advice to our younger selves

Julie Gould: 00:09

Hello, welcome back to the Muddle of the Middle, a series from Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. I’m Judy Gould.

I hope that this series so far has given everyone a good insight into the mid-career stage of a working scientist’s life. The ups and downs, the good, the bad.

And if you haven’t listened yet, and this is your first episode, two things. One, welcome. It’s good to have you. Two. Go back and listen to the other episodes in this series. There’s a lot of good stuff in there.

But now it’s time for a Q&A. I spoke to a few early-career researchers as part of my research, some of it recorded, some of it not. And I wanted to find out the things that they wanted to know. What would they like to ask mid-career researchers about the mid-career stage?

Now, I took those questions and fired them at the guests of the Muddle of the Middle podcast series. So let’s dive in.

One of the people I reached out to to find some questions was Sarvenaz Sarabipour. Sarvenaz is a postdoc at the Institute for Computational Medicine at Johns Hopkins University in the USA.

And aside from being an active researcher, Sarvenaz is also an active participant in the Future PI Slack community, which is (here I quote) “an informal peer mentoring group for biomedical postdocs who are interested in staying in academia”.

They also, by the way, have groups for those looking to transition into roles outside of academia. Anyway, so Sarvenaz had a few questions. And although they’re voiced by her, they actually represent a bunch of questions that many mid-career researchers have asked on the Future PI Slack community. So here we go. Let’s have the first question.

Sarvenaz Sarabipour 02:08

Mid-career faculty are interested in administrative positions and leadership positions in the university.

So it would be interesting to know how taking those up would affect the mid-career faculties’ research.

Andrea Armani: 02:22

Hi, I’m Andrea Armani. I’m the vice-dDean and professor of chemical engineering and material science at the University of Southern California.

At my university, I was one of two full female professors in my department.

Julie Gould: 02:30

This was at a time when institutions were encouraged to have minority representation on all committees, boards, on award things or anywhere, really, and this is a good thing. And there are good thoughts behind it. But it is hard when you are one of the only ones in your department that fit into that group of people.

Andrea Armani: 02:35

So suddenly I was assigned to everything, because I was a full professor. So when you had a search for a full faculty member, I was it, like I was, by default, the person that had to do it, because I was the only eligible person.

But then also in my field I was being assigned to a lot of programme committee things and, you know, being chair of a lot of things.

So it was truly a step function, because every aspect of my life suddenly increased. So it was very much not gradual. It was over a span of three years, I went from having like a few committees to suddenly having 30, because I counted at one point. So it was a lot of time, and it was very much a distraction from doing research.

Julie Gould: 03:48

Okay, now 30 committees is a lot. And please note, not everybody does this. There are people who take on administrative or committee and leadership work, and it becomes very much a part of their career. And one of those is Charu Kaushik.

Charu Kaushik 04:02

I am the scientific director of the Institute of Infection and Immunity at CIHR, which is the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the largest health-funding research agency in Canada.

But I also wear other hats. So I’m also a professor in medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada.

Julie Gould: 04:23

In our conversations, Charu described herself as a racialized immigrant person. She had to work hard and adapt herself in order to be recognized in her community, to get the jobs that she believed she was suitable for.

So now, as a leader at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, she has an opportunity to help the community, and she takes this role very seriously.

Charu Kaushik 04:46

I took this position not because it was an ambition, a career ambition for me, but I see this as a service to my community, because this is the community and this is the agency that helped me in my career.

So at this point in my career, I can very happily, when I took this position, I had four research grants, some of them large team grants.

So I’ve actually had to cut down on my own personal research to be able to do this work. But I see that as a service to my community, that if somebody like me is leading this institute, and understands this community really well, then I can do good things for people. I can encourage people who look or have experiences like me to be able to come through the ranks.

So, I’m trying to, you know, so that’s a big personal mission for me.

And it’s very explicit, I am the EDI champion at CIHR. So I am a spokesperson for CIHR for equity, diversity and inclusion.

Right from the beginning, I said that in my interview, that my goal is to make sure that I’m a role model for women to STEM women, and women in my research community, to see that they can be leaders.

So I’m very open and explicit, in my mission to encourage diversity and inclusion and equity.

So that’s kind of how I have, you know, sort of adapted in my own headspace and with my personality to say, “I need to do this, because this is not just about me and my ambition.”

I would have been very happy to be one of the very successful researchers, you know, who writes grants, gets grants. But clearly, I’m capable of more because I was doing a lot of work, just not getting the recognition or the influence that I have now.

Julie Gould: 06:47

So on behalf of many early-career researchers, Sarvenaz Sarabipour had another question.

Sarvenaz Sarabipour: 06:52

How do universities treat their employees, their faculty at the mid-career level, compared to their early-career level?

I think sometimes ECRs hear that things are different with the university at that stage. But we don’t really know.

Inger Mewburn: 07:00

They are much less supportive, I think. They expect a lot.

Julie Gould: 07:13

This is Inger Mewburn. She’s the Director of Research Development at the Australian National University. But you may have heard of her as the Thesis Whisperer on the Internet. And she really tells it like it is.

Inger Mewburn: 07:25

Its like being middle-aged, you know, everyone expects you to not party any more. And no one’s sort of coming and giving you good advice to stop drinking so much. They’re like you should be able to handle I was about to say, you know, I’ve no, it’s probably not a swearing podcast, but you know, you want to be able to handle your (expletive)!

And so they expect you to be able to do that. And so they don’t, and when you can’t do it, the consequences can be quite brutal. And then a lot of people are also dealing, of course, with young children and family, and then they’ve got older parents.

And so people are doing the juggle really hard at that point. And I think that they’re just not cut as much slack. So I think it’s actually a really difficult part of your career, quite honestly.

Julie Gould: 08:09

Honestly, indeed. But that’s what we want, right? We want to hear what it’s really like. Okay, Sarvenaz, over to you on to the next question.

Sarvenaz Sarabipour: 08:17

The department politics. Because as an early-career faculty in a department, you have certain space to manoeuvre. Of course, you are part of some decisions, we think, and some not. But as a mid-career faculty or someone who’s tenured or someone, things probably change at that stage.

Cara Tannenbaum 08:40

Political savviness is important in the mid-career, because when you’re reaching mid-career, you start looking around and saying, “Hey, things are being done well, but I have some ideas of how maybe they could be better.”

Julie Gould: 08:55

This is Cara Tannenbaum. She’s a professor in the faculties of medicine and pharmacy at the University of Montreal in Quebec, Canada,

Cara Tannenbaum 09:02

Or there seems to be a recurrent problem. And I think I have a solution to that. Why should other people suffer through the same? Whether it’s pure credit issues or promotion issues, or hiring issues or equity issues or just efficiencies in the research that you’re doing, or sharing, or team science? I have an idea.

How does one implement change? So mid-career is a time where hopefully, towards the end of mid-career, you’ve taken care of yourself, and you start to want to take care of others and make the system better.

And you need to then become politically savvy and political, political savviness for me, means understanding what you need to do to to change things, I guess.

So who makes the decision? How do you get on those committees? How do you influence change? When does change occur?

You know, in early-career/mid-career, you might be worried about promotion. But who makes the rules for promotion? What if you want to change the metrics? How do you get on a committee and advocate for changing those metrics, instead of just complaining about the metrics that you might not think are equitable, or reflective of twenty-first century science?

So it’s who you know, it’s who can tell you how that works. That’s political savviness. And I knew nothing. I learnt the hard way.

Julie Gould: 10:46

How would you advise that people build up their political savviness?

Cara Tannenbaum: 10:48

I think that today, when you see a respected colleague, you can ask if they could …. I prefer sponsor, rather than mentor.

Sponsor means that you offer to help that person in what they’re trying to achieve. And in return, they support you.

Whereas mentoring is really just advice, but it’s less of an action-oriented kind of relationship. It’s less bi-directional and more uni-directional.

So I’m a big supporter of sponsorship. You could speak to the head of your department. Most people have annual performance reviews. You should come right out and say I want to gain leadership experience. I’d like to gain political savviness. Is there a particular committee that you suggest that I sit on? And if you do sit on a committee then maybe approach a senior member of the committee, someone who maybe you’re impressed with the way they handle the discussion and say, “How did you learn that? And, you know, if you could go back in time, what would you suggest that I do?”

So I don’t think you should be shy to ask for advice. I think you should ask for a lot of advice. I think in meetings and conferences, if you see someone who reminds you of you, or that you aspire to be like, or if you see certain skills that you know, you need to develop. ask that person for advice, or you know, 10-minute chat. Three questions, 10 minutes, don’t take up a lot of time.

And then feed back to them, come back to them and say, “Thank you that advice was helpful.” Or “I tried what you said. It didn’t work for me, do you have another idea?” Or “I just wanted to let you know that it’s been a year but I actually got on that committee.” Or “That piece of advice that you gave me, please give it to other people. It was very helpful.”

So that bi-directional feedback relationship, I think is key.

Julie Gould: 12:37

Now our final question comes from a researcher in Alaska.

Bia Dias: 12:40

So I’m Bia Dias and I’m a postdoc at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Julie Gould: 12:46

When we spoke, Bia was at a crossroads about her future, unsure of whether to remain in academia and stay the course, or to pursue a scientific career outside of academia.

As part of her research, she has actually spent some time speaking to other mid-career researchers to find out what it is really like. But sadly, the feedback wasn’t what she was hoping for.

Bia Dias: 13:09

When you ask your questions, what do you want to learn from these people? You really want them to be, like, a little bit more supportive with early career.

Not just like saying, like, looking at early career with this patriotic or like, idealized, like, do oh my gosh, I can’t even talk right now.

Like, idealized idea of like, oh, “Early career is so nice. You guys have everything. You have like the flexibility. You have everything so nice. When you were at my stage it’s going to be terrible.”

I was like, okay, can you tell me a little bit more of like, positive things I’m like, actually eager to move on.

Julie Gould: 13:50

So I asked Bia, if you could ask the podcast guests from this series, anything? What would you ask

Bia Dias: 13:57

Was, like, your lessons learnt? And I also like I have this list of like, all the things that I didn’t know back then that I would love that someone would tell me.

So if people have those lists, hiding somewhere, please share it.

And not just like the negative aspect, but positive aspects, though.

Julie Gould: 14:17

Alright, here goes. I asked a few of our guests to share their lists of things they wish they’d learnt about before.

And first up, we’ve got Leslie Rissler from the National Science Foundation.

Leslie Rissler: 14:29

What would you tell your younger self? I would say “Learn a little bit about team-building fundamentals, about conflict management and leadership. Because these are things that will benefit you both professionally and personally.”

What are some lessons learnt, and also a list of all things that I didn’t know then that it would have been great if someone had told me about.

You need to work hard. Do what you love. Don’t worry if people disagree with you. Perseverance and passion are still important in science and they help drive us.

Be brave, be kind to people. Watch out for unbalanced power dynamics, and the realities of harassment and bias in academia and society.

Inger Mewburn: 15:24

Inger Mewburn here. If I had one piece of advice to give to my earlier self, I would say that remember, you have to earn the right to ask a favour. So research all relies on networks. And if you concentrate on your network and build a database of contacts, it’ll pay you back for years and years.

Now, networks happen in classrooms and conferences. But you’ll meet more people, if you do it right, than your brain can actually handle.

Robin Goodwin said that perhaps we can only remember the personal details of about 120 people.

This is why you actually need to have some sort of database that can be electronic. I use Notion. Or it can be paper, like a bullet journal. And you just make notes about the interactions you have with people. What did you talk about last? What are your common interests? But more importantly, what are their concerns? What are their needs?

And then when you come across a resource, it might be a paper or a contact or a person or something, put that person in touch with that resource. And they will remember and thank you for it.

Be generous. Always keep the ledger of doing more for others than they do for you. And you will find that whenever you need help, you will just ask the network and it will provide. And it might not be the person that you directly helped. It might be some friend of theirs. But you create goodwill, and you cannot put a price on that.

Julie Gould: 16:47

Next is Andrea Armani from the University of Southern California in the US.

Andrea Armani 16:52

There are many things I would tell my younger self. The most important: personal life is setting boundaries.

Early in my career, I set a boundary of making sure I had dinner every night with my husband. This gives us a chance to talk about our days.

And then every Friday, we have date night. And this is really important just for the health of our marriage.

The most important work advice is to make sure to learn something new every day.

And this often takes the form of just going to a seminar that’s not in the department. Or if I’m at a conference, you know, going to a session that’s outside of my specific field.

All of these have helped with networking, they’ve helped with, you know, coming up with research ideas. But it’s really helped broaden my personal research group and how we think about our problems.

Julie Gould: 17:55

And finally, a last collection of thoughts and bits of advice from Cara Tannenbaum from the University of Montreal.

Cara Tannenbaum: 18:02

I would tell my younger self to believe in me, to continue working hard on what I love, but to also play hard every chance I get.

Because life is just too short not to have fun with friends and family along the way.

I might congratulate my younger self and her persistence and determination, despite all the difficulties and the barriers that she would have to overcome.

Because it’s persistence and determination, which ultimately lead to success.

I would encourage my younger self to network more, to explore opportunities outside her comfort zone. Because we grow and learn when we take on new leadership opportunities.

And while it will not always be easy, I know she is up to the task. Definitely, she should surround herself with a support group of like-minded individuals working on the same challenges, whether it’s career or family, or presentation skills, or leadership skills. Surround yourself with a good support network. And finally, never give up.

Julie Gould: 19:11

Thank you to all the guests on this episode who took a bit of extra time to send over their thoughts and to answer Bia Dias’ question.

I hope the answers are useful to all of you. Now we’ve got one more episode to go in this series and on reflection like listening back to all of the other episodes, I wondered: Is it worth having some more structure to the mid-career stage of a working scientist’s life?

So that is what we’ll find out next. Thanks for listening. I’m Judy Gould.

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