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The University of Southampton
Doctoral College

Dear Chris,

Dear Chris,

I’m writing to you from the future (apologies for the accompanying tachyon tsunami) to reassure you about what you are feeling now.

You are probably going through one of those long periods of frustrated progress, where nothing seems to work. You may have just spent three weeks working on a problem, day and night, and have just proudly shown the results to your supervisor. It’s a fair bet that they will have crushed you within two minutes, with their favourite phrase of, “Chris, that’s exactly what it isn’t”. Persist.

You are working on something that will solve a major problem that no-one has been able to crack before. Solving this will take you to places all over the world that you can only now dream of.                                                      

So there’s the first point: don’t be scared of the unknown: it’s research, so of course it’s unknown! You will go up blind alleys, you will [literally] bang your head against the wall. But you will eventually come to see what your supervisor means when they say that you learn something from every mistake you make. The best research project is one where you have no idea where it will lead to. Having a nose for what might work and what won’t comes with practice.

Second, make sure you give yourself time away from your work. You often go out for dinner or to the bar with friends and colleagues. This gives you a great support network, both academically and socially. You can set the world to rights, talk about each other’s projects, or just plain gossip. You will use this to help break down that feeling of isolation.

Then, when you don't even think you are trying, stumbling back home, or doing the washing up, you might just get that Eureka moment. You will suddenly understand something that no-one else has been able to do before. The anticipation of that rush, time and time again, will be what keeps you going in your career.

That first time you see your name on a paper in the journal that Maxwell, Stokes, Rayleigh, Crick and Watson published their results in, will be one of the best moments of your life so far (perhaps only surpassed when some years from now, you are appointed to the editorial board!).

The third point is to learn from others. Your supervisor gained his international reputation not just from the quality of their ground-breaking ideas, but from their politically intelligent marketing of them. You will learn from them a major trick for accelerating your career: master an increasing core set of key techniques; apply them to a new field; cause havoc in it; move on before others catch up. It’s difficult to do, but you will often see the people in your peer group who do that will attract more attention and rapidly enhance their reputation. 

Publish as much as possible, but focus on research that is achievable, but creates waves. But remember, as in all areas of life, be nice to people on the way up. You will get more invitations, collaborations and success that way.

Fourth, seek out and take advantages of opportunities to make contacts (physical or virtual). Set up and lead networks, just as you would in your social life. Build an “eduroam” network of academic friends and collaborators who will set you up for life. Amongst these will be senior people who can act as vital referees for future jobs or promotions and the grants you will write. 

Don't just think that research is everything. If you haven’t done so already, pretty soon you are going to find people competing for research jobs who are much smarter than you. You may find that you cannot achieve that academic career you once hoped for. At the time it may seem like the end of all you had worked for. But press on, reinvent and progress. In time, when you look back on this later, you will see how life has worked this out for a reason.

Finally, do you remember the time when you were growing up and you suddenly looked at your parents and realised that they were not infallible? At some point you may have the same moment with your supervisor. You will realise that you now know more than them, that you are the go-to person for the community and it’s down to you to take the lead in the research area.

In 30 years time, your supervisor might well then send you their published collected works. On opening it you may read a dedication that thanks you for “three decades of science and friendship”. You will only then suddenly realise the enormous effect you have had on your supervisor and you will blub like a baby.

Best wishes,


P.S. If your supervisor asks you to change their kid’s nappy and babysit them, this is certainly not something you are required to do. But believe me, it’s a vital skill to learn for later life!








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