Scientific community as an ECR

Blog posted on: 02 March 2016

From my perspective as an early career scientist, there are three scientific communities. And each of them make me a better scientist.

During my PhD I worked in a small research team within a large research centre, the Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC). For the majority of my PhD our smaller research team, which was fondly called 'Team Sherwood', consisted of one professor, one post-doc (there were others but I did not interact with them much) and two PhD students.

Within Team Sherwood we did not directly collaborate on each others projects much, other than with the boss, but we talked about our work a lot. About theory, practical stuff, writing, teaching. Does this figure look good? How could I better explain this? We once tracked a parcel descent (by blowing bubbles) near a air conditioning vent to work out where we should sit to minimise the cold from the air conditioner. You know normal work stuff.

At the time I really valued this information exchange. But only since leaving do I truly realise the value of their friendship and the learning/sharing exchange we had. I am a better scientist because of Team Sherwood. How could I not be when surrounded by excellent scientists. I have developed skills I never expected I would. We were a community, albeit a micro-community.

Within the broader CCRC there was also a different type of community. It had a different pulse. It was less about the nitty-gritty and more big picture. This provided some distance from your work when you wanted to talk to like minded people. They always had a sympathetic ear, were supporting and encouraging. A large number of these people are great fiends and you soon identify non-work connections. This is community too.

Its a friends-community with people you get to see everyday at work. These people get you. They get what you do without knowing too much about what you do. They understand the context of the stress and pressure. They are your go to people to help you celebrate the wins cause they get it in a way your friend circle can't.

When I packed up my life in Sydney two years ago, I knew these communities mattered to me. But only when I left did I realise how much these communities contributed to my day to day success as a scientist. Turns out I am a people person. Who knew?

When I moved to Berlin I missed both my micro-community and friends-community. It often felt like I had no community at all. I was getting support from my supervisor. Without it I would have lost the plot. But I was physically located in a new research group and did not find people to talk about the day-to-day issues with (i.e. no micro-community). I missed friends and confidants (my friends-community).

When I had a research visit in Hamburg in few years back I remember feeling like I slipped into the community effortlessly. There are still a number of people I catch up with at conferences and socially. But this time it was harder.

When I worked from home for the next six months during the Berlin winter it got even harder. Man I really missed my community then. At the time I thought I was working well. To my credit I worked everyday (tried to do 9-5 but it was probably more like 10-4) even though I was not employed.

So its fair to say that I missed my PhD communities and my regular meetings with my supervisor. But I did not know how much I would miss them. I did not know this about myself. In Sydney and Hamburg I felt like I was working on my own with support from my micro-community. They helped keep me motivated and focused. I was driving my own motivation and focus, but my ability to do this diminished when I did not have people to bounce ideas off or talk to. I always thought I was internally driven (and I am to a large extent), but I can't stay internally driven without a scientific community.

When I moved to Exeter and started a new post-doc I got back a lot of my motivation. The move to Exeter helped me on a personal level, as this is when I realised that I am the type of person who needs a scientific community to bring out the best in me as a scientist and the best in me as a person. To be challenged. To challenge. At the time it was difficult to process the personal growth as it was balance by the challenges of having my husband live in a different country. But that is a subject for a different blog to come.

Last summer when I was new in Exeter I was lucky enough to see a number of friends from the CCRC. Turns out two of them moved to Exeter as well and four came to visit at the Met Office. It was a really great way to help me settle into my life in Exeter. Within two days of being here I saw a friendly face from Sydney. It was a real pleasure.

Last year I also identified a third type of community that I benefit from. The conference-community.

Mid last year I went to the AMS Atmospheric Oceanic Fluid Dynamics conference in Minneapolis. It was a great conference. I enjoyed the science. But what it did most for me was to help motivate/energise me to do great science. To challenge myself. It was a great conference for me to meet new people. I had met a few people from past similar conferences so I was a lot easier to network and socialise. I made a number of new friends who do similar science, are like-minded but unique and who are also just excellent people that are fun to hang out with.

After the USA conference I saw a lot of them a couple of months later in Switzerland for a smaller workshop and it was great to have a social base. It provided a opportunity to discuss science in detail during the days and in the evenings talk about world politics or whatever over a meal and some wine. We also had a house party at this particular conference which was fun. Above is a picture of part of my conference community in Grindlewald (missing are another two lovely ladies).

So it turns out I am the sort of person that needs a micro-community, friends-community (at work) and conference-community to do good science. This is great news for two reasons. First, I understand myself better. I now know that extended time working from home is not a good plan for me. Second, when I look for new opportunities, the people I collaborate with are really important. This is an added win for my post-doc in Exeter and I am working in a highly collaborative group that will bring out the best in me. I am part of a larger grant which has another five post-docs and three PhD students. My post-doc supervisor also has a team of post-docs and PhD students. Only real difference is that I am one of the post-docs now instead of one of the students. So in my current position I get two types of micro-community. Win! Turns out they are also providing me my friend-community at work which is always more than you hope for.