What IS this journey…?

One thing that, on hindsight, I believe has been really challenging about the clinical academic career is the not knowing what the journey should look like. The lack of markers that would allow me make sense of where I am, how far have I come, how long will it be, or even where will I eventually end up.

I am a person who tolerates, even loves, uncertainty. It is in fact one of the things that I enjoy most about academic work. Everything feels possible because everything is uncertain. However, I think that the lack of almost any journey map has also made the journey unnecessary hard. And unnessecary slow.

I’m not saying this with any resentment, only as a description: I have had to learn almost everything through trial and error. By getting it wrong a lot of times, narrowing down the options, until I finally hit the one that allows me to progress.

I’ve had some amazing, generous people supporting, championing, and sponsoring me along the way. Most of the time, this has been (broadly) of three types of support. 1. Direct advice to me on what goals to pursue. 2. Direct advice to me on research methods or (grant or paper) pitching. 3. Behind the scene sponsorship. I have also had career mentoring, which has been invaluable, and which has gone some way to help me figure out my journey.

For 10yrs or so I thought that this is all the support that was needed, or possible, and I assumed that the trial and error was the only way to make this journey.

However, I have since had an experience of someone masterfully scaffolding me through a narrow passage, from A to B. Not just telling me where to go and how to pitch my case, but actually helping me see and weight up the steps, allowing me to learn how to choose a route, the things to watch out for, and the practical skills I needed. This experience made me realise that this kind of scaffolding, at the right level, can cut a 3-5-year journey to a couple of months.

I still had to learn steeply and work hard, of course I did. But the time spent was cut because I did not need to go through all the dead-ends. I was guided in my learning.

So why aren’t we doing more of this? And how could I, or we all, pass this kind of scaffolding support forward?

I think that one reason why we are not doing it (yet), or why I haven’t had it much, is because the path that we are on is genuinely still so untrodden. There are very few people who have the knowledge and skills to scaffold us.

I also think that the scaffolding support is very time intensive, and possibly quite situational. It’s not just a couple of mentoring discussions a year, it’s working quite closely with the person over a few months. Weekly discussions, and indepth understanding. It’s more likely to come from someone who is on that same journey, just more senior with the benefit of that expertise. And given the overall scarcity of people who can help us navigate this journey, the odds of having someone like that in the same situation as me, with time to work it through with me, are very slim.

But. Now that I have realised the power of scaffolding, it’s changing my approach to how I support people. I try to actively look for opportunities to scaffold others around me. Help them set challenges, checking in, giving small nuggets of insight that help them make small choices effectively.

I still very much believe that the journey we are on is inherently full of uncertainty. That is the narrative one hears over and over again, across disciplines. We have to be masters of our faith. But it doesn’t have to be decades of fumble in the dark.

The journey from internships to masters and PhD is now fairly well trodden. There are increasingly clear milestones and markers to take stock on progress, and help people see whether or not they are on target (although I think we can still do more to make these milestones more widely known).

The journey from PhD onwards still reads much like a desert island escape story: a lot of suffering and years of futile attempts by the hero/ine, finally followed by lucky incidents and ”making it”.

Perhaps one way we can make the post-PhD life easier is by illuminating the map. Beginning to place some known ladders into public view. Sharing co-ordinates of iskands. Publishing schedules of ships that picked us up.

I’ll try to share more of my journey in the coming weeks, to reflect and capture those hindsights, repurposed for common good. Anyone else willing, please do drop me a line.

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