Reflective

About the process of doing a PhD and perhaps being an early-career researcher.

Advice wanted from LGBT / gender non-conforming students

Thinking about my teaching practice, especially as I move towards being a personal tutor as well as lecturer next year, it feels as though I should try to indicate to any LGBT, NB, or other minority students in my class that I’m a safe person to be out to. Obviously I realise that there’s no way of proving that as a hypothetical, and hence some students may always be wary, but is there anything helpful that I can do?

A quick Etsy search reveals various designs of “ALLY” badge… what are are people’s feelings about that? Is there a better idea?

Thanks for any advice.

Posted by simon in Reflective

Losing is not binary

This article from Mary Heglar is a powerful, and worthwhile, thing to read. I’m not going to talk about it, because you can go and read it yourself – it isn’t long – but it reminded me of something I wrote a long time ago, on a blog far far away. It was just after the 2009 COP summit in Copenhagen, which was perhaps the first time that calls for climate action really became a mainstream mass campaign, rather than something for environmentalists. I’m going to quote some bits.

A lot of commenters are being despondent in the aftermath of COP-15. I can understand why, because it was the first climate summit where it had actually become a mainstream public issue, and the first in recent memory when a (arguably) sympathetic line from the White House meant that there was some chance of co-operation from the US. Additionally, time is pressing, and this was the first time so far as I remember that anybody had identified “this is what we need to aim for NOW”. Which we’re not going to do…

…I feel that while the solutions are technically within our grasp – just about – at present, there is no way that they are politically possible.

I’ve spent a certain amount of time thinking “If I think that the cause is hopeless, why am I wanting to work in the renewable energy and/or energy efficiency fields?”. The answer is that although the goals being debated at Copenhagen are politically hopeless, every little still helps…

…millions – if not billions – will suffer… but for every bit that we can reduce our emissions, less of this will happen. The fact that the situation is so terrifying, depressing, and hopeless… doesn’t mean that we can’t try to lessen it.

That… was a while ago. Time has moved on by a decade, and so has climate change. It’s reached a stage where effects are evident to many people. And perhaps partly because of this, and partly because of youth protests and Extinction Rebellion, and partly because of so many other people, the politics have moved on as well, to a place that I honestly didn’t think was possible just a few years ago. The support from the White House has vanished, but we’ve discovered that it wasn’t really needed after all.

In 2019, it’s probably too late to stick to a 2°C rise, let alone 1.5°C. We’re already well past the 350 or 400ppm that was being discussed in the run-up to Copenhagen. In that sense, we “lost”. But what I wrote in 2009 is still true: that that loss isn’t binary, and we can still influence how much worse things get.

As Heglar says in her article, simply giving up on the problem because we can’t totally avoid it is not helpful. Nor is criticising people for being optimistic. Or pessimistic. Or any other natural reaction that they may have. As a friend put it once, there’s a grieving process here, and everybody grieves differently. Recognising that climate change is going to have impacts, and putting effort into adapting to or mitigating those impacts, does not require us to give up on trying to limit the amount of change that is not yet locked in, but to do this we need to embrace everybody’s input[1], rather than shutting people down.

[1] That is, everybody who acknowledges that there is a problem.

Posted by simon in Reflective, The wider world

New job!

I know, it’s not very long since the last time I said that. But part of the nature of a postdoc is that it’s temporary, and insecure, and you’re looking for something better… and I’m lucky enough that something better came along, and I applied for what I thought was a long shot, and I got it, and…

…in about a month I’m going to be starting as Lecturer in Renewable Energy[1] at the University of Hull! I’m joining the Energy and Environment Institute, which is a multidisciplinary group with a specific mission that speaks to me. It sits outside of any department, but works with a number of them, and feels like it should be a good fit.

My feelings are complicated. I had planned to be in the US for more than the ~7 months that I will have spent here. I’m sad to be leaving without having had much time to really get to know a city that I was starting to like, or the country beyond its boundaries. At the same time, living here is feeling less and less comfortable politically, and I’m also happy to be moving “home”. There’s a certain amount of guilt in leaving a postdoc after six months at relatively short notice, because it always has an impact on projects when that happens; but it’s a great career move, and I’m so happy to have the opportunity! The jump to a first faculty post is a big one. I’m a little daunted, but also excited, and really looking forward to getting into it.

Right now I’m buried in organising my second intercontinental move in a calendar year, while also working full-time and trying to keep track of what’s happening with Brexit. It’s stressful. In a few weeks I should be out the other side of that, with a new place to live in (for me) a new city, whether or not that city is still in the EU… keep watching this space for (very) occasional updates, and get in touch if you’d like us to work together!

[1] For the benefit of any Americans here, Lecturer in the UK is approximately equivalent to Assistant Professor on tenure track in the US – although tenure track is not a thing in Britain.

Posted by simon in Professional updates, Reflective

Time limits in research

Faliure, as illustrated by theAwkwardYeti.com

“So that experiment didn’t go as planned? Congratulations, you are now officially a scientist”

This tweet (which I can’t find again to attribute), as well as many other things, claims that the secret to most scientific work is not genius, but persistence. “Scientists are people who keep going when most of us have given up”. There’s a lot of truth to that. But I can’t help feeling that it’s sabotaged by the way that science is funded these days.

If you get a surprising result, that’s great for science! Well, sometimes. Usually it means you made a mistake. If it’s real, it’s great for science… but it’s awkward if you have to get the work finished and the publication out for a deadline, and you have more things lined up to do after that.

When an experiment or a simulation doesn’t work first time… well, that’s normal, but a huge proportion of the research workforce is on short fixed-term contracts, and when you’re only in the job for a year, you can’t afford to explore too many dead ends. You can’t afford to take the failure and persistence approach that is idolised above.

I’ve just finished a one-year postdoc, and this has made me very anxious from time to time[1]. I’ve started to wonder how much of a correlation there is between people with successful academic careers (at least in STEM), and people whose experiments / models / observations / whatever happened to go right first time during their first postdoc. Obviously there is a strong element of researcher merit involved in whether things work, but there’s also a hell of a lot of luck. And if you need it to work first time in order to have the time to get everything finished and written up[2] before you’re in the next job and busy on something else…

[1] Along with all the other sources of anxiety that result from 1-year postdocs. That’s a much broader topic, but this is just one of the reasons that I’m really looking forward to my next job being a little longer!
[2] Or, just “in a sufficiently complete state that you can write it up in evenings and weekends while working on a different day job”, if you’re privileged enough to be able to do that.

Posted by simon in Reflective

Teaching

Whiteboard markers and a whiteboard.This term, in addition to my modelling work at Marine Scotland, I’m the instructor for two masters modules at ICIT (Heriot-Watt’s Orkney campus). This is my first experience of teaching, beyond the occasional seminar here and there, and I’m really enjoying it. I have a small group of interested students, who want to be there (I realise that this is a privilege of teaching postgrad), who ask intelligent questions… and that makes it really rewarding.

It’s also very hard work. I was brought in at fairly short notice after a lecturer left, to fill in the gap before a new one could be recruited. I’m only going to be delivering this content once, yet I’ve chosen to put together my own material for it based on what the previous instructor did, rather than using his directly. That’s because the content follows a different logical order in my head to his, and… well, as anybody who has tried giving a presentation using somebody else’s slides will attest, it’s not a great experience for anybody concerned. So I’m talking to students for 2-2.5 hours most mornings, and spending the afternoons preparing future material – trying to stay 2-3 days ahead, but occasionally catching up with myself. It’s not a pace that I could sustain in the long term, but it works for a few weeks.

This experience has reassured me that, should I be successful in landing a long-term academic role in the future (and I realise that that is a very long way from guaranteed), then I would be able to embrace the teaching side as enthusiastically as the research.

Of course, this is only half of the job. My lectures finish next week, but towards the end of the year the marking will begin….

Posted by simon in Professional updates, Reflective