Palaeoecology out on the frontier

February 18, 2020

Guest post by Dr. Lynne Quick (Nelson Mandela University Palaeoecology Laboratory)

Lynne QuickThe transition from Early Career Researcher (ECR) to head of a new laboratory

When you are in the midst of working on your PhD you feel that this must surely be the toughest challenge you’ll ever face, only to emerge on the other side and realise that it was a holiday in comparison to the academic journey post-PhD.

I completed my PhD at the University of Cape Town (South Africa) and immediately launched myself into a postdoctoral fellowship embedded in a relatively large international research initiative. Building on the expertise and knowledge I gained from my postgraduate work, I generated new pollen and microcharcoal records from the southern Cape and west coast regions of South Africa in order to reveal details about how climate and associated environmental conditions have changed during the Holocene. I found the transition from working almost entirely independently on my PhD to collaborating within the context of a large multidisciplinary and multinational team equally very exciting, and very challenging. At this time imposter syndrome hit me hard and I had a bit of an existential crisis (I’m overqualified, too specialized and not earning enough, what the hell am I doing with my life? – I know we’ve all been there!). Just as I was about to give up on academia, I was approached by Nelson Mandela University, one of the smaller, lesser known, public universities in South Africa, situated in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape Province. After a lot of soul searching, I accepted a research fellowship at NMU, moved out of my home in Cape Town (where I had lived my entire life) and relocated to a new city – by myself, with no contacts, friends or family there.

I was tasked with setting up and running a new palaeoecology (specializing in palynology) laboratory which would be the first and only palaeoscience-related facility at NMU. It turned out that I had not in fact won the science lottery -I had naively imagined my ultimate wish list of fancy new equipment magically landing up in an equally magically-constructed new lab. “Setting up” literally meant facilitating the construction of the new lab, from scratch. I rapidly had to get to grips with my new university’s convoluted, and often completely incomprehensible, administration and procurement procedures. I also had to juggle doing everything that an ECR needs to be doing (writing and reviewing papers, counting pollen, conceiving new research projects and writing grant proposals) as well manage the new facility. Needless to say, the last year has been tough, but the new laboratory is now operational and we’re ready to start conducting new and exciting palaeoecological research from the heart of the Eastern Cape!

Lessons I learnt along the way:

  • You are infinitely more capable and resilient than you think.
  • It is critical to master the art of delegating and effectively communicating tasks to your team (I’m still struggling with this!).
  • The palaeoscience community is very accessible even if you are geographically isolated (Twitter has been great! @DrLJQuick).
  • Never turn down an opportunity to network (being the only palaeoscientist at the university has forced me out of my shell and motivated me to travel and network as much as possible).
  • Upholding and nurturing established collaborations as well as branching out and forging new research partnerships are equally important.
  • Being awarded funding is often just the tip of the iceberg: dealing with national and university-level bureaucracy to gain access to the funding and then actually spending it can be very frustrating. Get as much support as possible from your research office and more experienced colleagues. Make sure you keep a log of all communications, outcomes and activities related to the project as they happen (this is extremely useful down the line when you write up progress reports).

To find out more about the Nelson Mandela Palaeoecology Laboratory click here.

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