NAME: Joshua Larsen
CURRENT TITLE: I am a lecturer in hydrology at the University of Queensland, Australia.
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Hydrology
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 2+
EDUCATION: I originally studied geology before doing a PhD in hydrology, both at the University of Wollongong. At the time, there was an opportunity to do a postdoctoral (postdoc) at the University of New South Wales as a part of a national groundwater science funding initiative (National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training). I was then lucky enough to get an academic position at the University of Queensland at the start of 2013. At each step of the way, I’ve been fortunate to learn from a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds. I think appreciating this diversity is absolutely crucial to future progress in water science, engineering, and management, where we will need to bring all the tools the various disciplines have to bear on some fairly simple but nonetheless difficult questions. For example: how does water quantity and water quality scale with climate and ecosystem gradients? What are the net effects of human interactions with the global water cycle? What constitutes a real trend above natural variability? What is the sensitivity of important surface and subsurface resources to change?
What’s your job like?
I love my job. It is divided (not evenly) between research, teaching, and service (to university and discipline). Research includes my own work, as well as working with students and postdocs on their research. I don’t really get to do much fieldwork anymore, but when we do, it is usually divided between recent coastal hydrology/groundwater projects or more dry land hydrology projects. The diversity and challenges of fieldwork are wonderful, except when the car is stolen and burnt, but that is rare. Otherwise, we engage in laboratory-based carbon and nutrient work, or most commonly, computer modeling and data analysis. There are a lot of great questions that can be asked of the vast quantity of data now available for the hydrological cycle and water quality. The last aspect of research is the time spent writing grant applications. During the semester, a lot of my time is taken up with teaching, including giving lectures, having practical classes, and meeting with small groups of students or individually. I really enjoy teaching and interacting with students, but doing it well is a steep learning curve (especially content breadth vs. depth), using the assessments effectively and making sure the students learn to ask the right questions. Service at universities mostly consists of committees and meetings and most of the time is what feels like ‘busy work’ or ways to talk about work but not actually do work. Having said that, there is an underlying necessity in most cases, and it is important to keep broader strategies in mind at all levels within the funding challenges and uncertainties that most universities face. Service to the discipline means you get to sit on committees or panels for things you know and are passionate about. It also covers reviewing papers and working for editorial boards, which is actually quite a lot of time (I am associate editor for the Journal of Hydrology). I should also say that we are expected to have some level of engagement, and for me, this means attending or speaking at specific forums on a topic in my area, providing expert advice or reviews, and the most fun, talking to school kids about why I think science and water in particular are so interesting.
It would be misleading not to mention that juggling the broad range of responsibilities is challenging, especially the first few years of an academic job when you are finding your feet and struggling to best organise your time. I also see a lot of early career staff struggle with the expectations, performance pressures, and uncertainty (especially if on contract), and this is not something we acknowledge enough. You have to be very careful to hold on to a work-life balance that works for you. Having a young family usually means work is a second priority. Speaking for myself, the only way this works is to keep the work pressures in a larger perspective, so that you don’t get stressed with long lists of stuff to do, and know that World War III won’t erupt if you leave something for tomorrow or next week.
What’s a typical day like?
I get up early, maybe 5 a.m., have a coffee with my partner and do some reading and writing of papers, checking students’ work, or reviewing papers. My brain is sharp early in the morning, even if my body is not. Then my son gets up, we have breakfast, and usually go to kindergarten all together at the university. The day will then usually be in front of the computer and in and out of a few meetings with students, colleagues, etc. I may also prepare teaching materials or actually be teaching. Usually I am editing work, grants, or other service-related work on the computer. I try to do some data analysis most weeks, which means plotting, playing with datasets, and writing little bits of code. If I know I have some good chunks of time available, I will try to get back into a model or code that has been on the go or a student or collaborator has been trying to modify. University of Queensland has a beautiful campus, so getting out to grab a coffee or meet someone is always a pleasure. A lot of computer work will also be small administrative tasks that cover teaching, research, finances, students, etc. I try to leave the bulk of email replies to the early morning or afternoon, but I’m not always great at sticking to this. Usually I am out the door by 5 p.m., pick up my son at kindergarten, and am very unlikely to do any more work for the rest of the evening. Occasionally, I might do some lecture preparation, reading, or help out a student if it is urgent (i.e. handing a thesis in), but this is rare. Having a young family, I am also at home one day a week, so there is a chance I may not be anywhere near a computer and instead playing with a truck, drawing a truck, or talking about trucks.
Working with students is by far the most fun aspect of the job, and this covers both undergraduate (teaching) and postgraduate (research). Discussing research questions and problems in minute detail with students or collaborators from around the globe and struggling to come up with a solution or explanation for a problem over time is really what science is all about and is certainly very rewarding and fun. Teaching the core aspects of water science and trying to come up with multiple ways to explain concepts to students is also a lot of fun. Seeing new people engage with and enjoy the topics as much as you do will never get old.
Going in the field and the various crazy unintended adventures (maybe this is an Australian thing) is also, not surprisingly, very fun.
Finally, I would say that being alone and looking at data, struggling with plots and numbers, then weaving things together a few sentences at a time, which are the first steps in trying to come up with a story, is for me always fun. If it looks really interesting, even if I end up being wrong, I also reserve the right to run excitedly into a colleague’s office and declare this or demand they come and share the excitement.
Juggling all the time and performance (teaching and research) pressures are challenging. As an academic, you need to attract funding from various grant schemes or other research work for governments and industry, and then be prepared for a lot of rejections. These grants are both for the University, but most importantly for your own work. If you don’t get these grants, you literally have no money to do anything (including research with students), so this is a continuous challenge. Having said that, I am lucky to be in an area that is always going to be of practical interest to some industry or government agency, so drawing those applications and links is not a long shot.
Accepting things don’t always go your way is important in all aspects of life, but being able to assess and respond to unpleasant work situations in a professional manner is always an evolving and challenging skill.
As I mentioned previously, managing your time effectively is also a challenge (at least it is for me), both to keep on top of the list of work tasks, and also to guard the family time. Unfortunately, unlike many places in North America and Europe, Australia generally doesn’t have any spousal programs with University appointments, and this dual career challenge is often very tough for new staff, our family included.
What’s your advice to students?
Make sure you enjoy finding things out and that this also applies to the specific area you are working on. Learn as many skills or tools as you can as you go. This is increasingly valuable and if there is a need for such a skill, chance can often find you. Expect to be wrong and rethink on a regular basis. Don’t take critical feedback personally, even though this can be tough when you’ve been getting sweaty and very emotional on a piece of work for some time.
One important thing I find students suffer from at some point is self-doubt, and most often, this starts because they think they don’t understand enough or know as much as they should. This is very natural, and it’s important to realize that the body of knowledge is so large that only time and experience can grow this. So in the beginning, don’t be too hard on yourself. The other main concern from research students is that their results or study is simply not interesting and are only from a specific case study of no broader interest or relevance in science. Talk with your supervisor constantly about these concerns. Realize that you don’t need to cure cancer and that incremental progress is exactly what is needed. Is there something you can say from your work that you think hasn’t been explored in a particular way? Addressing the broader picture can only come from understanding your work well enough to peer into a specific aspect of a concept or assumption in your field. If you try to keep this in mind, and discuss with other people as much as possible, you should be able to see your work as more than a case study.
There is a common throw away criticism of academia about being stuck in ivory (or water?) towers. I think this is breaking down (or washing away?) more and more, especially in my field. I don’t know anyone in the broad water science area that doesn’t have some industry, government interest or contact about what they do at some point and many are actively engaged in informing policy. I say this because even if you don’t continue in academia, higher degree research in water science can serve you very well outside it. Many of my students (I’m new, so the total isn’t large) that have studied honors (fourth-year thesis) and above (masters or PhD) have gone into industry or government positions related to their work, if they have not continued to postdocs, etc.
If you would like to leave a question or comment for Joshua, please do so in the comment section below.