The road to academia

I was offered my first permanent academic position by the University of East Anglia in September 2017. The seven years of postgraduate and postdoctoral research preceding it had left me in no doubt that I wanted to pursue a career in academia. Looking back, however, I wouldn’t have been so inspired to select an academic career if two different groups of people had not provided encouragement, and quite frankly, endless joy.

Although many kind people have helped me over the years, five people in particular stand out as having provided the optimistic view of academia that I needed to convert me to the profession. The first two, Dr Harriet Allen and Dr Molly Warrington, were my academic advisers at Homerton College, Cambridge during my Geography undergraduate degree. After a maddening day in my first exam term, where I tried my best to revise Foucault and all things Governmentality, I sent Harriet an email saying that I wanted to change to History. Although she said that the decision was mine alone, her reply suitably convinced me that Geography was the more exciting degree, and so I happily stayed. I was pleased to leave Foucault behind, not knowing how his work would provide much hilarity later in life when I encountered one of his biggest fans (Esha!). At the start of my third year, Molly approached me and asked about my career plans. Slightly doubting my ability, I raised the prospect of further study, something which Molly wholeheartedly agreed with and she did everything possible to encourage me further.

Special mentions go, however, to my PhD supervisor, Professor Susan Owens, and my first Post-doc PI, Professor Bill Sutherland. Both had different styles, one critical, but encouraging, and the other more laid back, but just as demanding (I’ll let them decide which one is which if they read this!). However, both were always adamant that I should continue in academia, and I was constantly inspired by the work of both. In every meeting with Bill, for example, he would ask me how we were going to save the world today, an optimistic conservation attitude that is desperately needed.

We should appreciate all those mentors in academia who provide encouragement and support for their students, as it is so important to have positive role models. Finally, I should mention Dr Catherine Sumnall, who was the yardstick that I measured myself against when I started being an academic adviser to Geography students at Gonville and Caius College. Her unrelenting positivity, and passion for her students (that saw her reply to emails in the middle of the night) made me a better adviser.

But the most important people who convinced me that academia was going to be rewarding and joyous were the Geography students at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, who I advised for two years. A picture from a Geography board game night is shown at the top of this post! The ability to teach and inspire students is┬ásurely the best thing about academia, and it is the one thing that always keeps a smile on my face (well only if the students want to learn!). During my first post-doc, I was offered the opportunity to be Director of Studies for Geography at Caius. Although I was excited to advise students for the first time, I did not expect everything to go smoothly. But largely it did – true, the students were demanding at times (quite rightly so!) and there was lots of extra work to do – but I got to advise such a fantastic, talented group of students, which left me in no doubt that academia was for me. Teaching them undoubtedly improved my well-being, and I got some rather great presents over the course of my time there – boxes of fudge each Christmas (thanks Tamara! thanks all! – I’ll miss it this Christmas!), a mug saying ‘Best DoS ever’ complete with a diagram of Rockstrom’s planetary boundaries and a storm surge (which one student had defined as a trophic cascade in their exam – see photo at bottom), a Geography trivia game (thanks Esha), a printed T-shirt saying ‘keep calm and spot birds’ (thanks all) and some rather large cards! And I think Al gave me a bag of Minstrels – thanks! Leaving Caius was very sad, but experiencing the thrill of teaching them had provided the incentive that I needed to apply for permanent jobs.

Now we’ve got to the present day, I aim to bring weekly or monthly stories of my academic life, and hope to inspire others to follow me into academia. This is important as we can’t risk losing some of our talented students or post-docs if we fail to show them the benefits of pursuing an academic career. Working in Bill Sutherland’s Conservation Science group, and teaching the Caians (term for Caius students), convinced me of the need to provide an optimistic vision. In Bill’s group now there are incredible PhD students, such as Eleanor Tew, Hannah Wauchope, and Benno Simmons, who might want to go into academia. Some of the Caians too might be interested – Hannah, Esha, Adam (and perhaps others). So if this blog manages to convince just one amazing student (wherever they are) to continue into academia, enabling them to drive the research of the future, then it will be a worthwhile venture. Moving forwards too I may look into hosting guest blogs if anyone in academia has a positive story to share!

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