What’s going on with work right now ? What are you doing today and what are your plans for the week ahead ? Are you working through your to-do to list ? Maybe you’re doing data analysis or preparing for a talk or poster presentation. Perhaps you have a large experiment lined up. For me, I’m currently writing this blog, working on a proposal and preparing for a workshop, as well as doing less compelling but necessary jobs such as sorting out my admin and re-organising my office.
However, amongst the clutter of everyday tasks, in the back of my mind there lingers a small but significant voice telling me to remember to keep in mind the bigger picture. Last week, this voice was given some unexpected air time when I met with a colleague and we got into a discussion about the career development landscape as a whole and the context for doctoral and postdoctoral training. It was a really energising conversation, resulting in some creative ideas and reminding me to consider the ‘long game’, rather than spending all of my time in the ‘here and now’.
In English we have the expression, “Can’t see the wood for the trees”, meaning that someone is so focussed on the details of what they are doing, they are not paying attention to the context and bigger picture. I’m sure there are plenty of similar expressions in other languages which mean the same thing because this is a very common state of affairs for people in all walks of life.
So what are the disadvantages of missing out on the bigger picture for doctoral and postdoctoral researchers ? How can you avoid the pitfalls of getting too focussed on the detail and ignoring the wider context of what you are doing in terms of your research, career and personal life? Here are five ideas to help you to keep your perspective (I’m sure you will have some of your own too):
- Read and listen: At this level, you are expected to be a knowledge professional who gathers, assimilates, adapts and uses learning in a sophisticated way. If you focus only on your lab work, without engaging with the research strategy as a whole, you are not operating at the PhD level and may miss out on future opportunities. For example, as a PhD-qualified professional you can apply many high-level skills, such as investigative, problem-solving and analysis to a wide range of jobs, where you will be expected to use your investigative thinking and understand the broader research context. Make space for reading and hearing about other’s work and thoughts. For example, reading journal papers and reviews (within and outside of your area of interest), attending seminars, conferences or public engagement events, even listening to general science programmes and reading popular science books – many are really fascinating. In other words, don’t work in isolation, both physically and mentally. Placing your own very detailed and focused project into a wider more interdisciplinary context is likely to reap rewards and even result in unexpected advantages.
- Talk and discuss: If you don’t communicate it, it hasn’t happened! As well as hearing about other’s news, you need to tell people about what you’re doing too. Publishing your work in academic journals and presenting it at scientific meetings is integral to most researchers’ work, however widening the scope and reach of your communication will help to expand your impact. More than ever, science is a participatory collective activity. Nowadays scientists have the opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary, industry and cross-border collaborations, disseminate everyday and more significant news on social media platforms and are even getting involved in citizen science projects involving the public. Communicating with a wider range of people who have differing opinions and views helps you to gain a wider, more global perspective in relation to your own research and also to the wider world, making for more interesting and informed conversations.
- Learn about higher policy issues: Your science and the future of research and education are in the hands of policymakers and senior decision makers, so it’s important that you are aware of the political landscape at the local, national and international levels. For example, policies affecting science funding, academic freedom, Higher Education developments and even researcher career development, such as the Concordat are highly relevant to you and your research future. There are few PhD-qualified scientists working in government, so if scientists aren’t aware of, or don’t engage with, these high-level decision-makers, unfavourable rulings might be put into place which affect your own future and the wider research sector. For example, what areas of research receive government funding, how educational success is measured and even public regard for scientists. There are some excellent organisations for this purpose, e.g. CASE, Euroscience and AAAS, and the internet, newspapers and specialist publications provide a rich source of everyday news and developments.
- Pay attention to your career: A classic example of not seeing the wood for the trees is when doctoral students and postdocs only start to think about their next career move after they’ve written their thesis or during the final three months of their contract. As a career adviser, I always recommend getting career support early so that you can prepare yourself in good time. For example, when you are starting your PhD, there may be ways to enhance your employment prospects: engaging with your university’s career development programme; joining a learned society; getting involved in science communication or policy activities; volunteering or joining social media platforms (see 10 simple rules for finishing your PhD). Postdoctorals looking for a career in academia will benefit from learning about funding opportunities and building collaborations to help them secure an independent research fellowship and academic position. Meanwhile, for those aiming at a non-academic career, widening your knowledge of careers in industry, business and not-for-profit organisations will help you to be more informed about job opportunities of interest so that you can prepare well ahead of your leaving date. Read my own blog for more ideas on how to take care of your career, as well as others such as NatureCareers.
- Keep a healthy life:work balance: Mental health is a major concern in academic institutions, with staff and students reporting depression, anxiety, stress and other issues. Many of these problems are brought about by the work environment itself and the pressure placed on individuals who, more often than not, have no powers of delegation or are working within a limited time-frame. The work environment is hard to change (although you can try to influence policies – refer to point 3), but you can help yourself by changing your behaviour and attitude. Whilst acknowledging that we all have times when we must put in a 24/7 effort, this type of intensive workload should not be the norm. Working ‘smart’ rather than hard is recommended in one of my previous blogs, and taking a step back to review and change your work schedule will pay dividends in the long run. The exhausted body and mind work inefficiently and even small breaks can revitalise them. It’s useful to talk with others if you’re feeling that your life:work balance needs fine-tuning. Turn to your colleagues, supervisor, friends, careers advisers or other professionals, who you feel may be able to help you to get things into perspective.
And on that note, having completed my June blog and taking heed of my own advice, I’m off for to the pool for a swim!