You can find my latest post over at Pat Thomson’s blog, Patter, discussing the pros and cons of a written thesis versus a PhD by publication. Please head over to Pat’s blog to share your thoughts.
I started this blog with the intention of creating a journal of my life as a postdoc, therefore, it is probably important to write about the hard times, as well as the more positive and advice-giving posts. As I sit down to write this, I am unsure where it will lead. It currently has no title. I am not starting, as I usually do, with a flash of inspiration. Rather, I am starting from a point of low inspiration, a sense of impending defeat and general uncertainty.
It is probably true to say that for most people, being a postdoc is a time of uncertainty and difficulties. I hear this a lot from other early career researchers, but it could be that the uncertain somehow flock together (or that I seek them out). Perhaps others are just getting on with it and keeping their eyes firmly on the elusive prize of the professorships that are reserved for the elite 0.5% of us (at least in science in the UK).
With only 9 months left of my current contract, and no firm plan of what to do next, a permanent academic career couldn’t feel further from my grasp. Have I reached the time to change direction far sooner than I expected? I wonder whether to divide my resources and hedge my bets on different career options, or whether to make a decision and throw myself fully in one direction (academic or otherwise) and hope for the best. My mind is full of doubts about whether the career I have spent so many years working towards is right for me, and whether I am right for it. The strange thing is that I thought I had already come to this crossroads a long time ago. I thought that I had decided to put all my eggs into the academic basket and hope for one to hatch. So, it seems I have been going round in circles, coming back to the same feeling of uncertainty over and over.
So many reasons for this uncertainty are almost a right-of-passage as an early career researcher. Often, we work on short-term, soft-money contracts, which puts us in a precarious position from day one. The limited availability of academic research positions means a high likelihood of moving to another city, if not another country, to take up a job offer. This results in the difficult decision to leave friends and family behind, or to uproot them to trail after you, only to have to move again to chase the next contract. None of this sounds very compatible with being healthy, happy, and secure. While my non-academic friends of the same age are mostly busy buying houses and settling down, the postdocs and PhD students around me are planning months or years away from their partners and facing the unsettling prospect of having snippets of pension funds scattered across countries, currencies, and continents. The obvious differences between the early academic life and the non-academic life inevitably make me question whether their grass is greener, or whether it is it just a trick of the light.
There is no real way to conclude this post, as it has no end, no beginning, and still no title. There are only unanswered questions. What next? Where next? How? Why? When? Hopefully my next post will come from a more secure and certain place (mentally speaking), with some answers, or a least a plan to find them. If you have some advice I would love to hear it, but if not, feel free to use the comments to get your postdoc woes of your chest too.
Somehow Twitter has become a bit of a hot topic at work lately and many of my colleagues have been asking me about it. I usually respond enthusiastically, because I generally think Twitter is great and everyone should give it a go. But it has got me thinking about exactly why I like it and, more importantly, how I use it. I’ve pulled together a few of my favourite (mainly academically-themed) uses, and a few uses of Twitter that are not so appealing to me. The beauty of twitter, though, is that it is vast enough to have space for all of these different uses and more, so there is definitely no ‘right way’ or ‘wrong way’ to use it.
First the positives:
+ 1. Relevant hashtags
For me, making good use of hashtags is one of the keys to using Twitter effectively. A well-placed hashtag can open up your tweet to a far wider audience than just your immediate followers. However, there can be a fine line between ‘use’ and ‘misuse’ of hashtags. Using the appropriate hashtag for your intended audience is important. For example, including the hashtag #ECRchat can open up your tweet to an active audience of early career researchers, however, a tweet including the often-used #ECR hashtag is more likely to be lost amongst East Coast Radio lovers, European Conservatives & Reformists, and more. Therefore, you should get to know the common hashtags in your area of interest and try to make sure that any new hashtags you coin are unique.
Another favourite use of hashtags is to organise live tweetchats. Although tweetchats are not everyone’s idea of a good use of Twitter, for me, they help create a sense of community and solidarity around a common goal or problem. Joining in chats is a great way to share advice, increase your number of followers, and find like-minded people to follow. However, one down-side to joining in a chat can be a very high volume of tweets in a short time, which might annoy your other followers if it fills their Twitter feed. Sticking to direct replies can help, as your followers will only see the direct replies to people they follow as well, limiting how much you clutter their feed. Though, see point 6, below, for when this might become a problem.
+ 2. Tweeting links
Another perfect use of Twitter is to tweet links to your blog, other people’s blogs you have enjoyed, funding calls, job opportunities, and more. You could think of it as adding value for the people you follow by curating a stream of relevant and interesting information. It is difficult to say a lot in 140 characters, but so much more information and discussion can shared by adding a link. Don’t, however, just tweet the link without any supporting information. At least say what the link is or why it is relevant, and credit someone using their Twitter handle if possible (either the author of the article or the person who brought it to your attention). Tweeting just a link and a list of hashtags looks like spam.
+ 3. Finding interesting stuff to read
As well as tweeting interesting things to the appropriate hashtags, I think it is important to use Twitter for listening. Read what other people are tweeting about and benefit from the value added by the people you follow. Joining Twitter to tweet about your own stuff without ever listening to what else is going on is a bit like going to a party and shouting in people’s faces, then running away.
+ 4. Being a real person
I think a good (but not necessary) use of Twitter is to add a bit more of the ‘real you’ to your professional profile. What I mean is that I don’t think every tweet has to be a link to a journal article, job posting, conference abstract, etc. I think it’s fine to tweet about the normal everyday stuff that’s going on right now. Yes, make me jealous with a photo of those cookies you just baked. If you would tell your office mates, boss, parents, and partner (all of those people, not just one), then it’s safe for Twitter. Just remember, it’s a public platform, and keep in mind point 9, below.
+ 5. Catching breaking news
If it’s happening in the world, it’s on Twitter. On more than one occasion I have logged in to Twitter and come across breaking news before I saw it elsewhere. I love that it’s like having all of the world’s news resources in one place. Ideally, having access to so many sources and opinions in one place should give a less biased view of unfolding news, rather than having the information screened (or added to) by one particular media source. However, I try to bare in mind that Twitter can be a bit of an echo chamber. Your followers will typically share a similar world view to you and to each other (which is probably why you are following them), so the impact of one perspective on a topic can be exaggerated.
Next, to my least favourite possible uses of Twitter:
- 6. IM service
Yes, Twitter is about conversations, but I don’t think it is a good substitute for a private instant messaging service in some circumstances. I think it’s great when a tweet sparks a discussion, especially when that discussion grows and is joined by many others. Public debate and discussion is exactly what Twitter is perfect for. However, it gets on my nerves a little when my Twitter feed is filled with a more personal conversation that does not have much relevance for anyone other than the two or three people in the conversation. If I’m following both people in the conversation there is no getting away from it. Even though both people might generally tweet interesting things, I don’t necessarily want to watch their personal conversation unfold. Some people would put this on the ‘uses’ list, but for me it can be annoying enough to cause me to unfollow someone.
- 7. Celeb stalking
When I first joined Twitter, I mainly followed comedians and popular news sites. I quickly got bored and decided Twitter wasn’t for me. It wasn’t until I came back to it a couple of years later that I realised there were far more interesting and relevant uses. If my Twitter stream was cluttered with celebs tweeting about their breakfast, I would struggle (even more than I do already) to catch the useful advice and information that rushes by. I suppose, however, that another version of ‘celeb stalking’ is following the big name professors, which I definitely do!
- 8. Automated tweets
When I say that ‘automated tweets’ annoy me, I’m not talking about pre-scheduled tweets using a service like Buffer. For the record, I think that pre-scheduling tweets for later is brilliant for lots of reasons (see also point 9). The kind of automated tweets that annoy me are the “Joe Bloggs ran 5 miles in 10 seconds using run-for-your-life app” style tweets. If you don’t care enough to change the predefined message template, why should I care enough to read it? I also dislike tweets about automatically-curated ‘newspapers’, but much less, given that they do actually contain some interesting information sometimes.
- 9. Status updates
I think there is a delicate balance to be struck between being genuine and over-sharing. I can’t deny that tweets sharing photos, achievements, and other personal news are nice and I often enjoy reading them. It’s good to know a little bit more about the people I follow, but no, I don’t want to know every small detail of your life as it happens. Tweeting lots of updates in a row can be annoying, even when each of those updates would be potentially interesting and useful on it’s own. If you only go on Twitter for a short time and have lots to share, try using a service like Buffer to spread your tweets out a bit. It will be potentially less annoying for your followers, and you will reach different followers who are online at other times.
- 10. Advertising
Advertising on Twitter is irritating enough to make the list, but not so intrusive that it would stop me using it. Thankfully, the occasional tweet or follow from a spam bot or company account doesn’t swamp the tweets from my genuine followers. I try to follow the golden rule of not clicking on strange looking links from tweeps like @candylovelegs101 (especially those “look what so-and-so said about you” links), which seems to have kept me safe so far. Those direct messages when someone’s account has been hacked drive me crazy, though. I try to feel sympathy for the person who has been hacked, but I can’t help blaming them a little. I’m sure my words will come back to haunt me if, and when, it happens to me, though.
Well, they were my favourite (and not so favourite) uses of Twitter. One of the wonderful things about Twitter is that my favourite use could be your annoyance, and vice versa. Feel free to tell me so, or to add your own in the comments or via Twitter (@KL_Wheat).
Every now and then I like to check how (and if) people are landing on my blog. The most common way for people to arrive here is by following a link from Twitter (thanks for sharing!). My blog also tends to come up when people search for topics relating to difficulties after a PhD or during a postdoc, but today a more unusual search term caught my eye. Today someone clicked on my blog after searching “How to make your postdoc respect you?”.
This question intrigues me and I would love to be able to ask the writer about the situation that prompted this search. However, since that is not possible, I thought I would try to crowd-source some answers instead. I expect most people reading this are postdocs, but it is a question that anyone could reasonably answer from their own experiences.
Since we have only the question itself to go on, we could equally assume that the writer is senior or junior to the respective postdoc. For example, the writer may be a new PhD student struggling to get the help and advice they need from their supervising postdoc. On the other hand, perhaps the writer is a new senior researcher, trying to assert their authority over a freshly formed lab group. These perspectives might need a slightly different approach to command the respect of this postdoc, but I think they share the common question of what it takes to foster mutual respect in the (academic or other) workplace. The question implies that the writer may not yet have considered whether the postdoc feels respected. For me, it is difficult to think of respect as being a one-way street, therefore, I would be tempted to flip the question around and ask “how can I make my postdoc feel respected by me?”
I am interested in your thoughts, and would love to be able to up date this blog with your answers. How would you behave to ensure that you had the respect of your postdoc (whether in a senior or junior position)? What would make you feel respected as a postdoc? Does the type of respect you expect to receive at work depend on whether the person is senior or junior to you? Do you think there are common rules or expectations to fostering mutual respect in the workplace? Is having the respect of your colleagues important to you? Whatever your thoughts or perspective, I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below, or tweet me via the hashtag #postdocrespect. I will update the blog with the outcome.
Today was a perfect day. I didn’t tick off everything from my to-do list (who ever does?), but somehow I am ending the day feeling satisfied with my job. I’m not writing this post to kick you in the teeth if your day didn’t go so well; rather to show you (and my future self) that it doesn’t take perfection to have a good day.
My small but significant achievements for the day
1. A nice wake-up
I’m trying out a new alarm clock app on my phone (Sleep as Android) that is supposed to wake you up more easily than your standard noisy ringing thing. The basic principle is that you put your phone on the mattress next to you while you sleep and it infers your sleep stages from your level of movement (via the motion/orientation sensor of your phone). You then set a time window during which to be woken up and the alarm will go off when it predicts you are sleeping lightly, rather than trying to rouse you from a deep sleep. I’ve only been testing it out for a few days so far, but I’m pleased with the results. It may be a placebo effect, but today I felt much better than a usual Monday morning (I’m not a morning person)!
2. A tasty breakfast
Nothing too exciting (just porridge with bananas and syrup, and fresh drip coffee), but taking time for a healthy-ish breakfast feels like a positive start.
3. A proper lunch break
You might be sensing a trend for food to equal happiness, but the company helped as much as the food. The food was meatballs in tomato sauce with potato wedges and salad (yum!), but the discussions of programmable body-art (a cross between a tattoo and a computer screen) were much more energizing.
4. An unscheduled supervisory meeting
I like to make fairly regular appointments with my supervisor (see point 7 here), but sometimes the best meetings happen when he turns up at my office door unannounced. I could worry that he is checking up on me I guess, but instead I like to put a positive spin on things; he had some time and he thought of me. When these spur of the moment meetings happen, I know that my supervisor is interested and invested in me and my projects. The complements on my recent progress helped a lot, of course. Which leads me neatly into my final achievement for the day…
5. I have finally ticked all the boxes to start scanning for my current project!
This has been such a long time coming, and there have been so many hurdles and false starts along the way. The pilot data look so enticingly (almost unrealistically) good that the wait has seemed endless, but now it is over, I can properly start collecting data. It was a nice and unexpected (on his part) piece of news to be able to give my supervisor, and it means I can start adding research and analysis time to my calendar again, instead of endless blocks of reading and writing (though the reading and writing will have to carry on regardless).
So, as you can see, I hardly did anything at all today really. But ending with a positive feeling is such a major achievement that I wanted to remind myself of it in the future. More importantly, I wanted to highlight how little it actually takes to have a good day and how a good day may sometimes just be a matter of perspective.