Managing your workload

With the start of the new academic semester comes the inevitable influx of tweets/posts on social media about the appropriate number of hours an academic should work and how to manage the competing demands of your work life. First major caveat to start out this post with is that it’s become clear over the past five years that I’ve had a very well-protected lecturing career to date (read: limited teaching duties compared to many of my peers). I’m not entirely sure why this is (my track record is ok, but not amazing). Perhaps it stems from landing in a lectureship with a decent amount of momentum following a productive postdoctoral fellowship in North America (again, due to having complete freedom to do what I wanted and unlimited resources), and starting my lecturing role at the exciting end of a REF cycle. In short, the start of my career has been the very embodiment of early-career academic privilege, and the focus of this post is thus certainly not to tell you that you’re working too hard and that you can take your foot off the gas. All that being said, I typically work a 40hr week, and have done so at all stages of my academic career (lucky me). A lot of this is down to working in a discipline without much time-consuming baggage attached it it (cf. neuroimagers, developmental people, or the poor trainees from animal labs). There’s certainly heavy weeks when things are due and I’m doing stuff in the evenings, and light weeks when the sun is shining and I’m leaving early to hang around with the kids after school. On the whole, however, I don’t usually have the energy for any serious work on the evenings or weekends (this was true even before I had kids) – if I’m working outside of my normal hours, it has to be something I’m really motivated to do.

Compared to the typical life of a postdoc or PhD student, the days of a lecturer are a lot more varied. My typical day is filled with teaching, supervision, administrative stuff, and email-jockeying, all of which shifts the balance of time away from actual research. I have noticed that as my roles in my respective institutions have become more ‘serious’, I’ve had to change the way in which I work at completing various tasks. This is shorthand for: you will have to do some things a lot more rapidly and probably with a lot less care than you’re happy with. This is particularly true for writing – I’m no longer able to agonize over the clarity of the writing in grant applications like I once did – it’s usually sent off for internal review shortly after the first draft (there’s a degree of self-protection here as well – no one wants to have their perfect document rejected).

Your workload will fall into three categories – research, teaching, and admin. You might be tempted to rank them in that order of importance (because your promotion case likely will), but I’d argue this is a mistake for a junior academic. For one, the teaching deadlines are typically more fixed than the research ones, and if you miss some of these deadlines, all hell will break loose. The times of your lectures and seminars are not something which can be easily changed. The coursework deadlines exams will be fixed, and there will be (at best) a 3-week deadline to have all the marking done. The knock-on effects of missing teaching and/or marking deadlines reverberate further than you might imagine, and cause a lot of stress to students and the administrative team behind the scenes who are trying to organise exam boards and external examination etc. I routinely seem to cause myself untold stress and drama by scheduling my holidays to clash with the exam boards, and thus have to rush a ton of stuff to meet my newly-shortened deadline.

Similar to stand-up lecturing, you have to be on-the-ball with the supervision of dissertation students – arguably the most difficult part of your first year. This course is usually the most valuable (in terms of % of degree) for students, and they get understandably annoyed about not receiving quick responses. There’s some ways to manage this – set the ground rules about what kind of emails you want from them (bulletin-style emails are better than a lot of single queries), and use a meeting-management solution to avoid wasting too much playing scheduling ping-pong (I use Calendly, which has genuinely changed my life as an academic). Identify when you work best, and schedule meetings to occur in the other times so as not to interfere with your reading and writing too much. I like to arrange all these meetings for after my lectures, when I’m typically too exhausted to read anything but can just about manage some one-on-one human interaction. Stay on top of it though – if you fall behind in this aspect of your teaching it’ll cause you more grief than it’s worth – final year students know who to complain too about this and are usually under a significant amount of stress themselves. Of course, these dramas are often not one way traffic – if you find a relationship with a dissertation student heading south, flag it up with your director of teaching (ideally making sure that you have emailed the student at least as much as the student has emailed you…).

Administrative duties are hard to quantify. They typically fall into two categories – roles which are focused strictly on your department (programme director, year coordinator, library coordinator, admissions officer etc) or roles which are more outward facing (international, research etc). Typically at the entry level to admin, you’ll be given administrative duties which you can’t ‘break’ (read: not too important) until you get the hang of the ins and outs of your workplace. As administrative roles often swap around you will, however, rapidly find yourself in a position where you are ordered to do something by a more senior member of your department/college. Probably best to act on these requests rapidly though, at the very least to be a good colleague and make a decent impression early on. And, as you administrative responsibilities become more important, the merits of completing the work rapidly only increase. Take on external responsibilities such as reviewing, external examining, or editorial duties with caution – my advice would be to review only what you are certain you would read anyway (i.e., scale this part of your life way way back), and save the more visible external service for closer to promotion.

Research, by contrast, has few fixed deadlines. Papers are sometimes due on a particular date for special issues (but these are few and far between). Grants often have deadlines, but there’s usually another round in a few months (although be aware that you will probably have an internal deadline well in advance of the actual deadline, especially for bigger calls). The firmest deadline you’ll likely have to deal with would be those associated with conference abstract submission, but until you get some grant income that’s unlikely to be a problem as soon as your startup funds dry up.

With so few deadlines, it’s easy to let the research side of your portfolio slide away. But it’s important to keep up momentum and publish new work to show that you are an independent scientist. I’ve never really had a strategy for segregating research from other duties because I naturally lack the focus to stick on a task for any serious length of time. I’ve also been pretty lucky to have all my teaching fall in a single semester, so my unbroken period of research runs from May until January (and this is certainly long enough for me!). This coming semester, as I’m teaching, I’m going to try to keep a dedicated research day for myself (a quick look at the diary suggests that Tuesday is the only feasible day for this) – I may well blog about whether this has been feasible and successful.

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Examining a PhD thesis

One of the things which will eventually land on your lap as a new lecturer is a request to examine a doctoral thesis. In the UK (where the vast majority of these requests will come from, if you are based in the UK), this typically means that an external examiner and an internal examiner will read the thesis, then provide the candidate with the opportunity to verbally defend their thesis (the viva). You probably went through this process, or something similar, in the past decade.

Being an external examiner is something I’ve not actually done, so can’t give much concrete advice on. Different institutions have their own processes – the internal examiner should simply guide you through the booking of hotels etc (don’t forget your bloody passport if you want to get paid). Suffice to say, most of the externals I’ve worked with come up with their own techniques to deal with the process. There is a tendency for early career scientists to be the real bulldogs, giving the candidates a much harder time than a more experienced academic would. My advice would be to try to hone your examining skills by volunteering for departmental upgrades/conversions (roughly equivalent to North American Comprehensive Exams) – the process by which most UK PhD students are allowed to process out of their first year. Another view (possibly not a popular one) is that you are making an assessment less about the nitty-gritty of the body of work you are reading, but whether you feel the candidate has provided sufficient evidence they are ready to become a fully-fledged academic. And please don’t, for the love of God, feel that you should use your experience and/or superior knowledge of the literature to spank the candidate and, by proxy, their supervisor. Choosing an external examiner is, in part, an act of faith on the part of the candidate and the supervisor – think hard before abusing that trust.

Most likely, as an early career academic, you’ll be asked to be an internal examiner at your own institution long before engaging in any external examining. There are several key differences between the role of the internal and the external. First, you don’t get paid as an internal – it’s simply part of your expected ‘good citizen’ duties. That’s not to say it’s unsatisfying – you’ll probably know the candidate to a degree so seeing them through the process is quite nice. But this leads rapidly to the first point, which will far pre-date your invitation to be an examiner. Keep your distance a bit from the doctoral student community who you feel you may be a likely candidate to be an examiner for. There’s no need to be aloof or anything – we all draw our lines in different places. But bear in mind that the transition from friend to examiner on the most important academic day of their life can be a jarring one for you both. If you have any hint of a conflict of interest (co-publication, for example), recuse yourself of the duty and hand it off to someone who is prima facie impartial.

Second, you’ll have a bunch of paperwork to organize. Usually both examiners write a short report on the thesis (their views on what they will ask the candidate about in the viva), followed by a short report on the viva (how it actually went). Find the paperwork, read the guidelines, and have a plan of how the day will go. The external might well have to run off rapidly after the viva to catch a train (or they might equally want be taken out for dinner). Get a room booked, and check it our beforehand – a viva is a bit strange to do in a large room, distracting to do in a room with large glass windows, and unpleasant to do in a room with a lot of traffic (foot or road) outside. Organize refreshments/lunch. Print out a ‘do not disturb, examination in progress’ sign and put it on the door.

For the actual viva itself, you’ll probably be about as nervous as the candidate. But in reality you probably won’t need to do a vast amount of preparation – the external will do most of the heavy intellectual lifting. A typical ‘workload’ for me so far has been that the internal will ask one question for every three or four questions posed by the external. It’s not inappropriate to dip into your own knowledge base, but bear in mind the context under which the thesis has been written – don’t fire in too many left-field questions. As an internal, I like to focus on statistical matters, while letting the externals focus on the conceptual stuff. Some externals like the candidate to give a short informal presentation, some prefer to get right into it. The viva will probably run for somewhere between 2.5 and 4 hours, so offer the candidate comfort (toilet/cigarette) breaks after a couple of hours, or if you feel things are getting too spicy.

Which brings us to one of the main difficult (but largely unspoken) roles of the internal – to protect the candidate and defuse the situation if things get out of hand with the external. I’ve never experienced this myself, but there are occasional horror stories (from both the candidate and internal) or external examiners who push inappropriately hard or a candidate who freezes up completely. To be honest, I have no idea how I’d deal with this, but I assume that I’d assume the role of debate moderator and work hard to steer the conversation back on to safe ground with a soft ball question to get everything back on track. The best way to avoid any nasty surprises will be to engage with the external early in the process. Arrange a phone call with the external well in advance of the date (this mean, of course, you have to read it well in advance) and make sure you’re all on the same page. If you aren’t on the same page, and worry the external is going to fail the candidate unfairly, elevate the matter to someone more senior in your department or the university’s doctoral college – don’t agonize over this alone (probably best initially to keep the candidate, and their supervisory team, out of the conversation).

At the end of the viva, you send the candidate out of the room (probably back to their supervisor’s office for a bit of a debrief) and discuss your decision. There will be a number of possible outcomes – accept with no corrections (rare), accept with minor correction (common), accept with major corrections (the only difference between this and minor is the timescale to complete them, so if the candidate is in unusual circumstances such as a carer/parent you might want to consider this option as a kindness to them), major corrections with re-viva (usually the worst case scenario), or fail (usually downgrade to an MPhil). I’ve never heard of this latter case happening, although I’m sure it must occasionally with students who have been poorly supervised or passed around from academic to academic when the primary supervisor moves institution (probably appropriate context to bear in mind when making your decision though…). Then go and hunt them back down, and bring them back in the room to deliver the, hopefully good, news (this is the best part). Give the candidate feedback, and tell them not to worry about taking notes at this stage – you and the external will prepare them a full list of corrections they need to undertake. Explain what they will need to do, and the time frame they will have to do it in, and if appropriate congratulate them. Then enjoy their happiness and re-live the good times vicariously. It’s all in all a pretty fun experience – you get to spend time talking to a smart person at the start of their career (the candidate) and a smart established person (the external) from slightly outside your field – so try to enjoy the day.

Pastoral care

One of the main changes from postdoc to lecturer is the amount of student-facing time, which shoots up from very rarely to at least once a day during term-time. But you’re ready for this – you’ve maybe even done a bit of teaching prep, guest lecturing, or taking a whole course to prepare. But one of the things that which I certainly didn’t appreciate at all before becoming a student-facing lecturer is the level of pastoral support which is typically built into the infrastructure of UK universities.

Typically, an undergraduate student in will be assigned a personal tutor (or some other such strangely parental-sounding term). This means that you, as a lecturer, will have upwards of 20 individuals who are supposed to have you as their first point of contact when something goes wrong. You will likely be supposed to briefly meet with them at least once per term to catch up with/ask how exams went/provide general advice. The majority won’t bother coming at all. With the students who do show up, these meetings are usually pretty painless, albeit often at inconvenient times of the year when you’re feeling pretty busy. As neither of you particularly wants to be making small talk with one another or sit in silence, it’s worth coming up with a series of questions relevant to their stage (how did exams go? what are you working toward career wise? have you got an up to date CV looked over by the careers service?). Your main duty will be to be constantly telling them to get a doctor’s note if they come knocking at your door requiring an extension for coursework or mitigation for an exam so they can do it in the resit period for free. Similarly, you will also point them in the right direction if they are struggling with their writing/exam performance as they might have issues with anxiety or dyslexia – typically students in these cases will have special allowances made so that they aren’t disadvantaged (but only if they’ve told someone).

Things get tricky when a student comes to you with serious personal problems. This happens to be once or twice a year – it’s not uncommon for, at some point in their degree, a student to have either a mental health crisis, personal problems, or a combination of the two which render them unable to adequately focus on their work (or, indeed, much else). It took me totally by surprise that I was all of a sudden forced to act as a (completely untrained) counselor for these individuals. This can become a particular issue for the more popular and approachable-seeming (often more junior female) members of staff who students actively seek out to talk to about non-academic matters. You should, however, resist the urge to try to actively council the student too much – you don’t have the training for this and it can be very emotionally draining. Instead, try to take the role of a sympathetic ear and someone who can provide a signpost to the more appropriate person to talk to. Have a look at the web pages associated with the student health services, so you know roughly what the students have to navigate though. Universities have mental health provisions associated with their student welfare services and you need to try to encourage the student to make an appointment right away. This doesn’t mean you should be passive though – email through the direct link that the student needs to make an appointment with at the end of the meeting, and follow up with them shortly after to make sure they have followed through. The continued prompting is often what will make sure the student gets the help they really need. Set yourself an diary alert to contact them – it’s easy to forget when your other duties are stacking up, but it can really make a huge difference to their wellbeing. Finally, don’t try to take on the difficult cases alone – ask colleagues for advice, either with the student’s permission or describing the situation more abstractly. It can become incredibly taxing to take on these worries all by yourself, and the training provided for such situations is usually thin on the ground, or only sought when it’s too late.

 

*This post wouldn’t have been possible without input from my colleague, Rosa James-Watling, who helped me tons with this, including input into the post itself.

Reference/recommendation letters

As I mentioned in on of my earlier posts it that, as you progress through your academic career, you’ll find yourself writing more and more letters of recommendation for former PhD students, undergraduate dissertation students, personal tutees etc etc. These typically come all at once (toward the end of the teaching term) when you are at your busiest. One of the jobs you will have to do when you become a lecturer is writing the annual splurge of reference letters. Most of these will be ‘forced’ upon you as one of your duties as a personal tutor (i.e., in a non-academic context) for a small (or not-so-small) number of undergraduate of taught postgraduate students. In these cases, you’ll typically have little to say about the student themselves beyond their grades and your general impression of them, so you can save yourself a lot of time by preparing a standard ‘form’ letter, plugging in the relevant names, values, and niceties. A word of caution though – students (everyone actually) has a right to request to see their letters of reference, and there are even anecdotal reports of disgruntled individuals taking their referee to court for ruining their chances of employment. You could always just refuse to write the reference, but that’s probably not helping anyone either – people need two letters for a job, one of which usually has to be academic. So keep it reasonably neutral and don’t agonize too much over the detail/personalization unless you genuinely feel the student has made an impression on you (and, even in this non-academic context, some will).

But what about writing a good reference letter for a cherished former trainee who you want to help really get that job? I recently found myself in this position shortly after conducting a bunch of job interviews for a postdoc. The combination of these really made me question what makes a good reference letter. Some were clearly far to brief to be of any positive (or negative) value, but the ones which were incredibly effusive also perhaps didn’t quite have the effect they were intended to (reading, in effect, as if trying rather too hard…). Clearly this is a difficult skill to master and I’m still far from sure, but lots of the good people on Twitter had lots of helpful advice.

 

 

Not sure if it’s possible to derive any consistent themes from these, but if I had to really try I’d say concrete examples seem like they’d catch my eye. Also take care to avoid the gendered language pitfalls – there’s academic work showing that letters of recommendation written for women fall into cliched language which might be disadvantageous. If you want to double check your own letter, there’s a nice website where you can paste and evaluate your writing for gender bias.

Should I choose to supervise a student?

I’ve already blogged about the supervision of undergraduate project students from the perspective of an early career researcher. In short, it’s hard (arguably the hardest part of the job for a new lecturer) and requires a fair bit of juggling to manage up to 10 independent projects simultaneously run by students with varying degrees of skill and enthusiasm for the work. But, long before you reach your first permanent position, you will likely be offered the opportunity to supervise BSc or MSc project students. This seems like a fantastic opportunity (and indeed it can be) – you get to be the boss of people who’s shoes you were sitting in a few short years ago. And, better yet, you get and extended recruitment network and the sweet satisfaction of data that you don’t actually have to collect. But beware – it’s not all roses!

The first thing to consider is that you will be, for the first time, working to the timeline of another. Typically PhD students and postdocs get to set their own pace, and setbacks can often be absorbed in the the multiple-year-long timescales of these positions. Undergraduate project students, however, have to design a project, submit an ethics form, collect data, and perform statistical analysis in the space of a single academic year. This might seem perfectly manageable (you did it, right?), but the kicker here is that most students aren’t as motivated as you presumably were. In five years of being a lecturer, I consistently have 1 or 2 dissertation students a year who, maddeningly, completely fail to engage with the process, despite the fact that it’s worth about 1/4 to 1/3rd of their degree award. Furthermore, the most motivated students will often have different problems, biting off more than they can chew in terms of experimental design or data collection ambitions. And, early in your academic career, it’s hard not to get caught up in the infectiousness.

That’s not to say that it’s not an opportunity you should embrace. It’s an important first step toward filling out the teaching portion of you CV, and will help you answer several of the vague difficult interview questions you’ll eventually be faced with (“can you give me an example of a time when you’ve had to resolve a difficult situation?” etc). It can also be incredibly rewarding. I’ve had fantastic experiences throughout my PhD and postdoc supervising single students. One, in my postdoc in particular, really kick started my time in my new lab, doing her dissertation with me and getting summer funding to continue working with me (and ending up on three publications. With hindsight though, it’s clear that my various supervisors did a fine careful job of selecting my student trainees for me to keep my life free from such difficulties.

So, some tangible bits of advice for ECRs who are keen to get their hands dirty with a bit of supervision:

  1. Find the student yourself instead of being handed one by your supervisor. This can be difficult depending on the mechanisms for assigning students to supervisors – maybe someone you’ve tested, who showed an interest in your experiment (note – this is a major reason to fully engage in the debrief of your participants). Ask your supervisor and/or ask the coordinator of the dissertation module if you aren’t sure how this process works.
  2. Don’t try out a new paradigm, unless you are 100% that there are not technical issues. Delays with coding the experiment, building the equipment, preparing the stimuli, or gaining ethical approval will stress out your student, which will in turn stress you out. So, choose a project which is foolproof/well-established from a technical viewpoint. I think the right ‘time’ to add a student to a project is about experiment 2 of an incremental three-experiment sequence.
  3. Make sure it’s a small and feasible project. Not just in terms of the data collection, but also in terms of the literature the student will have to engage with. Can you articulate a directional single-sentence hypothesis? If not, then it’s too big for student work.
  4. Related, make sure the project seems interesting and important enough in its own right. Giving students one condition or ‘arm’ of a larger project is a risky maneuver – it’s difficult for them to see the context of the work in the same way as you, especially if the rest of the data was collected a while back. Giving them a simple control condition, when you’ve done the cool stuff, also doesn’t lead to a particularly satisfying thesis for the student.
  5. Resist the urge to take multiple students on a single project (or, god forbid, distinct projects).  It might seem efficient, but usually they are not twice as useful, they will be twice as much trouble. Save the grief of supervising multiple students for when you are being paid to do it!
  6. Teach them good research habits, and don’t let them get a sense that there is a ‘wrong’ result for the project. Make them practice the introductory participant chat and experimental protocol in front of you – they will invariably not fully understand what you tell them.
  7. Check with your supervisor about how much help you should be giving them for data organization/stats etc. Also, ask if you can co-mark their final thesis. In most places, the ‘context’ of the project is taken into account for the final mark, and learning how to do this is a skill all in itself.
  8. Stay in touch with the student if you are at all invested in the project so you ask them details which you have forgotten/left out of their thesis and can include them as an author (if appropriate given their contribution). This does your CV no harm by building up your ‘successful educator’ and ‘independence from supervisor’ narrative early on. Best practice here would be to have them do something beyond the work they did for the project – be it making some better graphs, doing some supplementary analysis, or simply (and this is important anyway) providing feedback on the draft.
  9. Following on from above, you should be drafting the paper based on the project (assuming the idea was largely yours) – unless it’s an exceptional student, you don’t yet need/want the grief of helping someone write a paper, and turning a dissertation into a paper is a total nightmare. And if you do let them write it, make sure you take the final author position rather than being dumped in the middle of the author list as a reward for all your hard work (assuming you feel comfortable negotiating these things with your supervisor).

As per usual, that was far more than I planned to write when I started this list. Anyways, happy supervising!

Getting skilled up

This post is, I suspect, going to be a slightly incoherent mess of ideas about what skills you should invest your time learning at different career stages, inspired by conversations with various colleagues, observing interactions between people I follow on Twitter, and my own thoughts on what I wish I’d invested more time in.

Your ability to learn skills is certainly not equal at all career stages. Once you’ve found yourself a permanent academic position, I’d argue that there’s little value in learning new technical skills. You will almost certainly not be rewarded for it unless you are able to monetize it through consultancy (and you have to ask yourself, are you really going to be expert enough to sell that skill this late in the day? Realistically, once you’re in a permanent position you are paid to write grants, oversee research, and educate students – this combination of work leaves little time to acquire skills unless you have a sabbatical or some sort of training grant to buy you some time.

Postdoctoral time is also quite difficult – in many cases the clock is ticking and you will probably have been hired because of the skills you already have, rather than the skills you want to learn. You might, as I was, be lucky enough to have the freedom to do whatever you want as a postdoc and avail yourself of the opportunities which best suit your career, but these situations are becoming rarer and rarer. A better use of your time at this career stage will be to focus on getting papers and fellowship funding – these are the parts of your CV that will get you shortlisted for a faculty position.

Which brings me to PhD (or better yet, undergraduate) students. Here is where you’ll really have the time and breathing space, especially early on, to invest in some serious training. You’ll likely pick up an experimental technique as part of your doctoral training. And your skills in the intricacies of conducting experiments using motion capture, eye tracking, EEG, or MRI (more accurately, your ability to undertake analysis of these types of data) are what will get you on to your next career stage. That’s not to say you have all the time in the world as a PhD student – you just will probably have more flexibility in how you use your time than you will at any other point in your career (sorry if that’s depressed any of you reading this).

Beyond the setup and analytical skills you need to conduct your experiments, the one thing you really really need to learn is how to program. This can be in any form that works for you, be it for the presentation of visual stimuli or the shuffling about of lines of data. But once you’ve learned how to do the most immediate task, you should find yourself being able to pretty easily broaden out your coding repertoire. The easiest way to start doing coding initially will be broadening your horizons from SPSS and trying to do statistical analysis in R. Then you might consider how a program like Matlab or Python (or R) could better smooth out your workflow, automatically identifying visual fixations in streams of eye tracking positional data or interpolating missing kinematic data. Finally, you’ll have the opportunity to use your coding skills to break away from the undergrad crutches of  E-prime or Superlab for the presentation of visual/auditory stimuli in a controlled manner which is time-locked to some measurement device. Fundamentally, you’ll be making your supervisor’s lab a smoother and more efficient ship than it was before you arrived, which seems an appropriate way to say ‘thanks’. On that note, make sure you document your code well. Someone is going to have to learn from it. I cannot stress enough how important it is to learn how to program in order to get a postdoctoral position (at least in cognitive psychology) and to become a self-sufficient scientist, because the days of having a technician/programmer to help us code up studies is rapidly fading and resources like PsychoPy (wonderful though it is) will only get you so far. Knowing how to program opens up a world of scientific opportunities for experimental design and analysis which can completely change the scale and scope of your science. As a PI, I dream of finding a postdoctoral researcher who can code better than I can. Big labs, that can really springboard your career, won’t even consider you if you can’t code proficiently.

I say most of this from the perspective of someone who never wholeheartedly threw myself into coding. I got good enough at Matlab during my postdoc to adapt the code others have written into something useful for my data pre-processing, and good enough to direct and collaborate with a skilled research assistant to create code to collect data from force transducers (here, if you’re interested) which is what keeps the data flowing in. But I’ve never been good enough at programming for it to be worth the time I spend writing code – I have to spend half a day remembering syntax. I have no doubt that if I’d spent more time as a PhD student investing in coding, I’d be a better scientist and academic because of that skill. In terms of language, I’d suggest Matlab is a good starting point. Most places have a site license, and if they don’t it’s very cheap to buy as a student. It’s probably the most common language in my field (Python seems to be catching up), so the one most of your potential employers will be using (and thus keen for you to use). Most importantly though, it has a vast user community. If you are trying to do something, it has probably already been done and a quick google search will get you 2/3rds of the way there. There are also excellent courses and books focused on Psychology in this language as well, so you won’t have to abstract what you are learning too much.

Other miscellaneous skills I’d suggest you try to pick up early in your career are:

  1. Public speaking. Some have this naturally, but improvements come mostly from practice, observation of others, and reading on the topic. It’s a skill often overlooked because it terrifies some people and lacks the tangible rewards of publishing a journal article. But being (or faking being) a skilled public speaker opens a surprising number of doors.
  2. Typing. I’m amazed at the number of academics who cannot touch type, despite the fact that they spend around half their life at a keyboard.
  3. CV prep. A weird or badly-formatted CV will kill your prospects at every stage. Go visit the careers people at your university who your fees pay to employ. They are DESPERATE to help. Make one early on, and keep it updated. Here are my CVs from 2008 when I was hunting for a postdoc position toward the end of my PhD, from 2011 when I applied for a lectureship but was not shortlisted, from 2012 when I was shortlisted for a lectureship, from 2015 when I successfully applied for my current position, and my current CV as of October 2017.
  4. Stats. The big secret is that your supervisor only knows as much stats as he/she needs to. But this limits us. Become a stats whiz.
  5. Open science. This is difficult to get into, but easy to start. Preregister stuff. Put your data online. Use a preprint server so everyone can see your work. Put your images on Figshare so everyone can use them. The tides are shifting and a visible commitment to open science can become a tangible selling point.

Conferencing as an early career scientist

This post is largely inspired by a request on Twitter from a PhD student asking how he should deal with the fact that his PI doesn’t want him to attend conferences because he doesn’t see the value in them. This request was met with a lot of support, a lot of indignation directed against the supervisor, and not a huge amount of tangible advice (because, bottom line, pissing off your PhD supervisor too much is a dangerous game to play when they are likely to be your most important reference letter for years to come). This post won’t really offer any sort of advice for that particular problem.

My personal (slightly controversial?) view is that conferences are not as important as you might think, especially for early career scientists. As someone who’s gone a bit further in my career conferences are an essential (and really enjoyable) way to catch up with former colleagues/collaborators, and to meet scientists who I’ve had email/twitter conversations with. Seeing a diverse range of talks is also a nice break from the turgid job of reading papers and can really help you focus in on the important parts of the literature in a new area without having to invest much time. And as your career progresses, a key marker of success is being invited as a keynote speaker, which is unlikely to happen if no one has seen you speak in the first place. As a young scientist, however, your attendance at a particular conference isn’t going to be that important on your CV compared to publications and/or successful fellowships.

(NB worth mentioning at this point that this post refers only to life sciences – people in the world of computer sciences/IEEE get far more prestige from a presentation/paper at their key conference than they do from publishing a journal article – this is a tough balance to strike if you’re an interdisciplinary scientist!)

When I was a PhD student and, to some extent a postdoc, I went to a lot of conferences in a lot of cool and interesting places (St Petersburg, Tuscany, Arran). But I found them pretty hard going. During the scientific programme, the sheer volume of information was overwhelming. I took reams of meaningless and subsequently incomprehensible notes at talks. I took a handout of every poster I came across. I slavishly stood beside my poster, silently grumbling at how little attention it got compared to the one on the next board. During the social events I spent a lot of time standing about awkwardly feeling like I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do. A chunk of this was driven by the fact that I typically went to conferences that weren’t attended by a lot of my cohort and, being early career, didn’t really have a professional network. And I’m also not the sort of person to integrate myself into a conversation with strangers. The idea of having to schmooze, or actively engage my recently-trained skills in ‘networking’, was mildly horrifying. So, unless you’re going with a pretty serious agenda in mind (i.e., giving a talk at your key conference) try to make sure you’re going with some people you know, or try to get yourself set up with other groups of people you know. I accidentally found myself staying in a shared house with a bunch of people from Glasgow, which turned out to be a great experience and I am still in touch with many of them.

Here are some randomly-ordered thoughts on how to make the experience more productive and worthwhile

  1. Small conferences (<100 attendees) will probably be more useful than big ones, as people might actually remember you. Big conferences, oddly, are going to be more useful than medium-sized conferences, as there’s such a range of stuff to see.
  2. Toward the end of your current position when you are trying to find a postdoctoral position somewhere (or move onto your next postdoc), you should try to use conferences to meet potential supervisors. Don’t do this in an ad-hoc way – email in advance and arrange to meet with someone who is a likely candidate. Even if they don’t have funds now, it can be useful to get your name stuck in someone’s head.
  3. Going to a conference with your supervisor can be a mixed blessing. They possibly won’t quite no what to do with you. Take matters into your own hands and ask them to take you out for dinner with a group so they can introduce you to people. Even if this doesn’t come naturally, I found I always performed a bit better at this kind of stuff with my boss around and my game face.
  4. Always choose a talk, with a poster as a fallback. You get far more exposure for your work from a talk than you do from a poster, and you’ll still get one-to-one feedback from people who are really interested after the session. It also looks better on your CV, and forces you to hone a skill which is one day going to help get you a job (presenting a poster is a very different skill, which you don’t rely on much as a practicing academic). And best of all you don’t need to carry a poster tube around with you through an airport.
  5. If you are giving a talk, give it due care and attention. Plenty of people think that presentation skills aren’t that important. They are. Practice a lot. Seek feedback. Make your lab, or better yet your whole department, watch you practice and have them give you feedback. (link to earlier post on conference presentations)
  6. Arrive early at the keynote lectures. They are always busy and sometimes standing room only. They are also usually pretty good fun – the big big shots know how to put on a show and it’s often a good change of pace from the data-heavy 15-minute talks that fill the rest of the conference.
  7. If you can, try to organize a symposium/workshop at the conference. These often take place before the conference proper, and it’s easier than you think to have these accepted if you put together a good programme of speakers. You typically get plenty of mileage from your early career status, and you get to feel like a big shot for a day which is kind of nice. And you can usually submit a talk/poster for the main conference as well, meaning you get excellent travel bang for your bucks.
  8. Hang around the sponsors. The demos are usually pretty fun and engaging. They will also probably give you free stuff, especially if they think you are going to buy a TMS coil (Magstim have the best loot).

Finally, consider whether you should really be going at all. Time away from your actual PhD work should be carefully considered, and often a training course or summer school, where you will interact with a smaller group of people who may well be your close colleagues for life would be time better spent (and you still get a line on your CV, but an arguably more useful one). Similarly, giving seminars at nearby institutions is a great way to get yourself integrated into a whole new network of people. If you’re in a position to give a 30 minute talk about your research, just email someone who you have an excuse to meet and seek feedback from and ask if you could visit his/her lab and give a research presentation.