Reflecting on pieces of the academic puzzle. Image from unsplash.com

One daunting thing with not being a PhD student anymore is that, while there is additional freedom, I have much more responsibility for my own development. This is an opportunity to carve out my own path in academia.

So here it is then: a public document outlining those aspirations and strategies. This is very much a work in progress and I intend to come back and update this post from time to time. The inspiration to write something like this came from a fellow academic (bolding mine):

…changing my mindset from ‘publish or perish’ to a sense of just wanting to learn and grapple with the ideas in my field that I find most interesting/pressing. I had to be able to trust that focusing almost exclusively on thinking and learning (as serviced by reading and writing), all the publications, grant applications, and other academic activities would be addressed as byproducts. In my mind, my identity as an academic is now to be a prolific reader, writer, thinker, and learner, and all the other stuff is just the fruit of these core practices.

Academic ideals

Being a fresh thinker with good and novel ideas

Perhaps the most challenging transition is that I am now in a stage where it is important to develop new research questions and be able to express them in writing in order to acquire funding. As a first step, I should continue to develop my taste for what is important and high-quality research. Here are some probing questions:

  • What are the characteristics of important science?
  • What makes one area thrive, while another dies away?
  • What sorts of unifying ideas are the most useful?
  • What have been the most important developments in the field? Why are they important?
  • What were the promising ideas that didn’t pan out? Why?

A second step is reflecting deeply about the problems I am working on, and to try to work on important problems. Important problems tend to be at the center of an issue with widespread implications. Identifying the most important problems in my field, and then reflecting on what approaches might be useful will be key. Working on problems where I have a reasonable approach is likely more fruitful than going straight to another problem that might be intractable.

I also want to cultivate my ability to generate and express novel ideas. Combining input from various sources, and reading papers from fields outside my own, will help here since creativity often means taking existing ingredients and re-mixing them in novel ways.

Being an appreciated colleague, collaborator and mentor

What type of colleague, collaborator and mentor do I want to be? A good starting point is to work with people that have the same ambition and goals, so that our interests are (reasonably) aligned. For example contributing to research projects that I think are interesting and important rather than projects that might result in “big” publications. I hope that this will make me a collaborator and colleague that is both fun to work with and contributes to work.

Being a mentor and supervisor is a natural part of academic development, but this is new to me and something I will likely have to focus my efforts on in the coming years. What I have most appreciated in my own mentors and supervisors is when they have been available, nudged me towards new solutions or ideas, and of course being supportive when there have been issues.

Being a reliable team member with cutting-edge skills

Few, if any, projects in my field are done by single individuals. I will continue to be a part of many projects and my guiding ideals here are reliable and cutting-edge skills.

First, being reliable. I want to be the type of team member that always pulls their weight in projects and does the agreed upon tasks, preferably on time. I don’t want to promise more than I can deliver. On The Effort Report the hosts talk about being a “finisher”, the type of person that submits the manuscript and grant application on time despite challenges along the way.

Second, having cutting-edge skills. I want to exploit overlaps between skills that I enjoy developing and those that are in demand. One current example is statistical analyses, where I enjoy doing statistical analyses of various sorts and it is often an appreciated skill to bring as a team member. Going forward, I will need to think about other such skills too to not become just the “stats guy”, for example being able to give good input on manuscripts or writing crisp first drafts.

How I will work

Cultivating deep work

I hope that deep work (sustained focus on a cognitively demanding task) will continue to be a cornerstone in my day-to-day life as an academic. The days where I can work without distraction are not only the days where I am the most productive, but I also feel a sense of fulfillment.

This goal may sometimes be in conflict with other ambitions such as being an accessible mentor. I will have to test different strategies to work towards both aspirations, for example scheduling meetings in the afternoons or using office-hours. I hope that predictability and consistency will help (“he is always responding after lunch”).

Maintaining a list of “favorite problems”

When I have identified important problems in the field, I should keep them in mind when I encounter new research findings or other insights, and test these new ideas against them. Every once in a while, I will find something that is helpful.

The list will develop a lot in the coming months, but the current problems on my list are:

  • How can we increase access to psychological treatments for mental disorders while at the same time maintaining quality and efficacy?
  • What is the nature of psychiatric disorders? How should they be understood, and in which ways does this change how we diagnose and treat them?

Keeping the number of current projects low

Here I mean projects where I am the lead author or senior author. Because research projects tend to bring a fixed amount of overhead (meetings, administrative tasks, planning), if I increase the number of projects I will spend a larger proportion of my time on overhead.

If I keep the number of active projects relatively low I will free up more time to actually make progress on them, and this can also have an outsized effect on the quality of the work. For example, doubling my efforts in preparing a manuscript or grant application may push it from okay to great, which will bring more than double the value.

Being organized

The value of being organized is that it creates space for creativity and focus. You can get things out of your head and focus on the task ahead, instead of worrying about appointments or what to do next. My bias is to tweak my systems which can be a form of procrastination. I will have to aim for something that is functional and good enough, and then move on to the actual work that needs to be done.