Academic regrets? I’ve got a few worth mentioning

A professor with two decades of experience reviews his career highs and lows

January 15, 2015

“In late December, 1994 I arrived in Montreal with several boxes of books and papers, most of my belongings, and absolutely no idea what I was getting into.”

So begins Terry Wheeler in a post exploring his 20 years in academia featured on the Lyman Entomological Museum blog.

For the first week of his life in university education, Wheeler, director of the museum and an associate professor in the department of natural resource sciences at McGill University, says he had no clue what he was doing. Now, with two decades of experience, he writes in order to share his wisdom with early career academics struggling to settle into their new offices.

His regrets? These range from the commonplace to the more specific. He aimed for perfection, spent too much time at work, failed to delegate and took on too much. “If there’s a teeny-tiny shred of Ayn Rand inside you somewhere, this is the time (the only time!) to awaken it,” he writes. “The system finds it just a little too easy to take advantage of new people who are willing.”

But Wheeler’s main regret is sacrificing personal time by working on research projects, teaching, answering emails and managing a museum while he could have been having time away from work.

“That was dumb,” he writes. “I shouldn’t have done that, and nobody else should either.”

Having trained and been hired as a taxonomist before moving into other fields, Wheeler advises his readers to diversify their research, and says his students have helped him “become a more well-rounded scientist over the years”.

“Taxonomy is really just one end of a continuum that runs from fundamental taxonomy through biodiversity inventories out to questions about community structure and ecology,” he reasons. “Why shouldn’t a single lab have people working at multiple points along that continuum?”

He urges his peers to “resist the impact game”, meaning the metrics such as journal impact factors that are used in the hiring process to assess academics’ performance, describing the system as “a little broken”.

Wheeler also advises young scholars to keep their labs small, with no more than three to five graduate students. Despite the pressures of having six-figure grants and pressure to hire multiple graduate students, “I’d rather be judged, in the long run, on how many great people and how much good research comes out of the lab, than how much money comes in”, he says.

Towards the end of his piece, he calls on young colleagues to embrace teaching. He declares that teaching gives him the chance to get new ideas and feed off the “infectious enthusiasm” of his students.

Working in the field is what keeps Wheeler going, with too much office work causing him to “freeze up”. “Fieldwork is not just where I get my data, it’s where I can talk research and science and careers and food and history with my students,” he explains.

This comment earned the article a lot of love on social media. However, Allen J. Moore (@AllenJMoore), from the department of genetics at the University of Georgia, tweeted “20 years a Prof. I can only second this. Except getting in the field. Substitute ‘don’t leave the bench’”.

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