The secret to success in (early) academic life


The secret to success in (early) academic life

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David Blondeau-Patissier (NAMRA Post Doc)Mila Bristow (RIEL Post Doc), Kean Yap (CRE Post Doc), Karilyn Fazio (Coach), Beau Austin (RIEL Post Doc), Kiki Dethmers (NAMRA Post Doc)


Against a backdrop of a growing community of highly skilled scientific researchers, creating ever-increasing competition in an ever-decreasing pool of available research opportunities, EHSE & RIEL convened a high-quality Research Leadership Development Program that focuses on skills needed to identify and seek out research opportunities, and enhance research success.

We are 5 early career researchers (ECRs) who were the lucky recipients of an invitation to participate in this program. Each of us has completed research apprenticeships (i.e. PhDs) and has different levels of experience within the academic world. We are a conservation biologist, a renewable energy engineer, an indigenous livelihoods researcher, a satellite oceanographer and a forest ecologist.

We each know our specific discipline. We understand the intricacies of carbon capture and plant growth, how to measure the effectiveness of Indigenous land and sea management, the importance of population genetics and spatial mapping of endangered species, how to remotely sense marine optics and water quality, and why you might use artificial intelligence approaches to design smarter renewable energy supply.

So what more could we want to know, right?

What we needed to know is how to successfully navigate the transition from ECR to MCR, how to sustain and build our science careers for the long term. In short – what is the secret to making a success of academic life!

Here we describe our individual stories on how we have experienced the research leadership development program and summarise this in our collective appraisal.


About the program

The CDU research leadership development program offered a wide range of techniques aimed at improving our communication and networking skills in the workplace. Our training group covered the spectrum of employment from professorial level, to us ECRs. This 3-day workshop was offered by RIEL under the guidance of Karilyn Fazio (Impetus) and, through role plays, short lectures, 1-on-1s as well as group coaching sessions, we shared some tips on how to navigate the complex and ambiguous maze of academia, developed a sense of trust between colleagues, we learnt how to articulate our core purpose, and to answer the all-important 3-letter word “why” (be it a presentation, a proposal or a key interaction with a peer). But the range of topics tackled during this professional development course was much larger: from learning how to develop empathic listening to how to manage conflict, we also touched on how to practice the “principle of generosity” to build our web of influence and we even tried our hands at coaching each other.


What we learnt

“I felt very privileged to have been selected as a participant. This workshop was very beneficial to my professional development because it reinforced in me the need to develop a personal brand for my work and a core purpose. What do you want to be seen as in the workplace and how can you strengthen that image is what I took away from this program. The various aspects of the workshop, from the team building exercises to the pitch in which we had to make a 10 minute presentation on an innovative research idea, “Dragons’ Den” style - and the coaching sessions, made this program very interesting and challenging.

As a group of five ECRs, we developed a strong bond during this program. Sharing our experiences and having this sense of trust is not only helping us navigating the academic system with more confidence, but it also provides a framework for finding our own place in our respective discipline. Why does this matter? It matters because we work better as a team than on our own, so developing good communication skills and learning the tricks of the trade are critical to connect with our peers in a more powerful manner.”…  David

“With the end in sight of a 3-year research project, this unique opportunity was very timely and I did not hesitate to accept the invitation to participate in the program, hoping that it would provide me with some additional tools to increase my compatibility on the job market. 10 years of experience in a wide range of marine conservation positions, have resulted in a considerable network. I could therefore provide compelling arguments to emphasize the importance of having such a network within our group discussions. However, how to use this network effectively in creating a secure and interesting future in my research career remained fuzzy. This program helped me think about and clearly articulate my personal and professional purpose, my brand, my unique selling proposition. Subsequent discussions about this in the group sessions provided me with various valuable feedback. In a series of 10 public presentations for a diverse range of audience, I am currently steadily improving on how I present my Brand in an authentic, confident and powerful way.” … Kiki

“I was very fortunate to be selected to participate in this leadership group coaching workshop, together with four ECRs from different research fields.

Being an ECR myself in the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, I was accustomed to the normal metrics for building a successful career in research/academia (which are all quantitative), such as the number of publications, successful grants/funding, postgraduate student supervisions, etc.

However, this workshop introduces another side which is equally important: academic leadership and personal brand management. This workshop consists of, apart from leadership coaching, peer discussions with the participants, which presented us the opportunity to communicate, understand and reflect on our respective career paths in academia.

For me, this training highlighted:  

  • the techniques in brand management which will be beneficial to both myself and the University,
  • the importance of leadership, especially in a collaborative research environment, and
  • the importance of sincere networking with both colleagues and research partners.

Thus, in summary, this leadership group coaching workshop provided me (and the participants) the opportunity to work together, as a team (albeit different research fields), to provide each other with peer support on navigating the academia matrix, both as ECRs and as a group, according to the foci and techniques mentioned above.” … Kean

“When I started at CDU, I was an ECR attracted to CDU’s outstanding research capabilities in my discipline – forest ecosystem function. This was my second post-doc and I was already well-practiced at team-based applied research, grant writing, project management and guest teaching. So I wanted more of my CDU experience. I hoped by the end of it, to progress to Mid-Career Researcher (MCR) ideally with my own research portfolio. Like most young Australian scientists I am highly trained, highly capable, passionate about research, and on a series of fixed-term contracts. After almost 20 years working in science, and more than 6 years since my PhD, I was tired of asking myself – how many more short-term contracts will there be? How many more unsuccessful grants? How many more times will I pack up and relocate? How much more does it take?

I’m not unique. Science is a vocation with high attrition because of lack of job security and career progression. So, in fact, I’m normal. But being in the centre of the bell-curve is uncomfortable for people trained to stand out (we PhD graduates are less than 0.1% of the population)! How then, to answer these questions and find a successful path through the science maze? I needed a mentor. I put my hand up, and this Leadership training came my way.

What an eye-opener!  I’ve discovered about my “brand” and why focusing only on my core values will help answer my long-held questions. I’m reminded about networks and to keep mine fresh. My peer mentoring group (and co-authors here) have shared this learning and provided encouragement and inspiration. Most importantly I’ve (finally) learnt “it’s just a job”. I now understand that in order to build up immunity to the temporariness of science positions, it is useful to practice a sense of detachment. Now I can recognise that detachment is not being uninterested or not taking action, it is objectivity. This allows me to focus on the moment and complete tasks to get to the finish line. If the finish line is the end of the next contract, I will be grateful for this training, and use my training and skills in my next post.”…. Mila

“Early Career Researcher. An honorific that both acknowledges academic achievement, yet establishes your professional identity as a small fish in a big pond. When things are going swimmingly, the current of academic life feels pleasurable. Not easy, but enjoyably challenging and sufficiently rewarding. However, these moments can seem rare for the ECR. When the tide changes, the ECR can feel like a goldfish swimming upstream in an attempt to avoid a pack of hungry piranhas.

Fortunately, I was able to avoid the latter by being selected to participate in a leadership coaching workshop and subsequent group coaching sessions. This opportunity was timely. I was feeling overwhelmed by my new role as research project coordinator with expectations to continue field work and publish, publish, publish.

This, however, is not a reflection on the intervention of a Guru who ‘turned my life around’. True enough, our coach did bring with her useful knowledge and experiences. For example, the idea that it is important to manage your personal brand. Aligning work with personal goals allows both for the individual to invest themselves more in their work, but also means that work can be more fulfilling, satisfying and, ultimately, more enjoyable. This alignment needs to be cultivated. Now, though my brand is still slowly crystallising, through a process of reflecting on the parts of the work I love and my motivations for taking the job in the first place, I have been able to realign my work with my brand.

A second reminder our coach gave was to be clever about maintaining networks. To our coach’s credit, she didn’t give the standard line of ‘as an ECR you must be going to conferences and establishing and maintaining a broad network of peers’. Well, maybe she did, but that was followed with some much more useful advice to target a smaller number of relationships – perhaps 10 – that are key to you achieving success in your work and your career. Subsequently, I have changed my focus to looking after the relationships I have with academics that work closely to my own personal brand.

However, the real value of the coaching sessions was the opportunity to spend time with 4 colleagues. By sharing our experiences I was able firstly to see that what I was going through is not solely my own story. The sharing of stories was both cathartic and instructional in that, as a group, we were capable of supporting each other to find solutions. Five different personalities with similar, though substantively different experiences of being ECRs. Enough shared experience to be able to empathise. Enough difference to be able to workshop solutions to each other’s problems.

While I still sometimes feel like there is a pack of piranhas chasing me upstream, the lessons learned in group coaching and the experiences shared by my ECR peers mean that I feel more resilient. More confident in my abilities to make it through the difficulties and, consequently, more reason to rejoice the successes.” … Beau


In summary

The training has highlighted for us the importance of our personal brands and the power of networking. These are the core tools that help us ‘weave our web of influence’ and navigate the maze of academia, whilst we individually find our place in our disciplines. Whether these tools will allow us to progress in academic life, and whether this program as a whole will generate greater organisational intent and identity within RIEL and CDU remains to be seen. We certainly hope it will.

We would like to reiterate our gratitude in being selected for this program, to thank the Faculty and RIEL for the initiative, and to thank our coach Karilyn Fazio for guiding us into the start of the maze. We wrote this blog as a synthesis of our experience, and to emphasize the importance of this program for both future ECRs and CDU; we recommend it continues.

We don’t know where we will be working in science in the next few years, but wherever it is, we will be appreciating these lessons we learnt from our time at CDU.


 Written by: Mila Bristow (RIEL Post Doc), Kiki Dethmers (NAMRA Post Doc), David Blondeau-Patissier (NAMRA Post Doc), Beau Austin (RIEL Post Doc), Kean Yap (CRE Post Doc)