Straight out of your PhD and considering applying for grant money by yourself? Then the grant HAS to be related to your thesis in some ways as it is likely that most of your pubs are on that topic. It is the only track record you have. This may be very painful as many freshly minted PhDs never want to go near their thesis topic ever again! But if you want the moolay you need to suck it up.

33) A truly good department will join you in celebrating your successes. A bad one will have the staff bitching about you behind your back and trivialising it. Be prepared that even in good departments, someone will bitch about you behind your back. Avoid them at all costs and do not collaborate with them. It’s just not worth it.

34) If you’re going off on mat leave, then it will cause waves. Suck it up. A really good department will bring in a temporary lecturer. Most won’t and all your work will get dumped onto others. So, expect them to be pissed off. They’ll also think you’re swanning off on a one year sabbatical. Suck it up. You can’t do anything to change their perceptions. If your mat leave coincides with the start of term in September, people will think it calculated. Suck it up. There is nothing you can do about this. But please try not to be a “serial” offender, who comes back from one leave for a couple of months and then takes another at the start of term. This will even get HoD, who are female and have families, pissed off, mainly because there is nothing they can do about it, and they know it’s going to cause bad blood in the department. If a family is what you really want then that should be more important than pissing off your colleagues. But realise, it will happen, and they are justified in their complaints.


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