Science is “the study of the nature and behaviour of natural things and the knowledge that we obtain about them” (Collins online dictionary). In other words, science is tightly linked to gaining knowledge. However, this definition and many others never mention that to gain knowledge through science, a vast amount of experience must be acquired beforehand and put into practice every day by scientists.
Today, our post will give our blog readership the chance to read some stories behind the curtains of public science, through the eyes of early to intermediate career scientists. These stories are meant to share personal academic experiences and opinions in the current system where, we think, a scientist seems to be expected to have a much broader set of skills compared to the past. If you feel like it, after you have read our thoughts, we would love to hear your experience in the comments’ section and deepen the discussion on the topic.
We will start with me, Luigi Lombardo, a geomorphologist and a first-year Assistant Professor in applied Soil Science.
‘In my opinion, being an academic today is a very complex task. As science and technology have evolved through the years, the available tools have proportionally increased. We have long left behind the era when qualitatively describing nature was enough. And now, quantitative-oriented research is expected from all of us. However, this implies that we have the knowledge and understanding of several tools at hand, which most of us have not been trained for during our studies.
For instance, statistics, be it basic or advanced, is the language upon which any research summarizes its results. This adds up to many other requirements for us to carry out our studies. Programming is another almost mandatory skill nowadays. And, even assuming that we learn how to build our own codes, we have also entered the era of big data, which makes everything more complicated. Again, even assuming we have learned how to code down the analyses we do, often personal laptops or workstations do not have the computational power to support us. Therefore, we need to learn how to use supercomputers and split the calculations over multiple processors.
This is a general framework that revolves around any academic experience. And yet, even more, complications add up when more disciplines are involved. I can think of chemistry applied to geosciences or even physics or any other combination. This whole system is meant certainly to improve the science we investigate, but it comes with a toll.
It is not a coincidence that a term exists for the Academic Impostor Syndrome. This is a psychological complex that affects many scientists and simply put, to different extents it summarizes the lack of confidence we may sometimes feel in our work. I have spoken to many young and more experienced scientists. A large percentage of them, up to a certain degree, felt that the multitasking (not in the most classical meaning of doing more than one task at the very same time, i.e., answering a phone call while writing an email, but have the command of several fields of competence not necessary part of your background education) required in this line of work affects at times their self-confidence. To me, this comes with the idea that we do not always have the luxury to know everything about everything. Therefore, on an individual basis, we face the burden of being uncertain in a field where uncertainties should affect the experimental design rather than the experimenter.
In my small world, I have embraced these uncertainties and now work regularly with people that I can trust and which complement my knowledge and my skills. To me, this is the only way to keep a good life/work balance and to move forward in science, hence opening up and collaborating.
I would also like to quickly add something related to those scientists that also teach in their academic life. In fact, in addition to knowing all the technical steps mentioned above, we also need to know how to transfer that knowledge to others. We need to learn how to teach, how to interact with students, how to understand and help them in their growth, but that’s probably a story for another time. For now let’s just leave it at that and say that being an academic is a stressful line of work but it also comes with so much thinking that, if you have a curious mind, you would love to lose yourself in questions/problems that need an answer which is only waiting for someone to discover it!’
Before we pass the ball to another fellow if you would like to read more about the Impostor Syndrome the scientific and non-scientific literature is quite vast. Just a few references below from which you can start further digging.
- Ramnsey and Brown (2017), Feeling like a fraud: Helping students renegotiate their academic identities, College & Undergraduate Libraries, 25:1, 86-90, DOI: 10.1080/10691316.2017.1364080
- Breeze (2018), Imposter Syndrome as a Public Feeling. In: Taylor Y., Lahad K. (eds) Feeling Academic in the Neoliberal University. Palgrave Studies in Gender and Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
- Bennet Jessica, How to Overcome ‘Impostor Syndrome‘, on NY Times.
- Dickerson Desiree, How I overcame impostor syndrome after leaving academia, Career Column on Nature.
The next person telling us about his experience is Gabriele Amato, MSc in Geology, PhD in Earth Sciences with a thesis on Landslide monitoring and currently post-doc fellow working in Remote Sensing.
‘During each step of my career, I had to learn something apparently not related to my studies but definitely helpful for my research: notions of other disciplines, scientific writing, how to use this software or that, how to make a good oral presentation, etc.
When attending some dedicated courses was not possible, I learnt it by myself as self-taught. I think this is a common situation, especially for an Early Career Researcher (ECR), and actually often expected from them. It is probably one of the advantages of being a researcher: you never stop learning. As a consequence, at the end of every stage of my career, when I have looked back, I have felt grown, both professionally and humanely. Furthermore, the gained experience gave me the chances to get new positions and proceed further with my career.
However, I have also learned that, in most of the cases, to understand what I needed to deepen to improve my skills was only up to me and the choice of what to focus on was my responsibility.
I might have decided to dedicate my time to improve my ability in English writing or to study some statistics of time series, to practice in geospatial modelling or to do some field survey and measurements, etc. Summarising, I had to make some choices, and I made them on the basis of my needs, my interests, and the possibilities I had at the time I had to make that choice. Sometimes I had good advice from more experienced researchers who drove me toward the best choice, sometimes I did not.
This is all fine, and I am definitely not complaining to anyone. This is life actually, and it helps to make you more responsible and self-confident. This is all fine until the moment when someone judges if the competences you have decided to deepen are enough to make you get a particular position. Or the moment when you ask yourself if your skills and experience are suitable for the position you would like to apply. In my opinion, that frustrating sensation of self-considering not good enough when reading the requirements for an open position is even worse than being rejected after an interview.
As said by Luigi, being a researcher or an academic can be very hard, especially in some countries. The number of available positions is little, and scientists must constantly keep pace with technology innovation. Therefore, multidisciplinary and computer skills are required at every level.
Let’s take the knowledge of programming languages again as an example. This expertise is required in a large number of academic positions in Earth Sciences, no matter if volcanology, seismic hazard, landslide modelling or whatever. For example, once, I saw an advertised post-doc position on landslide modelling, and it puzzled me extensively that coding skills were a requirement. In contrast, prior experience in landslide analysis was only preferred!
Employers have the right to look for the skills they like and need, but sometimes I have the honest impression that we are losing the difference between the ‘means’ and the ‘topic’. A good volcanologist knows the topic in-depth, has studied for years and experienced the complexity of the discipline. He/she can learn to code, but can a good programmer easily become a good volcanologist? What I want to say is that I would prefer to see “predisposition to learn/improve your programming skills” rather than “proficiency in a given programming language” in the job announcements for ECR positions in geosciences, especially by the big employers and institutions.
Programming, like learning to use any other software or instrument, is a “means”. Some prior experience and some predisposition to use it are preferable, that’s ok, but basically, anyone can acquire this skill with the will and time at hand. Like any other instrument, you learn by doing and you use it if you consider it appropriate to reach the scope of your job or research. Moreover, big institutions have (or should have) the possibility to offer formation and training on whatever programming languages to their young researchers. At the same, it is likely they already have, within their research groups, experienced programmers who could support the learning process of the youngers.
In my opinion, team-work is multidisciplinary while what is currently asked to ECRs is multi-tasking, which is not necessarily good. Therefore, expecting previous experience in using this software or that from an ECR is a non-sense. Some experience is preferable, no doubt, and this requirement may become more constraining the higher the job level. However, I firmly believe that it should be the employing institution to guarantee to young researchers the proper formation on those tools considered useful for the good proceeding of their research.
Some excellent and motivated young researchers may not have had the opportunity to specialize in the use of this instrument or that and PhDs and fellowships should aim to grow scientists rather than hiring technicians!’
More on the PhD path and acquiring new competencies and skills in the links below.
- The 7 Essential Transferable Skills All PhDs Have
- Sarah Anderson, Make science PhDs more than just a training path for academia, on the Career Column of Nature
- Hayley Teasdale, A PhD is not just a degree – it is an opportunity to develop the skills needed to deliver impact
- Elisabeth Pain, Better Recognition for Multidisciplinary Research, on Science Careers.
The third experience comes from Valeria Cigala, a postdoc in the field of volcanology, currently in the transferring phase from Universita degli Studi di Padova, in Italy, to LMU Munich, in Germany, where she will work for the next two years.
‘When Luigi suggested this topic for the blog, I supported him, because I also feel the weight of multitasking more often than not. I’m a geologist by education, and I started working on volcanic rocks during my undergraduate and graduate studies. Still eager to learn, I did a PhD in experimental and physical volcanology, where I dealt with a level of fluid dynamics than I thought my studies did not prepare me for. Eventually, I succeeded. After that, I moved for a postdoc in remote sensing of volcanic clouds, again something that scratched the edges of my knowledge and where I had to invest time in studying, learning and understanding. Finally, my new project will indeed go back to some more familiar places, such as experimental volcanology. But don’t get me wrong, I put enough in the pot of the I do not-know-that-yet in the new project too! So there will still be plenty to learn, and I will more likely learn it by getting something wrong first.
I think this is another aspect of multitasking: Mistakes and how multitasking may make us more prone to making them because we don’t handle everything we’re doing with the same confidence and competence. Of course, mistakes are part of the learning process, but at the same time, they can make our self-confidence more vulnerable. Well, at least they do it to mine! And we fall easily back to what has been already said about both the Imposter Syndrome and ways to overcome it. A way I found to address this problem is making sure I have a network of colleagues with different backgrounds in my asset that I can trust and ask for help.
Multitasking, sometimes, also makes me feel like I do not have enough time for everything, that I need to work longer hours, to study more and be more prepared…feeling trapped in a never-ending cycle. Do I cope with all this? At times, yes, because I am passionate about what I do; at times, though, it overwhelms me instead. And once again, having a supportive network of family, friends and colleagues has been of help. Sometimes though, I have felt I needed some more tools in my coping toolbox and so, I sought the help of a therapist.’
Some reading about coping with mistakes:
- Johnson, J., Panagioti, M., Bass, J., Ramsey, L., & Harrison, R. (2017). Resilience to emotional distress in response to failure, error or mistakes: A systematic review. Clinical psychology review, 52, 19-42. DOI: 10.1016/j.cpr.2016.11.007
- Melody Wilding, 2016, The One Reason You Shouldn’t Obsess Over Your Mistakes, for Forbes
The three stories mentioned above are just part of many others that every academic have experience with nowadays. What about you? Can you relate to our stories? Would you like to send us your perspective on this topic? We would be happy to hear from you. The Natural Hazards blog is a platform to share different types of content and, if the feedback is large enough, we could open up a discussion on “lives in Academia” across the whole academic system and different fields of study. We welcome all of your stories and experiences, just keep in mind that there is no right or wrong and feel free to tell us whatever you feel like.