SIAM News Blog

CSE23 Panel Reflects on Key Aspects of Mid-career Development

By Lina Sorg

As applied mathematicians, computational scientists, and data scientists move beyond the early-career stage and become more situated in their professions, they encounter a myriad of new challenges and opportunities. During the 2023 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering, which took place earlier this year in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, a panel of established researchers described their mid-career experiences in academia and the national laboratories. The speakers overviewed general expectations, discussed possible leadership directions, and offered advice on managing a busier workload and supporting junior scientists. The panel—which was moderated by Carol Woodward (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)—comprised Jörn Behrens (University of Hamburg), Donna Calhoun (Boise State University), and Anshu Dubey (Argonne National Laboratory).

To kickstart the discussion, the panelists summarized their respective career trajectories thus far. Dubey explained that a zigzagging path in the early stages of her professional journey eventually brought her to the national labs. When she accepted a mid-career position at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, she was completely unfamiliar with the laboratory system. “If you are changing from one kind of research environment to a completely different kind of environment, be prepared,” she said. “Figuring out what questions I needed to ask was the hard part. It required observing, going to meetings, and volunteering to participate in community activities in the lab much more frequently than I otherwise would have.” Though Dubey felt more confident when she transitioned to Argonne nearly three years later, she still faces periodic knowledge gaps in laboratory culture.

Calhoun also followed a somewhat irregular career path; after switching her undergraduate major from chemistry to math, she discovered an aptitude for programming and eventually pursued computational mathematics because it combined her programming skills and ability to solve equations. After obtaining her Ph.D. in applied mathematics and completing two postdoctoral appointments, Calhoun spent five years as a research engineer at a national laboratory in France before accepting an associate professor position at Boise State University in 2011. She has since earned tenure and is currently up for promotion to full professor. “I try to keep myself as engaged as possible in what makes this whole enterprise fun,” Calhoun said.

During the 2023 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering—which took place earlier this year in Amsterdam, the Netherlands—a panel session addressed the many challenges and opportunities that arise during the mid-career stage of one’s professional journey. Carol Woodward (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) facilitated the discussion between Jörn Behrens (University of Hamburg), Donna Calhoun (Boise State University), and Anshu Dubey (Argonne National Laboratory), all of whom offered insights into career advancement and group leadership. Here, Behrens speaks about his personal experiences with building and managing research groups. SIAM photo.
Behrens informed the audience that his overarching career motto is to “go with the flow but keep control.” Upon earning his Ph.D. and completing a habilitation in Munich, Behrens became a group leader at a laboratory that was conducting tsunami research in response to the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. He eventually returned to academia as a tenure-track faculty member at the University of Hamburg and acquired tenure in 2014. “Now I feel myself as being senior because I already see my retirement on the horizon,” he quipped.

Behrens stressed the importance of high-quality research, especially since the nature of one’s work changes with upward career mobility. Unlike postdoctoral scholars who are attempting to gain visibility in their fields, mid-career researchers need to maintain visibility while also experimenting with new and creative ideas in order to advance. “The teaching and giving aspects are more important in the mid-career, as is sustainability,” Behrens said. He noted that the “publish or perish” mindset commonly persists in this period but becomes more intentional. “I started thinking on more of a long-term perspective,” Behrens continued, adding that he views papers as connective building blocks for his research that also serve to broaden his network of colleagues.

Another important aspect of career advancement is learning to construct, uphold, and lead groups of younger mentees. When evaluating prospective members for her own research group, Dubey keeps an open mind. “More than any technical expertise, I look for intellectual curiosity,” she said. “If the person is interested in learning, they can always be taught.” Behrens mentioned that established researchers should diversify their networks and connect with a wide range of professionals and faculty members while still preserving their own unique selling points. They must also begin to view themselves as leaders; broaden their research scope; focus on larger, aspirational projects and goals that can sustain their working groups; and apply for grants accordingly. “Nobody waits for you,” Behrens said. “At this point in the mid-career, we are the ones who need to take responsibility for developing curricula and actually lead new research projects.”

Dubey expanded upon Behrens’ comments about leadership by noting that early-career researchers generally rely on principal investigators to instigate effective connections across disciplines. But as these individuals begin to lead their own projects, they are suddenly responsible for instituting such channels of communication themselves. “In my experience, that has been really hard,” she said. “But it’s also taught me to be more introspective about my work and interactions with other people, and not assume that I know it all. This is a lesson that has not just been useful in science, but in my life as a whole.”

Calhoun remarked that group leaders must have a clear vision of their projects’ future directions and regulate their own time appropriately. “In mathematics, we tend to work on a very individual basis,” she said. “But that doesn’t scale well when you have multiple students. I’m at a point now where I need to figure out how to manage this whole group and have some structure to it.” Otherwise, leaders risk spending half of their time in one-on-one meetings with students.

Woodward then directed the conversation to the utility of long-term goals. Behrens stated that long-term objectives are helpful but should always leave room for flexibility. He encouraged attendees to focus on the work environments that best suit their own lives and make decisions appropriately. “That helped me judge whether a step would be helpful in reaching my overall vision,” Behrens said. When unexpected prospects emerged, he used this frame of reference to determine their viability.

Dubey admitted that while she does maintain a vision for her career, she often ends up doing the opposite of what she had initially planned. “I’ve always gone along with whatever life has thrown at me,” she said. “You can’t be scared of facing an opportunity and making the most of it.” In most cases, Dubey’s major career decisions have involved actively choosing to leave a scenario that was not working (rather than deciding between two potential pathways).

From left to right: Anshu Dubey (Argonne National Laboratory), Donna Calhoun (Boise State University), and Jörn Behrens (University of Hamburg) share advice about managing the expectations, responsibilities, and opportunities of the mid-career stage at the 2023 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering, which took place in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, earlier this year. SIAM photo.
Next, a session attendee inquired as to whether software publications hold weight in the “publish or perish” landscape. Behrens observed that software can be an asset if one is pursuing an applied position but is less valued in pure mathematics settings. Nevertheless, its clout continues to grow. “As more people realize that software is an outcome of many cases, it’s becoming a research product in its own right,” Dubey said. She promoted SoftwareX—a peer-reviewed, open-access journal that is dedicated to scientific software—and urged interested parties to learn more about the burgeoning research software engineering initiative in the U.S. Dubey also mentioned Better Scientific Software and the Software Sustainability Institute as groups wherein software proponents can interact with like-minded individuals, become advocates at their own institutions, and increase the credibility of software as a valuable project outcome.

Calhoun agreed that numerous institutions are beginning to recognize software as a significant contribution to the field. “You need to demonstrate that it’s being used by more than just yourself,” she said. “But it’s definitely worth pursuing, especially if you feel like it’s a way that you can really say something.” Dubey added that the best way to maintain software—and thus make it a relevant component of a portfolio—is to invest in its design from the start and avoid any corner-cutting procedures in the early stages of development. If other users will be employing the software, the creator should transition it to a community-based development setup with established gatekeepers so that the software can continue “living” in its own right.

In response to another audience member’s query, the panelists subsequently addressed time management. Calhoun noted that mid-career academics are typically accountable for three distinct areas: research, teaching, and service. She recommended that individuals focus their energy on two of those categories while making sure to still perform adequately in the third. “I don’t think it’s necessary to take on things that you won’t enjoy,” she said. “Time is the scarcest resource in this business. Pick what you like and try to say ‘no’ to the other things.”

When Dubey was asked to lead a research group for the first time, she agreed under the condition that she would assess her satisfaction level in six months and step down if it was not working for her. She soon found herself to be an effective leader but discovered that the addition of another activity to her already full schedule was unfeasible. So, she gave up teaching because it was the area that she enjoyed the least. “You really need to think through your own priorities,” Dubey said. “Just say ‘no’ to whatever you cannot do. It’s part of human nature to carve out time for what you like and start to resent what you don’t. You can juggle many things more effectively as long as you care about all of them.”

Behrens noted that individuals who commit to a project must deliver their promised contributions in a timely manner. But because the number of obligations grows exponentially at the mid-career level, not everything can be perfect. “You need to be selective about when it has to be 100 percent and when it is enough to deliver 80 percent,” Behrens said. “This is something that you learn by experience, but it’s important to keep in mind.” In some cases, “good enough” is satisfactory.

As the session concluded, the speakers all agreed that the mid-career is an exciting time in one’s professional journey. With newfound responsibilities come additional freedoms, continued growth, expanded networking settings, and opportunities for unique collaborations. “Every day I still learn,” Behrens said. “And that is a privilege.”

Lina Sorg is the managing editor of SIAM News
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