Advice for a newborn academic: bring your compass!

“Every time we learn something new, we challenge naivety,” writes Simon Peyda, biomedical researcher from Karolinska Insitutet, Stockholm, who is making his own path through the academic system. Two of his messages to other young job-seekers: be brave, and don’t forget the compass.

Graduation day is in many ways the academic equivalent of being born. Suddenly our “nourishing mother” lets us go off, to navigate the job market. Young, disoriented and inexperienced, we look for guidance and if we don’t know where our own path will take us, we may choose to follow someone who seems to know where they’re going. You really can be your own guide but it takes courage and confidence.
I’ve tried to follow the path for biomedical researchers and enrol for doctoral studies but have met rejection so far. Instead, I’ve had to make my own path. A year into my job hunt, I was hired as a research assistant in cognitive neuroscience. As an immunologist it wasn’t exactly what I planned, but I have enjoyed it and it’s given me the gift of time to reflect on what I want to do next and why.

Ancient philosophers proposed that human beings are born with a blank slate, “Tabula rasa”. Briefly, it implies we’re born mentally naïve, and by interacting with the world around us we collect experiences that fill this board with mental notes –like a map with marks of our past destinations to guide us in life.

Whether we like it or not, life will have detours and we will lose our direction or take a wrong turn. That mental map will also have uncharted territory, but be brave. With every new experience, we challenge naivety and shape our future selves from what we learn. Don’t forget the compass.

Here’s how to use the compass to guide you along:

  • Understand your past self: review mental notes, what has similar experiences taught you?
  • Reflect on the present self: What do you value, what is important to you?
  • Shape your future self: where do you want to go next and why?
  • Keep in mind that knowledge is power. If you learn about the past, present and future versions of yourself, you harness that power and make an inner compass based on your personal values.

With the right mind-set bumps and bends in the road will not distract you, because you know your reward will come without having to cut corners. It’s called integrity and it’s a vital component of a professional persona. Don’t get lost and confused. Start listening to your values, set boundaries, and let your inner compass guide you. This way you will discover your “professional persona” user guide.

Although my first job as a research assistant was a detour from my main route towards immunological research, I have grown on a professional and personal level. I am not naïve anymore. I value a healthy workplace and supportive colleagues over e.g. the exact topic of my work or money. This job has been a detour but I needed to visit the unknown to find my way forward.

Every time we learn something new, we challenge naivety. As March comes to an end, I am job hunting again. I don’t know what awaits me but I am more experienced than ever and will let my values lead the way. Humans – including academics – live, learn and grow. Never stop being born and keep your naïve curiosity.

1459190457_thumbSimon Peyda holds an MSc in Biomedicine from Karolinska Institutet. During his studies he experienced five projects in four research labs at three universities in two countries, with one focus: immunology. See also Simon’s recent piece in Nature Jobs, “Job interviews: Prepare for success from failure”.

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