Do’s and do overs: reflections on life as an early career researcher

Reflecting on her time as an early career researcher, Edzia Carvalho looks back at the things she did successfully – her do’s – and the things she wishes she had done from the start – her do overs – to help others embarking on the same journey

Edzia Carvalho's avatar
University of Dundee
1 Feb 2023
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An early career researcher is generally considered to be an academic who obtained a PhD less than seven years ago. It has been twelve years since I was awarded my PhD in government (in the discipline of politics and international relations) and feels like a good time to take stock of the successes and failures of my life in academia. Here I share my do’s (the things I have done successfully) and my do overs (the things I wish I had done from the start) based on these reflections.

DO reaffirm that you are more than your job. Given the creative and individualist nature of academic life, it is impossible not to treat an academic career as an extension of your identity. This is great when you excel at your job and are validated for it. But when your performance is questioned or you do not receive validation for your work, it is easy to internalise the criticism and let it erode your sense of self. Remember that academic success is not the result of who you are, but a result of your choices in the environment within which you work and live.

DO decide what work hours you will keep. The benefit and bane of academic life are flexible working hours. Answering email, doing research, teaching preparation and administration can be done at any time of day or night and do not require an academic to “be at work”. I have done all of these at every possible time of day and night, as have many other academics. However, just because something can be done at any time, doesn’t mean it should be. After years of letting work time seep into the rest of my life, I imposed a 9am to 6pm schedule on my work hours, Monday to Friday (bar looming deadlines) with no work at weekends. The result was more time to rest and a more efficient working day.

DO work at not being a perfectionist. This doesn’t mean being sloppy at your job. It means that you do not have to give 100 per cent to everything you do. Prioritise what you give 100 per cent to, and what you give less time and energy to.

DO take care of yourself. An aspect of being an academic that surprised me was how guilt became a constant companion. Taking time to rest and enjoy life can feel like an undeserved or unearned luxury. Taking time off for being sick seems like a hassle, after all, you will have to deal with pending emails and rearranged teaching when you are better. I worked through deep and prolonged periods of depression, when it was difficult to smile or make small talk, because I felt a deep sense of responsibility to my students and colleagues and didn’t want to let anyone down. This meant a slower recovery and the lack of research productivity hampered my career. Academic life functions through external validation in the form of peer review for publication or funding, work appraisals, networking and research leadership. Yet self-validation is necessary if we are to thrive as unique and invaluable human beings.

DO OVER: Publish from your PhD. It is not uncommon for a PhD student to get to the end of their doctoral studies utterly sick at the sight of their thesis. Despite this, it is imperative that the work put into a PhD and the expertise gathered be used to build your publication profile. Filing the PhD away in an online folder for a later date can give you immediate relief but risks your work becoming dated and no longer relevant to debates in your discipline, for later publication. Since publishing is a major element of how academics are assessed, using PhD research for academic publication is the best way to jump start your career. The PhD will be the only time in your career when you have dedicated and prolonged time to focus on research, barring a major grant buying out teaching and administrative time or a rare research-only position. So, make the most of potential publications from the PhD to create momentum in research and publishing.

DO OVER: Organise time for productive writing. This is a work in progress as I find writing the hardest part of research. Yet published writing is the primary, often the only, output of research that is valued in academia. I have received mixed advice on effective writing strategies – carving out sustained time versus writing in short bursts; making writing the first thing you do every day versus writing to your circadian rhythm; writing in complete isolation versus writing in a place where others are working. Find what works for you, but remember that adrenaline-fuelled, terror-driven bursts of writing will only take you so far, as I have found out to my detriment.

DO OVER: Explore one topic at a time, do not be a research magpie. Being fascinated by your discipline brings the temptation to work on multiple and disparate research projects rather than focusing on one strand of research. The benefits of doing this translate into an ability to teach a wide range of topics and build a breadth and depth of knowledge. The disadvantages are having to put in effort to develop expertise anew with every project, which slows your publication momentum, and may leave you unknown and bereft of an academic community within which you are situated.

DO OVER: Don’t apply for funding until you have a body of published work. It is easy to heed the fearmongering about the importance of bringing in external funding to secure a permanent academic position and spend time submitting grant applications. However, the main criterion that any funder looks for is whether the applicant has the expertise and ability to undertake their proposed project. Expertise is evidenced through a body of published work and ability through previous successfully managed grants. In the early research years, my focus should have been on building up a portfolio of published work as the basis on which to obtain small grants, before attempting to jump into the big league of research funding.

DO OVER: Say no. Once you decide what you need to do to get to the next stage of your career, prioritise that. Say no to (almost) everything else. “Doing admin well” will leave you saddled with more of it. Your collegiality, concern for colleagues and contributions to running your department will gain you meaningful friendships and benefit the department but eat into working time. This is particularly pertinent for female academics who, as research has shown, tend to be given roles that are seen as less important for getting ahead.

DO OVER: Market yourself. Networking is key to a successful academic career. If nobody is interested in the work that you do, you may find it difficult to get published, win funding, engage with the academic community and contribute to your university’s strategic vision. Two major avenues for networking in academia are conferences and social media. Conference participation should be strategic. Finding a community that works on issues that matter to you and wants to engage with your ideas is fulfilling and presents opportunities for career development, publication and academic leadership. However, being at a conference rubbing shoulders with academic stars and competing to make a splash can be demoralising. Choosing the right kind and number of conferences to attend is key. Demonstrating interest in other academics’ work and reciprocating support by commenting on their research helps build meaningful connections. Social media is a useful tool. Twitter in particular has become a hub for self-promotion, engaging with relevant issues and reaching a broader audience. However, this engagement takes time, effort and skill and will probably have to be done outside the working day. Moreover, distilling ideas into sound bites and navigating uncivil or threatening spaces online is not everyone’s cup of tea.

DO OVER: Build and sustain research momentum. The secret to research success is publication momentum – having a number of papers at different stages, from conception to pending revisions, at the same time. This was the first piece of advice I received from a well-known academic. I did not take it, to my detriment, because I did not know how to implement it. More than a decade later, I have found that valuing your time and who benefits from it is the key to implementing this advice. Being able to do this is the most important part of being an academic because it will safeguard your mental and physical health, create space for you to be creative and to give your best self to the things that you value most. 

Edzia Carvalho is a lecturer in politics at the University of Dundee.

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