I’m taking part in a Guardian live chat this Friday (1-4pm BST) titled ‘Surviving your first academic post.’ With this topic in mind, I’m noting some preliminary thoughts under a few themes.

The points below relate to my first 10 months as a lecturer at St Andrews and aren’t at all relevant to my postdoc experience which was, by and large, extremely easy to navigate and the most enjoyable period of my career so far. It’s also important to make the context from which I am making these observations clear.  I am privileged in that I am on a permanent contract, the first five years of which comprise a SINAPSE research fellowship which means I have a minimal teaching load.  That said, I do have an admin load and I have the additional responsibility to promote neuroimaging within the department and across the SINAPSE network.

Before you accept the job – You’ll start evaluating whether a position is right for you from the moment you see the advert.  Beyond whether you are the ‘type’ of academic the institution is after, you’ll also consider the department is right for you (is it the right size? could you collaborate with anyone? are there local research facilities? is it the right calibre of institution for you?), whether you could live there (is it too big/small a city? too far to move? too isolated?) and whether you could actually do what you enjoy about academia there (is the teaching load too heavy? if you did your PhD/postdoc there, could you get taken seriously as a PI). All of these thoughts feed into the rather nebulous concept of ‘fit’ which, it turns out, is rather important to you enjoying your potential new job.

When I interviewed at St Andrews, everyone I spoke to mentioned how small the town is.  I didn’t think it would be a problem, but on moving here, the realisation that I had never previously lived outside a city certainly hit home. Within my first few weeks here I understood that this common point of conversation had been an important warning. Starting your first academic post can be lonely (even if you go with family), and being in a place that doesn’t feel right for you can make you feel even lonelier. I would never have turned down the offer to work here, but I suspect that another candidate for the job I went on to accept did, and it was probably something to do with ‘fit’.

Start-up negotiations are also worth devoting some thought to once you’ve established that the ‘fit’ is going to be satisfactory. You’ll have to walk a fine line between making sure you don’t do yourself out of money you will need to set up a lab that is capable of doing the research you are being employed to do, and asking for too much and appearing (or being) greedy. My experience of start-up negotiation was that the equipment I wanted was a lot easier to obtain than the scanner time I wanted. Colleagues have mentioned an informal loan arrangement where the School provided expensive equipment on condition that costs be recouped further down the line, so that could be a useful negotiation strategy, particularly when expensive equipment is required from the outset. One thing I wish I had done was to speak to an academic who had recently started, to ascertain where they thought they went wrong in their start-up request. I, for example, realised too late that I would have to buy my own printer toner, which ended up having to come out of my research budget for the 2010/2011 academic year.

Your first weeks – These are lonely and stressful. Simple things like making external phone calls can be challenging. Of course, people offer their help and advice, but you want to appear capable and self-sufficient so you end up spending far too much time working things out on your own.  If there are other new hires in your department, pooling your newly acquired knowledge will help. Induction events are also a good way to get to know people throughout the University.

Department coffee mornings are supposed to be an excellent way of establishing yourself amongst your new colleagues.  But, I found these to be something of a double-edged sword.  Despite the social benefits, there will be times you wish you hadn’t gone. Within a week of starting, going to grab some coffee had led to me being roped in to give a cover lecture on probability theory. I felt like hiding in my office after that (and I did for a while), but the best strategy is to…

Learn how to say “no” – You won’t want to appear uncollegiate, but people will ask you to do things until you learn how to say “no”. You’ll probably receive a lot of requests to cover lectures and complete one-off tasks in your first few weeks.  Some of this is down to people wrongly assuming that you won’t have anything else to do, and some of it, I think, is down to people testing the water and seeing whether you are a ‘yes-(wo)man’ who will agree to anything.

Crafting that first refusal will probably take a lot of time, but it is an important step to take.  Just make sure that you:
a) can demonstrate that you have shown willing (it helps to have said “yes” at least once before your first “no”);
b) say why you are refusing (not the right person for the job, have already said “yes” to too many other requests, too little time at this stage, though happy to muck in next semester when things have settled, etc.);
c) don’t let the task you initially agreed to morph into something that you would never have agreed to in the first place (e.g. it’s OK for a “yes” to become a “no” if a one-off lecture turns into longer-term cover for a lecturer on maternity leave).

Saying “no” gets easier, it just takes a bit of practice.  With some strategic refusals and a bit of luck, you’ll calibrate the system so that you’re not having to say “no” to very much because people making requests of you will make sure that you really are the right person for the job before asking.

If you run into a persistent problem of people making too many unreasonable demands of you, a mentor who is looking out for your interests will help. I haven’t yet had to call on my mentor for this, but I’m fairly certain that she has been doing so anyway, if only by not suggesting me for admin duties whose allocation she controls.

Time – When I was a postdoc, nothing felt too difficult.  All anything took was time, sometimes plenty of it, but it didn’t matter because time was something I was given plenty of.  I spent months learning Matlab, weeks scripting analyses and days making a couple of lines of code to do just what I wanted them to do. Now, some tasks are too difficult because I don’t feel I have the time to devote to them. Of course, I have much more time than I would if I had a full teaching load, but I have much less time than I had as a postdoc.

To remedy this perceived lack of time, I’m considering devoting a few weeks here and there to an ‘at-work-retreat’.  That is, I will go to work, and just work on what I need to work on to get analyses done and papers written without the distraction of e-mail, admin jobs (which will be put on hold) and teaching. I think it might even be appropriate to use an e-mail auto-response, the exact working of which I will have to be very careful about, to let people know of my unavailability. This fellowship period of my job should be a perfect opportunity for me to do this sort of thing and it may be something worth writing about on the blog at a later date.

Money – I need to funding to carry out neuroimaging. I therefore need grant funding. I don’t mind that the School strongly encourage me to apply for grant-funding because I need to apply for it anyway. That said, it feels like I have only just learned how to write journal articles and now I’m being asked to write in a totally different style with a totally different emphasis.  Applying for grant funding has probably taken more time than any other activity in my first 10 months here. It’s a shame, because I could have devoted this time to writing journal articles that would have added to my CV and made me more ‘fundable’.  Still, I need to do it at some stage, and now is as good a time as any.

I have almost emerged from one of the most challenging times in my first year at St Andrews, a period of sustained grant-writing.

Below are some tips and resources that have helped me during the past few months.  Some of the resources are specific to St Andrews (where I am) and the BBSRC (who I am applying to) but most are non-specific.

Overview

– A condensed guide to grant-writing from Edinburgh’s Prof. Alan Bundy
http://chronicle.com/article/How-to-Fail-in-Grant-Writing/125620/

– The Chronicle’s guide to how to fail at grant-writing
http://homepages.inf.ed.ac.uk/bundy/how-tos/rsg-how-to-get-funding.html

– Chapters 8 and 9 of The Compleat Academic.

Guidance 

 Read the grant-, scheme- and electronic application-specific guidance notes and organise your application, particularly your Case for Support according to their requirements.
e.g. BBSRC (funding body) http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/funding/apply/grants-guide.aspx
Je-S (electronic submission system) https://je-s.rcuk.ac.uk/jesHandBook/jesHelp.aspx

– Get hold of applications that others have submitted to the same or similar funding bodies. This is probably the most reassuring thing you can do in the early stages of an application.

– Make sure you keep up with changes in funding policy. Twitter, RSS feeds, e-mails doing the rounds at work will help you to make sure you’re not tailoring your grant proposal to a priority that recently been de-prioritised.

 –

Finances

– Go through official channels with your costings
e.g. http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/rfo/Costingadvice/ResearchProjectCosts/
but beware of accepting place-holder values that your finance representative puts in for you, for example, in pooled staff costs.

– Should you be successful, you will have authority to spend funds that you have applied for as directly incurred but not those applied for as directly allocated. (Just so you know.)

– Read the guidance notes. Don’t apply for stuff that seems reasonable, but that the guidance notes state should be provided by your home institution (e.g. a desktop computer for day-to-day work)

Time

– Give yourself plenty of it. Not only will it make the experience less stressful, it will also allow you to take time out of the all-consuming process every now and again. A fresh eye spots mistakes in text that a tired one doesn’t even bother reading.

– Be aware of the deadlines
http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/funding/apply/deadlines.aspx

Speak to people (Head of School, Director of Research, your friends in academia) about when you aim to have the grant submitted.  They will give you an indication of when you need to submit it at your end in order that it can by submitted to the research council or charity at their end and still make it in before the deadline.


Finishing touches

Daniel Higginbotham’s guide to visual design. Great for polishing those figures and making pages of dense text comprehensible.
http://www.visualmess.com/

In the past few weeks, a couple of students have approached me asking if I would be willing to take them on as a summer intern.  I scrabbled around to gather some information on the sort of scheme that these students were after.

Here are my summer internship pass-notes:

  • Typically they offer £180-£200 per week to the student to engage in a research 6-10 week project during their summer holidays.
  • Whilst students should liaise with their proposed PI during the application process, they are generally expected to write the application.
  • Students considering internships should be interested in pursuing research as a career after the completion of their degree and should be on course for a solid 2i or 1st class degree.
  • Closing dates tend for the various schemes tend to be towards the end of February/March.

Here are some links to schemes I am aware of that would be particularly suitable for me as PI, along with some points specific to each:

The BPS Undergraduate Research Assistantship Scheme: £200 per week, for a 6-8 week project.  PI must be a member of the BPS. Student must be in the punultimate year of their degree.
Wellcome Trust Biomedical Vacation Scholarship: £180 per week for 8 week project.  Student must be in a middle year of their degree.
St Andrews Undergraduate Research Internship Programme: PI must be a researcher at the University of St Andrews.
Nuffield Undergraduate Research Bursary in Science: £180 per week for 6-8 week project.  Student must be in a middle year of their degree.
UPDATE 28/12/2010: Here another scheme from Medical Research Scotland:
Medical Research Scotland Vacation Scholarship: £180 per week plus £50 per week for the sponsoring lab.  Placements must be in Scottish universities.  Applications must be made by potential supervisors, not students.
Brookings Hall, an icon of Washington Universi...
Image via Wikipedia

In just under one month, I will be leaving Washington University in St. Louis and moving to Scotland to take up a lectureship at the University of St. Andrews.  It’s another big move for me, both geographically and professionally, and it’s what I was hoping would result from my time as a postdoc here in the Dobbins lab.  It hasn’t all been fun and games though.

Back in 2007, my experience of applying for post-PhD jobs in the UK was desperate.  I loved my area of research, deja vu, but struggled to get short-listed for anything other than jobs directly in that field e.g. researching temporal lobe epilepsy and memory.  Even when I was shortlisted for jobs I didn’t do well at the interview stage, I suspect, because my exposure to anything other than deja vu research had been rather limited.  I was also keen to start using fMRI in my research, but hadn’t the foggiest idea of how I might do that, and who would give me the opportunity.  I still look back on most of 2007 as a bleak time of struggling to keep up with the demands of writing my thesis alongside firing off job applications, the quality of which declined the more desperate I became.

I had been keen on a postdoc, but during my search in 2007 they seemed few and far between.  I did get interviewed for one in Exeter, but I was so out of my depth it was ridiculous.  It was around November that one of my PhD supervisors forwarded me a call for postdoc applications that he had received (on the MDRS mailing list, I think).  My supervisor’s comment with the e-mail read something along the lines of “I know this is probably too far away for you but…”

I e-mailed my CV and from then onwards things started to move very quickly.   Within a few days I had a phone conversation with Ian Dobbins and we organised that I would visit Washington University – it would take me a few more days to realise that the university was neither located in D.C., nor on the West Coast, but slap-bang in the middle of the country, in a city I didn’t realise still existed.  Within weeks I was giving a talk in St. Louis to memory researchers whose work I had read about in undergraduate textbooks.  An arduous J1 visa application later, I started my postdoc.

What I found staggering at the time, was that my boss was willing to take a chance on someone with no fMRI experience, in what was going to be an fMRI-heavy position.  This worked out well for us both (I hope), but I know I was very lucky.  A combination of a PI willing to take a punt on an enthusiastic postdoc candidate, and a wealth of resources afforded by working on a well-funded grant at a prestigious private university, allowed me an opportunity that has undoubtedly paved the way for my next step to St. Andrews.  I can’t overstate how grateful I am.

Beyond the professional fortune, I was also extremely lucky that my circumstances allowed me to make the move from the North of England to the American Midwest in pursuit of a job.  That my wife was willing to uproot, that our family and friends were so supportive, and that we were able to gather the money to make the move were all huge factors, the absence of any one of which would have scuppered the done-deal.

St Andrews University.
Image via Wikipedia

The confluence of professional and personal serendipity has once again presented us with a fantastic opportunity to move back east across the Atlantic, this time necessitating three tickets rather than the two that sufficed for the westward trip we made in 2008.  I hope that in a few years time I can look back on this move too, as another lucky break that I was able to take full advantage of.  I also hope that at some later stage of my career, I can present similar opportunities to a new generation of budding postdocs.