Climbing the academic career ladder – A personal perspective

“The next post in our series Your Career in Soil and Plant Sciences comes from The James Hutton Institute’s, Head of Informatics and Computational Sciences Rupert Hough. He gives us his personal experiences of climbing the academic career ladder…”

I didn’t do very well at school, I didn’t like it, I often ‘forgot’ to turn up; I was certainly not inspired by the subjects, how they were taught or the suffocating effect of the National Curriculum on my curiosity. Don’t get me wrong, I had many interests the strongest being agriculture, environment and people. Out of these, people were probably my greatest interest and I used to spend an inordinate amount of time befriending strangers and hanging out with the homeless of my home town.

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Young Rupert at the age of 16.

I applied to University because I could (didn’t know what else to do) and I took up the undergraduate course at Sutton Bonington because at the time it was offering low enough grades for me to manage (actually, I didn’t manage the grades and ended up on the phone doing a last minute negotiation). It was at Sutton Bonington that I finally became inspired with learning. It was a simple formula – I was not only allowed to follow my own curiosity, I was also rewarded for doing so. I was stunned to find that I was engaged and, more surprising, that I was actually reasonably academic!

When my tutor suggested a Ph.D. I have to be honest in saying that it had never crossed my mind and I actually thought a Ph.D. was another 3 years of lectures only covering harder stuff! Once I knew more about what it entailed I was really keen and stayed on at Nottingham for the Ph.D. I must say it was the best thing I ever did and nothing I have done since has ever really lived up to the luxury of 3 years following my own curiosity. I found my first post-doc a real disappointment having to follow a pre-defined project with pre-defined deliverables brought me right back to being at school. I spent more time on distraction activities during that job than on the job itself… Now when I employ recent graduates I am prepared for these types of scenarios and am ready to support individuals through these changes.

Fifteen years after starting my Ph.D. I became a senior manager at a research institute. This role brings me right back to my inherent interests and abilities in agriculture, environment but with people as the main focus. I am the first to admit that there has been a lot of good luck and fortunate circumstance along the way, however there were also plenty of elements that were planned out and many plans (not all) came good. Below are the three main ’things I know now that I wish I’d known then’ regarding my career that may be of use to others. While they are very much written so as to focus on what I have defined as career success, there are aspects of these that are likely to apply more widely:

  1. Learning about yourself is vital. Apparently ~97% of the connections in your brain are laid down by the time you are 4 years old and are very difficult to ‘rewire’; the remaining 3% (including what you’ve learnt during your Ph.D.) is the icing on the cake, and there is little point having fancy pink icing and cherries if the underlying cake has a burnt top and a soggy bottom! Explore your underlying cake… Work out what you’re inherently good at and peruse this in your work. (Remember: people who excel in life are not some sort of magical beings, they are just lucky (or clever) enough to be doing something that matches their inherent abilities). Do things you know you will be inherently good at. Apply for roles you know you will be inherently good at. Challenge yourself in the 3%, not in the 97%! When appointing people to your team, appoint them based on the 97% and not just on the 3% (after one interview I was told in terms of skills and experience I was the best candidate, but I was not the best fit for the culture of the organisation so was their 3rd choice…)
  2. Define ‘career success’ for yourself; don’t let it be defined by others or by organisational cultures. Having 10 Nature papers but working all the hours God sends is not career success if your lifelong priority is to achieve a good work life balance. For me, career success is to enjoy my work, climb the ladder in a timely way, and do this within the hours I’m paid for. For the last 12 years I’ve primarily kept work within my contracted hours and this has not held me back in any way shape or form.
  3. Be efficient and effective. Once you’ve worked out what career success looks like to you, work out how to achieve this in the most energy efficient way. Study your part time colleagues and you will notice one thing – what they can achieve in an hour takes your full time colleagues twice or three times as long. When you are restricted, productivity often increases out of necessity. Companies that implement shorter working hours tend to see increases in their productivity. To achieve my career goal I have tried to emulate this. I try to make myself leave the office on time. Similarly, I try not to over-burden myself. You only need a specific measure of esteem on your CV once so be as quick to drop things as to take on new. Yes become an editor of a journal, but only long enough to raise your profile. I try to put in the time necessary into a task bearing in mind the benefits gained and their value. To climb the career ladder, it is best not to stick at anything for too long. Always look to the next job or role. Aim to move into roles that suit your inherent abilities. Move to roles where you can offer unique skills and experiences by moving subject area. All these approaches have worked towards achieving what I personally define as career success.

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The author working with interested students!

Author: Rupert Hough

Twitter: @RupertHough