Early Career Mentoring

Jeff has been focused on early career mentoring since his first annual mentoring course at Oregon State University in 2008 titled "The Future Professorate" (inspired by Don Siegel at Syracuse University). The course morphed into an AGU 1-day course in 2010 and then into “Launching an Academic Career”, a 1-day AGU course with Brian McGlynn, Kamini Singha and Thorsten Wagener in 2012. Since 2013 he has delivered an annual course with Maureen Reed at the University of Saskatchewan; again called "Launching an Academic Career". He has delivered short-courses and lectures on many aspects of early career mentoring to CUASHI, IAHS, EGU, AGU and universities in Europe, Canada, and the USA. Much of Jeff's mentoring activity is now focused in China where he is a Visiting Distinguished Professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing Forestry University and Ludong University. Jeff spends 5-days per year at Ludong focused on early career mentoring. He also spends 7-days per year at University of Birmingham in the UK where he teaches his early career short-course with B'ham staff along with his annual "Catchment Science Summer School".


Navigating an Academic Career

Preface from the Book:

This little book is based on a series of "Working Life" articles I wrote for Science magazine. Most of these came about as I reflected on my early career and the mistakes I made along the way, and on the advice I would give to my younger self if I somehow had that magical power. Many ideas too came from mentoring my own 75 or so graduate students and postdocs over 30 years and helping them launch their careers—something that is deeply rewarding for me.

My story is perhaps similar to many: I was the first in my family to go to university. But going to grad school and then navigating the transition to a faculty position left me without a frame of reference for the journey—not even a white-collar connection to link my experience with that of my family. In my early faculty years I felt like an explorer in a foreign land—my degrees were from Canada and New Zealand, making the start of a US-based academic career a bit mystifying. I had no mentors. While everything turned out well in the end (I think!), I followed a path that was perhaps bumpier than most. I like to think that this gives me a useful frame of reference for telling these stories; figuring it out by myself—for better or worse—has given me perspective and empathy for the plight of others. There is no doubt that I have been exceptionally lucky and the beneficiary of the extreme kindness of senior colleagues along the way. My hope is to pay this forward here in a small way by sharing my journey in these bite-size reflections.

My goal with this small book is for it to be read in a couple of hours. While my examples come mostly from North America, I hope that many of those examples and much of the discussion transcends geography. I should state here that this book is not comprehensive. It does not get into issues of teaching, committee work, non-academic career tracks or the killing fields of university administration. Many are more qualified than I to discuss these topics, and there is a long list of recommended reading at the end of this book for those interested in these topics. This book is written from my perspective, which is limited to the many unearned advantages of my gender and nationality.

This book aims to help its readers to navigate life in academia, and—like any good sailor—the student, postdoc and new faculty member should know how to plot the course to steer. I have no special qualifications to write such a book3—only the experience of a sailor who has gone adrift once or twice and has been blown off course many times.

I hope my advice will help others as they launch and then navigate their own academic careers.

Jeffrey J. McDonnell

Saskatoon SK, Canada, and Corvallis OR, USA

Selected Reviews

From Amazon reviews:

“Though the author is from a specific field, I find the tips super helpful and equally valid for almost any field within academia. The chapters are small, yet engaging, and the author has done a great job in putting headings so if I need to review a specific part, I know what exactly to expect under that heading. Highly recommended to PhD students as well as those in early stages of career.

“Brevity is the soul of wit, and this book absolutely contains the soul of both wit and wisdom. I'll call it a "Must Read" for University scientists who are starting out.” 

From Goodreads reviews:

“66.7% helpful reminders, 23.3% insightful, 10% brilliant. A good read for PhD students and early career academics. Short and readable in a few hours.”

“I highly recommend this for anyone at any stage of their academic career. My supervisor gave it to me and I think it really helps focus on what's important in this type of career. Marked to a specific shelf so I can definitely revisit in times of struggle.”

From formal review in the journal Frontiers in Education:

“This book is a little gem that can be defined as a “survival guide” for PhD students, postdocs, and new (and not only new) faculty members to approach a career in scientific research with a conscious attitude. The book is based on the academic experience of prof. Jeffrey J. McDonnell and his leadership in his scientific field, and offers plenty of suggestions, personal advice, practical thoughts, and solid recommendations on how to live a happy life in academia, especially in the initial period of a researcher’s career.” 

Guest Lectures

Lecture topics if you'd like Jeff to speak to your group:

Attributes of successful researchers: A discussion of the traits of successful researchers going back to the early writings of William Beveridge in the 1950s.

Developing a research brand identity: Thoughts on how to enter into research where so many others are jockeying for position and ideas. How to get your ideas heard.

Communicating your work: Paper—and proposal writing hacks. This material covers of of Jeff's more popular writings in Science on the one-hour work day (with an Altmetric score of 1837) and his ideas on the top-down approach to paper writing. It also discusses some of the things he learned while working with the famed grant writer, Donn Forbes.

The academic job hunt: This discusses the factors to consider for applying to academic jobs, the academic job interview and negotiating one's first faculty position.

Surviving the first few years: A candid discussion of the road to tenure; building a research group and tricks for work-balance.

To book a lecture with Jeff contact him via email, Here.


Jeff's favorite quotes:

"An academia career is like a pie-eating contest where first prize is more pie"

"...a spirit of indomitable perseverance has characterized nearly all successful scientists."
William Ian Beardmore Beveridge, 1908-2006, Professor, Cambridge University

"Progress = pain + reflection"
Ray Dalio, American hedge fund manager

"We are all just two drinks away from being interdisciplinary"

"The world has problems; universities have departments."
Gary Brewer, Professor Emeritus, Yale University

"Academic Happiness = reality - expectations."

"What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important."
Dwight Eisenhower, 1890-1969, 34th US President

"I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy."
Marie Curie, Physicist