It’s ten years (TEN! One-zero! 10!) since I finished my PhD. It has both flown by and also seems like a lifetime ago that I had the out-of-body experience that was my viva and the subsequent celebration. It’s now go to the stage where not only PhD students but post-docs are starting to ask me for advice and mentorship on their work and career path, and so I thought I’d share this ten-year journey and some thoughts about it along the way. This is very much NOT just my CV and publication record: it’s a record of successes, failures, and the inner monologue that accompanied it. I’m as surprised as anyone to find that I still work in academia, a career that I’m enjoying immensely, for its varied nature and interesting people. Ten years out from my PhD, I haven’t achieved stunning success, but I’m still in the game. As I used to half-joke among my fellow PhD students around writing-up time, I’m perfectly happy to settle for mediocrity in my career, provided that mediocrity is against a background of world-leading experts…
First, a brief career timeline.
2011: The end of a fantastic PhD experience with Loeske Kruuk, and a week later, off to Sheffield to begin a post-doc on human life-history evolution with Virpi Lummaa.
2012: Struggles with a new environment, a new (lack of) social network and a new study system.
2013: Final PhD paper published. Unsuccessful application for a post-doc at Exeter. Turn down a post-doc at Griffith.
2014: Unsuccessful interview for a post-doc in Liverpool. Leave Sheffield and begin one-year post-doc in Edinburgh with Dan Nussey. Main aim: get a UKRI Fellowship.
2015: Unsuccessful interviews for NERC and Royal Society/Wellcome Trust Sir Henry Dale Fellowships. Bollocks. Successful interview for University of Stirling research fellowship. Move to Stirling.
2016: Unsuccessful interview for Lectureship in Biosciences at Exeter.
2017: Unsuccessful interview for a NERC Fellowship. Reserve list, for fuck’s sakes. Unsuccessful interview for Lectureship in Behavioural Ecology at Sussex. Unsuccessful interview for Lectureship in Evolutionary Medicine at Cambridge. Mental health crisis.
2018: Move to the Moredun Research Institute on a Moredun Foundation research Fellowship. Move house. The boy is born.
2019: Finding my niche: (relative) expertise in statistics; complete ignorance about livestock science and farming. Another mental health crisis.
2020: Discovery of SSRIs revolutionizes my life, despite it being The Year Of No Publications. Unsuccessful application for BBSRC Standard Grant. Put in another one later in the year on a totally different topic, because why not?
2021: Unsuccessful interview for Assistant Professor in Veterinary Parasitology at Calgary. First me-led papers in livestock parasitology published. Terrible reviews on that second BBSRC grant. The girl is born. Moredun contract is renewed and starting to feel like home…
Now, this isn’t your textbook, smooth, PhD à PostDoc à (Fellowship) à Job route that many folk will follow, but I have still managed to maintain a sense of progress, at least in my own head. How? Three things are important I think, in no particular order:
- The desire for an academic career, which includes the desire to keep going despite rejections;
- Some ability that enables you to carve out a niche;
Now, I was lucky. I did my PhD on a big ol’ long term-project that lots of people have heard of and generally associate with high-quality work and folk who are reasonably good at analysing data. As such, I was exactly the sort of person that was wanted for my first post-doc and I was lucky that it came up when it did. Another joy of my PhD was that it was quite varied: I worked on elements of life-history evolution like ageing, but it also had a parasitological and even mildly immunological element. As a result of this, I was lucky enough to have the choice of another post at the end of my PhD: a year working in the US on more elements of host-parasite relationships. Why did I choose the post-doc I did? It was a combination of the security of a longer post, the excitement of working on a new system, and (let’s be honest) apprehension about moving abroad. Do I regret the choice I made? No. Do I wonder how my career and life had panned out if I’d chosen the other post? Yes.
So, the post-doc was good for me, because I had the ability to do what was required (analyse data and write papers) and I got some good publications out of it. On the other hand, perhaps it was me that was good for the post-doc, because I didn’t really learn much that was new, in terms of approaches to doing science: as in my PhD, data was being collected by someone else, and I was “simply” analysing it (and admittedly coming up with hypotheses as well).
I therefore kept my old links with the Soay sheep project going and continued thinking about that system with some terrific mentors, Dan Nussey and Andrea Graham. I was also incredibly lucky in that my post-doc PI Virpi Lummaa was content with me to continue this work even though this wasn’t what she was paying me to do. Given that I know of people being told by their (otherwise very reasonable and lovely) post-doc PIs that they have to work on their old PhD work or any new external work at evenings and weekends, I know that I was incredibly lucky in working for Virpi. I’ve therefore been extremely lucky in having not only fantastic mentors, but fantastic PIs as well, and this enabled me to keep multiple avenues of research open, which I think is a very good idea indeed.
At the end of my post-doc, I had another choice, between returning to Edinburgh or moving to Brisbane. The return to Edinburgh was another of those lucky moments: Dan Nussey was a good friend, a brilliant mentor and an incredibly successful scientist, so he had enough money to pay for a year to write a couple of papers with him and apply for fellowships. This was an easier choice than at the end of my PhD: I felt I was ready to write a fellowship application and my new girlfriend lived in Scotland. In the end, I wrote a fellowship on reproduction-immunity trade-offs in Soay sheep and one on paternal ageing in humans; they were both unsuccessful, but I’m still with the girlfriend and we have two kids, so it worked out OK…
I did, however, manage to get a University-funded fellowship at Stirling. Once again, this was where my choice of post-doc and keeping my Soay sheep research going paid off: four years out from my PhD, I had something like 15 papers, including publications in Science, PNAS and PLoS Biology, so I was a pretty strong candidate. You can see that I also had other plans that didn’t pay off, including interviews for a couple of other post-docs that I didn’t get, so going for multiple posts is 100% a good idea. You probably already know this though!
I enjoyed my time at Stirling, but I was becoming increasingly less sure about where my niche and my future career path lay. The publications had dried up, mainly because I spent most of my time writing applications for other jobs and UKRI fellowships. I had several near misses, including a close shave with a NERC fellowship when I was next cab off the reserve list. I was in a very bad place mentally and sought counselling for the first time. My Sunday League football career had ended, but had been replaced by mountaineering and hill running, which provided huge mental solace. Spending the weekend scrambling up another Munro rather than being kicked and called names (let’s say) turned out to be more fun.
One of the best things that I did at Stirling was supervising undergraduate students. I’d had a Master’s student at Sheffield, and this worked out very well in that we ended up expanding their analyses and turning it into a paper (with their permission and involvement!). At Stirling, aware that I wasn’t exactly a paper machine, I designed a project that I thought could be turned into a paper. The student turned out to be utterly brilliant, and after producing a smashing project, we continued to run with it during their Master’s and then their PhD, and produced a really nice paper out of it. This really emphasized the importance to me of valuing undergraduate students and treating them as colleagues in research: this mind set has worked really well for me in the years since and I’ve had some smashing students as a result. Offering stats-based projects might have helped, admittedly…
At this point, another huge slice of luck. I’d met Tom McNeilly from the Moredun Research Institute in something like 2014. A ruminant immunologist, he was starting to work with Dan on immunological questions in the Soay sheep and wanted someone to take a look at a dataset he’d collected on immune function during pregnancy and lactation in domestic sheep. This was pretty much my fellowship application, so I helped analyse the data. (7 years later, the paper has been written up, but still hasn’t been submitted!) At the end of 2017, Tom approached me to say that Moredun were starting a research fellowship scheme, and that I should apply: my combination of some knowledge of veterinary parasitology plus ability to perform analyses beyond an ANOVA would probably go down very well. I was already writing a proposal to stay at Stirling, based more on human life-history evolution, and in the end I was offered both.
The decision to move to Moredun was a fairly easy one, mainly because it felt like I had managed to find a niche. At Stirling, I was just another evolutionary ecologist, and one with a set of skills and experience possessed by a shedload (more like a double garage-load) of other people in the field. At Moredun, I had a set of skills possessed by zero other people in my department and not all that many other people in the field as a whole. I’m still an absolute novice when it comes to livestock disease management and agricultural policy and practice, but it’s fun learning. I’m now publishing papers and writing grants on livestock parasitology, ad contributing to writing Moredun’s latest Scottish Government research programme. So, while I was lucky to have the contacts that provided me with the opportunity, I was also ready to fill a much-needed niche at the Institute. Along with this, I’m still doing a wee bit on the Soays, so I get to combine some more applied research with some ecology.
I don’t really know how to end this. I guess my hope is that by sharing my career path and some of the inner monologue that accompanied it, someone somewhere will feel reassured or take something useful away. Perhaps best to finish with something for folk who are just out of their PhD and are maybe worried an academic career isn’t for them, because of how they feel in certain situations. The following are still true of me, ten years post-PhD, and so they are in no way a barrier to a continuing academic career and by no means an indication you don’t “belong” (whatever that means).
- I find it physically impossible to introduce myself to people I’ve never met before at conferences.
- I can only just about manage to introduce myself to people I’ve met before at conferences.
- If I know I am about to ask a question in a seminar or at a conference, my heart beats faster, and all the moisture seems to disappear from my mouth and reappear on my palms.
- I have never written a function in R.
- I didn’t spend my childhood pond-dipping, bird-watching, or moth-catching. I played football, cricket and the MegaDrive.
- It still takes me about a day to properly review a manuscript, because I’m paranoid I may have either missed a glaring error, or misinterpreted something perfectly sensible as a glaring error.
- I really struggle to keep up with the literature, because I’m concerned that I should be working on my own stuff, even though I know reading papers is incredibly important.
- PhD students, Master’s students, and undergraduates have intelligence and ability far beyond mine.
- I feel guilty that writing or reading blog posts or Tweets is a waste of time, even though I’m equally sure they can be extremely useful ways of making new contacts or hearing about the latest research or academic issues.
- I don’t really like coffee. Tea all the way.