The many hats of an academic researcher
I had done it: I had achieved my career goal. I was a professor at a large university running my own lab and directing my own research! I sat looking at my dream come true: an empty office, an empty lab and no idea how to fill either of them! So I pulled out the laboratory-supply catalogues and began paging through them, making a list of everything I needed to get started. Little did I know that this was only the beginning of my on-the-job training.
I always had thought that being a professor meant that I got to sit in my office and think about science all day. I knew that writing grants, publishing my research and presenting my work at meetings was part of this job. What I didn’t know was that as soon as I signed on the dotted line there would be a multitude of other hats that I would need to put on with little to no guidance other than my instincts. Let me give you a brief overview of the many hats I learned how to wear:
All of sudden, not only do you have to fill an empty lab, but you also need to juggle your finances so that your lab stays solvent to perform quality research! You must establish a monthly budget. You must learn when to economize (No, we don’t need that Qiagen Cube) and when to splurge (Yes, we need those results for an important manuscript). You also must learn how to develop a grant budget so that everyone gets paid, fringe benefits are covered and money for supplies remains.
Although I knew I would have to write grants and publish my work, I had no idea that to be successful I had to sell my ideas. I thought it would be simple enough to describe a logical line of experiments or the results we had obtained and that they would speak for themselves. Nope. Far from it! You have to sell yourself. You have to learn to put everything into context and convince your audience that your work is important, significant and innovative!
I learned how to write in high school and college; little did I know that as a scientist I would also need to write a lot (as in, pretty much every day of my career) and to write well! If you can’t write grammatically while putting together a flowing line of logic, how can you expect to sell your ideas and your work?
I also needed to learn how to read, evaluate and constructively criticize other people’s writing and science (with an emphasis on the word “constructively”). I needed to learn how to help my colleagues and students reorganize their thoughts and words to help them become better salespeople and writers!
Yep, you read that correctly! What makes people good performers? They are unique in what they do, they engage with their audiences and they convey passion for their crafts. This is no different from what we need to do whenever we present our work. We must learn to present our results in a manner that tells a story, we must be connected and engaged with our audiences, and we must let our passion for our work shine through.
If you work at an academic institution, this one is pretty obvious. However, tell me honestly, where did any of us learn how to teach a class? It is not something that is necessarily required of students in graduate school and definitely not in your postdoctoral years. Therefore, we need to find our own teaching voices and teaching styles.
Again, pretty obvious. If you run a lab in an academic institution, you will have students training in your lab. However, what is not obvious when you start is that every single student is unique. It is your job to figure out what makes that person tick. You must learn how to identify student strengths and weaknesses and then determine the best approaches to take so that you can release their inner diamonds.
The part of being a mentor that is not obvious is learning how to say the correct thing to bring that distraught student back from the edge. You need to learn how to listen to your students, intuit their psychological makeup, learn why they act (and react) the ways they do and then use all of this information to console, counsel and support them as they learn about what many times can be a thankless profession.
You are the head of your lab. You employ many different people, regardless of whether you run a small lab (like me) or a large lab. It is inevitable, no matter how well everyone gets along, that at some point there will be differences in opinion, miscommunications and small (or not so small) disagreements. This is where you step in. You must listen to both sides while not taking either side, process what you hear and then meet with the individuals involved to iron out the differences.
The academic world is all about politics. You’d think it would be about teaching, and it is. However, behind the scenes, it’s all about politics. You need to learn about your academic environment: Where are the political land mines? Who truly holds the power? Who interacts with whom, and on what level? What can you say and to whom? How must you say it, and how does this change depending on whom you are talking with? What must you do to advance through the ranks? This is not learned in a day or in a year; in fact, it will be fluid and change as you advance to each new rank and are given more responsibilities.
As part of your job in academia, you will be asked to serve on committees. To advance in your career, or because you are acquiring more influence or responsibility, you also will be asked to chair committees and make decisions that affect the institution. Until you serve in this capacity, there is nothing in your education or career trajectory that will have prepared you for this role.
I know this all sounds daunting. Rest assured, you won’t have to learn all of these things as soon as you start your job. In fact, you won’t learn some of them until later. But if you find yourself in a supportive department and identify one or two trusted and successful senior faculty mentors, you can do it. We have all been there, and eventually you too will be where we, as senior faculty, are today.
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