Written by Dr Susan Cox, Royal Society University Research Fellow, Randall Centre of Cell & Molecular Biology
There’s a myth that if you gradually increase the temperature of the water a frog is sitting in, it will eventually boil alive. I think many people settling into their first academic position feel like that frog. After the euphoria of having a job for longer than three years starts to recede, you notice the number of things you need to do has steadily crept up. And the tasks are mutating, too: from the analytical or lab-based skills that put you to the top of your field to writing, managing projects, and interacting with other humans.
I’m not sure there’s a universal winning tactic, except to steadily learn new skills, and get advice from those who have already been through it. But I didn’t get where I am today by letting a total lack of data get in the way of giving my opinion, so here are my top tips:
1) Learn to say no. Practice it in front of the mirror every morning, preferably while flossing, which will give you healthy gums and some useful facial expressions that will discourage follow-up requests. Everyone will want something from you: you can’t do it all. Try to work out which things are the most valuable to you.
2) Accept you’ll make mistakes. You are going to be doing a huge number of new type of tasks, and sometimes things will go so badly wrong you’ll feel like you’re trying to descend Mount Everest by snowboarding on a yeti. Don’t worry. You get used to it.
3) Spend at least one day a week doing stuff that you love. There’s no point having fought your way to this position if you’re spending the whole time tearing out your hair while reading email. Discuss work with your group/colleagues, get some time on the wet lab bench or in the library, or lock yourself in a room for eight hours with a fascinating data analysis problem. When someone threatens this time, visualise yourself as Jean Claude Van Damme about to deliver the death blow to his opponent.
4) You know those people, the really annoying ones, who do an impossible amount of everything and look politely puzzled as you flail and gasp through life? To a lot of people, you are that person. Don’t let the high standards you set yourself make you feel like a failure.
5) Write grants, write papers, do work. Lather, rinse, repeat.
6) Every so often, take a bath and gradually increase the temperature of the water until your muscles relax. Unlike a frog, you won’t even jump out of the water to thermoregulate. Stew until you have a brilliant idea or you run out of hot water.
But seriously, the most important thing is to learn to say no. Particularly if someone asks you to write a blog post.