As headline grabbers go, any young person considering a long-term career in ecology, zoology, conservation, wildlife biology or anything to do with the environment and climate change couldn’t help but be drawn to the recent heading on Nature.com (official website for the journal Nature), titled: “Twenty things I wish I’d known when I started my PhD.”
The writer, Lucy Taylor, wasn’t banging on about Kwantlen College or the Mary Magdalene School of the Unrequited Sisters, either, but rather the University of Oxford — better known to plebes, proles, tourists and avid fans of the popular Inspector Lewis and Endeavour TV crime series as Oxford University.
Taylor earned her PhD from Oxford this year, in 2018, so her advice is both topical and au courant.
Helpfully, she curated a to-do list, including don’ts, by buttonholing fellow PhD students and post-doctoral researchers at her alma mater in the Dept. of Zoology, partly to help new graduate students and partly — no doubt — to rationalize, justify and come to terms with decisions she made, or didn’t make, in pursuing her goal.
Her post came to me in a roundabout way from a medical doctor and trauma surgeon I once interviewed in a past life, who had been serving at the time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with Médecins San Frontières (MSF). I was writing about the National Geographic anthology documentary Doctors Without Borders at the time, and did the interview by satellite phone (he was in Goma, in the middle of a war zone; I was in Vancouver, on the other side of the world).
We’ve stayed in touch, through the miracle of social media (and Twitter), and he’s taken it upon himself to mentor and help advise any young person willing to give up a comfortable life back home for a career post in the developing world — though he would be the first to draw the line at sending someone, anyone, into a war zone without first knowing exactly what they’re getting into. (Among his other observations, the sound of distant mortar fire coming through faintly but clearly over the satellite phone, was that he missed watching NHL hockey games on TV in his home town of Toronto.)
He thought enough of Taylor’s advice to share her list with his followers on Twitter. I won’t burden you here with all 20 (I’ve included the link here, so you can find out for yourself, if you’re so inclined), but I have included a handful that jumped out at me.
• “I don’t need to write that down, I’ll remember it,” is the biggest lie you can tell yourself. Write down everything you do, even if it doesn’t work. This includes notes from meetings, code annotations, method details, everything.
• It’s never too early to start writing your thesis. Write and show your work to your supervisor as you go. Even if you don’t end up using your early work, it’s good practice and a way to get ideas organized in your head.
• Back up your work. You can avoid grief by doing this at least weekly.
• Aim to publish your research. It might not work out, but drafting articles and submitting them to journals is a great way to learn new skills and enhance your CV.
Have a life outside work. Although your lab group is like your work family, it’s great for your mental health to be able to escape work.
• Don’t compare yourself with others. Your PhD is an opportunity to do original research that reveals new information. All PhD programs are different. Just do what works for you and your project.
• Enjoy your PhD. It can be tough, and there will be days when you wish you had a ‘normal’ job. PhDs are full of wonderful experiences, though, and give you the opportunity to work on something that fascinates you. Celebrate your successes and enjoy yourself.
Taylor’s article was from the Nature Careers Community, a place for readers of the journal Nature to share their professional experiences and advice. Since there’s less money in a career in nature and conservation than, say, being a hedge fund manager, bonhomie and community is what it’s all about.
And, unlike a hedge fund manager, you’ll be helping to save the planet.