In my last post, I suggested that you don’t have to figure out what to do with your life. I want to explore that idea a bit more.
As Barrie Thorne noted back in 1987, we often look at children as who they are becoming rather than as who they are in a specific time and place. Despite the rise of other modes of studying children, this tendency to think in developmental time still dominates discourses of childhood (scholarly and otherwise).
I would argue that it frames most discussions of postsecondary education (undergraduate and graduate) and early career jobs. This is not only infantilizing but, as Thorne noted, diverts attention from the specific historical and personal conditions in which you are “developing”.
The story you tell about your life unwittingly becomes a fairy tale
I will finish this degree, get an entry level job in the profession of my choice, and live happily ever after.
In reality, there is no day when “happily ever after” starts.
You will always have another goal to strive for (tenure; promotion; retirement). You will never have enough time. Bad things will happen to you.
You will also have challenging and enjoyable work. You will make time for the things that are important to you. Good things will happen to you.
How would you look at your life differently if you stepped out of developmental time?
In other words, what if you stopped thinking in terms of what you are becoming and started focusing on what you are doing now?
Can you identify what makes your activity worthwhile even if that next step doesn’t happen. Ask yourself “Who benefits from my work?”
Your PhD research should make a contribution to the advancement of knowledge in your discipline, for example. Other scholars in your field will benefit from the work you do.
Your teaching contributes to the development of all those young minds in your classroom.
Your involvement in organizing a conference enables conference attendees to meet others in their field and share their work, which contributes to the advancement of knowledge in your discipline, the career advancement of numerous others, and so on.
None of these individual achievements need be earth-shattering or newsworthy. However, there are ways you can do all of them to optimize the contribution you make.
Acknowledge those contributions. Really acknowledge them. You are not a failure because you did not hit some developmental milestone you had mapped out in advance. You just hit a different milestone. One you weren’t anticipating.
And, as I said last time, you can decide to change the path. If what you are doing is not sufficiently rewarding, figure out how to change it, even if that means rewriting the developmental story to gain the skills and experience you need for a different career path.
This is a bit of an odd blog post, because I’m asking you not to do something: don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t need to.
Many of you reading this have access to a university career centre. Chances are good that that centre competes with lots of other offices, services, events and clubs for your attention. Your attention is a finite resource and your career centre has a limited marketing budget, so there are probably hidden treasures in your career centre that few students are aware of.
What tends to happen, when services fly under the radar, is that those services are re-created in miniature elsewhere on campus. Someone has an idea for a service or event that would be useful and, given the range of related offices and clubs, it’s a challenge to figure out which of those might already offer a similar service or event. For example, you might rightly think that it would be useful to have a panel event in which people in academic and non-academic careers share their career stories. And it could be that your university career office already does something like that – or, if they don’t, that your alumni or student success office does.
It’s common knowledge that career centres help with resumés, interview skills and the like. But there may be lesser-known services that your university is struggling to tell you about. At the University of Waterloo, we have a few off-the-wall options. And, much as I’d like to think that we set the bar for off-the-wall-but-useful options, your university’s career centre may have some equally interesting offerings.
For example, our career office, alumni office and faculty of science collaborated on a database of Waterloo science alumni career stories that’s beautifully searchable, explicitly states how people use what they learned in their degree, lets people rank the careers they read about and save notes in a password-protected space. This coming term, we’re focusing on grad students in the faculty of arts, offering traditional services, such as a workshop on careers beyond academia, and less traditional ones, like our living library.
So, if there’s something you wish your career centre could help with, go ahead and ask them. Ask, even if you can’t find the service you’re looking for on their website – sometimes professional jargon gets in the way of clear descriptions of services. And ask, even if a colleague has assured you that a service isn’t offered – offerings change over time.
Finally, if there really is a service that you want which isn’t already available, find out whether it’s something that the relevant service office would help you develop. That way, whatever wheel you invent together will continue to be available to the students who come after you.
Many universities across Canada are attempting to reduce times to completion for graduate student programs. At my own university, there have been numerous policy changes that are aimed at reducing program lengths. While masters programs are usually described as one- or two-year programs, and PhD programs are described as three- or four-year programs, average times to completion are often much longer than that. Certainly, I did my bit to increase these averages when I was a student, and I suspect many other readers of this blog have as well. So do we really need to reduce times to completion? I’ll argue that often, it isn’t in the best interests of students to shorten the length of their programs, and nor are university policies effective in doing so.
My own experience demonstrates a few benefits and causes of longer program times. My master’s program took months longer than it could have because I collaborated on and spearheaded several side-projects that were only tangentially related to my thesis. Certainly this increased the time it took to complete my thesis, but I also gained experience in writing, analyses, collaboration and publication that were critical to my development and marketability as an academic. I considered the extra months I spent on my thesis research to be a small price to pay for this experience.
The completion of my PhD program was delayed for two reasons. One reason was that I spent many months learning statistical techniques that I have since used and taught perhaps hundreds of times since then. There is no question that the time I devoted to this learning has been critical to my career.
The second reason that my PhD took some time was that I gave birth to a darling, beautiful, and colicky baby a couple of years into my program; i.e., life got in the way of my graduate program. And indeed, in my experience, this is perhaps the most common reason for delays in graduate student’s programs; students take contracts, start careers, get married and care for children. Many delays that are caused by these events are not bad in the long run, and neither are they necessarily avoidable. Indeed, if we are to be academics, we can expect to spend more than a decade as university students; it seems unreasonable to expect or even want students to forego all other elements of their life until after graduation.
So I think that many of the key reasons that graduate programs take longer than universities expect have nothing to do with university’s policies, and indeed, even the actions of student’s supervisors. Perhaps it is just as well that, as a result, policies aimed at reducing completion times are unlikely to be particularly effective. Gaining experience in additional publication opportunities, jobs and contracts, and background research all contribute to our students’ eventual success, while devoting time to families and personal activities contribute to our students’ well-being. Let’s focus more on the quality of student’s graduate programs, rather than how long it takes to complete them.
When you make a decision about a job or a program of study, it is normal to imagine how your life story will unfold if you take this step. Sometimes that story gets in the way of moving forward, or closes off options that might lead somewhere interesting.
It is important to recognize that this initial story is not the only possible story. It is one story of how things could go.
Your career story is more like a video game than a novel.
Video game developers write stories in a different way to novelists. Their stories need to be flexible and respond to the decisions the player makes at each stage of the game.
Each career decision you make takes you to a new “level” with things to learn, relationships to build, experience, skills and knowledge to collect. You will use all of those things to make decisions that will take you somewhere else.
Like a video game, you pass through some levels relatively easily and quickly, while others take longer to figure out.
Your most valuable tool is curiosity
In one of her first posts for the Careers Cafe, Liz Koblyk talked about the importance of curiosity:
When you’re generating career options, it’s enough to feel curious. The career explorer’s job is not to uncover one passion … The career explorer’s job is to identify a few options that might make good next steps for the near future, and then to see which of those options make the most sense.
Curiosity will lead you to ask others about their stories. Their stories may inspire you. Or just give you different ways of thinking about the options available.
Curiosity will encourage you to ask questions about what you could do with the skills, knowledge, experience and relationships that you have. Just replacing “should” with “could” opens up new stories.
What is your next best step?
When you make up a story about how this particular decision might play out in the long term, the elements that are further in the future are usually less well developed. You can’t really know what your life will be like in 5 or 10 years.
Remind yourself that you can rewrite your story as you go along, then focus on the part of the story that is closer.
Can you imagine doing this job/degree for two years? Does it meet some of your needs right now? Does it offer you opportunities to add skills, knowledge, and experience to your collection? Does it offer opportunities to meet new people?
If so, that’s probably a good option. In two years time, you will have a different set of options to choose from. You can decide to stay in the job/program of study you are in. Or you can decide to take one of those other paths.
One day you will wake up and look back and see that you wrote a whole life story this way.
I recently had a peek at a new career assessment, and it has me thinking about the benefits and pitfalls of vocational assessments in general.
If you’re considering using career assessments, make sure they’re only part of your plan for exploring career options, because they only illuminate part of the picture. Vocational assessments typically look at some slice of a person (interests, values, personality as defined by the assessment developers), and compare it to a narrow range of careers. On the plus side, good assessments are very clear about what they measure and what they don’t. So you’ll know that the careers that the Strong Interest Inventory suggests as good matches are based on your interests alone, for example. Assessments also typically refer to a broader range of careers than you might already have on your short list. Still, for a career assessment to be manageable, it has to draw from a pretty small percentage of the 13 000+ job titles out there.
Career assessments that direct you to job titles also have to assume a certain amount of uniformity in terms of how each job title is performed. But knowing that “electrical engineer” showed up on a career assessment as a good match doesn’t necessarily tell you whether you’d be happy working in a large, medium or small organization, or as an entrepreneur; whether you’d be happiest having a lot of contact with clients, a lot of contact with colleagues, or not much contact with anyone; whether you’d like your expertise to be as broad or as deep as possible within your field; or other factors that impact what being an electrical engineer might actually be like from day to day.
If you’re in the midst of feeling profoundly dissatisfied with a certain career, it can also be difficult to answer questions on an assessment with an open mind. It’s hard to avoid answering in a way that will prevent your current occupation from showing up in your top results.
The results of career assessments can seem so very authoritative, but those results are really just the starting point. They can suggest careers to research that you might not have thought of. They can make you aware of whether it would be valuable to do some extra research into careers that appeal to you, yet seem to be “poor” matches, according to the assessment. But in all cases, their conclusions should be treated as hypotheses.
There are some really sound assessments out there, and your average university career centre will stick with ones that have good reliability and validity, and that have been normed against populations that make sense for their student body. Just make sure that taking “tests” doesn’t replace the process of testing out your assumptions about the work you might like to do.
A few weeks ago, I blogged about funding graduate students using scholarships. This week, I’ll talk about students who are funded in other ways. I suppose this blog is focussed on students who do certain types of research; some, presumably, can complete their dissertations with nothing more than a laptop (our society’s substitute for a pencil and a library), while others require such sophisticated equipment that there could be no thought of bringing in students without ensuring that research funding was firmly in place first, and where costs of additional students are incremental relative to overall research costs. Nonetheless, there is a significant middle ground in which more students mean greater research costs. Further, many of us are approached by students with good research ideas but no funding to realize these ideas. There are a range of opportunities for supporting such students, and of course, an equally broad range of problems and associated headaches.
For many of us, a core of our annual research funding comes from NSERC, SSHRC, or CIHR grants. These are critical to many research programs, and importantly, can be used to leverage additional funding; for example, at my university, the Faculty of Graduate Studies provides somewhat more-than-matching funds for student stipends provided by Tri-Council grants. Such funding opportunities are not always widely advertised, and as such I urge professors to investigate their internal granting programs. However, Tri-Council funding criteria are changing, grant values are declining, and some good-quality research projects seem to remain unattractive to these funding agencies. As such, many students in Canada cannot be supported by these grants.
I have found that the greatest opportunities for attracting high-quality graduate students to our research program have come from me applying for grants from provincial, federal or industrial grant programs, and once I have that funding in hand, advertising internationally for funded graduate positions. There are numerous high-profile websites that will post such positions for free; for example, in my case, both the Society for Conservation Biology job board and Ornjobs (Ornithology jobs) listserv are go-to places for keen and motivated students with a modicum of knowledge about their research field. Such advertisements allow me to select the best among numerous applicants from all over the world, and in many cases these students, because they are generally outstanding, have been able to earn scholarships after joining my lab group, thus freeing up funding for additional field research, higher sample sizes, new projects, or additional students. Without question, many professors have the name and reputation for attracting such students without the bait of a small but guaranteed stipend, but alas, those of us who are perhaps younger in years and fewer in publications can benefits from such an approach.
Nonetheless, there have also been times when excellent students have sought me out and proposed projects that I’d like to collaborate on. A surprising number of excellent students do not apply for Tri-Council scholarships in the September or October of the year prior to starting their Masters, and thus the fact that these students don’t bring funding with them does not mean that they will not do an outstanding job. Further, international students cannot access many of the scholarship programs available to Canadians. One way I’ve funded such students is to work with them in the six-to-nine months prior to their proposed start date to develop their own research grant proposal, which we then submit for funding prior to starting their program. This seems to be an unusual approach, but has numerous significant pay-offs, although it is time-consuming on the professors’ part; I will regularly edit 6 or 7 drafts of such proposals before I approve them for submission. However, students who are successful through this process are invariably engaged, enthusiastic, committed, and have learned a great deal about their research topic and academic writing prior to even starting their program. Further, they then have the confidence of entering their program with funding that they are partially responsible for, and can then focus on other components required to make their Masters program a success. Certainly, some students who have started this process have not completed it, but in those cases I would rather both the student and myself learn as early as possible in the research process that graduate school is perhaps not for them.
Teaching and mentoring graduate students are some of the great pleasures and responsibilities of an academic position. Ensuring that students have the financial and academic support required to be successful in their programs is part of a professor’s responsibility, and ultimately, is in our interests as well.
I’ve been following the discussion about Big Labs (Nicola Koper) and Small Labs (David Smith) with interest. I suspect many humanities and social science folks have skipped it altogether, assuming that it doesn’t apply to them. I encourage you to read those posts anyway. They raise some important points.
Is it a zero sum game?
One of the key issues in both pieces is the amount of time and attention your supervisor can give your project and your career development. While Nicola Koper makes a good case for economies of scale in terms of equipment, field work, and conference travel, this may be less relevant to those in fields where equipment and field work are not so central, whether in the humanities or more theoretical scientific fields.
Your supervisor does have a finite amount of time and energy. Supervision is but one of many responsibilities, to be balanced with teaching, their own research and publications, and their service commitments. This suggests a benefit to small programs/labs as David Smith points out.
What do other students contribute to your graduate education?
Sometimes the benefit of a big lab or a famous supervisor who attracts lots of students is as much in those other students as in the supervisor themselves.
Imagine being part of a group of students who are all excited by the same basic questions. Imagine having other students who are reading the same literature, working with similar concepts and theories, tackling questions that are linked to the one you are tackling.
The possibilities for peer support are considerable: reading groups, writing groups, friendly faces in the room when you present at conferences …
These things won’t necessarily happen. And you can’t wait around for someone else to organize them. However, in a big lab, or the humanities equivalent, you have the ability to organize this kind of thing.
There is no one right answer
Your own personality and preferred work environment is going to be a major factor in deciding whether to go with a supervisor with many students/big lab or one with few students/small lab. Your preference may change as you progress. Perhaps, as one commentor said, you would benefit from a smaller group when you are a masters or PhD student, and then look for a large group as a post-doctoral researcher.
Wherever you end up, keep in mind that you need to take responsibility for getting the work done.
If that means creating reading groups or writing groups for support, do that. Maybe there are enough people in your program. Maybe you will organize local in-person meetings with students from several nearby institutions. Or maybe you’ll find or create an online community.
Regardless of the size of the lab you are going to have to take responsibility for your own career. Your supervisor is only one piece of the support network that will help you achieve your career goals.
Jo VanEvery’s most recent post, on approaching advice strategically, is itself full of good advice. As she points out, when people offer you specific opportunities intended to advance your career, you’re under no obligation to take them up. The same applies to advice people give you about which career to pursue.
It’s difficult to disregard other people’s suggestions for your career path, whether it’s because you respect or love the people offering the advice, because you fear they know something about your job prospects that you don’t, or because choosing a career can be so overwhelming that it would be a blessed relief to have someone else nudge you in the right direction.
Of course, that sort of advice may assume that there is one right direction. It can also imply that there’s a wrong one – the one you’re currently on.
When someone suggests that a career is right – or wrong – for you, you neither have to accept their advice as more credible than your own opinions nor dismiss it out of hand. If it seems like the advice giver might be onto something, go ahead and give yourself permission to explore, without assuming you have to throw your current career plans out the window. Your university’s career centre can get you started on where to find the information that would best help you decide whether or not a career stays on your list of options to consider.
If someone’s suggesting a career option that you’ve already ruled out with good reason, go ahead and ignore their advice. In fact, it might be useful to write down why you’re not going to pursue that particular career, so you don’t have to expend more mental energy on similar advice in the future, and even to help you rule out other careers that don’t match what you’re looking for.
The word “advice” is derived from an Old French word meaning view, opinion or judgment. When you receive advice, remember that you are being offered someone’s viewpoint, but you always reserve the role of judgment for yourself.
Last week, David Smith wrote an engaging article about the big benefits of working in a small lab, from the perspective of his experience as a PhD student. That got me thinking. Just for fun, and in the spirit of academic banter, I thought that this week, I’d write about how lab size affects us as professors – and I will also touch on the fact that sometimes, there are big benefits of working with big labs.
Many of us are regularly bombarded by applications from students seeking graduate positions. Deciding whether to say yes or no to supervising students has many implications. Ultimately, we are usually subconsciously deciding whether the time the student will take up in terms of supervision is going to outweigh the benefits of the time that they will spend working on problems we are interested in. Students generally take longer to accomplish tasks than a professor would take; however, they may still save some of the professor’s time, thereby contributing to lab-scale productivity. Further, the student will be gaining both an education and experience by learning and completing tasks under the supervision of a skilled and knowledgeable supervisor, suggesting that the completion of a project with a student involved has a greater pay-off than completion of the same project by the professor alone. In moments when I wonder whether my research is really making a difference to our society and its ecosystems, I hold onto the fact that at least I’m sure that I can make a positive difference to the lives of the individual students that I supervise.
There are some economies of scale in lab size. Students can sometimes share equipment, infrastructure, or lab space. Sending 5 students to a conference in a rental or fleet vehicle might cost the same as a single plane ticket. Having two or more students on a field project can increase field safety, morale, and create an off-site support system for students. It may take no longer to teach 3 people how to sample vegetation than it takes to teach one person. Further, students within a lab can help each other learn computer and statistics programs, and, quite frankly, students are often better at using software than their professors. Plus, a big lab means having enough people around to throw a good party.
On the other hand, every additional student means one more proposal to review and edit, one more annual meeting, numerous drafts of one more thesis and perhaps several publications, and lots of interim meetings and workshops. It also means more responsibility. As such, it would seem to be immoral to take on students if you cannot commit to returning manuscripts in a reasonable time-frame – a maximum of 2-3 weeks is considered acceptable by the Faculty of Graduate Studies at our university. It also seems reasonable for students to expect that their supervisors will be present at the university the majority of the time.
Ultimately, the trade-off between additional supervision required by new students, and the contribution that they will hopefully make to scientific knowledge, and sometimes your publication list (co-authored, of course), depends on how many other students you have, whether you can afford the additional research, and the quality of the proposed student… which is sometimes difficult to tell ahead of time.
It is not uncommon for someone to state that whatever it is they are suggesting to you will be “good for your career”.
- Teaching this course
- Working with this professor
- Attending this conference
- Serving on this committee
- Publishing in this journal
- Developing networks that extend beyond academe
The trouble is that if you did everything anyone told you was “good for your career”, you would have trouble finding time to sleep, eat, play with your kids, or read the newspaper.
In fact, one of the things that is probably contributing to extended completion times for PhDs is all the “good for your career” things doctoral candidates are doing and the limits those place on finishing the dissertation.
This problem doesn’t go away once you get your PhD though. Nor when you get tenure. Or even when you are promoted to full professor.
Your career is unique to you
Most of the people telling you something will be good for your career are well intentioned. They are not deliberately trying to mislead you.
However, they are probably making assumptions about the kind of career you want. And those assumptions could be mistaken.
In addition, they may be basing their judgement on inaccurate knowledge of how things work.
Just because someone says that something will be good for your career doesn’t mean you have to do it. And it certainly doesn’t mean you have to do it now.
Identify your priorities
What direction do you want to be going in?
What kinds of experience, skills, and knowledge do you need to move in that direction?
Which of those will you prioritize now?
You can’t do anything well if you have too much on your plate. And nothing done half-heartedly and/or late is going to help your career in practice, even if it is something that could help your career in theory.
Strategies for responding to requests
If someone suggests you do something, the best response is to thank them for their suggestion and tell them you will think about it.
If it is something that has an impact on others (serving on a committee, teaching a class, contributing to a conference or book), suggest a date when you will get back to them with an answer. And then reply by then. If you are going to say no, it is better to do so quickly so they have lots of time to find someone else.
Ask for more details if you need them. Seek out other advice to help you make a good decision.
Don’t over-explain. No is a complete sentence. So is yes.
You get to decide what is good for your career.