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From PhD to Life

A new podcast for early career researchers

Helium's approach is to interview guests from both inside and outside academia to help early career researchers make choices strategically, rather than reactively.


Jen and I were invited as guests on the Helium podcast recently. We asked the show’s co-hosts, Drs Christine Ogilvie Hendren and Matt Hotze, to share why they started the show, how they plan to guide the audience, and what to expect if you download and listen.

Maren: Why did you start Helium podcast?

Matt: As PhDs who have been in and around academia for a combined 30-plus years, we understand the struggle to make an impact and build a successful long-term career while also sustaining a fulfilling life outside of work. Because of how incentives are set up, the focus is usually on quantitative metrics of success, such as impact factor. It’s easy for researchers to get lost in the cycle of writing proposals and articles on what feels like an endless treadmill.

Outside these aspects of research productivity, a huge portion of the knowledge and skills that determine success in building an academic career are under-taught: how to hire, how to mentor and manage, how to foster team culture, how to prioritize commitments and recognize what a full plate looks like. It’s also not always clear what the most successful professors have learned to do to have productive research groups. We wanted to provide some honesty, support, and community around what it takes to succeed in academia for early career researchers.

Maren: How do you plan to address these problems on the podcast?

Christine: The good news is that with some insight and intentionality, the path to both making a genuine impact and being deemed successful by the academy can involve the same key choices. But, with many competing draws on your time and energy, sometimes you are just trying to survive; you don’t have the knowledge or time to be strategic. Without boundaries and clarity on priorities, it is easy to feel (in the early years) like nothing is ever enough. This is a good way to achieve sub-optimal success, burn out, and models for your students that nobody should ever want to pursue the unsustainable life of an academic path.

Our theory is that a whole lot of that confusion is avoidable, and that this job certainly can be doable, fulfilling, and fun once you know the ropes. So, why keep early career researchers in the dark about a good half of what “the ropes” entail, assuming they’ll figure it out for themselves?

Our approach is to introduce guests from both inside and outside academia to distill advice pertinent to helping early career researchers make choices strategically, rather than reactively.

The productivity of your first graduate students can make or break you as an early career researcher. Becoming a better mentor – in addition to adviser – means you co-generate knowledge and impact while building up a new scholar.

Maren: What issues have you covered so far?

Christine: Here are a few of the questions we’ve tackled in our 18 published episodes so far:

  • How do you see through the eyes of your students to provide a better mentoring experience? (episode 3)
  • How do you set a vision for yourself and your research group when you are starting out? And, related to that, how do you establish a group culture that helps your students thrive? (episode 2)
  • How do you take a balanced approach to hiring your first students? (episode 8)
  • How do you define success for yourself beyond the typical measures of academia? (episode 12)

The main messages we’ve heard are “be human” and “be yourself.” Some practical actions for these ideas have been: first, host activities outside the lab or the normal working days that reflect your personality. Second, be looking for fit when you hire a new student into your group. Don’t just hire the smartest person available. If they don’t fit, you will both be miserable.

When you first arrive on the job market, it’s tempting to just run yourself to the bone. Our guests have advised our listeners to intentionally build in chunks of time where you do nothing job related to reflect on where you want to be going before you start running again.

Of course, some of the secret to navigating the academia ecosystem will always come down to a mix of intuition, talent, and work on the part of each person. But we believe there is an enormous amount of wisdom and practical advice out there – it’s just that much of it isn’t geared toward academic researchers. If this information was distilled and delivered through an academic lens, it could save our colleagues so much time, turmoil, and precious brain space. That’s the rationale behind our podcast.

Maren: How can faculty or senior administrators implement what they have learned from your podcast?

Matt: A very fresh example in my mind is episode 18. We talked to Beth Calhoun about how junior faculty should seek out senior faculty mentors. We also talked about how to navigate those sometimes tricky relationships. Two points she made in the episode were:

  1. These relationships are essential to success in a world where research grants involve higher degrees of collaboration, and
  2. Academia is still updating promotion and tenure practices to give proper credit to early career researchers.

If your school has not already taken a look at promotion and tenure it may be a good time to revisit those for the benefit of your junior faculty.

Maren: Where can people find out more about the podcast?

Matt: You can go directly to our podcast page at or you can search for Helium in any of your favorite podcast directories (e.g., Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify). Some people might be new to podcasts, but that is okay because only 17 percent of U.S. adults listen to podcasts on a weekly basis. You’re not the last to know! Think of it like a radio show customized to a topic that you care about. See how to subscribe.

Maren Wood
L. Maren Wood earned a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel hill. Maren delivers interactive workshops to help graduate students prepare for a non-faculty job search. In addition to her research, Maren provides one-to-one career coaching to PhDs.
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