Early career research path: Walking in the jungle without a compass

I recently discovered that mapping a career path as a researcher is like walking through the jungle.

Some forests have beautiful roads adorned with scenic views, and even have a convenience store. But others, well, they are jungles – no roads just a plain old fashioned jungle.

A few weeks before my wedding, my brother and I walked through such a jungle. This is what happened.

My brother and I visited my aunt at her village. I was a teaching assistant and adjunct faculty at a college in Bulawayo, so I had to go back the following day. Unfortunately, my brother and I slept late and we missed the bus. And that meant we had to walk for about 30 miles to the nearest growth point.

At first, we followed the winding gravel road hoping to find a car heading to Karoi. We walked for more than ten miles and there was nothing. Exhausted, we decided to abandon the fancy road for the jungle. After all, we knew the direction we were had to take to reach the nearest growth point.

After walking for more than four hours, I was hungry and tired. Luckily, there were lots of mazhanje (brown berries) that season. So, after walking for an hour or so, we would eat mazhanje. But the problem with mazhanje is they make you thirsty.

Fortunately, we found a grocery store and asked for water. The shop attendant refused. The borehole was far and she couldn’t sacrifice her water for us. I understood. What else could I do.

We walked for another mile and found a homestead where folks were there. It was the farming season, most people had gone to their fields. My brother asked for water and they gladly gave us. But they forgot to clean the cup or cover the water container. There were floating dead cockroaches inside the cup. I drank the water.

As I look at my career prospects today, that tragic trip with my brother comes into my mind. Unfortunately, on this trip I have a wife and two kids who never never volunteered for a crazy trip.

Sometimes, I am filled with envy as I watch my peers getting better opportunities. Their graduate supervisor helped them find a postdoc or faculty position, appointed them an associate editor or board member at a high impact factor journal, and even recognized their effort in most of the research groups publications through co-authorship. They are walking through the jungle on a paved road lined up with convenient stores.

My case is different. I have to create my own opportunities. This is why I have sent probably 2,000 job application letters. This is why I wrote book chapters thinking that they were considered for tenure. I have even written book reviews. I am just trying to dig up a road through a dense forest.

Once or twice a week, I commit myself to writing a peer review report. I’m really serious about peer review. Because I heard when you’re a good peer review, the editors might consider you for associate editor or editorial board membership appointments. I don’t know but I will keep on trying everything and see what works.

I have met people who are worse than the shop attendant in this jungle. On numerous occasions, I rewrote manuscripts for peers. They would go on to submit the manuscripts, and they got published. But my name would not be on the authors list, or even the acknowledgement – an unwitting ghost author. It’s a jungle out there.

I have realized that no one is going to come to me and tell me what I should do if I want a career in academia. I know there are numerous books and blogs about securing tenure after PhD. But none of them are for an African researcher working in a foreign land. It’s a jungle out there.

Image by Kiwihug

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Edmond Sanganyado

Edmond Sanganyado (PhD, University of California) is a postdoc in China. He is interested in the effect of organic pollutants in aquatic environments. His work has been featured at Publons, The Good Men Project, and University of California Riverside's Gradsuccess blog.

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