In a new feature, The Life Academic, contributors reflect on how life and work intersect for faculty, academic librarians, academic professionals, researchers, and others. In the first installment, Sarah A Gagliano Taliun, a researcher and assistant professor at the Université de Montreal, offers advice for early-career researchers trying to find balance.

Last summer, my partner and I rented a tandem bicycle to spend the day riding through the Curonian Spit National Park, a narrow piece of land in Lithuania that splits the Curonian Lagoon and the Baltic Sea. Certain trails, arguably the most scenic, are bike-only paths. There was only one tandem bike for rent, so we figured it was meant to be.

Upon returning home, as I prepared to welcome a new academic year, I looked back on my first three years in my current role as a junior faculty researcher in Montreal, Canada. It dawned on me that several aspects of that two-person summer bike ride nicely summarize some key points I have taken away from this phase in my career.

What is presented here is not meant to be a comprehensive list. The points reflect my own experiences, which have been influenced by situational and personal contexts. Nevertheless, the goal here is to present insight into an important topic in a light-hearted manner, and hopefully inspire others in similar situations to enjoy the ride.

  1. Rough patches and steep hills are inevitable, so keep pedaling forward.

We encountered several hills during the tandem bike ride last summer that had to be overcome to complete the looped path. Those parts required a more concerted pedaling effort and more concentration to overcome the inclines. The experience helped me reflect on my life three summers ago, when I joined the ranks of many others becoming comfortable with the tasks and responsibilities of a new position, alongside moving to a new city amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was in a privileged position as my computational-based research could continue in a relatively smooth manner remotely. However, a natural part of research is the bumpy patches along the way that need to be overcome, such as rejected grants, experiments that need to go back to the drawing board, performance challenges with a team member, etc. Both in this line of work and on the bike path, when you reach a rough patch, focus on the task at hand to overcome it. Soon enough, your wheels will return to smoother terrain.

Both in this line of work and on the bike path, when you reach a rough patch, focus on the task at hand to overcome it.

  1. Riding a tandem bike is not a solitary endeavor. Neither is starting up your lab or working with colleagues.

Research, in any domain, cannot be done in isolation, whether you lead a wet or dry lab, or a larger or smaller group. Networking is key. Presenting your work at your own institution, nationally, or in international settings is valuable. Attending conferences, for example, is a powerful way to renew old connections and make new ones, as well as to talk about your work and to learn about the latest work of others. Virtual options are particularly useful for those for whom extended time away from home is not feasible. The characteristics of teamwork and collegiality are also a central part of a tandem bike ride as both riders must pedal. On my ride, we communicated throughout the journey regarding taking breaks (see point 4), strategizing for upcoming demanding stretches, and more. Working alone simply doesn’t cut it if you want to cross the finish line. 

  1. Practice makes (closer to) perfect.

Riding a tandem bike is not identical to riding a standard bicycle. There is a bit of a learning curve in figuring out the balancing and coordination. The more you do, the more you get used to it, and now I feel much more comfortable on the pedals. Certain skills as a junior faculty researcher also require practice, practice, and more practice to get the hang of things. Let’s take grant writing, for instance. I was lucky to have generous colleagues to read through and provide comments on my draft proposals, to meet in person to bounce off ideas, to team up in writing grants together, and to share examples of their old grants with me. There is still plenty of room for improvement, but when I compare text that I prepared when I first started to more recent grant submissions, it is evident that my grant writing skills have continuously evolved with each new grant writing season, thanks in large part to these opportunities.

Certain skills as a junior faculty researcher also require practice, practice, and more practice to get the hang of things.

  1. Take breaks.

Our cycling route was a 60 km loop, during which we took two breaks to stretch our legs and take refreshments. As someone with high-achiever personality traits, which many readers may also identify with, separating work from other aspects of my life and not working while on “vacation” has been something that I have always struggled with. Looking back at my first three years as a junior faculty, it is in this facet that I could have done better. The breaks gave me a boost of energy to continue the journey. If I can learn to apply this lesson to my work life, I am sure that I will feel more refreshed to tackle the next challenge.  

If you are taking care of yourself, you will enjoy your work more.

  1. Enjoy the experience!

I strongly believe that you should enjoy what you do. This is not to say that every moment is going to be fun. On a tandem bike, adjustments can and should be made if you are feeling continual discomfort. You can adjust the saddle. You can adjust the height of your handlebars. You can change your riding partner. Similarly, adjustments can and should be made by an early-career researcher to make work enjoyable. It is okay to say no. It is okay to seek out and ask for help from trusted colleagues, and it is okay to take breaks. If you are taking care of yourself, you will enjoy your work more.

I am grateful for and have learned a lot from the experiences during this initial part of my ride, and I look forward to seeing what awaits further along the path, which will no doubt continue to be composed of smoother parts as well as obstacles. You are not alone on your journey. Keep going at your own pace supported by your teammates.

You are not alone on your journey.

I really appreciated the collaborative aspect of the tandem bike ride, and the next time the opportunity arises, I would ride tandem again. Without a doubt, it was a demanding ride, both physically and mentally. However, for me, riding with a teammate made the journey feel less exhausting compared to if I had ridden alone. The lessons extrapolated from this bike ride are not only applicable to the journey of an early-career researcher, but also more broadly into other facets of life.

Sarah A Gagliano Taliun is an assistant professor at the Université de Montréal.