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Navigating a career in science: words of wisdom

Posted by: Jeda Palmer

June 4, 2019

We talked to Anne Rae, Principal Research Scientist and Group Leader, and Andrew Ash, Chief Research Scientist and previous Director of the Climate Adaptation Flagship, about their careers with CSIRO, and their advice for early-mid career researchers. They told us about some highlights and challenges from their careers, and we’ve picked out some pearls of wisdom for those embarking on a career in science or entering leadership positions.

Developing your career pathway

Science and science organisations are always evolving. It can be hard to plan a specific pathway, so go with the flow and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Changing your research focus can be challenging, but also exciting and rewarding. Choose jobs and projects that are interesting and inspire you (but remember that all jobs have boring bits and some challenges).

It is normal to doubt yourself and/or your science at times, but try not to let this hold you back. Even senior managers experience doubts about their capabilities sometimes – Andrew challenged us to focus on the opportunity to succeed rather than a fear of failure.

As a science leader, it’s important to learn how to advocate for yourself, your team and your ideas. Opportunities don’t just fall in your lap, so develop networks and find mentors that can help you refine your ideas and find the right home for them.

The importance of networks

Networks are important, but require effort to develop and maintain. Developing science networks external to CSIRO and across multiple science disciplines adds depth to your science and broadens your view of the world and how we work. This will make you a better scientist, as well as creating job and project opportunities.

There is great value in informal networks and communities of practice based around areas of science; CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship was underpinned by an informal climate working group that gradually developed over many years.

Anne Rae and Andrew Ash sharing their wisdom with the Global Food and Nutrition Security group about navigating a career in science. Photo credit: Jeda Palmer.

Working with people

Working with people can be the most rewarding and most challenging part of your job. We’re trained as scientists, not psychologists – so utilise Human Resources and other resources to help work through challenging situations.

Success is related to how you work with others as well as the quality of your science. For those in leadership positions, it can be challenging to balance your own development with empowering others. Sometimes you can achieve more through management than through your own science, but not everyone wants to, can be, or should be a manager. It’s ok to step down from positions of leadership if they’re not the right fit for you at that stage of your career.

Work-life balance

The ideal work-life balance is different for everyone, and will change throughout your career.

It’s important to be able to take a mental break – you might work long hours during the week and write papers after dinner, but you can balance that by totally disconnecting from work on the weekend. It’s also important for early career researchers to see that senior staff have a life outside of CSIRO, so lead by example. If you’re replying to emails on the weekend, try quarantining your outbox until Monday morning so that others don’t feel pressured to reply in their own time.

It’s also really important to learn how to negotiate deadlines. Be realistic about what you can deliver and when, rather than an outright no, or overcommitting and failing to deliver.

Some take-home tips

  • Take the opportunity to engage with primary producers and understand their view of the world.
  • Take advantage of training opportunities – do a leadership course before you become a project or science leader. These courses teach valuable skills but are also a great way to develop peer networks.
  • Learn how to pitch your ideas in a clear and engaging manner. The opening paragraph can determine the success of a grant (or promotion) application.
  • As a scientist, learn how to advocate for your own ideas and accept constructive feedback from others. As a leader, learn how to help others develop their own ideas and find the best place for them (e.g. grant application, PhD/postdoc project, further thinking required).
  • Seek opportunities.
  • Actively maintain your networks.

Author: Di Mayberry