Reflections on a Year Gone by
Today I am apparently a year older than I was yesterday. This makes today a great day to reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly of yesteryear; and just for a change, lets go in reverse.
The Ugly — Academics get rejected too often.
I’ve suffered a few big rejections this year: two failed grant proposals (one as single author, one as part of a team); one paper get rejected from three journals, and then accepted as is to the fourth (of similar ‘ranking’); another paper which is still in review, ~two years after we first submitted it and after several rejections; one paper rejected from a shiny journal with the professional editor adding “value” stating that our work was not wide reaching enough (we have a method to measure crystallographic texture & phase of a planetary core); and one prize nomination, with stellar inputs from leading industrialists & academics, as part of a bigger team. I’m sure they have been many more — but in an act of self protection, my brain is suppressed them from immediate recall.
These rejections are like scars, and continue to sting. The scars fade with time, but the problem with some of these rejections is that they can wear you down and only the stubborn are left fighting. The acceptance of one of these manuscripts indicates that there is “light at the end of the tunnel”, but for the poor graduate student who was first author (Patrick — a very tenacious and hard working individual) and I fear that their feelings on academic life, as they are early into the game, will be coloured by this process.
The Bad — Academia does not get easier.
As you “get better” at something, different “things” appear on your desk. In essence, as with many walks of life, the more you are seen as competent, the more interesting & fruity pieces of work cross your desk. These tasks often feels relentless, but I should pose early on that there are nuggets of achievement which we can celebrate along the way.
For me, these have included collaborating on long term strategy (in my case in the field of outreach for Materials, both in the Department & across the UK), becoming Deputy Director of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering at Imperial College, setting new courses, opening up new avenues of research activity, dealing with case work, and getting involved in the nitty gritty of academic arguments (the post peer review discussion with editorial office & subsequent publishing of “comments” process is a massive & unforgiving time-sink).
These “extras” come on top of a busy teaching and administration schedule, lots of conferences and work travel, and keeping on top of a growing research group in a vibrant academic field.
Due to an action from my side, my research is back in the driving seat, as at New Year’s, I promised myself to “do more hands on research”, partly to keep the bad at bay but also in reflection that I am an academic because I like to research into the unknown. This also means that my inbox is a bit of a failed zoo and I have unfortunately disappointed a range of colleagues by being later in delivering items they have requested (I am truly sorry — but I have to right the balance of priorities).
The Good — Academia can be rewarding (and most often it’s not about the science).
Hearing how my graduate student (and now Post-Doc), Vivian, aced her viva from my colleagues fills me with pride and achievement. Her work is lovely (e.g. EBSD, TKD and big grains in Zr) and she is diligent, plain talking and hard working. Her questions are on point and there is no ego behind them.
As a wee anecdote, I was especially amused to hear a PhD student from Manchester comment, in my view, positively: “Vivian can ask the most devastating questions at conferences; I’m always scared when she raises her hand.” Perhaps, I should state that I find this positive as her questions reflect her deep interest in the talks, that she cuts to the heart of the matter, often disregarding the hand-waving, and that ultimately her questions add value to the conversation. These are some her qualities that I very much admire. For example, when I was asked a question by Vivian on my work at the EBSD conference, I was extremely nervous and ultimately she was right in her query — there is a tiny bug that I need to iron out & I’ll work hard to get it sorted.
I am tremendously happy that my research group is littered with a range of amazing folk, and I am extremely pleased to have a great bunch to collaborate with. As I get older, the science and engineering of the challenge underpin our work, but I am more excited to watch them develop and grow. For example, in my Department, the PhD students give talks in their second year, and I was engrossed in their research adventures and enjoyed how Simon, William, Jim and Tianhong talked about their research coherently and with, justified, confidence (no pressure to the rest of you right now…).
I can share many tales of others who have been in group who I’m immensely proud of, such as: Jun who is now an Independent Research Fellow in Mechanical Engineering; Terry who now has a Faculty post back in Korea; Qinmeng and Siyang who started as MSc students, and are now are kicking off their PhDs (Qinmeng is with Jun, and Siyang is in my group); Suki who’s developing his skills to distil a difficult engineering challenge and translate his hard work into his PhD thesis. The list goes on.
Looking to the future
As for next year’s fun — lets see how we go. I’m looking forward to addressing new challenges, as well as “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s” on our work to make sure it stands the test of time.
If you want to gaze into the crystal ball, perhaps you could image that we should look forward to shiny work on a new method of measuring crystallographic texture, innovations with EBSD, new contributions in understanding the mechanisms of deformation and performance in zirconium alloys, understanding failure of mobile phones, and linking microstructure to gas pipe-line failures, to name but a few!