Soil Dirt Doctors blog

“In our next edition of ‘Your Career in Soil or Plant Sciences’  Plant Ecologist Rob Brooker from The James Hutton Institute shares his career experiences so far.”

Let’s be honest with one another right from the start: I work on plants and by no stretch of the imagination do I consider myself a soil scientist. So, when first asked to write this blog I was a bit unsure about whether I was the right person to do it. However, Grant Campbell – who kindly invited me – explained that the blog could be quite generic, and was aimed at giving early career researchers “an understanding of how you came to be successful in your line of science and what potentially could lie in store for them [ECRs] should they continue down a similar path”.

Grant’s message was reassuring, but it assumes that I’m successful. This is not a cue for a bout of humblebragging – “Me? Really? Well, one tries ones best…” ad nauseum. I guess by a number of measures commonly applied to researchers I have been reasonably successful. One key metric – which we often overlook – is that I’m still here, having worked as a research ecologist since finishing my PhD in Sheffield in 1999. So, how have I achieved these things, which might or might not count as success, but at least are related to some measure of persistence in the research arena?

To me this discussion – about how to have a successful research career – is an increasingly important one, but not only with respect to the specific issue of career development. Chatting to current PhD students, I am often amazed by the focus they have on what is needed for a successful research career – which skill sets are needed, which are the best labs to be working with, which are the journals to aim for, how can one develop good networking skills and build a research network?

At the same time as this increased focus, we are seeing unusually high levels depression and anxiety in PhD students (Levecque et al. 2017, Research Policy 868-879;). I am starting to wonder whether focussing so much on what is needed for a hypothetically perfect research career, whilst ignoring the reality of what research careers are actually like, might be contributing to these patterns of stress and depression. Is it an illusion that “successful” (humblebrag) researchers have all had perfect career trajectories? We need to start talking about the reality of this, because it worries me that we are setting unrealistic expectations as to what a successful career in research actually looks like.

And perhaps it’s not just me. In preparing to write this blog I took the usual step of checking out someone else’s work in order to pinch all their good ideas. In particular I was really struck by the way in which Bradley Miller, in a previous Dirt Doctors blog, described his career trajectory: “wandering and eclectic”. Hooray, I thought, I’m not the only one. Wandering and eclectic just about sums it up. So here are the main steps in my career, along with some explanation of how and why they came about. I have tried here to be honest with myself, and with you.

I never really thought about doing a PhD until my final year at the University of York, when someone suggested it might be an option for me. Previously, my main career goals had been to work in the countryside and to drive a Landrover, and I always expected to end up as a nature reserve warden. But a PhD was alluring because it brought with it the possibilities of continued student life and foreign travel. It seems ridiculous now, but my first international flight was from Manchester to Stockholm at the start of my first summer’s fieldwork in Abisko, northern Sweden. My PhD at the University of Sheffield focussed on interactions between plants in arctic environments.

If this were Radio Four’s Life Scientific, at this point I’d probably be saying that as a small child I was fascinated by plant-plant interactions, and have been driven throughout my life by a passion to explore them further. Good luck to those researchers that have this life-long passion (I envy you, a bit), but in my case it’s not true. I liked natural history, and I liked being outside. I did my BSc project on plant community ecology in a chalk grassland system, and found it sufficiently interesting and engaging to be worth pursuing through a PhD. Also, Sheffield was (and remains) a very good department, with an excellent reputation, but I expect that at the time this might have been secondary to other considerations.

My PhD was a definite curate’s egg, but it did the job of getting me employed at CEH Banchory in 1999. But the most important step in my career, which took place at this time, was not related to this formal career progression. In 1998 I had published a paper in Oikos with my PhD supervisor Terry Callaghan. This looked at how plant interactions might change along environmental gradients. After its publication I found a paper by Mark Bertness and Ray Callaway – luckily overlooked by the reviewers at Oikos – which was alarmingly similar. I read some more of their work, which was highly relevant to my interests, and on a whim e-mailed Ray Callaway just to say hello and see if he might be interested in mine and Terry’s publication. By complete chance (please note the lack of planning) at the time Ray was putting together a network of researchers to run a set of small experiments in mountain systems, and he invited me to join. As part of this group I ran study sites in Scotland and Abisko and, thanks to funding from the US National Geographic Society, we were able to travel to one other location. Ray wanted to know whether I might be interested in going to Alaska to help them harvest their field site. After several seconds’ consideration, I said yes.

This was the start for me of the most important research collaboration of my career to date. The network of researchers managed to get funding from the US National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) to help synthesise and analyse our data, which ultimately led to a Nature paper in 2002 showing global patterns in plant interactions in alpine systems. NCEAS insisted we had an official group name; Chris Lortie from York University, Toronto, suggested the Alpine Pals, and that’s what we’ve been ever since.

Example of an alpine Silene acaulis plant

This group has been highly productive. We have developed new projects and experiments, and have published a large number of papers in high quality ecological journals. I am an author on about 80 papers, and I think that at least one third of these are co-authored with another Alpine Pal. Why has this group been successful and long-lasting? We have discussed this often, but perhaps a key point is that the group was never planned – it was a spontaneous set of collaborations which arose because of chance encounters and shared interests in beneficial plant-plant interactions. It has persisted because, in a very short time, we became very good friends – we have enormous fun when we’re together and this keeps us motivated. Importantly this group could not have developed by design, and my participation in it was due to a single (slightly random) e-mail motivated not least by a sense of guilt.

In part because of the success of this external collaboration, work on plant facilitation was central to much of what I did at CEH, and I was lucky in riding the wave of interest associated with this topic in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Whilst at CEH I was also able to get involved in a wide range of research projects – one of the joys of working for such an organisation – and extended my research activities to include the impacts of diffuse pollution and climate change in Scottish mountain systems, and the role of grazers in high arctic environments. Again, there was no great scheme at work here: I worked on the projects available (depending on what we could find the funds for), those that I found interesting, and those where my knowledge of the ecology of plants in alpine and arctic environments might be relevant.

When CEH Banchory closed, I was extremely fortunate that a similar post came up in The Macaulay Institute in Aberdeen. I have worked there ever since, most recently under its new guise as the James Hutton Institute. Again, although maintaining a core of work on beneficial plant-plant interactions, the work I have done has often been the result of whatever was needed to match the available funding sources (e.g. long-term changes in sand dune communities, monitoring the effects of the Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme) and chance encounters. For example, at a meeting of a large European network project, a few of us at dinner one evening chatted about the research areas that we found of real interest. Through this discussion there arose a neat collaboration about climate-driven changes in plant community patterns in a long-term dataset. Even though we started this work more than ten years ago, it is still proving fruitful, most recently with the use of our data as part of a larger study which was published in Nature Climate Change at the start of this year.

Another good example of the importance of chance encounters is a discussion which has shaped a large part of my work over the past five years, and is likely to determine my future research directions, at least in the medium term. When the James Hutton Institute (JHI) was formed, from what were then the Macaulay Institute and the Scottish Crop Research Institute, meetings were held to bring new JHI colleagues together to better understand one-another’s work. At coffee during one of these meetings I started chatting with Adrian Newton, a cereal pathologist interested in the factors governing disease resistance in crops. An unlikely combination, you might think – an arctic plant ecologist and a cereal pathologist – but we were both interested in how neighbouring plants might have beneficial effects on one another. This opened up to me a whole new area of research which was previously missing from my consideration of plant-plant interactions, i.e. crop systems, including the important role played by soil processes and soil organisms in mediating plant-plant interactions. Over the past five years I have been working increasingly in this area, which combines research on the fundamental ecological processes (which I’m most interested in) with a wider range of possibilities for obtaining research funding. And I can use it to do something useful: right now I’m genuinely interested in how beneficial interactions in crop systems might help deliver sustainable food production and biodiversity conservation.

Example of some barley systems in Dundee (left)( and intercropping experiments in China (right)

In summing all this up I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Whilst unexpected events (good and bad), chance encounters, and luck have all played a part in my career, I recognise the need for planning and hard work: these put you in the right place to benefit from any opportunities that come your way. Without doubt, a strong CV opens doors. Instead, what I’m suggesting is that for a number of reasons the perceived need to strictly plan and follow a so-called perfect career trajectory might not be healthy or productive. It is perhaps a myth that this perfect career trajectory exists, and it’s worth noting that very many of us don’t follow this magical linear path. Having a career plan is sensible, but it’s also a good idea to seize opportunities when they arise, even if they might at the time seem at a tangent to what you had planned.

Finally, perhaps it is good not to spend the whole time thinking strategically. Having a plan is good in terms of focussing effort, but it’s also important to follow your passions and have some fun. I completely appreciate that the environment in which I started my working life is very different to the current one. Research funding and jobs were more freely available, and you might argue it was easy for us to be more relaxed. But, irrespective of everything else, I know from my own experience that if you’re not having fun then it is bloody hard to drag yourself out of bed on a rainy day to start fieldwork, or to sit up late into the night writing a grant proposal or paper. Having fun builds the commitment and personal relationships that are likely to be at the heart of your career, and that will see you through the tough times.

So, I’m going to come out and say it. Having fun as a researcher is OK. If you’re having fun doing your research, then good for you.

Author: Rob Brooker

Twitter: @RobBrooker1