Navigating paths through science as early career researchers: A WCMB panel discussion
Navigating the winding, complicated, uncertain path through science can be stressful even for seasoned scientists, and often completely overwhelming for early career researchers. A useful method to provide a roadmap for this path is to learn from those who have walked it before you. With this in mind, we hosted a panel at the 5th World Conference on Marine Biodiversity with Maria Dornelas, Graham Edgar, Madeleine van Oppen, and Moriaki Yasuhara to discuss their paths through marine science and offer advice to early career researchers. Here, we share the stories, recommendations, and advice they conveyed to the audience during the panel.
Trevyn Toone, Elin Thomas, Georgia Sarafidou, and Ariadna Nocera
Members of the WCMB Early Career Committee
The adage that one’s journey through life is never straight was exemplified by our panellists’ routes from their doctorates to their current positions. Dr. Edgar was quick to volunteer that he has never had a permanent job, rather bouncing between fellowships and contract positions. This path was not without its downsides including a lack of job security; however, he enjoys the freedom it allows to shift between different interesting ideas. Dr. Dornelas’s career has also followed a winding path including a series of postdocs, a child, and multiple moves before her position at the University of St. Andrews. Dr. Yasuhara moved to the U.S. from Japan as a postdoc before moving back to East Asia to take up his current position in Hong Kong. This multi-national journey was shared by Dr. van Oppen who moved between the Netherlands, England, and Australia for various opportunities before ultimately negotiating her current Australian position.
All four panellists agreed that the most successful students were not necessarily the ones with the highest grades, but rather the ones who were curious about the world around them.
Along these paths each of our panellists identified key turning points in their career as largely being acts of serendipity that led them to discover their talents and passions. For Dr. van Oppen this was learning RNA sequencing in her masters which would be vital to future research, while for Dr. Edgar it was a trip to the Galapagos as a postdoc that broadened his perspectives. For Dr. Dornelas her career turning point was largely defined by discovering what she enjoyed (field work and modelling) and what she did not (lab work) and then building her career along those lines. Dr. Yasuhara, on the other hand, uncovered his skill and passion for deep-sea biology later in his career as a postdoc, a discovery which he credits as shaping the rest of his career.
Looking back on their careers, our panellists were largely in agreement about which skills were most useful to them. While hard skills were important, they unanimously identified soft skills – primarily creativity and drive – as the most useful to develop as an early career researcher. Dr. van Oppen specifically mentioned not being afraid to push the boundaries of science while Dr. Dornelas commented on the importance of building a space that allows for creativity to flourish. All four panellists agreed that the most successful students were not necessarily the ones with the highest grades, but rather the ones who were curious about the world around them.
Opening the door for others when you receive fortuitous opportunities, then, becomes not just a matter of kindness but of fairness.
When it came to the role of serendipity on their path through science our panellists were quick to point out the importance of luck, but also noted that taking advantage of opportunities is a skill itself. Being in the right place at the right time is important, but it takes skill to recognize which opportunities are the good ones, and how best to harness these. Dr. Dornelas also noted the role privilege plays in these discussions and the importance of considering who is even allowed into the right room. Opening the door for others when you receive fortuitous opportunities, then, becomes not just a matter of kindness but of fairness.
For many young scientists, particularly new Ph.D. students, starting a path in research can seem like one long stream of criticism and rejections. On this front our panellists were unanimous – science is a marathon not a sprint, and it is vital to focus on your successes and future rather than drowning in negative feedback. Dr. Dornelas connected this perceived ‘cycle of failure’ with imposter syndrome and noted that sometimes ideas that initially get rejected blossom into successful projects years or even decades later. She also emphasized the importance of effectively filtering feedback.
The impact of a good mentor is impossible to overstate and many, if not most, researchers can point to mentors in their past who shaped their career in science. Our panellists were quick to note the wide range of relationships and interactions that can constitute mentorship, from fully supervisory positions to short conversations between colleagues at conferences. Dr. Dornelas suggested viewing mentors not as those opening doors for someone but rather as any flow of advice, meaning mentors can be anyone who is more familiar with certain systems, not just established researchers or older individuals. Dr. van Oppen suggested prioritizing mentors outside of your own field to avoid bias in perspectives, as well as noting the importance of peer-to-peer mentorship.
Science is a marathon not a sprint, and it is vital to focus on your successes and future rather than drowning in negative feedback.
For early career researchers just starting on their path through science, our panellists emphasized the importance of learning skills outside your comfort zone. For example, seeking colleagues within your lab who can help teach new techniques or connecting with someone outside the lab who can bring in new ideas.
Looking to the future, we asked our panellists how they stay positive in a field like conservation and marine biodiversity where trends can often be negative. The responses ranged from the metaphysical (“the Great Barrier Reef did not exist 2 million years ago and will not exist in 2 million years”) to the eminently practical (“go for a walk”). Overall, however, the panellists agreed that passion for the environment and the world around us can motivate any researcher to look past the negatives and embrace the future.
Finally, we offered each of our panellists the opportunity to provide one final piece of advice to early career researchers. Dr. van Oppen recommended studying statistics and developing the quantitative skills that are necessary for wrangling the large data sets that have come to define conservation science, while Dr. Moriaki advised having a strong skin and not worrying about rejection. Dr. Edgar recommended broadening horizons and generalizing results to larger audiences. Dr. Dornelas, on the other hand, was succinct: “be curious, and be stubborn”.
Our paths through life and through science are circuitous, but hopefully the thoughts and words of our panellists will be inspiring and helpful to early career researchers. We want to offer our sincerest thanks to WCMB for organizing and allowing us to host this event and, of course, to the four wonderful panellists for sharing their time and thoughts.
Dr Maria Dornelas is the Deputy Director of the Centre of Biological Diversity at the University of St Andrews in the UK.
Professor Madeleine van Oppen is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Melbourne and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.
Professor Graham Edgar is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania.
Dr Moriaki Yasuhara is an Associate Professor of Environmental Science at the School of Biological Sciences and the Swire Institute of Marine Science at the University of Hong Kong.