Andrew Hendry: Making the Most of Life as a PhD

Andrew on a work-life balance - "the most productive people are the ones who are enjoying what they’re doing the most..."

A month ago, Kate Layton-Matthews and I sat down with Andrew Hendry to talk about eco-evolutionary dynamics. What started as a light aside about Andrew’s blog quickly turned to a deeper discussion about some of the opportunities and problems that PhD students and other young scientists face today. We went on to explore choosing your ideal project, finding a job in academia, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Sam Perrin (SP): You run a blog, which among other things, provides a lot of advice for young scientists. What prompted you to start that?

Andrew Hendry (AH): My students had encouraged me to do a blog. That was one aspect. But the other thing was that you find yourself giving the same advice to people over and over again; and realising that it might be good to write that advice down, so it’s readily available for all students. That was the set of circumstances that led me to start writing, and people really liked it.

I think one of the things that works is that the advice I give is different from other “experts.” I don’t just repeat the typical advice you get. I sometimes take views that are counter, or at least subtly counter to typical views, and so it makes it a little more interesting for people, they can get a different perspective.

Kate Layton-Matthews (KLM): Is there certain content you prefer to write about?

AH: I don’t really write about my own research on the blog, I prefer to invite people whose research I think is interesting. But it’s also a blog about the process of science, about the modern world of publishing, interactions with supervisors, fear of getting a job, stuff like that.

KLM: Would you say that it’s an issue that people aren’t promoting science in this more relaxed way?

AH: There aren’t a lot of scientists who blog. There are certainly a lot of blogs, but they’re not usually written by scientists. I think there’s a niche for that. There’s a lot of discussion now about how scientists should be advocates in the age of Trump. I’m not certain that it’s the best thing to encourage all scientists to do. Instead, we should, as scientists, do what we’re comfortable doing. So I wouldn’t suggest that every scientist has a blog if they don’t enjoy doing it. It’s beneficial to them, but I don’t think it should be a requirement.

For me, I like to argue. I like to be in the pub and have a discussion about something and have a counter-opinion. The blog is just a way of doing that in a way that a broader audience can see what you’re discussing. It’s also really nice to be able to write and not agonise over every single word. You write more like a conversation, instead of having to be technically precise. You can create a narrative that is as if you were telling a joke or trying to make a compelling story, and you could be done in 2 hours. So it’s just fun to do, and people like it, and I like it, if there’s a typo in there I don’t care. My mum does though. She tells me all the time about typos on my blog.

Andrew on a work-life balance - "the most productive people are the ones who are enjoying what they’re doing the most..."

Andrew with friend and colleague Marc Johnson on a field trip in the Galapagos, with both families in tow (Image Credit: Andrew Hendry, McGill University, CC BY-SA 4.0)

“I don’t just repeat the typical advice you get. I sometimes take views that are counter, or at least subtly counter to typical views, and so it makes it a little more interesting for people, they can get a different perspective.”

SP: You were mentioned you were getting asked the same questions over and over. What was the one that cropped up the most?

AH: I think that the blog that has proven most useful for people was advice on how to structure the story you tell in a proposal, or a paper or a talk. You often read an academic’s work and they don’t provide an exciting narrative to the story. Instead there’s a bunch of background information and you’re reading it, but you don’t know why you’re reading it.

I had seen an administrator at McGill who had said that proposals should have a werewolf and a silver bullet – there’s a problem, a werewolf, in the world, and your proposal describes a silver bullet that is your research. I extend that to the idea of a baby, a werewolf and a silver bullet. You first set the reader up with something they care about. They see something as an important subject, maybe it’s the conservation of a species, maybe it’s an ecological theory, the evolution of the diversity of latitudinal gradients in species richness, or whatever.

It conditions the reader to agree with the overall motivation for your research. Then you introduce one big problem threatening the baby. That could be a threat to the conservation of organisms, or some big gap in the theory. This gets the reader invested, and interested in how you will deal with it. And then the next part presents the silver bullet to kill that werewolf, or shows that the werewolf isn’t really there, or reveals a new werewolf. It’s the key study, or observation that is going to address the werewolf, and thereby save the baby.

“[T]he optimal strategy for advancing your career is to do something that you find interesting and you’re passionate about…”

SP: You’ve worked in the Galapagos islands, which is a dream for a lot of ecologists, as opposed to being cooped up in front of a computer. For people who have watched Planet Earth over and over and want to do something exotic, what sort of advice do you have for them to make that sort of thing happen?

AH: I would say just go. A lot of people struggle trying to figure out what topic they should work on as young scientists. They should be thinking, “do I want to work in Africa because I like lions, or the Galapagos because it’s cool, or reindeer in Svalbard”. Or should find a question that really intrigues them, and then ask, “ok now what system is that right system to do that on?”. Or they should say “my goodness we know nothing about this island off the coast of Norway”, and they go and study that.

But instead people do a lot of strategic thinking about what they think is the right career choice. A master’s student might finish their thesis on a system that nobody knows anything about, and be frustrated by the lack of genomic resources, and say “I should go work on a model system instead”. I think people should do what feels like the right thing at that moment. They should be informed about the particular system and they shouldn’t go in naïvely, but I think people should follow their heart and do what makes sense for them, because the most productive people are the ones who are enjoying what they’re doing the most, and even if they’re not productive, they’re still enjoying it.


The flexibility of work schedule as a PhD student can often be a downside, but putting off work to enjoy life can make you more productive (Image credit: Piled Higher and Deeper, Jorge Cham)

KLM: So it’s all related to being properly informed.

AH: Absolutely. Talk to a lot of people, get the right info, but don’t say “what’s the optimal strategy for advancing my career”. I don’t like that kind of thinking, because the optimal strategy for advancing your career is to do something that you find interesting and you’re passionate about independent of guessing what others might find interesting and important.

“[T]he most productive people are the ones who are enjoying what they’re doing the most…”

KLM: It seems like at PhD level, people seem to freak out a bit about how much they have to do, and might slightly lose their life’s social component, but you seem to do a lot of fun things, fishing, climbing and so on. Do you have any tips on how to maintain a good work/life balance?

AH: I think, in essence, the answer is that you should generally try to do things that you enjoy doing. If you want to take more time off, take more time off. If you enjoy your work, then you should do the work. If the work/life balance you have is stressing you out, then you should shift in one direction or the other, because there’s no point in being upset about everything all the time. Now, of course, that can come in conflict with your supervisor telling you to do x, y or z, but one would like to think that supervisors would have a better realisation of the fact that the students will be most productive if they’re happy, and working on their own terms.

A lot of people like to separate work and life, but for me, work came from life, so they’re the same thing. I travel the world, look at animals, try to understand how they work, take pictures of them, take my family there, I do research with my kids. I picked a job that I enjoyed, so I don’t have to worry so much about a work/life balance.

But there are a couple of other points independent of that. I think a lot of junior scientists think that a lot of senior scientists work a lot more than they actually do. I think supervisors often are efficient, and they work hard and intensely, and then they play hard and intensely. I also do lots of things that I enjoy doing that aren’t directly related to work. And sometimes my students are frustrated because I don’t respond quickly enough to emails, but I’m also sure that me being happy is something that’s better for them too.

The other thing is that one of the great fears is that if you’re not working all the time, you won’t get a job. The truth is that getting a job does require hard work and publishing papers. But there’s one other thing, and that is not being really picky about the geographical location that you want to be in. So if you restrict yourself to Trondheim, for example, it’s going to be hard to get the precise job you want. Even if you restrict yourself to Norway, it’s going to be hard. But if you restrict yourself to the world, there’s thousands of ecology jobs advertised every year.

If you find a new faculty position somewhere, regardless of whether you like the location or not, as long as it’s a research intensive University, they’ll give you a good start-up package! You’ll be able to recruit students, you do your research, excel at it, and then if you don’t like the place, you leave and then you’re more attractive elsewhere. You’re not marrying the place, you’re dating it.

KLM: It’s totally dependent on what you want out of it, really.

AH: Yeah, and it ties back to this work-life balance. You should achieve the balance that you want. It might mean that you’re not published in Nature or Science every year, but that’s fine because you want more time with family, or skiing across Scandinavia. You can do that as a professor.

Many thanks to Professor Hendry for taking the time to speak with us. You can read his blog here.

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