Researchers should harness the explorer’s spirit to find their career path

Lee Chien Ching shares advice to her younger self and other early career academics on forging your own path through the sometimes forbidding jungle of academia

Lee Chien Ching 's avatar
5 Feb 2024
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Researchers are explorers at heart. We started our postgraduate journey because we wanted to explore important issues and find solutions to them. As we mature into our journey in academia, it’s crucial to maintain that explorer’s spirit.

After three decades in academia, I’ve seen that the career trajectory of a postgraduate student entering academia is not always as straightforward as simply doing research, publishing and presenting in conferences. Here’s what I’ve learned and what I wish I could tell my younger self about starting out as an early career academic.

Find the path

Many young academics, having just finished their postgraduate degrees and feeling keen to make a name for themselves at their institution, aim to publish materials from their thesis in journals with a high impact factor. At this stage, presenting in conferences is usually not an option due to funding constraints. A few papers are accepted, some require revisions, and some have been rejected, leaving you wondering if you will be able to make it in academia.

But the postgraduate thesis is just the beginning. I would say to my younger self (and all early career academics): continue sending the manuscripts to reputable journals. The reviewers are experts in their field and will provide detailed and constructive feedback. Not only will this deepen your understanding of the subject matter, it will heighten your awareness of what the reviewers are looking for in a manuscript. By consolidating these comments over the years, you can build your own checklist for writing strong papers.

Also, study the way the reviews are phrased and when you feel ready, volunteer to be a reviewer yourself. This will help you build your credibility and reputation as an academic.

Stay on the path

As you climb the career ladder at your institution, the pressure to publish papers increases. Some people will seem to hit the jackpot and publish impressive results in an area of study that has wide applications – and get recognition for their hard work. Early career academics can be tempted to move into a more industry-relevant area to see greater success, even if it’s not their area of interest.

But it’s important to stay on the path of your research interest. Research is motivated by a curious mind and your own personal interests. There are lessons to be learned from those who publish extensively, but staying true to your interests will help you enjoy your work and sustain you in the long term.

However, you can refocus your research on solving real-world problems. STEM research finds tangible solutions that are rigorously tested over the research cycle. But even if you’re in non-STEM research, you can think of instances where your research can solve issues. For example, to help develop my students’ communication skills, I led a team to develop interactive micromodules to hone their interpersonal and written skills independently. These micromodules have proved to be a solution to scaling issues due to the increase in enrolment and larger class sizes at my institution.

Know when you’re ready to diverge from the path

After years of research, you have deepened your knowledge in your chosen subject. But with new technologies and issues emerging, those original areas of interest may begin to lose their lustre. For example, artificial intelligence has changed the way humans look for information and perform tasks, offering opportunities to solve problems in industry and academia.

At this point, I’d love to tell my younger self to be ready to explore other related fields. It’s important for keeping yourself relevant. You need to plan ahead, moving your area of research to related topics every four to five years.

By now, you will have worked with colleagues from different departments in your institution – they could now become your research collaborators in interdisciplinary projects. But be aware that you still need to play to your strengths and expertise, to really bring value to your work.

I lead an interdisciplinary team of colleagues from infocomm technology, health and social sciences and communication skills departments to develop an AI chatbot, designed to hone physiotherapy students’ reasoning and questioning skills ahead of clinical placements. My experience of developing and rolling out micromodules put me in a good position to know what was required for students, software development and project management.

There will be many ups and downs in the journey, but our explorer’s spirit will make us hungry to keep discovering knowledge and finding solutions, no matter where that takes us. As we tread this path, may the journey help us become better people and better researchers rather than simply number crunchers.

Lee Chien Ching is an associate professor at the Singapore Institute of Technology.

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