Careers in research: the new monasticism

My viva was one of the most stressful days of my life, as I was convinced I would be sent off to do more work. It had been a very difficult project, results had not been easy to get, and there was no chance of a publication. My worries were unfounded. I passed and saw ahead of me a whole career in scientific research, with the ultimate goal of finding a lectureship. However, 12 years later I face redundancy from my postdoc position, with no chance of a lectureship. So what happened to the brilliant science career I had mapped out for myself? Or rather, where did things go wrong?

I came to research a little later than usual (I was 29 when I started my Ph.D.), as I had previously been a schoolteacher, and although I enjoyed teaching, I didn't want to teach in the school system. With a degree in microbiology and an interest in molecular biology, I believed a Ph.D. in bacterial genetics was a good place to start on my path to becoming a university teacher.

Since then I have enjoyed my time in research and I have worked in good labs, but there was always a degree of insecurity associated with the job. My first postdoctoral position was an interesting project on the genetics of Streptomyces, and I had some exciting data that I reported at a national conference. I was part of a European consortium related to the project, so I knew many key people in the field, but when we applied for renewal of funding our application was turned down.

Six Happy Years

I decided I wanted a change of scene, so when a position opened up in Edinburgh, U.K., in a very good lab, with a well-respected group leader, I jumped at the chance. I spent six happy years there. I really liked the project and the people were great. Once more I was getting lots of data and publishing in some good journals, but our group leader retired, and so the group was dispersed.

Although I had been prepared to move after my first postdoc position, this time I wanted to stay in Edinburgh. I believed (rightly or wrongly) that projects involving the genetics of bacteria were not very fashionable in terms of attracting funding, so I changed to cancer research. This meant starting all over again; it was a new subject with new techniques, so I knew that building up a publication record would take time.

During each of these steps I focussed on the short-term goal of getting publications and lost sight of my ultimate goal: a teaching position. Thus, I had a go at giving tutorial classes, and even at a bit of lecturing, but it was time-consuming and not included in the criteria for promotion (all directed at research), so I dropped the teaching to concentrate on the research. So yes, I was progressing in my career, but I never seemed to get any closer to a teaching position. I sought advice from the career service, but with no staff appraisal system in place, setting goals was difficult, and there was no qualified person with whom I could discuss my career with impartiality. Perhaps I should have stuck to the same subject, but there was a more deep-seated problem that I did not notice: I had the wrong attitude for academia.

When I went for interviews the one thing I checked out was the lab ethos. Was it an intensive environment where I would be expected to work 14-hour days, 7 days a week? If it was, then you could count me out. I had heard nightmare stories of group leaders who expected their postdocs to be in the lab at 8 a.m. and leave at 10 p.m. A colleague went to work in a lab where going out for a drink after work was seriously frowned upon, and in the lab it was forbidden to talk in groups of two or more except for work. It was fine to talk to yourself though, apart from the obvious mental health drawbacks. This work environment was my definition of the seventh circle of hell, so I decided very early on that I would choose life over work and do my contractual hours unless there was a deadline or I was really keen for results.

The most productive postdoc I knew worked no more than 8 hours a day (because she had a child), and I would challenge any group leader to find a more focussed worker. What I failed to notice was that she had a passion for her subject that I lacked. I may have liked my work, but it was not my raison d'être. My interests outside the lab were more important to me and the circles I mixed in were decidedly nonscientific; therefore I rarely discussed or even thought about work outside the lab.

The Literary Equivalent of Valium

I also didn't have the drive to keep up with the literature, even though a scientist clearly needs to know what is happening in their subject as well as in other fields. As far as I was concerned, scientific papers were the literary equivalent of Valium. In the coffee room, when there was a choice between Nature and Cosmopolitan, you could bet that "10 ways to find your dream man" would win out over the latest news on sequencing the human genome. As for my own papers, although I published in very good journals, the adjective "prolific" would never apply to me.

Then there is the salary. Consider the dedication that has been invested in a postdoctoral education, the complicated and highly skilled job that it is. Does the salary reflect that? As the only unionised postdoc in our lab, I took part in the industrial action organised by the AUT in February this year. Although the loss of money was unpleasant, what really depressed me was the fact that my salary amounted to only £50 a day after deductions. Where previously I had not been bothered with my salary, once I hit the top of the pay scale with nowhere to go I became increasingly disenchanted with my work. Promotion was unlikely as I had just moved into cancer research so I didn't have publications. It was starting to sound familiar!

The longer I stayed in science, the more I seemed to view it as a form of secular monasticism. In religious communities the monk or nun has to show complete devotion to their God, and they are bound by vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In science, a similar dedicated lifestyle was required. The salaries were low, the long hours and work-intensive environments would sap anybody's libido, and submission to the authority of the universities and the research councils was unquestioned.

At the end of the day my monastic commitment was looking to be very much like Julie Andrews's in The Sound of Music. I simply was not made to be a scientist.

What finally convinced me to make a break was when I went to see a psychotherapist for minor depression following a family bereavement. In exploring my unhappiness about my research career I realised that the academic environment probably wasn't suiting me well (hey, no kidding!). I found that my skills and interests lay in a completely different direction; I like working with people and my communication skills are my greatest strength.

The psychological theory behind my therapy began to intrigue me, and soon I wanted to learn more. So 2 years after my first visit, I started training as a psychotherapist during my time out of the lab. The training involved one weekend per month, plus preparing essays and presentations. Any time required other than weekends, such as for conferences, came out of my annual leave. At first I was wary of telling my colleagues; however, when I told them they were extremely supportive. The course was very expensive, but I don't regret it one bit. Earlier this year when our research group lost a major grant and several of us were facing redundancy, I was very relieved that I had an alternative career planned.

I admit that I didn't have the passion necessary for a career in science, but would things have been different if it weren't for the deeply flawed contract system? I have never left a job because I wanted to, each time I had to because funding was denied or the group was disbanded.

Hard Work Is No Guarantee of a Job

I know many really good scientists who are passionate about what they do. They put in the hours, they do the reading, they produce good data--and where does it get them? I have watched many forced out of the work they love into jobs in which the major consolation is that "at least it provides a career structure." I have heard group leaders bemoaning that they can't find good postdocs, but what incentive is there for anyone coming into this environment? Can they really guarantee anything beyond the next grant? It is my assertion that you can work as hard as you like, but hard work is no guarantee of a job, let alone a career.

The U.K. Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee report of November 2002 regarding working conditions for contract research staff should be mandatory reading for all in academia. The committee described careers in academic research as very much like a lottery, and they are right. Funding is capricious, with the major research councils funding less than 10% of the grant proposals submitted. It is not enough to use a Darwinian excuse to convince ourselves that we are producing a streamlined research machine fuelled by the best minds in the country, because we are losing many of them as fast as we can disillusion them.

I'm glad to be going. I look forward to starting a career in which I will be in the driver's seat. I will have control over my salary, and it feels exciting that I will have to rely on myself to generate my income. As a psychotherapist, one of the issues I want to deal with is stress in the workplace; I think postdocs will make very suitable clients.

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