Sunday, 8 October 2017

Student Questions pt 1: barriers I've faced

In this series, I respond to questions that I was asked as part of "I'm a Researcher, get me out of here". See my earlier post on the event for more detail on the event as a whole. Students in secondary schools asked questions about my research, experiences, and researcher life. There was much less time and space to talk about these questions / issues than needed to give a full picture. So, this series has more of my thoughts and reflections on those questions. I'll keep the editing to a minimum, so that this is a more organic process, maybe I'll even get a podcast or two recorded on this topic. Comment or contact me directly to pose new questions, and I'll aim to answer them!

Today's question;

what is the biggest barrier you have had to overcome in your research in order to get where you are today?

First, this is a great question. It bypasses a much easier one about what I don't like or what is difficult about research, though I'll cover this in a future post. It also captures one thing that I think is often missed when we talk about research careers, and even going to university more broadly. I suspect, that these kinds of realities are well known to us already along the research career path (however junior I might be), but, are not communicated well (or at all) to the future generations of researchers. 

That aside, I can break down my answer into a few different areas. In my 'official' answer to the question, posed to all of the researchers (here), I talked a bit about how I can be my own barrier. In particular, I am so guilty of taking on extra projects and always saying "yes", that I am left with way too much to get on with. Add my general disposition to want to work on things at the ideas and development stage, with less drive to get the final write up finished, and this creates a general barrier to progressing my career further. This is something that I am working on, and I am better at getting projects finished and papers submitted, before moving on to the next goal or project. We can all hold ourselves back, and I am beginning to see that good self-management is the best remedy. Planning in such a way that projects get the final push that they need to check them off completely, rather than going on a two week tangent into a barely-started project, is a really good strategy. 

I'm super lucky to be where I am today. I don't mean that I have overcome some massive obstacle to get where I am, but more that I was lucky to not have any of the disadvantages that would have prevented me pursuing a research career. I do think that I have earned the skills that I have developed and I earned my place where I am. But, I didn't have to deal with any of the major issues that I know some have struggled with to work in academia. Whether it is sexism, racism, lots of other -ism's, inability to afford University costs, or the other hundreds of reasons that would make it more difficult to reach the near-end of my DPhil where I am today. I admit that this doesn't actually answer the question, because these are exactly the barriers that I did not have to overcome. But, it is worth mentioning, if only to highlight that everybody has a very different experience and set of challenges to begin, continue, and succeed in a research career. I'm hopeful that each of the barriers that any of the students that read this (if any do) are surmountable, we need their talent to move our fields forward. 

How about the barriers that I still need to overcome? I'll cover the academic job landscape in more detail some time in the future. But, for now, the biggest barrier is that I am on a knife edge between being 'too junior' (I haven't submitted my thesis yet, or having too few published papers) and desperately needing to progress into a postdoctoral researcher position. There are way more PhDs than there are postdoctoral researcher positions, that is a simple fact of academia. So, the biggest barrier is how to stand out from the crowd and knowing what skills or experience that actually entails. Knowing what skills would be best to develop is the first barrier. I could spend a few months learning a specific technique or analysis for example, only to find that if I had spent that time teaching, or getting a paper submitted sooner would have been the thing that tipped me from "we regret to inform you..." to "come along for an interview, you seem like an awesome dude". Another barrier is that I have what I've heard referred to as a 'two-body' problem. It is basically expected that early career researchers will be super-mobile and move from country to country every few years. Last year I married my wife and the year before that we bought our first home. At the very least I need to carefully consider where and when I apply for research positions, as it affects us both. This has the potential to narrow my search for research positions considerably. Because of this, I need to be in a much more competitive position for the job market in order to maximise my chances of being able to work where I want to, rather than wherever I can find work. This is a difficulty shared, I think, by many and unfortunately the academic system can make this difficult. Though, I do know of positive stories and that some universities are very supporting, so its not all bad news. 

Putting this together, every prospective researcher will face some hurdles to overcome, at some stage in their careers. Some of these (race, gender, and so on) should not be a barrier in the first place, but unfortunately people will have to deal with them. I am so lucky to have not been held back early on to get to where I am now, and I was very fortunate that my current supervisor posted the DPhil advert when she did, or else I could have easily missed out on the awesome opportunity that I am enjoying now. I also have some significant barriers to overcome now. So to summarise, its not easy and you will have to persist through some barriers at some point. But, if research is your thing, then it's totally worth it. 

I hope that I've hit this question better than before. It is my first post of this type, so be gentle in your comments and critiques. I'd love to hear your feedback though, and any more questions about research life, my own research, academia, and so on. I want this to be a platform for students thinking about what studying at university and working in research to ask questions that they may not have a chance to otherwise. Throw me some more questions either in the comments, or contact me directly. 

Happy studies!

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