NAME: Mike Simpson
CURRENT TITLE: Postdoctoral Researcher
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Hydrology and water resources
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 2 years post-PhD
What’s your job like?
My job is a real mix of work, mostly comprising research and applying that research to real-world problems. A lot of my work is collaborative, so there is a fair amount of time planning and outlining new ideas with colleagues. We also work with industry partners, so occasionally I’ll travel to see them or they visit. We haven’t had any visiting students or research assistants this year which is quite unusual. I have typically had one or two helpers to manage, although they have always been great. It’s certainly very busy, and there is a lot of pressure to publish and come up with new ideas. This can be frustrating as there are so many opportunities – outreach, courses to go on, skills to learn, talks and conferences to attend – yet I have to miss 90% of them in order to keep on top of the work. Even for funding opportunities, it is always a close call on whether or not to apply as time can be very tight (and the application processes are pretty extensive!).
What’s your typical day like?
I often have a computer code running overnight, so the first task of the day will be trying to work out what the results mean and whether to set it running again. I usually check Twitter as well as some research funding sites to see what the news is. A lot of important stuff comes through Twitter including industry reports, new papers or opportunities. Then it’s onto the main work of the day, which can be drafting or redrafting a paper, writing a new model, preparing a talk or catching up on correspondence. At some point in the morning there’s the opportunity for a cup of tea with a student or another member of staff. Afternoons are when I tend to make most mileage with the work. I’m still re-adjusting after my PhD work/life balance, and if I feel like I’m ‘on a roll’ I will push on through to 8 or 9 at night.
There is a great moment when a model is finished and what feels like months of very slow progress can yield many results very quickly. Also when I’m prototyping a model, it’s great to throw ideas around and quickly scope out the work as there’s a sense of excitement. I’m fortunate that the office is full of good people, and we have good (but sporadic) evenings in one of the great Oxford pubs. Most people are pretty passionate about the work here, so we can have a good debate about the issues. It’s an interdisciplinary group, so we have a real spectrum of opinions.
When funding runs out, you leave, so there is poor job security. When you are down to the last six months of funding it’s not great, and it’s also difficult to see other people in that position. Similarly, there is very little scope for career progression, so we all have to plan for our next move.
What’s your advice for students?
Don’t be limited to directions which your course leads you towards. In water science, there are engineers, geologists, geographers and many others, but I don’t think many of them would have guessed that they could focus on water as a specific theme. There’s no harm in asking for advice or support from staff. I’d certainly recommend finding opportunities for work as a research assistant, as it’s a real chance to stand out. Be open-minded. Previously I was in a civil engineering department, now I’m in a social science department. There are a lot of misconceptions on both sides. I think that interdisciplinary work is the future, and in future it won’t be possible to have one without the other. This also applies more broadly – I have been certain of my facts so many times only to discover later that I have been wrong. Don’t be afraid to contribute ideas but remember you are at university to learn. Keep up to date with the latest developments in your field. A lot of lectures and teaching will focus on the past, but these days the horizon changes every week. New ideas come in and out of fashion, but there are also tectonic shifts in the political landscape – and therefore in research agendas – all the time. By using social media and attending talks by those in government and industry you can position yourself well – whether or not you plan to become an academic.