Learning from the Research Community – Part 1

Macquarie’s Strategic Research Framework for 2015-2024 (World-Leading Research; World-Changing Impact) aims to increase the productivity and competitiveness of Macquarie’s Higher Degree Research Candidates and Early Career Researchers (ECRs). The framework provides a long list of support strategies Macquarie is planning on pursuing, but we feel nothing beats learning from the “ones who made it”. At the Early Career Researcher Conference in the Faculty of Human Sciences in October last year, various researchers gathered to share their success stories and career advice. In the first part of this series, Dr Erica Crome (ECR, Department of Psychology) shares some compelling lessons learned from this day.

The collective wisdom of the panel members and presenters struck a chord with my training in clinical psychology. It reminded me that important guiding principles for life are just as applicable to a career in research. These include:

Nurture yourself and key relationships

As clichéd as it may be: put your oxygen mask on before helping other people. In research, your mind is one of your greatest assets; and stress impacts creativity, productivity, physical health, and general quality of life. If you need time out, find a way to take it. If you know you have a busy grant period coming up – take time out before or after to refresh. It is also important to nourish your networks, rather than contacting people only when you need something. This may be sending articles related to someone else’s research, writing brief updates about projects for key stakeholders, or organising a social event for your team.

Learn to accept struggle as a normal part of life

Life isn’t meant to be easy; disappointment, insecurity, sadness, and anxiety are all inherent elements of being alive – and doing research! If your research was simple, it would have been done already. Often we think about “balance” as finding a magical point where everything is suddenly becomes easy and manageable. Instead it may mean taking a step back and identifying a range of experiences from enjoyable to more uncomfortable.

Identify key values and then make decisions and take action consistent with these

The importance of integrity, passion, purpose and connection with others were key themes from the day, beginning with the Dean’s opening address. These core values can help guide you through many hard decisions, and inform decision making intuitively. When you are faced with a tough choice take a moment to reflect on “does this feel right?” or “what is my gut feeling?”. Chances are, if it feels wrong, it’s not a good decision.

Set clear and realistic boundaries and expectations

When expectations don’t match reality – sparks can fly! The discussions raised some important points about setting clear expectations upfront about roles, anticipated outcomes, and timelines; especially when working with new teams. Not only do these give a clear framework, but also a point of reference to flag if things start veering off course. Setting boundaries is also essential ensuring you have time to focus on the other things important in your life.

Celebrate and highlight what makes you unique

Everyone has unique ideas, strengths, and training; this unique identity is your currency as a researcher. Team projects can combine complementary skills sets, yet it is important as an ECR to balance collaborative research with first-author publications to demonstrate the development of your particular research strengths and interests.

Practice makes perfect

Areas of weakness rarely become stronger by ignoring them; avoiding things often has a paradoxical effect of making them feel more scary and overwhelming. Public speaking, academic writing, developing funding applications, and interacting with the media are all skills. The only way you are going to become better at them is through practice. Be kind to yourself and don’t expect miracles on first attempts, and treat any flops as learning experiences.

Seek (and provide) feedback

Without external feedback we are limited to our own thoughts and judgements, which sometimes can be woefully off the mark! Mentoring, seeking advice from professional support staff, requesting constructive criticism and peer-review all provide opportunities to develop and enhance your skills. Reviewing and providing feedback on others’ work also helps you develop your skills and knowledge, as well as establishing yourself as a valued member of the research community.

Open yourself to experience – and be prepared to quit!

Luck is often a product of preparation, timing, and openness to experience (and a little bit of selective recall; see The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind, 2006). You never know which opportunities will pay off – those black swan moments that will shape the course of your career. Try new things and work with new people; but also be aware of when it is best to wrap up a project. The Freakonomics team make a very convincing argument about quitting sooner rather than losing more resources on a project just because of “sunk costs” (listen to their discussion here).

Within each of these areas I expect people will identify with different things… and that’s just being human! Just remember – setting goals is a great way to focus behaviour. Make sure any goals you set are SMART goals: Specific, Measureable, Attractive, Realistic and linked to a specific Timeframe.

Written by Erica Crome, Postdoctoral Research Fellow/Psychologist, NHMRC/Department of Psychology, Macquarie University