If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here …

How on earth did I end up writing a blog about algae and the generally unfashionable end of biodiversity?   Of all the possible trajectories my career could have taken, how did I end up here?   I was recently asked to put together a career timeline for a British Phycological Society meeting. The idea was that if several experienced phycologists (e.g. the BPS Council) did this, then student members would have a better idea of what makes a successful career in algal research.

I fear that my career timeline does anything but set a good example to a novice phycologist. I showed the draft to one colleague who commented that the meandering nature of the timeline seemed wholly appropriate. I cannot disagree.   My PhD is on mosses, not algae; I did a spell of postdoctoral work on Mediterranean palaeoecology and I spent two years in Nigeria which was a fascinating place to work but definitely not the place to develop the strong publication list necessary to get an academic job in the UK.   My period of self-employment (the past 19 years) started with a series of fortunate coincidences rather than any decisive planning on my part.   I was reminded of the old joke about a tourist asking for directions to a particular town and a local scratching his head and replying: “well, sir, I wouldn’t start from here.”


My career “timeline” produced for the British Phycological Society meeting in Galway, June 2014.   A larger version is available here.

I was not at the meeting where these posters were displayed, which is a shame as I would like to have compared experiences. My guess is that the relationship between the early and late stages of an academic career is not something that can be predicted with any great degree of certainty.   The choice of supervisor and topic for a PhD, subsequent steps into postdoctoral work (is there a vacancy directly relevant to your PhD? Is, indeed, a sideways step to broaden experience more useful?), life choices (what if your partner has a stable career some way from the lab where you would like to work?) will all determine outcomes.   If this was a study on algae rather than on people who study algae, I suspect that most of us would be worried that there are too many variables that we cannot control to allow us to distinguish “signal” from “noise”.

One point about my career that had not fully sunk in until I prepared the timeline was that for two spells over the past decade I have been a part-time carer as well as a scientist. Two of my children have had ME/CFS-type conditions.   Each was at a different age when the illness started and symptoms in each case were very different. However, the consequences have been the same: much missed school, struggles to get qualifications, frequent hospital visits and, often, re-arrangement of family life and social commitments to fit around their needs. I have never kept notes on how much time my care commitments amounted to, but guess it to be between 10% and a third of my week, depending on the extent to which I can “cox-and-box” with Heather. Care, in both cases, would have been much more difficult if we both had conventional full-time jobs.

If I had to distil my timeline into a couple of sentences of pithy advice for aspiring phycologists, it would be this: plan as much as you like so long as you are prepared to tear up your plan every two or three years. If that sounds too negative, be assured that the life-changing event that you did not anticipate is more likely to be the making of you than any careers guidance you may be offered.   And my last word of advice: ignore unsolicited advice.


It’s all Greek to me …

I spent Friday in a meeting on the eighth floor of the Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre and took this photograph out of the window during one of the breaks.  The two towers on the right hand side of the image are the towers you see as you walk up towards the front entrance of the museum.  The diatom herbarium was located in the right hand tower until just a year or so ago.   Just to their left, if you look carefully, you can see the towers of Battersea power station, which graced the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals back in the 1970s.


The view from the eighth floor of the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, January 2014.

I was at the Natural History Museum for a council meeting for the British Phycological Society and, as ever, sat wondering why we persist with such an obscure name.   “Phycology” refers to the study of algae, responsible for about half of global primary productivity and about 75% of Britain’s photosynthetic biodiversity.  Yet most people would probably look befuddled if you asked them what it meant.   Even Google comes back with “did you mean: psychology?” when you type “phycology” into the search engine.

Brian Whitton recalls, in the early days of the society, advocating the term “algology” over “phycology” but being told by an older, more venerable member, that “algology” involved attaching a Latin prefix (“alga”) to a Greek suffix (“-logy”), so the all-Greek ‘phycology’ won the day.   Strange that.   We have lived quite happily with the term “television” for much longer, despite it, too, being a Latin-Greek hybrid.   At least the 400 members of the society know what we mean, even if hardly anyone else does.