When helpful is unhelpful

Question.

Tell me what you think about me.

No, I’m serious! Please, tell me what you think about this scenario.

A while ago I spoke at a small research meeting. I gave a 20 minute talk on my science. I engaged with my audience, answered general and specific questions, and hopefully came across as knowledgable and measured.

I also arrived early on the day of the meeting as the organisers had mentioned they would like some support. I carried piles of papers to the meeting room, helped to fill up water jugs, and dispensed snacks. When the meeting was over, I helped clean up.

None of the other meeting attendees did this. They’re all nice guys who work hard, respect their colleagues, and have all been in the team much longer than I.

When the other members of the forum arrived, I was there setting up water glasses, looking like a meeting organiser rather than an invited meeting member. I wondered, as I handed out agendas: am I helping my career here, or being alarmingly unhelpful?

Here I was thinking that providing an extra pair of hands is generally a good thing: it seems logical to me that helping out if needed is beneficial for your interpersonal relationships and career.

But maybe that’s not true? Maybe it’s rude and condescending to help with a job that is someone else’s, or professionally a bad look to set up the chairs for a conference at which you will be speaking?

The gender issue also crossed my mind. Assisting in unpaid activities overwhelmingly falls on the shoulders of female organisation members, particularly in academia.

While I have not seen this so much in my career to date, I did wonder if the other (predominately senior, predominately male) meeting attendees thought less of me because I was doing some non-academic tasks. Would they have thought more of me if I arrived late, looking frazzled and important?

I genuinely don’t know. But the experience left me feeling slightly uneasy, as though I had made a mistake.

So…

giphy-downsized

Tell me what you think about this?

Do you help with jobs outside your core role?

Have you found it helpful, or is being helpful sometimes, well, not?

A week in the life of the free range researcher

Since returning to Australia in August, my working life has taken a comfy new shape. Don’t worry, I’m still rescuing data to improve our understanding of European weather and climate. But now I work from home, surrounded by magpies and hot pies, rather than mountains and the hot Mediterranean sun.

As a remote researcher I am free to work wherever I like, keeping my own hours, and maintaining a level of dress sense that would embarrass most of you.

But despite the freedom that working from home provides, I’ve found that the days tend to slip into a weekly cycle. This is good for my sanity, and for my tracksuit pants, that do need a wash every now and again.

Monday: Home day

I dawdle out of bed at 8:30am, safe in the knowledge that it is still Sunday night in Europe and I have the whole day to prepare things for my colleagues’ Monday morning. Also, my commute is four seconds long. Trackies will remain on all day and productivity is high due to a lack of office distractions.

At about 11:30am I remember the pot of tea I brewed at 10am, and realise why tea cosies are such a good idea. Talking to myself and singing along to the radio while working are standard behaviours on a Monday, as well as a little indulgence of daytime television.

Tuesday: Chore day

Time to brave the outside world and buy some food. Might even put a load of washing on, and do the dishes. Tracksuit pants remain the uniform until lunchtime, when I head to the market and run those mail-collecting, appointment-making errands that you can only do from 9am to 5pm. This takes up most of the afternoon, meaning I am working frantically when 6pm comes around, ready to chat to colleagues who have just started their day. Emails are the last thing I see before I go to bed.

Wednesday: Friend day

Emails are the first thing I see when I get up. For all the freedom of being a roving researcher, the time difference does make it hard to switch off from work. To combat that, I have lunch with a friend and her newborn, again relishing the things that you just can’t do if you work in an office. Plus it gets me out of the house. Cut to 7pm and I am attempting to work, bring in clothes and prepare dinner at the same time. So much for no distractions.

Thursday: Outing day

After three days of being home-based, it’s time to go rogue. My home Internet is struggling to upload the data I need to send to Europe, and my tracksuit pants are starting to smell. Off to the city for me!

I start in a café, feeling like one of those stylish people who work on their laptop in a café. I listen to some St Germain while I code and drink too much tea and try in vain to get the free wifi to upload 5GB of data. I leave, hepped up on tea and busting for the loo, and hole up in a university library instead. Here the toilets are free and (if you’re lucky) the eduroam Internet works. I might even organise a work meeting with a local collaborator, to remind myself of the wide and wonderful world of research in which I am still living. How fun to have an outing!

Friday: Friday

After yesterday’s exhausting outing. I’m ready to bring in the weekend with another productive day at home. Might even stay in my PJs for a while and start working early, before my brain wakes up enough to procrastinate.

While working from home means that you can really do it at anytime, I try to keep my weekends for living. I attempt to draw a line under what I have done for the week, and set things up to start well the following Monday. In reality, this means making a long list of things I haven’t quite finished, waiting for me and my pot of tea on Monday morning.

 

This, so far, has been my experience of working remotely. Is it how you work from home? How do you stay motivated when working by yourself? How does one make a good tea cosy? Please, let me know!

 

Meeting your heroes

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to receive a ERASMUS+ Mobility Grant to visit one of the pillars of climate science, The University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit.

CRU is responsible for one of the most widely-used long-term climate datasets in the world, the HadCRUT record. It also has an impressively long history of historical data research. I was therefore really excited, and pretty nervous, when I got off the double decker bus at UEA on Monday morning. I was going to meet my heroes, peoples whose names I only knew from my well-thumbed copies of their papers. Eep!Read More »

Holiday! Celebrate! By working?

This week, I have had the unadulterated luxury of being on holiday. And not a travelling holiday either: a plonk yourself next to the pool, sunset drinks, working on your tan, proper vacation. Although it’s been great, these kinds of breaks are not my usual fare. I am much better at seeing and doing than I am at sitting still.

2016-05-18 19.17.28
Not a bad place to sit still really…

Plus, like most scientists, I couldn’t quite shake what Dr Climate refers to as holiday guilt — the idea that I should really be working rather than lounging around. While I know this is common for most people, it seems particularly rampant in academics.

Obviously, too much work and not enough play is bad for your mental health and work productivity. But, if you have to address your gnawing conscience, is there some good that can come out of a little bit of work in between swims?Read More »

What to do at EGU

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the European Geosciences Union conference in Vienna, affectionately and efficiently known as EGU.

Over 13,000 scientists from across the world get together for a week to discuss the centre of the earth, far flung space and everything, literally everything, located in between. Seeing so many researchers together, in so much comfortable footwear and with such a wide array of backpacks, is a special experience indeed.

This was my second EGU, but my first as a grown-up scientist rather than a student. The first time was completely overwhelming, and I left thinking that mass meetings were not my scientific bag.

But this year was very different. I got some useful feedback on my work, met heaps of new people in my field, connected with some people I’d been longing to collaborate with, and re-connected with great old colleagues and friends.

I am a bit more experienced now it’s true, and know a few more names and faces. This year I was also fortunate to give a talk , and give it at the start of the week, meaning that a) my presentation was out of the way early and b) the few people who did see my talk had more time to catch me and ask questions.

But I was also more prepared this year, and I think I’ve figured out a few of the dos and don’ts  (dont’s?) of EGU. They are, in the order that I thought of them…Read More »

The week the paper was published

“Dear Dr Ashcroft,

I am pleased to inform you that your paper has been accepted for publication.”

Huzzah! Is there any sweeter sentence in the scientific world?! Maybe “the results are significant at the 99.9% confidence level (p<0.01)”.  But the opening line from this email I recently received is definitely up there.

The accepted paper is the last publication to come directly out of my PhD thesis, an adaptation of the final chapter that brought together several datasets I developed and tried to answer a big question using my historical instrumental data: how has the El Niño–Southern Oscillation influence on southeastern Australian rainfall varied since European settlement?

Read More »

The week of juggling

Undertaking an international postdoc is the goal for many lucky PhD graduates. In fact, it is often seen as the only way to progress your career.

Meeting researchers from different countries, learning different methods, getting in touch with the international community and applying your Australian experience to a new area (whether that is geographically or varying your field of expertise) is important career stuff. A friend once told me that doing an international postdoc was like doing a PhD all over again, there was so much to take in. Now that I’m here, I completely agree. It’s rewarding, tiring, overwhelming and inspiring all at once.

But what about the non-career related opportunities that an international job placement holds? The chance to learn a new language, experience a different culture, eat new food and travel to exotic locations. These features are often promoted when advertising international postdoc positions, but how do you fit them in while doing well at your hard-earned job?Read More »

The week of supervision

Supervision is one of the most important aspect of a PhD. How you make it through the woods of the doctoral canditure depends so much on the company you keep along the way.

Ideally, a supervisor should hold your hand at first, providing you sustanance (in the form of papers to read and suggestions) and support to get you started. Little by little, the supervisor should let you wander on your own, make your own mistakes and learn from your experiences, but still be there to help and provide timely advice.

By the end, you need to be able to let go, strong enough to direct yourself, and ultimately make your way out of the woods on your own.Read More »