Advice to My Younger Self – 5 Tips for Early Career Researchers | Dr. Jennifer Vonk

Dr. Jennifer Vonk, Professor of Psychology at Oakland University, gives her ‘Advice to My Younger Self – 5 Tips for Early Career Researchers’. This is an an ongoing series to share advice and life lessons for Early Career Researchers from fellow researchers.

Jennifer Vonk is a comparative psychologist who primarily studies cognition in a variety of species including primates and carnivores. She is interested in how cognition has evolved and the different strategies used by diverse species to solve similar adaptive problems. She collaborates with zoos and sanctuaries and aims for her studies to provide enrichment and inform the welfare of captive animals. She grew up and completed her education in Canada (McMaster, Wilfrid Laurier, York University) before moving to Louisiana to pursue a post-doc in chimpanzee cognition. She was then tenured at the University of Southern Mississippi before moving to Oakland University in Rochester MI where she is now a full professor of psychology. At PeerJ, she is a Section Editor for Zoological Science.

1. Pursue research questions that you are passionate about – not just the things that you think will be fundable or interesting to others. If you are not excited about the research, it will be difficult to motivate yourself to be productive or to be creative. When you are enthused about a topic, the questions will come easily and often. Coming up with new and interesting questions requires more creativity than tackling the same problems that others have identified. You cannot learn to be creative or intellectually curious – so start with something that sparks your curiosity naturally. Don’t be afraid to change areas of interest. Embrace the opportunity to gain knowledge and add to your skill set.

2. Find and keep good collaborators because they are hard to find. Seek out people that you respect and that you can trust to be responsive and thoughtful in your discussions. If you find someone that you connect with, whose strengths complement your own, and who contributes roughly equally to your work, maintain that collaboration. If you find you are investing far more than your colleague in the project or that their contributions are not elevating the work, move on. Do not become consumed in insecurities about what you might or might not have to offer, which will inhibit you from forming productive relationships. You will probably find that you are a valuable member of the partnership/team as long as you are willing to put in the work.

3. On a related note, take full advantage of the opportunities presented to you. The biggest regrets I have in my career are about not having fully pursued an opportunity that is no longer available. For example, early in my career, I was able to collaborate with a zoo that gave me free reign to study any animal or topic that I was interested in but I restricted most of my studies to two species rather than conducting broad studies on a variety of animals. I persisted in a basic methodology that I was comfortable with rather than developing novel techniques. I wish I had done more when I had those resources and support. Allow yourself the time to invest in those things that you will regret not doing. People rarely regret not having sat on a committee or written a review but they will regret not conducting a study that might have been innovative or impactful.

4. Choose a focused and unique area of specialization. My interests and study species have been extremely broad, and this has sometimes prevented me from carving out a niche in which to make a strong contribution and to be considered (or feel like) an expert on a topic. Breadth is wonderful but focus can help you become recognized as a key contributor in an area, which will increase your recognition and impact. You should identify an area in which you can make a novel contribution – developing a methodology or theoretical framework that is unique and can be identified with you. This is especially important if you have worked with a prominent mentor that is strongly identified with a given topic or area. Be sure to carve out something that can be attributed to you rather than your mentor(s). Although I would advocate for pursuing a variety of research projects, there should be a common thread that ties your work together so that you can present a coherent framework for your work when, for example, giving job talks or communicating with funding agencies. Rather than trying to do too much, do the most you can with the questions you care about the most. It is better to do a few things extremely well rather than trying to do too much and not doing an exceptional job of any of it.

5. Be resilient in the face of set-backs. Set-backs are inevitable. Things are not always going to go your way. That is part of the process. We learn as much from “failures” as we do from success. Use failures as an opportunity to learn and grow. Resilience or lack thereof is probably the single biggest contributor to people leaving academia. Think of starting over as the opportunity to do something even better, or at least differently from what you planned to do. Don’t be daunted by things that don’t come easily or that take a long time to learn. Don’t become dogmatic or rigid about doing things the same way you’ve always done them. Despite the inevitable learning curve that comes with making changes, the end result will be far more rewarding. Embrace the challenges and put the work in. In other words, leave your comfort zone and be confident in what you are capable of.

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