TS
Tectonics and Structural Geology

Mind Your Head

Mind Your Head #4: Job uncertainty in academia – know your strengths and possibilities!

Mind Your Head #4: Job uncertainty in academia – know your strengths and possibilities!

Mind Your Head is a blog series dedicated towards addressing mental health in the academic environment and highlighting solutions relieving stress in daily academic life.

In the three previous blog post of this ‘Mind your head’ series, we discussed the importance of communication with fellow ECS, time management, and a healthy relationship with your advisors. However, there is one big source of stress which we haven’t addressed yet: the insecurities regarding your future career, especially if you wish for an academic career. Unfortunately, this is also one of the most challenging stress factors to tackle.

How to decide if you are up for a career in academia, and if not, what to do next? And how can you increase your chances for a future academic position if there is often someone who has more experience, more publications, or simply better connections? And more often than not, this would involve a transfer to another country for a job, which can be a stress factor in itself – particularly when having a partner and/or a family to take care of.

Success rates in academia
To start with, let’s face reality. A study done by Nature last year has shown that worldwide, 75% of the PhD students think that it is likely that they pursue a career in academia. However, the large majority of these Early Career Scientists will end up somewhere else. In the United Kingdom for example, only 3-4% succeed in landing a permanent position at a university.

You probably already realized that the academic environment is very competitive, but numbers emphasize that it is in fact extremely difficult to maintain a career in academia. So how do we explain this apparent misconception that Early Career Scientists have? Why do so many wish to pursue a career in academia, despite the low success rates?

One important factor is probably the lack of examples of alternative career paths: in universities and research institutions we are only exposed to the academic success stories. Our advisors are senior scientists, or professors, who have successfully established their scientific career. Our colleagues might be post-docs, who have managed to find a position after their PhD that they like, or researchers who have written a successful grant proposal, which ensures them to work independently on their projects for several years.

However, where do the people go who do not find that post-doc after their PhD, or who write grant proposals which get rejected, maybe even more than once? Or the people who simply choose to leave academia after doing a PhD, after one or more post-docs, or even after tenure?

Transferable skills
Of course, where these people end up are excellent choices as well, even though there will always be people telling you that academia is the only path. Not choosing academia doesn’t mean failing! Besides having an academic career, there are many possibilities for people who obtained a PhD degree. And some of these careers might fit you even better than an academic career; you just have to know that they exist and how to make the switch! There are many articles that discuss the different career possibilities for Early Career Scientists, an excellent example being this EGU blog post. It introduces several current and former geoscientists who ended up outside academia, and who share their experiences.

Whether you’re already considering leaving academia, or whether you just want to have a back-up plan in case your desired academic career does not go as planned: it is important to know your possibilities, but more importantly your strengths, and how these can be useful in other careers. Are you aware of the many skills you acquire during a PhD that are extremely valuable to your future employers? All ECS have them! In sectors like industry, or consultancy, the exact topic of your PhD is usually of minor importance. It is the additional skills that you acquired that make the difference between hiring someone with a Master’s degree, or someone who obtained a PhD.

Examples of such transferable skills are your ability to work independently on a long-term project, problem-solving, time-management, communicating within an international community, or efficiently obtaining and transferring knowledge, through articles or oral presentations. When exploring future job possibilities, take a moment to identify your (strongest) transferable skills, and in which environments they might be most valuable.

Competencies
Many companies and institutions work with competencies, also called ‘key competencies’, or ‘core competencies’. These are specific personal qualities that recruiters use as benchmarks to rate and evaluate possible candidates for a job. There are many lists online, that display all different types of competencies, often grouped in categories like ‘dealing with people’, or ‘self-management’. Also the book ‘Competency-Based Interviews’, by Robin Kessler, features a list of core competencies and explains how they are used for job interviews. Using such an overview to identify your core competencies might be easier than trying to come up with them from scratch.

In the end, knowing  your core competencies and using them to ‘sell yourself’ (during an interview, in a motivation letter, or on your CV), will be useful for any type of career, also in academia! To learn more about increasing your chances in academia, check out this article about marketing for scientists.

Mind your head!
So, to wrap up this series: many Early Career Scientists are very passionate about pursuing an academic career and are willing to work very hard to achieve what they want. Of course, you shouldn’t let yourself be scared off by the statistics; if an academic career is what you really want, go for it! Be prepared for the hard work and strong competition, but don’t forget to have fun! In order to do that, it is important to know yourself, your strengths as well as your limits, to manage your time wisely and… to communicate with your colleagues and advisors!

If it turns out that academia is not for you, don’t panic! There are many wonderful careers outside academia, where you and your skills will be highly valued. However, it is important to get out of the ‘academia-only’ bubble and broaden your horizon. Alternative careers can provide many benefits, such as job certainty, more teamwork, short-term and diverse projects, and an office in the right geographical location! Explore other careers that might suit you, and identify your strengths that will help you land your dream job, inside or outside academia!

 

By Elenora van Rijsingen
Written with help and revisions from Anne Pluymakers

 

Resources

2nd workshop of the Marie Skodowska-Curie ITN project CREEP: Discussion sessions between senior- and early career scientists focused on reducing stress levels in academia.

PhD management training by Marie-Laure Parmentier from Belpaeme Conseil, France. 

Mind your head #3: A healthy relationship with your advisor

Mind your head #3: A healthy relationship with your advisor

Mind Your Head is a blog series dedicated towards addressing mental health in the academic environment and highlighting solutions relieving stress in daily academic life.

Besides the professional environment in general, the relationship between early career researchers and their advisors also plays an important role in the degree of stress researchers might experience. This relationship does not only depend on the type of advisor you have, but also on your own personality type. A tough supervisor for one person, might be a very good supervisor for someone else. The success of a healthy relationship therefore lies in the expectations you have for each other, and how you respond if those expectations are not met.

Different types of advisors
There are many different types of advisors, as there are many different types of people. A famous one is the ‘superbusy’ type, but also the ‘over-confident’ (“of course this never-tried method will work!”), or the ‘micro-manager’ (someone who checks every detail of your work), are common types.

The ideal advisor would be a supporting one, who cares about your future career, tries to teach you how to become an independent researcher and encourages you to do your work in a way that works best for you. The opposite would be someone who is interested in their own career and only sees you as someone who will simply take on some of their workload, whilst all the time keeping control on how you do that.

Generally speaking, advisors will fall in between these two extremes, and depending on their own stress levels, they might be easier to work with at some times than at others.

Expectations in both ways
The good news is that you can steer a little as well! So, how to make sure your situation will approach the ‘ideal’ situation, rather than the opposite? The first thing you need is probably a bit of luck; a good fit of characters might already be enough to obtain a healthy relationship.

If you’re not so lucky, then communication becomes key! Take the time to figure out what your advisor expects from you as an early career scientist and to think about what you expect from him or her. Advisors are all different, but students are too! Make sure to tell your advisor what you need in order to do a successful job. For example, does your advisor expect you to write your drafts mainly independent? Or does he or she prefer to work on it together, and check it after each section you’ve written? You both might have different preferences for this and it is important to discuss these and find a compromise.

If necessary, make an appointment once a year to simply discuss the process of decision-making and discuss what the best way of communication is for both of you. For example: some people prefer lengthy emails, some short, and some people you need to catch in person in order to work together. If you make it a habit to figure out what the best mode of communication is, it will definitely speed up any cooperation!

Most conflicts between PhD-students and supervisors arise in the final year of the PhD, since this is the point that the student thinks most independently. – Marie-Laure Parmentier (occasional consultant for Belpaeme Conseil)

When conflicts arise
When expectations are not met, a conflict may arise. An example is the case of the ‘superbusy’ advisor, who never has time to talk, whereas you would prefer to have regular short discussions (once in two weeks for example). This could lead to frustration on the students’ part, and even to giving up on trying to communicate at all.

A contrary situation could be an advisor who checks up on you daily to see how you are doing, probably with all the best intensions, whereas you prefer to work independently, and will only call your advisor when you are stuck. This situation could lead to the feeling of not working hard enough and not meeting expectations, which most likely is not the advisors intension.

Eventually these types of frustration will build up and slow down your work, so it is best to simply avoid it all together by discussing expectations clearly.

 

Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 Rule of Personal Communication. Credit: www.rightattitudes.com

 

When a conflict arises, the most direct and understandable response is an emotional one; frustration, anger or quiet worry eating away at you. People often directly confront the person causing such an emotional response (which is very human!). However, as you probably know, this is not the smartest, nor the most professional way to deal with frustrations.

So, take a step back and calm down first, count to 10, briefly go to the gym, sleep on it, or go to a friendly colleague to shout out all your frustration; anything that works for you. Reflect on the situation, figure out what the main issue is, and then find a quiet moment during which you can discuss the problem in a calm and rational way. This will ensure your message is received and taken seriously.

In a direct conversation, the impact of your message is mainly determined by body language, while the contribution of the actual words is very little (only 7%). If your movements, space occupation, intonation and volume shout out your anger or your sadness, your conversation partner is likely to respond to the emotion, rather than the message, even if you manage to find the right words straight away.

To conclude: even when you have a different opinion than your advisor, when you are able to express your arguments carefully and clearly, it is much more likely that you’ll find a solution which works for both of you. Communication is key in becoming a better scientist, and will benefit you in any type of collaboration during your career!

By Elenora van Rijsingen
Written with help and revisions from Anne Pluymakers

 

Resources

2nd workshop of the Marie Skodowska-Curie ITN project CREEP: Discussion sessions between senior- and early career scientists focused on reducing stress levels in academia.

PhD management training by Marie-Laure Parmentier from Belpaeme Conseil, France. 

Mind your head #2: The importance of time management in academia

Mind your head #2: The importance of time management in academia

Mind Your Head is a blog series dedicated towards addressing mental health in the academic environment and highlighting solutions relieving stress in daily academic life.

An important struggle of people working in academia is how to complete all the different tasks in the limited time available. Even though time management is important for almost any type of career, the degree of freedom in academia and therefore the expected independence make good time management skills a necessity.

In this blog I discuss some highlights of the tips and advice I collected from various senior scientists and time management consultants. I divided them into these five sub-topics, which will hopefully help you in knowing what your goals are and which steps you can take to reach those goals in an efficient way.

Research strategy
The first step is to have a well thought-out research strategy. At the beginning of a PhD or post-doc project, the specific topic and research strategy is defined by you and your advisors or collaborators. It usually includes a pre-determined balance in terms of certain successes (i.e. known research paths that will certainly lead to publications) and innovative research (with some degree of risk).

However, such a pre-determined strategy does not mean that there is no change possible; it simply means that you have something to hold on to. This initial long-term plan is simply a guide through the forest of different research paths, but these strategies are never set in stone. It is important to keep in mind what the final goal of your work is and to periodically evaluate if this goal is still realistic.

Many side-paths will present themselves along the way and it is up to you to decide whether to take them or not. To help you make decisions like that, you have your colleagues and supervisors for discussions and advice, and sometimes you can do a small, quick test to see whether a side-path shows potential or not.

How to sub-divide
Then, there are different sub-projects in any long-term project. These could be different methods you use, like fieldwork, experiments or models, or maybe long-term vs. short term projects. You need to find a way of managing and keeping track of these multiple research lines.

The further along in your career, the more multi-tasking becomes part of the job. Try to find what works best for you: if you feel that it is better to finish one project first, before taking on the next step or method, than definitely do so. Another method is to create specific time blocks (during the week, or month), to which you assign your different tasks. There are numerous time-management apps, as well as old-fashioned paper calendars and notebooks to help you to keep track of things.

Decrease your stress levels by spending some time on thinking about how to efficiently subdivide your work and how to be in control; it doesn’t help if you are overwhelmed because you try to work on four different sub-projects simultaneously. And, especially in research, things often take more time than you would like, and then it is up to you to adjust the plan. Remember Murphy’s law: “ In general, things take longer than expected, because we often underestimate the difficulty of tasks, especially when they are new.”.

 

In order to be productive, make sure you assign the right amount of time to a task. Not too little, but not too much either. For more about Parkinson’s law, check out this article. Picture credit: Elenora van Rijsingen

 

Set priorities – and learn how to say no!
Have you ever heard of the Eisenhower matrix? By making the difference between urgent and important tasks, Eisenhower summarizes how to optimize the different tasks that you have in a job (or in life!). Urgent tasks are the ones that come with an approaching deadline, while important tasks are the ones that are useful for both your professional and personal development. This Eisenhower matrix is a tool that can help you decide which tasks of your to-do lists come first.

The first group consists of tasks that are both important and urgent (like finishing the revision of your article, or preparing a conference talk). These fall into two different categories: tasks that you could not have foreseen, and things you left yourself until the last minute. The first thing to do is to minimize the things in the second category, so your list of important and urgent tasks becomes shorter. Think about how you can manage your time better, which tasks you could have foreseen, so that not all your activities become urgent. This means you keep track of your deadlines!

The second group are the not-urgent, but important things (like reading articles to increase your knowledge or going to the gym in the evening). You might have the tendency to put these activities aside, because you always have more urgent things to do, but don’t forget that these tasks are important for a reason!

Then there are the urgent, but not so important tasks (like booking flights for your upcoming conferences or mandatory bureaucracy for the university). For some people, half their day consists of these tasks, which probably does not make them very happy. If possible, try to find a way to reduce the amount of time you spend on those tasks. Maybe you can delegate them? Also, many favours you do for other people belong in this group. Is there the possibility to say no, when someone asks you to do something? If so, do it, but politely. Maybe you can find another moment which is more convenient for you, or you can suggest someone else who would be more suitable for the job.

And what about the not-urgent and not-important tasks? Well, according to Eisenhower you should just eliminate them. There is no faster way to complete a task than not doing it at all.

The Eisenhower Matrix. Credit: James Clear

 

Work organized
This one seems obvious, but it’s importance is easily underestimated. Do you recognize that feeling when you quickly saved a file somewhere on your computer, but a few weeks later you have no idea where it went?

Organizing things like your computer, your email inbox, your desk, the lab and even your calendar might take some time, but it is definitely worth it. For example, if you organise your calendar in such a way that you can work on a task without (too many) interruptions, you will be much more efficient. Turning off the sound of your phone and your email notifications (and pop-ups) can already be very effective in reducing the amount of distraction during your work.

Also, keeping track of what you have done and which decisions you have made regarding your analyses or your models will be very useful if you do interrupt your task for several days (or months!). This all helps you to keep control, and increase your efficiency – and therefore decrease stress and frustration!

“An interrupted task will be less efficient and take longer than if it would have been carried out continuously”- Carlson’s Law

Do what you like
One of the most important pieces of advice I received was that I should do what I feel like doing in a particular moment. This means that if you feel like reading papers all day and making notes about things relevant for your work, you should do it!

You will be much more productive if you are actually in the mood, rather than pushing yourself to do something, simply because you feel like you should. Even though the degree of freedom in science is quite large, this strategy does not always work. Often there are deadlines and sometimes things simply must be done (i.e. the urgent things). If you make sure your list of Urgent & Important things is short at all times, there is the most opportunity to do such things.

So, to maximize the ‘do-what-you-feel-like-strategy’, it is necessary to think ahead. For example, start thinking about that poster a few weeks in advance, so that you can already create some figures when you have the time… and when you are in the mood!

 

By Elenora van Rijsingen
Written with help and revisions from Anne Pluymakers

 

Resources

2nd workshop of the Marie Skodowska-Curie ITN project CREEP: Discussion sessions between senior- and early career scientists focused on reducing stress levels in academia.

PhD management training by Marie-Laure Parmentier from Belpaeme Conseil, France. 

‘How to be more productive and eliminate time wasting activities by using the Eisenhower Box’, by James Clear

Mind Your Head #1: Let’s talk about mental health in academia

Mind Your Head #1: Let’s talk about mental health in academia

Mind Your Head is a blog series dedicated towards addressing mental health in the academic environment and highlighting solutions relieving stress in daily academic life.

Research has shown that almost 50% of people working in academia suffer from mental health issues (e.g. Winefield et al. 2003; The Graduate Assembly at the University of California Berkeley 2015; Levecque et al. 2017). Factors like job insecurity, limited amount of time and poor management often cause high stress levels and can lead to mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety or emotional exhaustion.

Even though these problems are pervasive in academia, openly discussing these issues is not easy. People are reluctant to come forward about their difficulties for fear of being judged and loosing career chances, while support mechanisms are poorly advertised.

Particularly at risk are those starting out their research careers. Early career scientists find themselves in a very competitive environment, facing high expectations to publish papers. Too often this results in working much harder than is good for anyone. Personally, I feel that a happy researcher produces better results in the end: so why compete instead of collaborating, or doubt instead of discussing? In the end, too much competition doesn’t drive your productivity, but hinders it instead.

Initiatives such as university support systems, time management courses or training in supervision are thus very important, and I call for those to be incorporated more frequently and more visibly in academic environments.

And even though problems like an unsupportive university, or an overstretched supervisor should be solved to improve the situation, we must not forget that we can do a lot ourselves as well. While many studies focus on institutions’ role in addressing mental health issues in academia, I would like to focus more on coping mechanisms for individuals, with special emphasis on early career scientists.

Through this short series of blog posts, I will address several topics that are often related to the high stress levels many of us experience, incorporating some of the advice I gathered from senior scientists and research management advisors.

Note that mental health issues are serious and should always be addressed with the help of professionals. Remember, acknowledging that things are not going well and seeking help is a sign of strength, and never a source of shame! The advice in this blog series should be seen as a complement, not an alternative, to seeking professional help.

So, to kick off this series, what can we do to deal with stressful circumstances and create a more relaxed working atmosphere for ourselves?

Communication is key
In my opinion, one of the most important tools is communication. The social stigma around mental issues in academia (or almost any other sector) is large and creates the tendency for people to keep their problems to themselves (Wynaden et al., 2014). However, communication is one of the key ingredients for solving a whole range of emotional problems, including those related to stress.

An easy example: if you don’t tell your advisors that something is going wrong, they won’t know about it and will not be able to help you fix it. Usually, your professors have thousands of things to do, and might not notice when you are upset, unless you actively tell them.

In addition, communication with your fellow early career scientists (PhDs and post-docs alike!) is important, since you are not the only one struggling. And odd as it sounds, it really does help to know you are not alone. In most cases, your colleagues will understand how you feel in a certain situation and might even give you some advice on how to solve it.

Setting your boundaries
Apart from communication, it is very important to be aware of your own boundaries. If there is no more energy left, there is no more creativity either. So make sure you recharge your batteries on time! Sometimes the best solutions come to you when partaking in sports, while riding the bus, or simply after a good night sleep. If you are aware of your own mental state, it can be easier to find a way to deal with it, seek the help you need, or simply give yourself permission to take off early for one day.

Of course, being an early career scientist will still be hard work; that is part of the job. But there is a difference between hard work and struggling. Getting a PhD degree is an achievement that requires you to work independently on a long-term project, facing many challenges along the way. But it is also an incredible experience during which, first and foremost, you are supposed to have some fun.

The joy that stems from doing research should not be mainly driven by awards and recognition, but because you are creating new things, gaining new knowledge, improving something or trying to understand the world a bit better! If this joy gets lost along the way, then something has to change. One aspect of learning how to become an independent researcher is not talked about enough: how to be in charge of yourself and your project, how to take control of the situation and make the necessary steps that you need to be a happy scientist!

 

By Elenora van Rijsingen
Written with help and revisions of Anne Pluymakers & Olivia Trani

 

References
Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868–879. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2017.02.008

The Graduate Assembly at the University of California Berkeley. (2015). Graduate student happiness and well-being report 2014. Retrieved from http://ga.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/wellbeingreport_2014.pdf

Winefield, A. H., Gillespie, N., Stough, C., Dua, J., Hapuarachchi, J., & Boyd, C. (2003). Occupational stress in Australian university staff: Results from a national survey. International Journal of Stress Management, 10(1), 51–63. http://doi.org/10.1037/1072-5245.10.1.51

Wynaden, D., McAllister, M., Tohotoa, J., Al Omari, O., Heslop, K., Duggan, R., … Byrne, L. (2014). The silence of mental health issues within university environments: A quantitative study. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 28(5), 339–344. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.apnu.2014.08.003