During World War 2, those in charge of Allied strategic bombing were trying to reduce the number of their bombers that were shot down by German fighter planes. Looking at bombers returning back from sorties they noticed that they typically had most received damage from flak and bullets in certain places, and decided that these areas should be reinforced with additional armour. However, a statistician, Abraham Wald, made the counterintuitive suggestion that instead they reinforce the areas where they saw no damage. As Wald pointed out, the bombers that made it home had survived the damage that they could see; damage to other parts of the plane meant that it never made it home to be inspected.
If someone had asked me five months ago if only three weeks after graduating I would pack my bags to move to the United States, I would have turned around to see if they were talking to someone else. Yet, a few days after finishing my masters in biology at the University of Konstanz this February, I found myself buying a one-way ticket to New York.
When talking about work-life balance, people usually refer to “life” as being the fun part and “work” as the stressful and tiring part you mainly do to earn a living. In my opinion it is difficult – if not impossible, to draw such a clear line for researchers in science. For me, being a scientist is first of all not only a job but a deep passion and a way to see the world! Even when I’m on holidays I enjoy reading science books and I might come up with new ideas for my own work. Consequently, work and life cannot strictly be divided, as science is both for many people. However, as we all know, science is a tough world, which demands a lot and puts considerable pressure on us to deliver quality research. The result: our enthusiasm to do science can sometimes turn into frustration as neither “work” or “life” is satisfying.
When I started my PhD (NERC CENTA funded) my cohort were asked if anyone would be interested in organising a student conference, which was to become an annual event as part of our training program. I – somewhat short-sightedly – immediately raised my hand in eager anticipation of CV and experience building opportunities. However, I was somewhat surprised to find everyone else a little slow off the mark, and at the time put it down to people being a bit shy. I don’t want to put anyone off before reading on, but later I discovered that their lack of enthusiasm was probably driven by foresight and not nerves. Either way, at the time I thought it was a great idea and having persuaded two other recruits to join me, set about making plans for our student conference.
Over the past 12 months, members and visitors to the lab have been meeting weekly to discuss a topical paper from the literature. In our journal club, a different person picks a paper each week for everyone to read, and explains the paper before leading a discussion about the questions, methods, and results. Given that the journal club is taken as a class by undergraduate and masters students (who present most often), we have also focused on details of the writing—how has the presentation of the ideas, methods, results, and discussion contributed (either positively or negatively) to our perception of the quality of the paper?
Coming up to about 18 months of cumulative fieldwork in Africa (starting with dwarf mongooses in South Africa and moving on to vulturine guineafowl in Kenya), I am ready to share a few tales. Giving a “general description of a fieldwork day” is an oxymoronic task, as two days in the field rarely resemble one another. Sure, there is some routine in data collection times and protocols, but in my experience of working in the wonderful field of behavioural ecology, the animals run the show.
As is the case for many of us, it was good science communicators that got me interested in science in the first place. As a child I remember enjoying Primo Levi’s tales of experimenting with explosive chemicals, Oliver Sacks’ stories of human neurological disorders, and Gerald Durrell’s animated anecdotes of animal behaviour. By the time I was at the end of high school and had realised my keen interest in biology, I was consuming every book I could get my hands on, on topics of evolution, sexual selection, and animal behaviour. Reading Richard Dawkins largely inspired me to pursue a career in science, but dissuaded me from popular science writing; I knew I could never write as well as such an eloquent writer. However, around the second year of my undergraduate I heard about a science writing competition which not only offered prize money but also the opportunity to meet with one of my idols, David Attenborough. I decided that if I worked hard at it, I could probably bust out a popular science article.
You may or may not consider teaching to be part of the academic world. I think I never stop to think about it because for me, teaching and academia go together – though rarely do people that want to make it into academia realise this. Academia involves two main activities: research and teaching. Post-graduate school prepares us to be researchers, but seldom to be professors, and even less so to be teachers. Personally, I believe that teaching is as important as research, and thus, we also need to be trained in the art of teaching. So, if after your PhD you want to make the next step up the academic ladder, it is important that you get teaching experience. But how and when should we acquire this experience?
If someone were to ask me what I do for a living, I’d probably say I’m a graduate student, or a wildlife biologist, or any one of a dozen other titles. Although, perhaps the title that best describes my life to this point is to call me a Professional Volunteer. I’ve spent the vast majority of the last decade volunteering in some capacity, and I consider it an essential and formative part of my life’s story. The problem is that there’s a line somewhere between volunteering and undervaluing scientific labor. It’s a line I struggle to draw in my own life, but it’s an important one to think about as you progress through the early stages of your prospective career in the sciences.
We’ve all been asked the question: “what are your plans after your PhD?” For many, myself included, the answer is “to make it in academia”. But what does this answer mean? We tend to mean one of those permanent positions, or professorship, that we hear rumours of people getting. Reality is quite different—usually a series of short-term contracts, uncertainty, often low pay, and little promise of a future. However, while many have written about this particularly challenging period in many academics’ progression, we don’t often step back and consider the benefits that postdoc’ing can have. There are many benefits of doing a postdoc, and I don’t just mean the basic fact of being employed and getting paid (hopefully more than during the PhD). Doing a postdoc can broaden your horizon, both personally and professionally. Further, many PhD graduates try to postdoc in the same institute, or even on the same project. I argue that moving institutes, moving countries, and even moving disciplines, is highly beneficial for the future. I really value the experiences and opportunities I’ve had, and here’s why.