The Career Session, Part III

By Peter Dearden 23/09/2010 1


The Career Session, Part III. — SM Morgan

Guest speakers: Julia Horsfield and Peter Dearden.

Thus follows the final round up of all the wisdom and advice given at the ‘career path’ Genetics Otago postgrad monthly colloquium. Last time we left at the most current point of Peter Dearden’s career path, and a discussion of academic job applications.

An important question was asked of Peter — whilst in Canada (and stuck in a horrific postdoc position), did you want to quit science? The answer was yes, every month, but he had no idea of what else to do. Science is hard — to further illustrate the point, he talked of a paper which has been rejected for the 5th time — a career in science is composed of extreme highs and lows: an average of one rejection letter per month, or you have an idea that you think is amazing — but no one else likes it. You write a grant for the best idea ever, and are told to forget about it.

No one ever regrets doing an actual PhD, and it should be noted that doing a PhD and then not continuing in science is not a failure. Having a PhD opens doors — you get that taste of being on the edge of discovery, and if you do continue in science, this experience has to sustain you through a vast amount of bad. With regards to the lows of research science — teaching helps, training the next generation of scientists is a high point for both of our guest speakers, along with constantly meeting new & interesting people. You get to design fun experiments, you can wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea to try out in the lab — and no one can tell you not to do it. Academic salaries do not reach that high — but no one can tell you what you cannot do that day.

I notice a trend in the scientists at this point — some are, or were at one point, ridiculously shy. Peter claims to have been so at one point, and David Winter has to bully himself into approaching people every time he does it — but the convincing factor is that you have nothing to lose. I know very few people would believe it, and it is perhaps a wee secret, but up until the end of my second year at university I was introverted and shy to the extreme. In my third year I got a mohawk and the rest is history. It is comforting to know senior lecturers, and one of the best student speakers I have ever heard, both still have issues with approaching the ‘important people’ to introduce themselves. What is it that can make a scientist out of a wallflower? And that despite the massive hurdles along the way — the people at the end would choose to do nothing else with their lives.

One of the reoccurring points throughout the discussion was the need for space, and the ability to switch off. Julia used to compete in triathlons — eventually your body hurts so much you cannot think of anything else, and are able to have a break from worrying about that grant you need to write, or those papers that need to be accepted. Julia also noted that in further defence of physical hobbies — you try harder, you very reliably get fitter and go faster. Reward! Science — you try harder — nothing happens….usually just as reliably. Julia is also a keen cyclist, but Peter has a dog who benefits from his thinking space — long, long walks in which to sort out ideas and take a break from the office.

Hobbies were discussed and I have heard arguments both for and against having something completely separate from your work to distract your thoughts when you need a break. Peter claims his work as his hobby — bordering on the workaholic, he reads, thinks, writes, walks the dog and is a father to three young children; more than enough to occupy anyone’s time. I know people who lose themselves in music, pets, horse riding, snow sports and dance. All a part of working out that mythical work/life balance. Julia commented on how you keep expecting things to stop getting harder all the time — but it doesn’t happen. The better you get, the more you can do — and the more that is expected of you or that you expect of yourself.

With all this talk of needing to stand out from the crowd we digressed in to discussion of publications — and how one learns to write well. The main point coming out from this was repetition — write it, re write it and then write it again. When you get to the point of writing Marsden Grant applications your writing needs to be complete poetry. An entire, convincing, research proposal in one page? Magic. Every sentence has to count and say exactly what it is trying to. One of the first pieces of advice Peter was given was to cover words up one by one — if the sentence still reads the same, cut it out.

It is important to remember that it does not matter if you think that piece of writing is good — in the position of postdoc for example, you are writing for your supervisor. The same rule applies for giving presentations — if someone asks a question you think is crap; it is your fault for not explaining well enough in the talk itself. Peter claims to have no less than 40 people read a grant before it is submitted — both scientists in the field and without, and people not involved in research science in the slightest. Gain critique of your work — and then rewrite it. Even in papers which have been rejected from journals, those reviewers are giving you advice for free which you can take on board to make your writing better. Look at examples of good papers and emulate their style.

Julia actually considered a career in writing at one point, and Peter was handed back his first papers with nothing showing without red pen. Both now write grants with successful regularity.

The session ended with a feeling of both doom and intense encouragement — this career path certainly takes drive, and a stubborn personality, but the possibilities are just as intensely exciting.

— fin.


One Response to “The Career Session, Part III”

  • “One of the first pieces of advice Peter was given was to cover words up one by one – if the sentence still reads the same, cut it out.”

    What an excellent piece of advice. I was also taught that simplier is better, after the academic I was postdoc’ing for went through a grant I had written crossing out “utilise” and replacing it with “use”.
    But the best advice I ever got from him was to be positive when I wrote a grant application. Because I would try to cover all possibilities my first grant applications would contain grant-killing phrases such as “if this doesn’t work as expected we will then do A, B and C.”
    In my opinion successful grants require just as much salesmanship (salespersonship??) as good science.