Tuesday, June 12, 2012

early career researcher mentoring

recently, the australian astronomical community invested in holding a two day early career researcher mentoring workshop.   the workshop brought together a dozen of the most successful and influential astronomers based in australia to talk candidly to ~60 post-docs about:

1. Planning a Career
2. Building a Network
3. Writing a Successful Proposal
4. How to Effectively Hire and Managing People
5. How to Present Research to the Media
6. Time Management
7. Getting a Faculty Job
8. Work/Life Balance
9. Government and Science Policy
10. Leadership and Vision
11. What Every New Faculty Needs to Know

(L to R) Warrick Couch, Geraint Lewis, Brian Boyle, Karl Glazebrook, Rachel Webster, Bryan Gaensler, Kate Brooks, Sarah Madison, Helen Sim

i came away with loads of good information and enthusiasm, which i've needed in the build up to my next round of job applications. 

as anyone following the twitter #ECRmentor hashtag must have gathered, the participants of this workshop had a lot to say.   there will be official summaries of each session posted online in the coming weeks, which i'll be sure to point out when they are available. 

in the meantime, i'll highlight several points here, mostly in their twitter form, that will hopefully be useful for anyone wanting to move a career forward.   also, there are some links listed at the bottom.


developing a "career" is a process of managing life, learning, leisure activities, and work.

managing a successful career requires self awareness, opportunity awareness, decision making, and implementation of those decisions!

to be any good, you have to know what good [science] is.  follow your passion, not the flavor of the month.

you need to make your mark - become a known expert in one or two specific areas, publish and talk about them! 

to broaden networks: be visible! introduce yourself, send emails, ask questions at conferences, do talk tours, publish.

keep people informed, because your network, once established, can work for you behind the scenes.

beware the anti-network: disrespectful comments, drunken behaviour at conferences, childish online presence, unfavorable google results. 

networking and collaborations are important for research, learning, creating new opportunities, supporting career breaks!

at conference, wear your name tag.  wear name tag high on the right so people can easily read it while you shake hands. 

good mentors aren't just more experienced than you.  they can see more talent & ability in you than you see in yourself.

(read more about overcoming the imposter syndrome and recognizing unconscious bias: HERE )

the advantage of this workshop was that it put us early career researchers in a very good position to talk face-to-face with senior members of the community.   creating that opportunity is always a networking challenge. 


key is to work efficiently and effectively when working.  recognize when you are most productive and take advantage. 

set manageable goals.

learn when to say no. recognize what is important. prioritize. stop making excuses - just shut up, sit down, and do it! 

do not agonize too heavily over the last 5% of a paper - get it out and published and move on/forward!

Understand your calendar for the next month and pace yourself accordingly. Stay sane!

when you call a meeting - end it ON TIME no matter what.

measure your work by achievements and not clock hours.


day two of the workshop started with an early morning run - in the rain.  i was surprised that so many people were willing!

Photo Credit: Kate Brooks


Job ad: “Applicants are encouraged to contact Prof X for more info” is code for “You must contact Prof X if you’re serious”

always write a cover letter when applying for a job, even if not requested. avoid personal info, but show personality.

when scheduling a job interview, ask who will be on the panel.

rehearse answers for typical questions:  achievement you are proud of?  a weakness?  how do you deal with stressful situations? give specific examples!   also, highlight special skills you bring.

know about the organization (at least look at their website before the interview!).  prepare questions to ask them!  deflect personal questions.

science phd skills for any job: modelling, problem-solving, managing large datasets, presenting, advanced computing, writing, teaching 

people remember a good talk and insightful plots. they also remember awful talks. practice talks and spend time on slides. 

(there was a lot of discussion about CV and job application specifics.   hopefully the summary will shed light on these details, or ask in the comments and i'll elaborate...)


we have to be responsible for setting the boundaries we want in our lives, or someone else will do it for us. 

what are the characteristics of a good job?  reasonable hours, satisfaction and fulfillment, control over situations, flexibility... you choose.  

in my experience, no place i've ever worked in the world has acknowledged the existence of a work/life balance as openly as in australia.  friends from within academia and especially outside of it talk about maintaining a work/life balance with pride, and i have found it absolutely refreshing since i've been working and living here!  in fact, it has helped me work more efficiently and effectively. 

annual performance and development goals should include work/life components.

don’t plan your career, plan your life. don’t separate, integrate. 

surviving career breaks: have mentors, students, support networks, solid collaborations, be on committees.


Everyone needs to be a leader in some context.

leadership is a skill and something you can get better at with practice. 

leadership traits: vision, decisiveness, delegation, courage, reliability, commitment, creativity, determination, etc...

the best leaders delegate responsibility to others and trust them to carry out their tasks.

"Diplomacy is the art of letting other people have your own way" - Brian Boyle

as a manager: be a role model, set reasonable goals, acknowledge achievements, motivate, assign responsibility, maintain future vision


get mentors, network, think big, plan, take control of work/life balance, have fun, and use spell check! 

find an opportunity, engage your strengths and vision, and try!

you never know what can come from just asking.  rules can be changed.  challenge them!  but recognize that there is always a level in an organization where the rules can be changed. Too low, they have no power; too high, shouldn't be bothered. 


another very interesting aspect of this workshop were the 15 minute "blasts" held between the official sessions.  during a blast session, one senior person stood up and informally told us something they learned in their career that they thought especially important to share. 

many used the time to tell their "career story," and it became obvious very quickly that there is no simple solution to the mystery of having a successful career.  people have partners who might have careers of their own, there is no "best time" to have kids, luck plays a role, accidents happen, health issues are inevitable, travel can be a huge burden, it's hard to relocate every few years, and on and on. 

it was also acknowledged that not all of the early career researchers in that room would land another job in research astronomy, and it wasn't forgotten that the people not in the room, who had chosen a different path for their career for any number of reasons, far outnumbered those in attendance. 

at one point, after listening to the panel members discuss the array of difficult measures they've taken to manage all the requirements of having a permanent faculty position, one participant asked "so why do we want to have your jobs when they are so competitive and difficult to handle once achieved?"  the comment got laughs from the crown, but it made a good point.

the panel members described the satisfaction of progressing long-term, large-scale projects, developing new technologies and techniques, leading large research teams, training new generations of scientists, broadening research interests, feeling satisfaction in accomplishments, meeting new and different challenges.  fulfillment, despite or because of difficult decisions.

contributing to our understanding of how the universe works, and sharing the knowledge with others - sounds like job satisfaction to me!  so, i'll keep working to make it happen, and i think this experience has definitely helped my chances.

finally, a quick shout out to the sponsors of the event:  Astronomical Society of Australia, Australian National University, CSIRO, Swinburne University, CAASTRO, ICRAR, AAO.

and of course, a big thank you to darren croton for initiating and organizing the whole thing!


OmniFocus for mac - organization tool
toodledo - to do list manager
arxivsorter - to help keep up with literature
twitterdoc - document twitter events
astrobetter - tips and tricks for professional astronomers


heroineworshipper said...

You only need to know 1 thing: leave US.

Unknown said...

i do not agree with that statement.

Sakib said...

Excellent article! Although I'm not a professional, I value the importance of sharing what you have learnt with other people and collaborating to uncover more of the universe. In a manner of speaking, networking with each other to explore the universe helps bring the cosmos down to earth!