Academia isn’t all bad, and a PhD is definitely worth it

I read this recent Thesis Whisperer post a few times, and it troubled me. Then they posted this follow-up post doubling down on the original argument denouncing academic writing.

Comments aren’t allowed on the Thesis Whisperer blog, so I’m writing here. I really think these posts send negative messaging to prospective (and current) PhDs. Do read the original posts, but here’s a quick summary of how I interpreted the Thesis Whisperer’s argument:

(i) the way we do PhDs needs to change;

(ii) we should galvanise PhD students to go against the norms of academia to get the personal outcome they want.

(iii) academic writing is ritualised and archaic and it “sucks”.

From a distance, this general argument might resonate. Yes, as with most sectors, there are many ways the past is holding academia back.

I agree, PhD students need to make sure they get what they need out of the 3 or more years they spend on the PhD.

But PhDs are definitely still “a degree worth having”. They will always provide the opportunity for graduates to develop a unique set of skills and expertise that are useful for academic and non-academic careers. 

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Breaking the Curse of the Postdoc

This week I had a bittersweet achievement. I started a great new job, moved in to my beautiful new office, and then immediately moved home to work for the foreseeable future, amid the simmering anxiety of this global pandemic.

Readers who follow my blog know that I moved to Armidale three years ago to start a postdoctoral fellowship at University of New England. Before that, I was at Charles Sturt Uni in Albury, where I did my PhD followed by my first three-year postdoc.

This week I started as a Lecturer in Ecology & Biology at UNE. The position was advertised in November last year; I applied, interviewed and found out I was successful a few weeks ago. I’m so excited!

But it’s a really strange time to be starting a new job – my thrill at joining the teaching team has understandably been overshadowed by the ongoing stresses of COVID19. Continue reading

Moving country is rewarding; but you don’t have to do it to have a successful research career

Early career researchers are often bombarded with career advice, solicited or unsolicited, from supervisors, peers, senior colleagues, family members, journals, random people on social media; sometimes this advice is helpful, sometimes it’s so ambiguous or outdated it can be potentially damaging.

This article in Nature’s Careers section covers a recently published study in the Royal Society’s journal Interface. The study considers the careers of physics researchers, based on this dataset of authors that have published in the American Physical Society’s three Physical Review journals. The study also looks at Nobel Prize winners in physics. So already, we have two very narrow subsets of ‘researchers’ within a single discipline.

The study found that the focal researchers (i.e. physics researchers who published in APS journals or who won a Nobel Prize) who moved overseas had more citations & therefore greater ‘impact’ on their field. In contrast to the media coverage, the author discusses the results by framing them within contemporary political discussions about immigration, cleverly highlighting that supporting migration from other countries boosts the host country’s social and intellectual capital. This is a completely valid point.

However, the converse is rarely true: you, an individual researcher, don’t have to move overseas to have an impact on your field. Continue reading

The research niche in academic community ecology

I loved this recent blog by Staffan Lindgren. I followed a very non-linear path to my current position and I’ve been struggling a lot lately with defining my research specialisation.

In high school, I failed chemistry, barely scraped through physics and maths, didn’t study biology, excelled at English, geography and history. I loved nature and being outdoors, but didn’t know there was a science career in that. So I went off to uni and did a Humanities degree (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and spent my early 20s trying out corporate communications, office admin, media, governessing on a remote cattle station, but nothing stuck. By this time, I’d discovered that science wasn’t all about lab coats and test tubes, so I went back to uni to study environmental science.

I didn’t plan to pursue a research career – I nearly failed undergrad statistics and never fit the norm of the ‘successful scientist’ promoted within the academic community. For my Honours year, I followed the well-worn path to vertebrate ecology, but had to switch projects halfway through the year because my supervisor disappeared on his own remote field work for the rest of the year without telling me. The only available project I could feasibly do in the 4 months left of my degree was monitoring a tingid biocontrol agent on its host, an invasive environmental weed. An insect career wasn’t even on my radar then, but that’s when I discovered how much I liked insect ecology. After two false starts at a PhD, I finally found a supervisor and project combination that clicked and the rest is history.

So it’s comforting to read of winding roads that have led others to long and inspiring science careers. Fingers crossed! Continue reading