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Navigating academia in ecology with Dr Meg Edwards

Today we speak with Dr Meg Edwards about all thing’s academia, surviving and thriving as a biology student and translating your studies into meaningful employment. After completing her PhD in wildlife science a couple of years back, Meg now works as an academic and lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland and creates her own academia-inspired art which she collates and shares on her Instagram page: @alittlebitmeg.

Navigating academia in ecology with Dr Meg Edwards | #itsawildlife

MEG’S JOURNEY

Meg was one of those people that always loved animals as a kid and, early on, went through the whole process of wanting to be a Marine biologist or a vet or all the “animal jobs” that people mention. As a teenager, Meg visited South Africa with her family and realized you could work outdoors with wildlife in a completely different way to what she had realized. When it came time to choose her next steps after high school finished, Meg umm’d and arrr’d for a bit before finding she could study wildlife science as an actual degree at university!

And from there, she never looked back! Meg enrolled in her undergraduate degree in wildlife science and following that, she even returned to South Africa to complete her Honours, studying the small terrestrial vertebrate biodiversity in the African bush.

At the conclusion of her Honours, Meg worked for a wildlife company that took animals to schools, birthday parties and other special events where people could experience them up close and personal and learn what could be done to protect them. At the same time, she was tutoring ecology students at a nearby university. While she was loving the science communication and teaching components of her jobs, she realized how much she missed the research components from her project in South Africa – and so Meg took on a PhD, looking at reintroduction success of Australian mammals and how to improve survival during reintroduction.

While she was busy working on her PhD, Meg continued tutoring and so, when an opportunity came up after her PhD to take a six-month position as a lecturer, she jumped on the chance and further down the track, Meg is now lecturing full-time at the University of Southern Queensland and absolutely loving it!

“Working in academia can be challenging but I have a very supportive team here at the University and what I really love is having the chance to teach students and show them how cool wildlife can be, get them critically thinking about what we can do to save them.”

MENTORING

When teaching and supervising research students you become a mentor to some students in helping grow and shape their journey towards working with wildlife. Meg says,

“I think it’s really important to make sure that you’re supporting them, not only with their studies, but also with other aspects of their life, university experience and their future career, helping them get to where they want to end up.”

While some students definitely know exactly what they want to do, others can arrive at university with no clear ideas of where they’d like to take their studies – and both are completely fine – everyone’s journey is different! As well, sometimes the direction that students want to take their studies, or what they’d like to get out of the experience will change dramatically from their first year to third year or between the start and completion of their thesis.

WORK-LIFE BALANCE

For Meg, one of the biggest surprises in academia has been the support she’s received when setting boundaries to create work-life balance, for example Meg won’t answer emails after hours unless she wants to.

Of course, there will always be busier and quieter periods, but Meg has some great tips on ways to improve your work-life balance, in academia or elsewhere:

  • Take a step back if you feel like your balance between work and life is out of whack

“If you let your work control you, and consume your life, then you won’t work as productively… to restore balance, take a step back and do something (even something small) that is just for you”

  • Find a hobby

“Find something that makes you happy, something that allows you to switch off from work or challenges and make it a regular part of your routine.”

  • Take breaks

“Sometimes we force ourselves to keep working because we feel like we have to, when in actual fact we’re probably not very productive at this stage. If you need a break, take it – guilt free!”

  • Celebrate the wins

“It’s so important to celebrating your wins and acknowledge your progress – however small. At the end of each week, I try to think about my achievements – it might be something as small as I managed to answer all my emails or something bigger like I got a paper published.”

One of the biggest challenges for Meg is that there’s never enough time – and you have to be strict with yourself to achieve all you need to do for work within the 40-hour week. To keep her organized, Meg says –

“I have a whiteboard and on a Friday afternoon, I write down everything I know I have to do the next week to get my thoughts in order before I head home for the weekend”

“Although the whiteboard never gets completely clean, it’s a start.”

PUBLISHING

Especially when working in academia, there is a lot of importance (as well as pressure!) placed on writing up your research and producing scientific publications. Although the rigor of the scientific process is important, it can be incredibly disheartening when you receive scathing comments or rejections from journals. Meg explains:

“Although it can be a lengthy (and sometimes tedious!) process, sharing your results is an important part of doing research so it’s important to try and stay motivated to publish your results”

For any students looking to publish their results, Meg has some advice:

“If you think of publication as the end goal, while you’re writing up your thesis, (rather than an after-thought) it can be really helpful. Dealing with criticism and rejection is not easy and it can certainly be disheartening if you’ve pulled a lot of time and energy passion into your thing, but I always remind my students that it happens to everyone and it doesn’t mean that no one wants to read your study or no one thinks it’s any good  – it might simply be the wrong fit for the journal or need a bit of work and that’s okay.”

And what about increasing access for everyone to journals? Meg says:

I would love to see open access more widely available without either authors or readers having to pay such large sums of money! Currently, if it’s not in your budget to pay the open access fees, which are often thousands of dollars, then it makes it challenging for people to publish “open access”- which is a real pity as this means that it’s not accessible to everyone”

Without open access, people have less access to scientific information which ultimately creates elitism and inaccessibility for many people to science. Meg says:

“So, I’d love to see publishers heading towards an open access model where journals also pay their reviewers or reimburse them for their time… I think that’s a big change though and probably one that’s not likely to happen very quickly, if at all.”

If you find a paper that is behind a paywall and don’t want to spend the money to read it, Meg has some advice:

“If you find a paper that you really want to read and it’s behind a paywall, try emailing the author, they’re allowed to share it with you. You can also go onto research gate and if it’s not on research gate, you can message the author on there and request a copy”

WHAT ABOUT CONFERENCES?

“Hell yeah, absolutely. I definitely encourage everyone to go to conferences”

Especially PhD students, conferences provide really valuable feedback on what you’re doing and present incredible networking opportunities. Many people have had job opportunities come up because of conferences, so you never know if you don’t go! Meg says:

“Speaking at conferences or presenting posters is not only a great way to get your research out there, but it also looks great on your CV – it shows you are open to the scientific process and public speaking which employers like”.

So, if you are interested in attending a conference but you’re not sure how to go about it, Meg has some valuable advice:

Speak to your supervisor well in advance and google the different societies that might be relevant to your study or interests and check the website for dates and deadlines to submit abstracts.”

CHOOSING YOUR MAJORS

As an undergraduate student, the choice of environmental- and wildlife- focused courses can be confusing and overwhelming. In terms of landing a job on the other end of your studies, it doesn’t usually matter whether you studied “marine biology”, “environmental science”, “wildlife biology” or “conservation management”, as long as its “ecology-related”. In terms of choosing what to focus on, Meg has some advice:

  • Look at what is offered in each course, for example, are there field units? GIS? Other skills?
  • What are you most interested in – after all, “if you’re not interested, you’re not going to do well and then you’re not going to love it.”

THE BEST WAY TO TRANSLATE YOUR STUDIES INTO PAID WORK

Meg has 2 main pieces of advice:

  • Volunteering your time on a broad array of wildlife-related experiences

“Particularly in this industry, I just think it’s really important to show that you’ve volunteered – it just takes you above and beyond that degree and shows that you’re very committed. In a previous role, our volunteer program is where we found most of our employees”

  • Networking with people in the industry – try to be brave and don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and put yourself forwards, both in the “classroom” at university and whilst out and about in the field (your volunteer experiences to meet people within the industry!)

SOCIAL MEDIA @ALITTLEBITMEG

The Instagram page, @alittlebitmeg started when Meg had been out of her PhD for about a year, but realized that she still thought the same things, and a lot of the stuff that was relevant throughout her PhD was still relevant in academia as a lecturer.

“I had a lot of friends who were finishing off their PhDs, and we’d talk to each other and listen to each other’s struggles – and I thought, everyone can relate to this but they aren’t necessarily talking about it”

At the same time, Meg was after a hobby and so she taught herself to draw on an iPad. She explains:

Originally it wasn’t going to be anything to do with my PhD, but I drew a coffee cup from this, made it big and labelled it PhD-sized coffee cup… people loved it, so I went with it – I never expected anything like this.”

The name, “@alittlebitmeg” was actually inspired by Alexis from Schitt’s Creek as Meg loved her and loved the vibe of it. She creates a wide range of topics from the journey of being a student and procrastination to coffee, academia, PhD life and wildlife conservation – finding the funny, relatable side of student life to share with her audience.

Meg intentionally depicts people with a diverse array of backgrounds in her illustrations which she does to mirror the diversity of people who make up the academic space. 

“I think it’s been important to do this so that no one feels left out and because the diversity of people in academia is not often represented…”

“I often depict women and people of colour in my content, early on, I drew a woman in a head scarf and people just loved that! And why not? There are people like that all over the world in academia, and we shouldn’t be shying away from that, in fact the opposite we should be encouraging and building that”.

By illustrating a diverse representation of students, Meg is able to reach and inspire a broader cross-section of students. Meg says –

“As a scientist, I like looking at the stats and it’s quite interesting to see a lot of my audience is international [to Australia]. I think it’s great that I can be a voice, for all sorts of people through my content”.

For Meg, one of the most surprising parts of starting @alittlebitmeg has been the growth of the channel, with some content reaching millions of views!

ADVICE ON CONTENT CREATION

When it comes to starting a social media channel, or getting your creative content out into the world, Meg says just try it!

“Just give it a go, you never know where it’s going to take. I would never have thought that anyone would want to look at my stuff, so give it a go and don’t get bogged down in the numbers early on  – you’ve got nothing to lose!”

WHAT ABOUT COFFEE!?

A large focus of Meg’s content is coffee. She laughs:

Although I didn’t even drink coffee for a long time during my PhD, when I started it became an important part of my daily routine – it’s a great way to start the day, gets you through tough stints in the office”

In a way, coffee has become a unifying symbol of productivity and solidarity for students!

KEEP IN TOUCH

Want to hear more from Meg? Check out our conversation in the podcast. You can follow Meg on Instagram @alittlebitmeg or read her research papers for free on Research Gate. And if you love Meg’s designs, you can buy merch on her Red Bubble shop.

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