My Career In Soil or Plant Sciences: Reinventing yourself

‘The next post in our Your Career in Soil or Plant Sciences segment comes from Mark Reed at Newcastle University, who talks about his experiences and how reinventing himself helped him remain successful in his field’.

You will often hear people in academia tell you that to be successful you need to become known as an expert in a specialist field. The problem with this is that few of us have the patience or staying power to focus for that long on one thing. I get easily bored. I would quite like to be the world’s leading expert in something one day, but I know I would get bored long before I ever attained anything near guru status. Instead, I’ve discovered that contrary to popular belief, it is possible to be a successful researcher without actually being an expert in anything. The secret is knowing enough to be able to say something useful. In my experience, most of the time you don’t have to be the world’s leading expert in something to say something useful about it. You just need to know enough.

The great thing about this approach to science is that you can regularly re-invent yourself. Most academics stay in the same field as their PhD, which is fine if you loved your PhD topic. The problem is that many of us feel trapped by our own career trajectory, afraid to step out of the tramlines of our track record, for fear that we will wreck our career prospects. I did my PhD on soil science, plant ecology and social science in the Kalahari and quickly realised that working for 3 months at a time with no way of communicating with the outside world wasn’t going to be compatible with becoming a father. So during the third year of my PhD, I applied for seed-corn funding to apply what I’d learned in Africa in UK uplands. The resulting project, funded by the Rural Economy and Land Use programme, propelled me from studying deserts to peat bogs. So my first re-invention began.


The author measuring his own smile in the desert!

Learning a completely new topic was slightly scary to start with, but rather than pretending to be the expert people expected me to be, I confessed ignorance and asked everyone I came into contact with to teach me what they new, from fellow researchers to farmers and game keepers. I probably could have tried learning everything I knew from the literature, but it was easier speaking to people, going out on peat bogs and experiencing things. That meant that when I did get round to doing some proper reading, things began to slot into place fairly easily. The publications started to come and I started to be known as ‘Mr. Peat Bog’. Of course, while I was doing my new work on peat bogs, I was publishing work from my PhD, and so I started gaining a reputation via my publications as ‘Mr. Desert’. Despite having done very little new empirical work since my PhD, I got invited to talk to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification about my work via my role in a new EU project I’d started. At the same time, my continued door-knocking in Defra began to pay off and people in Government started paying attention to my Sustainable Uplands project. Rather than re-inventing myself, it seemed that I had created an alternative reality. In one reality people knew me only for my work on deserts, and had no idea that I secretly worked on peat bogs. In the other reality, people only knew me for my work on peat bogs, and figured that there must be another Mark Reed who wrote about deserts – it is a common name after all.

But I had a problem. I was getting bored with both deserts and peat bogs and was now much more interested in people. I wanted to re-invent myself again, but this re-invention was to prove much more tricky. First, I had to convince people that I was a social scientist as much as I was a natural scientist. Second, I had to find a label that people could actually understand and be excited about. It turned out that explaining why I was interested in people was much harder to put into a succinct and understandable sentence than explaining that I worked in deserts or peat bogs. My first attempt was to focus on stakeholder participation, and I had the good fortune to publish a paper at a time when interest was rapidly growing in this area. I still feel a bit embarrassed about that paper, as there were loads of people writing about participation at the time, and I only spent a week writing it. But for some reason, everyone who needs to cite a paper about participation seems to reach for this one, and it now has over 1400 citations. The problem was that participation was still fairly narrow, so I didn’t want my re-invention to stop there. For me, participation was just one mechanism for people to share knowledge and ideas with each other, and I wanted to study knowledge exchange more broadly. The problem was that knowledge exchange was even harder to explain to people, and no matter how simply I tried to put it, people almost immediately started glazing over when I told them what I did.

The impact agenda came to my rescue. Right from the start, this is what I had been trying to do in the Kalahari, in the Peak District and everywhere else I’d worked. That’s why I was interested in people, not just soils and plants; I wanted to make a difference through my research. That was what had always got me out of bed in the morning; what had kept me going through the sleepless nights of PhD and project deadlines. I realised that I didn’t want to be Mr. Desert or Mr. Peat Bog. I wanted to be Mr. Impact. I had started an enterprise with a friend, Ana Atlee, doing knowledge exchange training for researchers, based on research we had done in our peat bog research together. It wasn’t really catching on under the banner of “knowledge exchange”, but then we changed it to “Fast Track Impact” and suddenly there was interest. I spun it out as a company last November, and now there is more demand for our training than I’m able to supply.


The author interviewing people out in the desert.

When I spun out my training as a company, I made the conscious decision to rebrand myself as the impact expert. I’m making a subtle distinction here between re-invention and re-branding. I had already re-invented myself; in fact I had been pursuing and trying to understand impact all along. What I needed to do was to convince everyone around me that I was an “expert” in impact. If I could do that, then I could achieve a multiplier effect by training lots of other researchers how to achieve impact, and have more impact than was ever possible through my work on deserts or peat bogs. It turns out that all you have to do to convince the world that you’re an expert is to write the first proper book about research impact and become influential on social media. I wrote the book as a series of blogs, which I then turned into a book over the course of a week, and I used some very poorly kept secrets (which I’ve since blabbed on my podcast) to get 25,000 followers on Twitter.

Anyone can re-invent themselves. If you start your career as a soil scientist, you don’t have to finish your career as a soil scientist if you want to stay in academia. You can be anything you want to be.

So how do you re-invent or re-brand yourself if you’re feeling stale or bored in what you’re currently doing?

  1. Consciously decide what it is that you want to re-invent yourself into. Just wanting to get out of what you’re doing at the moment won’t work.
  2. Have the humility to admit that you don’t know much and ask people to teach you about the area you want to re-invent yourself in. You will be amazed at how willing people will be to impart their knowledge and guide you if you just ask
  3. Keep learning till you know enough to be able to say something useful that will make a difference. If you wait till you know everything, you’ll never do anything useful
  4. Don’t tell people you’re an expert in your new area. Tell them that you can help them in your new area. Look for opportunities to add value and achieve positive change in the area you want to re-invent yourself in. The papers might take years to get through review and catch up with you, but that shouldn’t stop the knowledge you have making a difference. People will be attracted to you rather than more established experts in the field because you are accessible and can actually help them.

Author: Mark Reed

Twitter: @profmarkreed

Feaure Image: One of Mark’s interests is dealine with peat projects