I feel like these days, whenever you ask someone how they are, the response you get is either "stressed!" or "busy!" This is particularly true when you hang out with academics at public universities, where staff positions are getting cut left and right, everyone is fighting to do something new or different to attract funding, and the possibilities for projects is endless. As my PhD is ending I've been thinking about how I've spent the past 4 years and what I've learned. Here are 5 things I'm glad I've done or wish I'd done more of while in academia that I think other academics should do as well!
1. Go to talks in other departments: This is my number one. There are so many reasons why this is a great idea. I knowwww it takes time. Time that could be spent a million other ways but often departments have lunch time talks with free food so you can both gain knowledge and eat. There is always more work to be done. In academia you have the luxury to have so many opportunities and encouragement to learn from others in diverse spaces -- and everyone (particularly students!) should take advantage. I say other departments specifically because one thing I've realized is that often other departments are talking about the same issues but from different perspectives (e.g. talking about water access issues in the political science dept or higher education in the sociology department.) The natural reaction might be "but they don't know ______ as well as _____ does!!!" check your ego at the door - every discipline as something to offer and who knows you may just get a dose of inspiration for your own work.
2. Think about the problems you're solving: Following my own advice, I went to a graduate seminar offered by the Chemistry department a few weeks back. The faculty speaking runs a lab and someone asked her how she chooses what to work on or what new projects students are given. She said something along the lines of, "Once a semester we sit down and brainstorm about the problems in our field and think about what others aren't working on. Then as a group we map out what some initial steps would be to check if the idea is worth pursuing." so simple. so brilliant. In my own lab and many of my friends' labs as well, every time a new graduate student joined the group the faculty member seemed surprised and flustered at the need to find them a project. which. is. crazy. because it happens all the time. Establishing a routine to generate new ideas and think about what the steps could be a way to have a list of projects at the ready when a grad or undergrad wants to join the group.
3. Take on big challenges: Last year, I took an introductory environmental engineering course (during my 3rd year as a Civil Engineering Grad student.. but that's another story). On the last day, the professor -- who is one of my all-time favorites -- mapped out the big challenges facing the field of environmental challenges: global water access, climate change resilience, curbing industrial emissions, the list goes on and on. And then.. he said he had spent his entire career on none of these and instead focused on a much smaller problem. To me, to have great impact you have to work on great problems. This is beautifully articulated by Richard Hamming in his talk titled, "You and Your Research." In it he covers why it's so critical to tackle big problems and how to go about finding them. You need brains, drive, and persistence; you also require courage.
4. Say no: Because everyone is stretch thin, people constantly ask you to do things for them. And for the most part, you have to say yes. That's the nature of academia; it's a community and you help others out. You, however, do not have to say yes to everything. It's fine to say, "I have too much on my plate right now could this wait a week or two?" Or, "I'm don't have the bandwidth to commit to that right now." This is critical else you'll find your entire schedule filled up with things that don't get you anywhere and don't advance your own agenda. This past Fall I was incredibly busy and still not making significant progress on my dissertation. My advisor told me to say no to anybody that asked to meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays and use those days to work on my dissertation. Simple yet game-changing for my productivity.
5. Write and communicate: I have always said that if you want to become a leader in your field, learn to write and speak well. In engineering, it definitely helps if you're a rockstar coder; I don't deny that. You can't get anywhere though if you can't advocate for your own work. And you can't make a name for yourself in the broader world if you can't communicate in multiple ways (i.e. anything besides an academic publication.) There's a researcher on campus who advises the president, is a leader of the IPCC, meets with CEOs of companies -- and receives a slew of criticism that his science is not great. My response? Stop complaining and start showing [through TED Talks, op-eds, YouTube videos, blog posts, etc.] why yours is the way to go. That's how you get a seat at the table. You can't wait for the world to read the article you published in a top-journal two years ago. Tell them why they need to read it now.