Early Academic Career Development: Lukewarm Amphibian Edition

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.

Writing a Successful Grant Application

Written by Dr Chris Bird, St Thomas & Waterloo Campus Research Development Manager

A key feature of forging a successful career in academia is to secure grant funding for your research. Although there are many different styles and funder requirements there are a few important things to keep in mind. Whilst many ‘top tips’ focus on the obvious….’read the instructions, allow plenty of time, read example applications, talk to experienced people’ etc, etc…..here are a few things which are all too often overlooked.

  1. Know your funder – You should start from the basis of what is the funder looking for? Often people start with a fully developed proposal and then try and find a funder to fit. The key to success is to develop your proposal with the funder and funding scheme at the forefront of your mind.
  2. Put yourself in the shoes of the reviewer – It can be useful to imagine your worst nightmare of a reviewer and then try to pre-empt any criticisms they might have. Often researchers forget to explain why the research is important, or include key details or explanations because they think these are obvious – what might be obvious to you might not be obvious to reviewers. Peer review is also a very useful way of weeding out anything obvious you may have overlooked.
  3. Detail! – Explaining the background to the problem is clearly important and you should try to summarise why the problem is important and what you have done so far (include some preliminary data!) but given most funders will have a word limit on the proposal, you should make sure you leave enough space to sufficiently describe what you will do and how you will do it. You need to provide enough detail on what you are actually asking for funding to do and how you will do it. Don’t forget to explain your methods, analysis and include details like power calculations!
  4. Make sure your objectives align with your workplan – It’s all about making it easy for a reviewer to understand what you are doing, why you are doing it and where it will get you. Make sure that you’ve got a really clear question and narrative about the question and also make sure your research plan fits the questions you’re asking. Don’t forget to include those important milestones and deliverables so that it’s obvious how each aspect of your research will move you towards your goal. Avoid just measuring lots of things without a clear plan of why (otherwise it will be obvious to a reviewer you are just on a fishing trip).
  5. Make sure you have the right team – The people involved are just as important as the project you’re proposing. Provide evidence that others you may be working with are capable of delivering the work. If you don’t have a good track record, sometimes the best thing is to collaborate with people that do. Even if you can’t include co-investigators (for example if you are applying for a fellowship) make sure you have the right people to mentor and advise you – often they can be at another institution or may provide some expertise not available ‘in house’.

And of course lastly…don’t forget to read the instructions, allow plenty of time, read example applications and talk to experienced people as well – but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that!