My expert field is amphibian ecology with a focus on acoustic ecology. I do a lot of programming and coding as well, both for analysis and when needed for software. My PhD was conferred in October 2018, and my post-doctorate in China just started. I am very excited and looking forward to this next part of my career I absolutely love my job; in very few professions do you have the freedom to let your creativity play out as you do in research. My main task is to come up with research ideas that should solve some (hopefully) great questions and then go and make it happen. I also get to hang out in nature a lot, often at night which is even better.
Seriously, rainforests come alive at night, they are full of sounds and animals everywhere, and on top of that who wouldn’t want to work with amphibians? They were here before the dinosaurs and each every one of them are in my mind evolutionary miracles, often with amazing adaptations to their environment. Every year there are new studies coming out reporting on some previously unknown behaviour or cool physical trait.
I may be the first, but hopefully not the last
That I would aim for a career in academia was not an obvious thing, after high school I spent four years working customer service-related jobs in the UK and Ireland. When I told my dad back in Sweden that I was going to university in UK to study ecology he mostly seemed confused, I am very grateful that I come from a society where you are not bound by the socio-economic background that you are born into and even though my family have had very little understanding of what I am doing they have never stood in my way and have helped when they can. Even if my parents never really pushed me or encouraged me to go to university, society in Sweden and how it functions have a built-in lesson that you have the option of doing whatever you put your mind to. I am the first person in my family to get a PhD, hopefully not the last.
I decided during the bachelors that I wanted to work on amphibians, as despite the amount of work that is still required on this taxon, there are not enough people around to collect the data needed to prevent them from disappearing. I also realised that I like statistics and analysis and really like coding! I can do fieldwork and see the data come in and bring it the whole way to the end regardless of what is required – I guess it is one of my main strengths, figuring out what is needed and then learning how to do it even if this involves a new programming language or doing something I have no prior experience of and that pushes the boundaries of what I am comfortable with.
Giving up is not an option
I am forever grateful to the Singapore government for funding my doctoral training. It has been very tough at times, especially when my grandparents passed away and I could not go home for their funerals, or when I was spending months on end on my own in the field apart from my local field assistants. I had never been to Asia before I moved here and the PhD has exposed to me some fantastic cultures, and given me experiences and opportunities that I would not have had otherwise. Some of the things I have learnt is how to develop a research idea that is good enough to attract funding, navigate the paperwork process involved with permits (in multiple countries), I can organise fieldwork and a field crew, solder hundreds of wires efficiently and well, figure out how to analyse the data and I know how to communicate the information to others around me. Most of all I know how to not give up.
A PhD, and a career in academia, is mostly about resilience. Very rarely do you get told that you are doing well or are on the right track, if anything people will probably want you to think you are doing badly. You must stand steady enough to know when peoples comments are wrong and to know when you need to pay attention to criticism. Be honest with yourself, if you are bad at something and feel it is necessary for your career to do well – learn it! I just ignore the negative people, do my work and deliver the projects to a very high standard . It is for you to decide what you can and cannot do. Take support from the people around you that are offering sound advice and trust that gut instinct.
Master a skill
My other main advice is to figure out what skills are needed to get a job; this is a tough field to break into and get a position in. The ability to compete on an already crowded job market lies partially in your professional network and partially in having skills that are desirable – having “just” a degree in conservation or ecology is often not enough to land a job – the hard bit is figuring out not only what skills will be attractive in the future but also what you are good at and can get known for. People talk about passion and yes, it is hard without passion and loving the job, but it isn’t everything, it is the final thing on top of solid base of other skills that are required. Passion and love for the job is what keeps you fighting even when things are tough, that makes you give up one day and come back stronger the next.
I am not sure what I am aiming for in the future, the next two years will focus on my research on acoustics. I also just registered a company to work as a freelance data analyst, I mainly started it as I enjoy analysing data and figuring out exactly what analyses it needs, even if it isn’t ecology related. It will provide a small side income and something to fall back on if I have periods without contracts in academia, as well as backup career should it be needed one day. I of course hope that I can continue in research, it would be nice to get to the point that we have large amounts of data coming in from big areas of Asia and still be able to process it properly without being swamped. I think it will take a bit more time before we are there though–mostly I just see a lot of acoustic work ahead of me in the region, it is an exciting time to be here! I just started the next part of the journey as a post-doctoral fellow in China – continuing the research work on bioacoustics and amphibians that I started during the PhD in Singapore.
Written by Catharina Karlsson