Nurturing your talent in academia · Posted: Oct 30, 2007

Last week, I was at a VITAE school in Brighton. These schools, specifically aimed at PhD students, teach the skills missing from postgraduate study, such as team-working, negotiation, communication, and marketing. This might sound a but woolly, but if you are a PhD student in the UK, I really recommend going to one.

Coming back to Manchester, I feel like I had my eyes opened at VITAE school. Prior to going I was worried about whether I should take time off to go on some wishy-washy course. Now, I feel different about my future: I realise I have skills that I can take to any job, whether this in the Pharma industry or becoming a management consultant. I feel like this belief has been somewhat repressed by the publish or perish mentality of academia, where the only thing that is important is to write papers and secure grants. This is far from reality, papers and grants are how we are judged, but what is important is our career development, and how it fits with our personal values and motivations.

For example, take the brightest scientific minds from your education system, give them an insignificant wage for their ability, terrible job security, and a short term contract. Throughout their career limit their prospects, and discourage personal skills development. Now, make them spend more time fighting the bureaucratic system of your institute than carrying out the research they are being paid for. Finally, blackmail them into staying in their job by stating that if they leave science they’ll never be able to return.

Now consider the opposite, in business, every company knows that if you burn-out your staff they will leave. Or if you have a developer that is creative, and constantly delivering for you, then you should give them every opportunity to keep doing this, not place hurdles in front of them.

Question the system

Things don’t have to be this way. Academia is only this way because we accept it. After returning from VITAE school I believe there are many ways that you can continue to nurture the talent and drive that first lead you into academia.

Keep trying out new tools and techniques, especially those being developed in the software industry. I studied Java during my masters course, but three years later I only use Ruby. Java is a great language, and I had great teachers at Newcastle, but for me Ruby is the next step and it frees me up from many of the repetitive or arduous tasks of programming in Java. This in turn allows me to be more creative in my programming, as well as more meticulous. I particularly like how Ruby on Rails has improved my database management, which I would not have tried if I had my nose to the grind stone and kept chugging away with Java.

Consultancy is an avenue to explore. Everybody has a skill or knowledge that someone else is interested in hearing about. The more passion and motivation you have, the more you will be able to sell it. Many institutions actively encourage consultancy, and it will give you space to explore and develop what interests you most. Reading this, you might ask “What do you know about becoming consultant?”. This is a fair point, but with the help of Manchester Business Development Unit, I am going to give it a go, and after all, what do I have to lose?

A more controversial idea, is to consider leaving academia for a while. I think it’s a lie that you once you leave science you can’t return. Coming back will be difficult, but if becoming a management consultant for three years broadens your skill set, and belief in yourself, wouldn’t the institution be crazy not to rehire you?

As for your research, start a blog. Write what you’re thinking about, you will find like-minded people having similar thoughts. Try alternative communication formats, post videos on your research, persuade other members in your lab as well. Give open notebook science a shot: the Internet is broadening, democratising, and liberalising the way we conduct research and do science.

I guess you could call this a personal letter to myself, as I try to hold on to the things I learnt at VITAE school, whilst making decisions about my future.

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