Guest Voice: Making Uncertainty Your Friend

As some of you know, my career was launched by a PhD in Chemistry. Being more comfortable with the unknown and working out ways to make the most of it are all part of the doctoral experience.

With links between the doctoral world and what it’s like to pivot your career into new territory bubbling in my mind, I knew exactly the person to turn to for inspirational and valuable insights. I picked up the phone to one of my buddies who, as well as being a fellow vegetable growing enthusiast, is a leading light in the world of researcher development.

Thanks to our conversation, it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to…

Dr Julie Reeves.

About Julie: Menopausal woman still full of curiosity and an urgent desire to change the world.  A researcher developer by profession – I want to create environments where people can flourish and fly.

Elaine… It’s fair to say that uncertainty and ambiguity are the name of the game in the world of research. What insights from your work with researchers could help non-researchers who are moving in to new, unexplored career territory?

Julie… The fun and amazing thing about research is that it is the perfect excuse to have a big juicy idea that gets you very excited and makes you want to transform the world – or your little bit of it anyways.

Research should always begin with thinking BIG: What if…money was no object, or we had a house on mars…scare yourself (in a nice way)! Not all of this will come off, but it is the star to steer your ship by.

Of course, one of the key things about research and breaking new ground is that it hasn’t been done before, whilst that is exciting, the uncertainty that goes with it can be daunting.

Doctoral researchers, who are new to research, struggle with this a lot, so I try to emphasise that feeling disorientated is normal – it is all part of the creative process. Sometimes it is good to think about what creating something new feels like – it can be a difficult process, or a bit like a ‘gothic drama’ (Wisker and Bengtsen) oscillating between ‘light and dark’ moments.

I try to encourage researchers to be bold and imaginative – to embrace the challenges, as this is the only way to create something new.

Elaine… Building on this, are there any specific capabilities which people have, or can develop, which help them to thrive in uncertainty or when they are in unknown territory?

Julie… I actually interviewed about 60 academics once as to the characteristics of outstanding people in their field. They all came from different backgrounds, science, arts, computing, medicine etc, but what was surprising was they all, more or less, said the same thing.

The really successful academics were passionate about their subjects and they persevered where the less resilient might have given up.

So follow your passion, interests and curiosity – you never know what it might turn up.

Successful ones kept trying even though they got the same levels of rejection as everyone else (in papers, proposals and for funding etc), and they shared in common the ability to get out of their box and make connections to ideas from elsewhere.

The interviewees were equally clear about under-performance too – although under-performers might be good at what they knew, they were not able to make connections beyond their specialism and were ‘terrified’ of rejection – so instead of persevering and keep sending the papers off, they gave up.

The comment from one interviewee, a Professor of Politics, really struck me, ‘at some point’, he said ‘everyone is an expert – but it’s what you do with it that counts!’.

Elaine… In order to find new opportunities, doing some exploring is a key part of the process. Often knowing where to start can be a challenge. What insights from helping researchers take their first steps into the research zone could help other people do some exploring?

Julie… Research usually begins with a ‘literature review’ or survey of the terrain about to be entered into. Researchers need to know the ‘field’ and what people have said or done up to that point.

But I think research begins with what really grabs you – and Googling key terms is a good place to start. Just follow your curiosity and paddle about reading whatever comes up and then you can begin filtering. That is deciding what is useful and what is not, what interests you and why, what is credible and what might not be.

In research this would be critical reading, where you are reading about other people’s work for its strengths, weaknesses, comparisons, what it doesn’t say or do. There are always going to be key texts (cannons) or ideas – these are the ‘best sellers’ if you like. In research, we look at who and what these texts refer to and then follow-up on them.

Trawling through other peoples’ bibliographies is always useful too. What researchers need to establish is the ‘state of the art’ in their area – once they have that, a researcher might see some gaps or shortcomings and that is the basis of something exciting.

Elaine… Working at the leading edge means you have to be constantly evolving and learning. Please could you share with us something you have learnt in the last 12 months which helped you change perspective. Why did it help you?

Julie… I encountered some amazing women who reminded me to be myself and find my own definition for success.

From Alison Kriel, I learned not to play small; from Harriet Dunbar Morris to think about how best to deploy my uniqueness; whilst you asked a fabulous question – how did I visualise myself?

Reflecting on these enhanced my courage and confidence – so when someone suggested I didn’t have any leadership skills because I wasn’t like her, I pushed back. And was reminded of Lucille Clifton: What they call you is one thing – what you answer to, is something else!

My great thanks go to Julie. Brilliant! If you’d like to connect or start a conversation, you’ll find her here…

LinkedIn: julie-reeves-24807215
Twitter: @JulieDReeves

Header image courtesy of Lucas Benjamin on Unsplash

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