Finding time to smell the roses

It’s Sunday afternoon. I’m currently looking out of my office window admiring the last days of warm weather that I’m missing out on before winter kicks in. I’ve just sat down to write this tale, with no idea what I’m planning to write it about. In all honesty, the only clear thought at the forefront of my mind is ‘why did I agree to do this and add yet another thing to my plate?’ But maybe that’s it, maybe that is my tale, or at least a part of it.

‘Exposure is important’, a mentor told me. So, I guess that’s what prompted me to write this – exposure. I wouldn’t say I’m the best at getting exposure through networking. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never hidden out in a bathroom cubicle during the poster session at a conference, just to take a break from that awkward feeling you get standing on the edge of a circle of people you don’t really know, trying to figure out how to involve yourself in the conversation. Needless to say, I’m grateful for this Peter Mac initiative, as it offers an opportunity to share my tale, and gain exposure in what I, and I’m sure others, feel is a much less intimidating forum than a networking event.

So, here I am, spending another weekend on my career. Today I’m working on ‘exposure’ - one of the many dozens of aspects apparently critical for a successful career in academia. Yesterday, my time was spent writing a report to a funding agency, to reassure them their money was being well spent on my research. Earlier in the week, I was writing to a journal, professionally begging them to publish my work. And earlier this year I spent several weeks writing a grant application to acquire funding for my salary – an application I have ~10% chance of success in. Of course, in between this, conferences, training staff, acquiring ethics approvals, and more, I did also find time to read some scientific papers, think about science, and do some experiments in the lab.

I’m not sure exactly what stage it is that you start to realise that science, in its purest form, is only a fraction of what a research career entails. As an early career researcher, I think this is still a fairly recent, but already cemented, revelation for me. Am I complaining about it? Not really, mostly because I’m not sure what the solution is (though I hope brighter minds than mine have some idea). As it stands now, in a highly pressurised, underfunded system, it seems that harsh peer review, accountability, output, metrics, competition, long-hours, self-sacrifice etc are, for the most part, unavoidable, and I’m adapting to that framework as best I can. I’ll never forget a comment someone once made to me, in which they compared the academic system to Stockholm syndrome – a psychological phenomenon whereby a hostage develops an emotional attachment to their captor. Indeed, it does seem to me that a lot of researchers simultaneously despise and revere the academic system. We despise the conditions we are forced to work under, but also inadvertently celebrate the system as our only means for measuring success – papers, grants, awards, recognition, retweets, ‘exposure’ etc.

But success is complicated. I never became a researcher to pursue what we define as academic success. Rather, I pursue academic success as a means to continue being a researcher. Don’t get me wrong, I think most aspects of academia are extremely important. Papers and conference talks are critical to disseminate research findings; networking and exposure are fundamental to initiating collaborations; even competition is important for accelerating cutting-edge science. But in an underfunded system, the resulting metrics are worth far more than their face value. Undeniably, academic ‘success’ is a currency; a currency that affords one to lead a more vibrant academic career. More success means more funding, more options for collaborations, more exposure, more resources, which means more scope to do one’s research, and so on in an endless loop – one that can go in either direction. Overtime, the thrill of scientific discovery and the excitement to share that discovery with the world becomes overshadowed by an unwavering reality that, without metrics, your career longevity is in question. Of course, this in itself is not specific to academia. Certainly, achieving specified goals is fundamental to the success of most careers. However, where a research career differs is that, no matter how hard you work, great scientific discoveries are not guaranteed. Sure, if you’re strategic in the questions you ask and the approaches you take, you can hedge your bets, and ensure you discover enough to get your next publication. But the ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting discoveries you need to secure (or somewhat secure) your career longevity are largely out of your control. The best way to diversify that risk is to load every possible career activity onto your plate in an attempt to maintain traction in the hamster wheel. And I guess that summarises why I’m working on a Sunday afternoon. Again.

It’s easy to get caught up in the stress of a research career. My paper got rejected. My experiment didn’t work. That professor ignored my email. I didn’t get that grant. This p-value is 0.06 etc. The stress is flying in from all angles. But the truth is, despite all this, I actually really love being a researcher, and in a world where the sound of science is muffled by metric-driven noise, I make a conscious effort to remember that. With the risk of sounding like a clichéd inspirational meme, I feel really blessed to make an income doing something I’m passionate about. A big part of that probably stems from the fact I’ve been lucky up to this point. But I’ve also come from a previous, far less inspiring career – one where I wore suits to work and spent my time restructuring the finances of wealthy people to help them pay less tax. It was only after losing a close friend to cancer that I started to reassess what I wanted to achieve in my life - a tale I find a lot harder to write about (which is probably why I’ve just written ~1000 words before mentioning that).

Seeing a friend’s life taken from them at such a young age really tipped my own life perspective on its head, and made me realise that I wanted to contribute more to the world than investment advice. So, I set out to become a cancer researcher with good intentions and, I’ll be honest, a decent dose of naivety. It was about 30 seconds into my undergraduate science degree that I realised I didn’t understand how a single bacterial protein functioned, let alone how to cure cancer. Turns out it’s all pretty complex. But I fast became hooked on science. From day one, I could not stop thinking about how amazing those bacterial proteins were (among other things). Having previously done a degree in finance, where the most exciting part of my year was successfully balancing a ledger, I was blown away that university could actually be interesting. Eventually, I finished my degree and relocated from Sydney to Melbourne to do my PhD at the Peter Mac.

And now here I am, an early career researcher, finally got it all figured out (sarcasm – I still have no idea). When I decided to change my career, I had very clear goals. I wanted to contribute, or at least try to contribute, to the fight against cancer – whether that be prevention, treatment, quality of life for patients etc. And importantly, I also wanted to live a more fulfilling life myself. While these overarching goals have never changed, overtime I’ve realised there are two major career ‘monkeys’ that regularly pop up to distract me from those goals (I’m not sure why I call them ‘monkeys’, it’s just how I picture it in my head). The first monkey (the fun one) is untethered curiosity. I can’t stress this enough, but there are ENDLESS things to discover when you’re a researcher. For this reason, it’s absolutely essential to be strategic in the questions you ask and the directions you follow up. Indeed, the well-known saying “curiosity killed the cat” refers to a run-of-the-mill cat, but in the case of an academic cat, the saying becomes “curiosity was okay, but untethered curiosity killed the cat’s academic career because it spread itself too thin and ultimately achieved nothing”. So, while curiosity in itself is a favourable attribute for a scientist, untethered curiosity results in unfocused direction and burnout.

The second monkey (the mean one), is a preoccupation with academic success. This is the monkey that often drops past to let me know I’m one paper rejection or failed grant application away from losing my career. It generally arrives with a bottle of pessimism or a bouquet of imposter syndrome as a gift, beats up my mental health, and then kicks the fun monkey on the way out.

That’s all an abstract way of saying that the nature of research and the pressure of academia often distracts from the real point – which is to contribute to something meaningful and enjoy my time doing it. While I’m definitely becoming better at managing this with experience, it’s something I’ve struggled with in the past. As a tool to look after my mental health, I’ve often journaled about how I’m feeling, but in the form of drawings, rather than words. I was asked to include a figure with this tale, which should probably be some kind of impressive scientific image. But given I haven’t written about my actual research, I thought it more appropriate to select a few of the many pictures I’ve drawn in past years during various periods of personal and professional reflection.

Maybe I should have taken this opportunity to tell you about my specific research. But the details of my research aren’t really what define my tale. Research specifics change, depending on the discoveries made and the people you meet along the way. Rather, my honest tale is about the bigger picture of preserving meaning and balance in a career that is exceptionally demanding, deeply rewarding and perpetually uncertain. So, although it’s easy to get caught up in the relentless vortex of academia, I always try to keep this bigger picture in perspective, remember to appreciate the journey, and even find some time to stop and smell the roses along the way.

Come to think of it, I should have gone outside and written this in the park.

Figure legend: Sketches I drew, depicting my personal journey and outlook at various times throughout my research career.

Dr Emily Lelliott is a postdoctoral scientist in the Immune Defence Laboratory, led by A/Prof Jane Oliaro. She completed her PhD in 2021 under the supervision of A/Prof Karen Sheppard, Dr Nicole Haynes and Prof Grant McArthur at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the University of Melbourne. Her work focuses on dissecting the complex interplay between the immune system and cancer, and has been published in leading cancer journals, including Cancer Discovery and Cancer Immunology Research. She was the recipient of the 2020 Morgan Mansell Prize for Young Victorian Melanoma Researcher of the Year, and the 2021 Peter Mac Postgraduate Medal. Emily has received support for her postdoctoral research through a Harold Mitchell fellowship, and grants from the CASS Foundation and Peter Mac Cancer Foundation.

Dr Lelliott can be contact by:

Email: [email protected]

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/emily-lelliott-8575b3b8/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/lelliott_ej (@Lelliott_EJ)

ORCID: 0000-0002-5028-6938

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