A career in soils

“In our recent “Your Career in Soil or Plant Sciences feature, Professor Richard Bardgett from the University of Manchester describes his journey so far”

Looking at some of the other blogs, I think I am a bit unusual because from an early age I knew I wanted to study soil. And in October 1984, I embarked on a BSc degree in Soil and Land Resource Science at Newcastle University, northeast England. Even before doing my degree, I was exposed to the study of soil. Between school and University I had jobs at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, Merlewood, in Cumbria, working for the late Juliet Frankland on fungal decomposition in soil, and the Hill Farming Research Organisation (HFRO), Edinburgh, where I worked for Carol Marriott on nitrogen fixation in grassland soils. My interest in soil was also shaped by my upbringing in Cumbria, where I spent much time in the hills, and from working on farms, where contact with soil was omnipresent. And my father also studied agriculture at Newcastle University, exactly 30 years before I was there, and afterwards had a sheep farm in Grasmere; this family connection with the landscape and farming certainly influenced my career.

Only a handful of us studied soil at Newcastle; I think 6 or 7 in total. I really enjoyed my degree and being a student in Newcastle. But I do recall getting a bit frustrated as my degree went on as most classes, at least in the first and second year, were on soil physics and chemistry, and had a strong agronomic focus I realise that these are extremely important topics and they have provided me with a fuller understanding of soil. But at that time I wanted to learn more about the ecology of soils and the role of soils in shaping ecological systems. Things changed in my final year. Not only did the University appoint a young soil microbiologist called Tony O’Donnell, who taught us soil biology and supervised my final year project on nitrogen fixation in grassland soils (Tony is now Professor and Dean of Science at the University of Western Australia). But also I successfully argued my way onto a final year course on plant ecology, taught by Roger Smith, which wasn’t formally available to students on my degree.  Roger and I still collaborate to this day. 

One year out of school and taking soil samples from experimental plots at Hartwood, Hill Farming Research Organisation, Scotland, 1984.

I was also strongly influenced by the late Professor Keith Syers, who was appointed as Professor and Head of Soil Science in 1985. Although Keith didn’t teach me at University, he employed me to write a historical review on the role of organic farming in agriculture, with a strong focus on the biology of soil. I learned so much from this job.  I had to delve into the history of the soil science and read many classic soil science books from the early twentieth century, which taught me much about how the discipline developed, but also how important soils are for humans. I didn’t see Keith much – he always seemed to be travelling to exotic parts of the world – but the short times I did spend with him had impact. I was influenced by his research, especially on soil phosphorus, but also his charismatic nature; and, if I am honest, I was hugely impressed by his exotic travels. I recall one of his colleagues saying, “he is never here”, which is what people often say to me today! But he was a true ambassador for Newcastle University and for the discipline of soil science, and he certainly influenced my career, and undoubtedly that of others.

Following my degree I started a PhD at Lancaster University and the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, Merlewood. I still recall the moment I decided to do a PhD. Sometime towards the end of my degree I saw an advert for NERC studentships on the Department notice board. It was a long list, but one project stood out; it was on the effects of sheep grazing on animal-microbial interactions in upland grassland soils. I hadn’t given much thought to what I wanted to do before this, but for some reason this PhD grabbed me. Maybe the project called to my past experiences at Merlewood and HFRO, or my up bringing in Cumbria; but above all I think it was the focus on soil ecology that appealed. I applied and a few months later I was living back in Cumbria, close to where I went to school and where I still live. I was mainly based at Merlewood, supervised by Juliet Frankland, who was an extremely supportive supervisor and role model, as was my other supervisor John Whittaker, who I often see today. But I also benefitted from being in an ecological research institute, which at the time was arguably one of the best places in the world to do research into the ecology of soil.

The only time I have been doubtful about my career was towards the end of my PhD, when I was unsure whether I wanted to carry on with research or do something more practical. By chance, I received a phone call from James Marsden of the Nature Conservancy Council, Windermere, who was looking for people to help with a national survey of the extent and condition of heather moorlands in England and Wales. I said yes without hesitation and started a month later, before the submission date for my thesis. (For any PhD students thinking of starting a job before completing their thesis, I would think twice as it makes your life very difficult.) I had a fantastic year, travelling across the uplands of England and Wales doing vegetation surveys, meeting farmers, and learning about farming and conservation issues in the hills. I also wrote a paper (Bardgett et al 1995), which I still feel quite proud of, and recently spoke to James Marsden about returning to the sites to see how things have changed 26 years on. But as my work with the Nature Conservancy went on, I started to feel that this wasn’t for me. I was feeling an increasing urge to get back to research. A job came up at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) in Aberystwyth, working on climate change impacts on agricultural systems. I applied for the job and few weeks later I found myself living in mid Wales.

I quickly realised that the job wasn’t what I wanted to do. It was modelling based and I recall starting to envy those working in the laboratory and field; I wanted to do my own experiments rather than analyse the data of others. After a few months of sitting in front of a computer, the biggest break of my career occurred: a job as a soil biologist came up at the Institute. I got the job, which gave me complete freedom to develop my research, as long as it was focussed on agricultural grasslands.  Moreover, it was a permanent job, which was pretty much unheard of in those days (I was 27 at the time). So why did I leave? I had a great time in Wales, and especially enjoyed working with plant scientists, who taught me much about how plants influence soils and vice versa. But I realised that what I really wanted to do was work in a University, where I could teach and have the freedom to expand my research into areas other than agricultural grasslands. After four very productive years at IGER, I applied for a lectureship at The University of Manchester, where I started in 1995. This was my first academic job. Ever since then I have worked in Universities, at Lancaster, where I was awarded a personal Chair in Ecology in 2002, and now again at Manchester, where I am Professor of Ecology.

Field work in Svalbard with Rene van der Wal

So what can I pass on to those at the start of, or who aspire to, a career in soil science or ecological research? Below are a few key points – some obvious, some less so – which have helped me in my career, and might be of help to you.

  • First and foremost enjoy your work. Arguably, the most valuable gift of an academic career is having the freedom to pursue your own ideas and interests, and to use these to guide your work. Of course being a research scientist brings many challenges and there will always be tasks that you don’t want to do. But few jobs give you the level of freedom that a research career affords, so make the most of this. Science is about forming and testing ideas, and sharing these ideas with others; the more you enjoy your work and follow your interests, the better and more impactful your work is likely to be.  My own work has been guided by a long-standing desire to demonstrate the importance of ecological interactions between plant and soil communities in shaping terrestrial ecosystems, which traces right back to my early years. It is this passion that has guided my career, rather than any strategic decisions, and it still fuels my research and teaching today. As many have said in previous blogs, it is difficult to plan, or be overly strategic, about your career.  But one thing that does hold is that if you enjoy your work and do high quality research, opportunities are likely to flow.
  • Second, publish your work. This is pretty obvious, but the bottom line is that if you don’t publish, you will struggle to have a fruitful research career. Of course employers look for things, such as skills, training, and evidence of being able to communicate effectively in talks; but the first thing most will look at are your publications. There are also some publication traps that you should avoid. For example, it is always best to go for quality rather than quantity, so don’t be tempted to carve up your work to produce more. Also, ensure that your papers are well written and have clear messages on their contribution to science, which helps to increase their impact and citations. Also, ensure that you lead the majority of your papers, rather than ending up as a co-author on most, which raises questions about your contribution to the work. Much has been written about tactics for getting your work cited, and some go to extraordinary lengths to increase their citations; but in my view the best tactic is simply to do high quality research and ensure that your papers are well written and communicate effectively how your findings advance your field. Of course some write better than others, but whatever, you should strive to improve your writing and often the best way to do this is to read and learn from the work of others.
  • Third, collaborate. Many soil science challenges require a multi-disciplinary approach because they demand understanding of biological, chemical and physical properties and processes in soil, and how they interact with land management and the wider environment. There is also a plethora of techniques for studying the soil, both technological and statistical, but you can’t do it all. As such, while it is important to learn the new skills to advance your research, you also have to collaborate. If I think back over my career, the most significant papers that I have published have emerged from collaborations, and in many cases these have led to friendships that continue to this day. Not only do you learn about new techniques and models for testing your ideas, but also many good ideas develop through working with others who have complementary expertise and interests. Of course, if you aspire to be a research leader, you need to ensure that you lead, as well as get involved in work led by others. But there is no doubt that collaboration both enriches and advances your research career.

With collaborators from the North West Plateau Biology Institute Field Station, Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, China, 2011

  • Fourth, communicate. Be pro-active in attending conferences, workshops, and public events to communicate your research. It is quite simple: it you don’t engage with wider audiences, people won’t know about your research and why it is important. Also, when you talk, place your research in a broader context so that wider audiences appreciate the importance of your research. And where possible give positive messages about how soil knowledge can advance our understanding of the natural world and how it can inform policy and land management decisions, and contribute to human wellbeing. I would also urge you to do what you can to influence people from an early age; the best way to make change is to influence the next generation and instil in them an understanding of the fundamental importance of soil.
  • Fifth, invest in people. If there is one thing that has influenced my career more than anything it is people, often in unexpected ways. Sometimes you spend a few minutes or hours with someone, and this can leave a strong impression. In my own career, I have been privileged to meet, and work with, many ecologists and soil scientists all over the world, and they likely have no idea how much they influenced my career. Even early in your career you, as you start to supervise undergraduate students, or perhaps a summer assistant, you should keep in mind that you are their mentor, and how you treat them can have an enormous impact on their careers. And keep in mind that you can also scar people; as Josh Schimel wrote in his blog on mentoring and the power of kindness (https://schimelwritingscience.wordpress.com/2016/09/29/mentoring-the-power-of-kindness/), it is easy to forget as you move up the career ladder how influential your words and acts can be on junior colleagues who look up to you.
  • Sixth, stay focussed on your research goals. Academic life throws many demands at you, often from unexpected places. You have to juggle these while remaining focussed on your research. This can be difficult, especially at the start of your career, for instance when you get your first academic post, because many of these demands are new to you. People often ask me how I manage to juggle so many things. Well, I can say that it is tough at times, but I have always tried to stay focussed on my research goals; they are always at the forefront of my mind. When I do administrative tasks, I just get on with them and try not to let them distract my mind (which is more difficult than it sounds). Also, I prepare my lectures with research in mind, which not only keeps my teaching up to date, but also it means that I learn from the lectures myself.  I have also find that sport helps. When I was doing my PhD and working in Wales, I was a competitive fell runner, training most days and racing at weekends for Kendal Athletics Club and then Eryri Harriers. I still cycle and run as much as I can and greatly value this time to clear my mind.
  • Finally, you have to be resilient. As a researcher, you will no doubt have to deal with rejection of papers and grants, which can be hard to take. But rejection is just part of a researchers life and the higher you aim, the more likely it is you will suffer. Many leading journals have rejection rates greater than 80% and some above 90% if not more; so if you submit your work to these journals you will likely suffer rejection. Also, funding is becoming increasingly competitive, and success rates can be very low. But you just have to move on, take on board the comments of the reviewers (which in most cases are helpful), and use them to improve your work. Also, get your colleagues to act as friendly reviewers before you submit your paper or proposal. And consider asking someone from outside your area of research to take a look as they can tell you whether or not you have articulated the importance of your to a wider audience.

I recall going to an Editorial Board meeting for the journal Ecology Letters, which was like a who’ who of ecology. The senior editor at the time, Michael Hochberg, asked us if Ecology Letters had ever rejected our work. Everyone in the room put up their hands…

Author: Richard Bardgett

Richard Bardgett is Professor of Ecology at The University of Manchester. He has studied soils and their ecology in many parts of the world, and authored several books, including the Biology of Soil (2005) and Earth Matters: How Soil Underpins Civilization (2016). He has published over 260 papers and is recognized as a Highly Cited Researcher, and acts as a Senior Editor of the Journal of Ecology. He serves on several funding panels and advisory boards, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2006, the Royal Society of Biology in 2011, and a member of Academia Europaea in 2015. He is currently President Elect of the British Ecological Society.

References

Bardgett, R. D., Marsden, J. H., & Howard, D. C. (1995). The extent and condition of heather on moorland in the uplands of England and Wales. Biological Conservation 71, 155-161.