Dear ECA self: What I wish I knew starting out as an ECA knowing what I know now
ECA Blog: Senior Academic Perspective, February 2024
Associate Professor Megan Teychenne
NHMRC Emerging Leadership Fellow, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), Deakin University, Melbourne
Well hindsight is a lovely thing. And although I have consciously tried to make some ‘smart’ decisions throughout my early (and mid) career, I am not going to lie… there are many times that pure ‘luck’ has been on my side. From the moment I was born (in a privileged country like Australia), to the academics I ‘randomly’ chose to supervise me in my Honours year (yes I owe my career to Kylie Ball and Jo Salmon – who at the time were early career academics themselves and are now wildly successful and respected leaders in the field), these ‘pots of luck’ have certainly propelled me forward. But – it’s been a bumpy ride. I have faced many hurdles (professionally and personally) and have learnt plenty along the way. So, what do I wish I knew when I started out as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed early career academic? Here’s a few thoughts…
Surround yourself with GOOD people
Whether they are your academic colleagues, mentors, supervisors, collaborators from other institutions, or the project staff you supervise – if you surround yourself with good people you will be a better academic for it. So what does ‘good’ look like to me?
Supportive and a ‘team player’: I am going to burst your bubble and this may be an ‘unpopular opinion’ but not all academics are supportive of others, and not all are team players. So select your ‘people’ wisely! For example, I once heard of an academic who tried to persuade a lead author to remove several co-authors from a paper they had all worked on simply because they felt more authors “diluted their contribution”. Yes – this kind of squabble happens when egos get in the way. But if you are working with academics who genuinely want to mentor and support you (there are plenty out there!) and want to work as a team to achieve great things together (there are also plenty of these people too!) then carefully consider who you want to work with – and take steps to make that happen.
Ethical and rigorous in research: If you want to continue to grow and develop as a researcher, and conduct research to the highest quality, rigour and ethical standards, then you should work with those that align themselves with those values. I have learnt so much working in collaboration with researchers from across multiple institutions and disciplines who are meticulous in their research methods and conduct. It will keep you at the top of your game and ensure that the research you do, is high quality and something to be truly proud of. If someone you don’t know well does approach you about doing research together, do your homework before agreeing. Read their papers critically, ask other colleagues about their experience with them. If there are ‘red flags’, you can always politely decline. It can be hard to say ‘no’ to new collaborations, particularly as an early career academic, but keep in mind that you are also saying ‘no’ to risking your reputation being tainted by working with someone who may not hold the same ethical and research standards as yourself.
Insightful, curious and humble: I love working with academics who have a curious mind, provide insights into the field and above all else are humble. We have all been on Twitter/X and seen the classic “humble brag”. Is there really such thing as a humble brag? So where do you find these ‘insightful, curious and humble’ academics? Go to conferences, webinars, visit other institutions and meet with those who are working in the field. Be bold and send a ‘cold call’ email asking to meet for a chat (online or for a coffee in person if that’s possible) and query them about their research, experience and academic journey. You will learn a lot about someone very quickly from those interactions and whether they are ‘your people’.
Life gets in the way
In my early to mid-career years, I managed to get married and divorced within the space of a couple of years (I don’t recommend – but hey, life happens!), grieved the lives of several close family members, friends and students who passed away, I became a mum (and subsequently haven’t slept for 9 years!), experienced less than optimal mental health at times, and even faced the possibility of being homeless. Yes, these are all classified as “personal” challenges but we know that our personal life can very much impact and filter into our professional life. So what can you do to stay on track with your career if (when!) life gives you lemons?
Harness your experience and use it in your work: It’s no accident that I have landed in a research career focussed on improving the mental health of mums. I have lived and breathed this, quite literally. Although I appreciate that this may not be possible for all researchers, being able to harness those life experiences (aka challenges), learn from them and inject that knowledge into your work as a “researcher with lived experience” will undoubtedly make you a better researcher overall. Want to know more about consumer-led research? Here’s a few resources to get you started: Consumer involvement | NHMRC and Toolkit (clinicaltrialsalliance.org.au)
Take leave when you need: Easier said than done I know. But more often than not, we have recreation or sick leave up our sleeves but don’t utilise it when we need to. If you are experiencing life challenges, feeling burnt out or stressed, you are better off taking some of that well-earned leave to process things and recharge – and come back to work when your mind is clear (or at least clearer) and you are feeling more energised. You will be far more productive and will likely enjoy work a lot more too! And as Russell Eric Dobda quoted “Taking a break can lead to breakthroughs”.
Run your own race
I had this quote written on my office whiteboard for about five years. It was a daily reminder that my career will look different to others and that ‘career success’ was not defined by a h-index (let’s face it, a h-index doesn’t account for career disruptions!). Simply put, being a woman, a mum, who has worked part-time for close to a decade to enable me to be the primary carer of young kids means that my career ‘outcomes’ and ‘success’ does not look the same as, for example, a man without kids who has worked full-time for the same period of time. So we need our own definition of ‘career success’ as it is most certainly not a one-size-fits-all. For me, I define my ‘career success’ as working with great people at a world-class research institute, having job security (which was both a conscious decision and “potluck”), having autonomy in pursuing my own research interests and agenda, and being respected by those working in my field. What’s your definition of YOUR “career success”?
Rejection isn’t failure… it’s just a part of the process
I still remember my first journal rejection. It stung. A lot! And as years have passed, the sting is now more of a slight bump (yes, annoying that we need to reformat the paper and spend another three hours entering the information into another clunky online journal system, but it’s just a part of the job). I can confidently say that I have had more papers and grants rejected than I can count. But boy oh boy have I learned a lot in the process of rejection! If you are lucky enough to receive feedback (from reviewers, editors, grant assessors) I highly recommend that you take it on board and address it where you can. I once received a rejection and 99 (!) reviewer comments on a research paper that I submitted to a good journal. I worked through and addressed every single comment. It made for a much stronger paper, I had an opportunity to learn new techniques I wasn’t aware of, and guess what? It got accepted at an even better journal than the first one I submitted it to! So, next time you get the pesky “We regret to inform you that you weren’t successful on this occasion…” email, just remember Bo Bennett’s quote “An objection is not a rejection; it is simply a request for more information”.
Associate Professor Megan Teychenne (PhD, Behavioural Epidemiology) is an NHMRC Emerging Leadership Fellow at Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN). For more than 15 years Associate Professor Teychenne has investigated the role of health-related behaviours (e.g. physical activity, sedentary behaviour) in the prevention and treatment of mental health conditions (particularly depression and anxiety), with a focus on vulnerable population groups including socioeconomically disadvantaged populations and women. She has played a pivotal role in advancing knowledge of the field, with her research cited in several international evidence briefings (e.g. British Heart Foundation, The World Health Organisation), and in her role as associate editor for the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity. Her research has gained much media attention, having been a guest on several national radio and TV programs, as well as being profiled in several hundreds of popular media articles worldwide.
University Profile: https://www.deakin.edu.au/about-deakin/people/megan-teychenne
What is a concert that you’ll never forget? A group of us academics from our research institute (Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition – IPAN) formed a band a few years back (appropriately named I-BAND), so the first gig we played was pretty memorable! Otherwise, a close second would be Pearl Jam in their hometown of Seattle!
About the CAPHIA Early Career Academics Blog
This blog is a labour of love first imagined by the Early Career Academic Committee (ECAC) 2023-2025. You will get to know the ECAC as we share our experiences as well as storytelling by special guests.
Each month features a blog post from one of our ECAC members, as well as another blog post by a senior-level academic that they have invited to share their experiences and insights. The blog posts span the following themes: Greatest Of All Time (e.g., lecture, research, network experience, etc.), Dear Early or PhD Self (advice, learnings), and Lessons Learned.
It is our hope that this blog will:
- Strengthen our Early Career Academic identity
- Model mindsets, behaviours and practices
- Share our triumphs and learnings
- Support you in your academic career journey
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