Lessons learnt

Today I was speaking at an event run by our School of Health in Social Sciences aimed at developing the careers of research students and staff. I was invited to talk about my career alongside four other speakers – we held a mix of academic and non-academic roles but we all had a PhD. I was the last person to speak which gave me the opportunity to listen to the themes and advice offered by the others and spot the consistent themes that emerged. I came up with my own set of messages but because of time constraints (mostly self-inflicted) I didn’t get to share them at the event, so I’m putting them here.

  1. You can make your own luck.
  2. Shy bairns get nowt.
  3. Don’t be the person who says no.
  4. Relationships are everything.
  5. Develop a resilience strategy.

Luck. When you hear people talk about their careers, they often use this word at some point. The trouble for the audiences at this type of event is that it minimises the learning that they can extract. I suspect that many people talk about luck because they feel a bit arrogant talking about being given opportunities because they were so great, but many of the breaks I’ve got in my career have come because I’ve been trusted by someone and I’ve always earnt that trust. I’ve also learnt to be upfront with people about my plans and ambitions so they know which opportunities I need.

Shy bairns. Which brings me onto my second point – you need to ask for these opportuntities or at least talk to people about where you want your career to go and what you need to progress. You need to put yourself forward for things even (especially?) when you don’t feel fully ready. You need to celebrate your successes (or let your network know about them, so they can celebrate them for you) and take credit where it is due.

No. I got this advice from Professor Eugene Kennedy when he spoke at an event about research funding. (You can see his slides here) His message was that in life there are always people lining up to say no to you – reviewers, employers, colleagues etc. We don’t need to take it on ourselves to say no before them, so apply for that grant or job, write that paper, approach that important person for advice. If they say no, you’re exactly where you were anyway, but there’s always a chance that they won’t.

Relationships. Research is an increasingly collaborative venture and only likely to become more so during the careers of the attendees of this event. You need to have a good network of people who make you excited about your work and their work. You need good colleagues to help you manage the challenges of academic life. You need to know people in all kinds of roles and organisations to help build your career intelligence. Most of my career success comes down to the people I know and the chances they’ve given me. (See 1. above)

Resilience. This is fast becoming my word of the year (check back in December to see whether it was replaced by something else.) I hear it everywhere and there’s a real sense of commitment here at Edinburgh to help our students and staff build their wellbeing and resilience. Everyone on the panel mentioned this as being a factor in their careers – needing to become more resilient and urging the audience to do the same. We were asked about our resilience strategies and mentioned exercise and fresh air; support networks, becoming skilled for new roles, recognising when your work-life balance is off and putting it right; putting things into perspective and (the mightiest of all resilience strategies) knitting. We also all acknowledged that resilience is a very personal thing and everyone in the room needed to find the best solutions for them. I mentioned the guide to Workplace Resiliency which I’ve used in resilience sessions for the last few years.

A big thanks to Emily and Fiona in Health in Social Sciences for putting together such a great day. As well as hearing five career stories, the researchers spent time thinking about their career values, the skills they have developed through research and doing some future planning. The final message from all of the speakers was that we all had very satisfying careers – although things often feel very uncertain at the PhD/early career researcher stage, if you have faith and work hard your futures can be bright in all kinds of ways that you can’t see at the moment.

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