A brief history of an Early Career Researcher

Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.

So wrote the great, and dearly missed, Terry Pratchett.

That was certainly true of my relationship with science. Now, don’t get me wrong, I never lost my interest in science, but it would be fair to say that the discipline and I were on nodding terms, at best, for a little while.

Let me take you back…

I grew up in the South Wales valleys and I loved nature as a kid. That’s shocking information, I know, particularly coming from a biologist, but I offer no apologies; it is what it is. I was a good kid, too, by all accounts, and I had an insatiable appetite for all things related to the natural world. I remember, of course, the Attenborough documentaries, but also being absolutely hooked on Disney’s White Wilderness which I had on VHS (go and ask your parents). Unsurprisingly, I knew that I wanted to work with animals when I grew up1, or, even better, become a palaeontologist. Because dinosaurs!

And so it went that I grew up, discovered sci-fi, Lego, rugby, cartoons and all that good stuff. But the love of the natural world stayed with me. And then we drifted apart; I took a winding tributary which led towards music and art.

I studied 2D animation in art college – and eventually ended up working in IT for my local council2 while doing acting classes and comedy improv of an evening. After 3 years of phone calls with word processing operators who couldn’t use a word processor, I decided it was time to follow my dream and become a wandering minstrel. That didn’t work out, so I settled for heading to University to study conservation.

Bangor University in North Wales were good enough to offer me a place on a BSc course, despite nearly a decade since I’d last studied science or math(s); choose your variant). The first year was possibly the hardest year, academically, since I was first introduced to the seven-times-table. I didn’t have A levels in anything even remotely applicable, so I was working to make up a lot of lost ground. Happily, I made some great friends who were academically on the proverbial ball, and really helped push and stimulate me. I’d gone into my undergrad hoping for a 2:2 and to get some work in practical conservation. Instead I received a 1st class degree and, lo! Someone was indeed on hand with a feather duster. And so I learned:

Don’t underestimate yourself. You’re better at this than you think. And other pithy supportive phrases.

Also:

Research is kind of cool. Do more of that, if you can.

And then began the first of the Barren Years. Terrible letters were sent as PhDs were sought; all were rejected without an interview.

And so I enrolled on a Master’s-by-Research (MRes) course in the University of Leeds, reasoning that the two research projects would stand me in good stead for a future PhD. I’ll admit that I was less enthusiastic about that course. The research (bird ecology and ant genetics) was awesome, but the modular courses repeated much of my undergrad material. Nevertheless, regardless and, indeed, anyway, I emerged with a postgrad degree and embarked upon the second Barren Year. (Well, it was more like a Barren Six-Months, really, but Barren Year is more effective, thematically.)

I’d learned a lot during my Master’s studies, and my cover letters improved dramatically. As a result, my PhD applications were considerably more successful. I ended up, six months later, with the option of choosing between an as-yet-unfunded project on meadow pipit breeding ecology and one on hares in Ireland. Six months later3 I was in Belfast. The PhD was extremely challenging; I had to up my game in all aspects. I was a gnat’s breath from quitting at one point and impostor syndrome was (and remains) an almost constant companion. But it was also one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Three and a half years later, I graduated. In contrast to others in the office, I found the whole graduation process underwhelming; you spend months writing the thesis, there’s the wait for the viva, then the corrections, then the eventual graduation some months later… But still, the kid who wanted to work with animals was ecstatic.

And then began the third Barren Year4.

I started applying for postdocs around 3 months out from the end of my PhD. I loved research and very much wanted to carry on in academia. Someone should have told me to start applying and developing links sooner. Over the next 18 months I had a good number of interviews, getting in the top 2 or 3 many times. I kept working on papers and other projects in the meantime, but the last 5 or 6 months were more than a little dispiriting. And then I received an offer!

Which brings us to the present, where I’ve just started my first postdoctoral position at University College Cork, working on hen harriers.

There should be a lesson here, right? I’ve left out a lot of information – the personal demons, the sacrifices, the self-funding much of my undergrad and Master’s from savings and backup jobs, the many, many people who supported and helped me – and yes, there are plenty of things I could say as words of advice. But that’s not the point of this post. I’m not entirely sure what the point of this post is, to be honest, except to say that this is where one particular scientist, where I, came from. Maybe I can steal a lesson from Terry Pratchett:

If you trust in yourself…. and believe in your dreams…. and follow your star… you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy


1 Growing up is a myth, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

2 No, before you ask, I’m not going to fix your laptop for you. Have you tried turning it off and on?

3 Okay, so it turned out to be a Barren Year in total.

4 More like a year and a half, but I was waiting to graduate for six of those months and so I’m not sure whether or not they count.

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