The seven “deadly traps” for an early-career researcher (from my own notebook)

Maria Rosaria Galanti is a Professor in Public Health Epidemiology at the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden. In this article, she provides her insights into the seven “deadly sins” that she feels she could have avoided as an early career researcher.

And suddenly I was full-time in research… September 1992, 38 years old and an honorable career as a Medical Doctor behind me. Three and a half years later I was a graduate, thereafter a licensed researcher and with time a respected member of one of the most prestigious medical universities in the world. All this went so quickly that I did not have the time to consider my mistakes or to complain for what I could have done better.

I do it now, many years later. Here is the list of the seven “deadly sins” that I could have avoided, or at least handled, sometimes sinfulness being on the reverse side. For you to consider, especially if you are a woman and/or if you are in the business of “soft science” – the one that doesn’t generate so much funding or monthly hits on high impact journals.

  1. Lust (lack of) – How many of the young scientists accepting a PhD position really choose their own “marriage” with a research project and a supervisor? I certainly did not. I accepted a research project that others had designed for me, because my desire to be in research was more important than the content of what I was doing. As a consequence, I was seldom in love with my work while striving to do it well. At times I was so down and discouraged that the only sight of my datasets or my article draft made me sick. Of course, falling in love is not a guarantee that love will last forever. But it helps. Therefore: give yourself a good start and really bring your questions and ideas in research from the very beginning! Be excited and make others excited about your plans. If you are offered to participate in a project you are not convinced about, twist it or drop it!
  1. Greed (lack of) – After a few months in the PhD track I was puzzled to learn that my salary was way lower than that of my student colleagues (almost all men). My supervisor (a very outspoken fellow who also had experience as a trade-union representative) commented about “women laying behind in salary because they do not negotiate…”, which was of course true in my case. I was so obsessed by my academic performance that I did not care about monetary reward, never inquired or protested about salary. This attitude was of course rapidly grasped by the administration that set it to the minimum. Therefore: inquire carefully on the average of wages for your position, and do not refrain from negotiating if you have some good points! People are not going to respect you for your shyness…
  1. Gluttony (lack of) – Scene: Research group meeting. Characters: the dean, senior researchers (among which my supervisor), PhD students. The Dean: “here we have a request from the University of XY for a young scientist to participate in a pooled analysis of HJ, that will generate some prestigious papers. Who wants to take it?” I never raised my hand, not even when I was clearly the most qualified to step forward. I was starving about academic rewards, yet unable to help myself when the meal was offered. At last, my supervisor obliged me to stretch my hand – and that was the greatest thing he did for my career! Therefore: A moderate level of gluttony is a key to successful research.
  1. Envy – My PhD studies were conducted in a high competition climate, with the motto “publishing or perishing” engraved onto the walls. And publishing was not enough, the ghost of the “high impact” journals constantly levitating on our heads. At times, I felt like my bibliometric weight was more important than my thoughts…No wonder that a sting of envy was what I felt every time one of my colleague students managed to publish – faster or higher than I did. Envy can be a very destructive feeling, removing energy from cooperation, which is the real strategy for good science. In fact, the question is: is an environment where people are driven to constantly be envious a stimulating research environment? Is competition between individuals really conducive to excellence? Therefore: inquire on the research environment before engaging in a PhD project, how much cooperation is there?
  1. Anger (and lack of) – There is much that can go wrong during an early career track. Supervisors who are not at hand when you need them. Data collection delayed or impaired. Coauthors not responding in time. Funding exhausted. The list can be long. It is understandable that one gets angry, sometime even desirable. I learnt that anger is not necessarily a negative feeling (albeit seldom helps in itself to solve problems). All that you need to do is to learn to be angry at the right time, with the right person and in the right way. In Sweden there are bags of verbal and facial expressions to signify anger without being impolite. One of these is: “I hear what you are saying”, uttered with harsh glance and voice towards a person who is evidently trying to cheat or provoke you. Find your favorite anger expression for a couple of occasions and rehearse it!
  1. Pride – There are two kinds of pride: arrogance and self-satisfaction. I discovered in my early career that they stay in an inverse relationship to each other. The more self-satisfaction you get from what you are doing, the less arrogant and self-defended you become. What you should avoid is the kind of pride that paralyzes you, preventing you for instance from asking for help when you need it. In some environments (see point 4) this is quite likely to happen. When you feel this happening to you, turn around your fear and think: “I will make somebody happy letting him/her helping me and feeling important…”
  1. Sloth (and lack of) – Let me clarify that I am universally considered the contrary of a lazy person. I cannot stand systematic laziness, and this is what I make a point to communicate to my students as well. But I learnt in my early career that things do not turn out better if you always work with crazy speed and never rest. Apart from preventing one from taking hastily risky decisions, a “laid back” attitude fosters communication and cooperation, makes people grow, take responsibility and achieve their own goals. Again, Swedish people have a nice expression when they feel the need to lay back and enjoy a slice of laziness: “Let us sleep on this decision”. Yes, let us do this now and then.


About the Author:

My name is Maria Rosaria Galanti and I am a Professor in Public Health Epidemiology at the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden. My research focuses on intervention evaluation, the epidemiology of tobacco use and the influence of school environments on mental health among adolescents. You can email me on: rosaria.galanti[at]ki.se


4 thoughts on “The seven “deadly traps” for an early-career researcher (from my own notebook)

  1. Dear Rosaria,
    I found this blog to be so honest and refreshing, thank you for such an interesting contribution. I think many of these ‘sins’ are experienced in one way or another by early career researchers, but maybe another ‘sin’ is that we don’t talk about it? It is great to see what your thoughts are looking back on these events. Thank you for starting the dialogue and contributing your thoughts.

  2. Dear Rosaria,
    Thank you for sharing such an inspiring post. Sometimes we tend to forget research is not only about publishing articles and we get used to the ‘competition’ atmosphere. I especially think that one can achieve more in collaboration than by means of competition. Therefore I am very inspired to read your advice and I will definitely keep these “seven deadly sins” in mind when I apply for (and hopefully successfully enroll into) a position in research. I think every early-career can identify with the statements in your blog and/or will be inspired by it. Again, many thanks!
    Best wishes,
    Aniek

  3. Dear Rosaria,
    thank you very much for sharing your views and lessons learned. This was a very inspiring and encouraging, especially for me who is not a full time researcher, and don’t have many experience in the field. In spite of that, I also managed to get a picture of high competitiveness and some of the “seven sins” that you mentioned. Your article made me think of the importance of never-ending-process of improving my skills when dealing with these challenges.
    Best,
    Dijana

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