Mistakes I’ve made as an early career researcher

Nicola Hemmings reflects on the slip-ups she made as she built her career in science, and offers advice on how to avoid them

April 13, 2016
Hands working clay on potter's wheel
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As I come to the end of my current postdoc and tenure as a bona fide early career researcher (at least according to several grant-awarding bodies), I look back on the past 10 years since I started my master’s with wizened eyes. Here are some of the mistakes I have made – from the trivial to the fundamental – plus some hand-waving advice on better practice. I don’t have all the answers by a long shot, but I’m still here. 

Failing to organise my data adequately (c.2007)

Prepare your datasets like you would if you were giving them to a stranger who knew nothing about them. Label, annotate and meticulously file your R scripts. Incorporate read-me files into everything and write them for the monkey that will be you in five years, when you return to your data and/or analyses for some unforeseen but vitally important reason. Don’t get this wrong. You will regret it. 

Not practising writing enough (c.2008)

Fortunately I learned this lesson early, thanks to a combination of brutally honest criticism and good advice (see below). But it was a very steep learning curve, and I should have made the most of all that lovely time I had as an undergraduate and then a master’s student to refine my writing technique.

Jumping the gun (c.2009)

It’s great getting exciting, tantalising results. Just remember to be self-critical. Make sure that you have sufficient evidence to support your conclusions. Scrutinise your methods. If all the boxes are ticked, then great (see next point). But take the time to ensure that they are.

Being slow to publish (c.2010)

Take heed of the previous point. But once you have rigorously evaluated your work, don’t drag your feet. Whatever stage you are at in your academic career, if you’ve done good research, get it out there. Papers matter.

Worrying about what people think of me and my ability as an academic (c.2011)

This is truly a waste of time and energy. First things first: people probably aren’t even thinking about you. They’re busy worrying about themselves. But regardless, this kind of worry is completely unproductive. Worry about your work instead, let that speak for itself, and the rest will follow.

Ignoring the advice of those who know better (c.2012)...

In the early stages of your career (and probably late stages, too), you will think naive thoughts, miss crucial information, make mistakes and/or simply let your untempered enthusiasm run away with you. Respect your academic elders – they’ve probably made most of these mistakes several times over, and have advice that could save you the trouble.

...apart from those times when I ignored my intuition and took bad advice! (also c.2012)

Try to hone your bullshit radar – not everyone has your best interests at heart. A disconcerting proportion of people act completely in their own interests, and are quite happy to use you, abuse you and put you in awkward positions if you are willing. Beware and learn to say “no” if the arrangement is not mutually beneficial.

Crying over spilled milk (c.2013)

The saying is true – there really is no use. Whether it’s one lost sample or an entire failed experiment, what’s done is done. If you can’t fix it, the most pragmatic and efficient thing to do is salvage what you can, learn from it, and move on. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that bad – trust me. I have extensive experience of getting over it.

Giving work too much priority (c.2014)

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I find science addictive, and my research is important. But life is bigger than academia, and it’s really important that academics remember that. Don’t wait for things to be put into perspective for you – make time for the other things in life now. It will probably help you to be more productive at work anyway. 

Looking back with rose-tinted glasses (c.2015)

Despite all the mistakes I have made, there are moments when I long for my PhD heyday. But although I loved the academic freedom of my PhD and early postdoctoral work, I now get huge fulfilment from overseeing projects, interacting with external partners, teaching and supervising students, and supporting the work of other excellent scientists. All alongside my own research and scholarship. I’ve learned so much since my PhD and developed as both a researcher and a person. I really wouldn’t want to go back. I’m looking forward to the future. 

Nicola Hemmings is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sheffield, specialising in behavioural ecology and reproductive biology. This post originally appeared on her blog.

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