Facing the Great Unknown


Need a good opportunity to reflect on where you are in your career? Want time to reassess where you are going? Want the freedom to consider a change of direction? All this and more could be yours.

All you need is for your next grant not to be funded, leaving you facing the end of your current contract with absolutely no money in the pipeline to continue. You've guessed it; this very thing has just happened to me. I am soon going to be out of a job.

But first, some context

Contemplating the pending end to your scientific dream is certainly unnerving. But actually, after a little reflection, I'm quite excited at the prospect. Over the next few months I will explain why this setback is not the end of the road for my scientific career--or why I'm determined not to let it be--and what my plan is. But first let me put this scenario in context.

If we travel back in time a few years to when I started out on my own mad dream to pursue a career in science, I knew that it was never going to be a safe bet. It was not the kind of career that was guaranteed to see me through to my retirement days. I'd left all that security behind me in my first career. I always said that I would just surf the wave until I wiped out, and then look back and think, "That was quite a ride." I never expected it to last. It had never occurred to me that I might make it through to a permanent job. I believe anyone starting out who claims to know that they are going to "make it" in science is a deluded fool. You can believe, and you can hope, but you cannot know the future.

Then again, you never know; even quite eminent scientists have admitted to me that they never thought their careers would achieve the dizzy heights that they have. Success in science is just too unpredictable, and the demands of 21st century life only make matters more complicated. It's a crapshoot.

There is nothing like the end of your own contract to draw the global postdoc predicament painfully close. We postdocs, all of us, live under the recurrent if not constant threat of a more or less major career meltdown; a run of bad luck can spell disaster. Discontinuous funding is an increasingly common feature in the typical postdoc life history. Today, the sheer number of postdocs hunting after a finite amount of funding has further tightened the neck of that famous postdoc bottle.

Many of our current employers walked straight from their first postdoc job into a junior lectureship. This rarely happens anymore, as we all know. Sometimes I wonder if the influential movers who entered science during the old fast-track era have adjusted their mindset to this new reality. Other times, I'm sure they haven't.

Even when funding is ample, we postdocs rarely have much control over where we work. As a postdoc I am expected to be a highly mobile agent; a consequence of being highly specialized. Yet, not all postdocs want to, or can, pack up in half a day and drive to a new job at the other end of the country, let alone consider options abroad. A partner's career, family commitments, and property ties are increasingly important factors in career choices for many postdocs, and not only for more mature ones.

Is the science all that matters?

Quality of life is the deciding issue for many people, and that includes me. We may tell ourselves, and sometimes others, that the science is the only thing that matters, but it isn't really true, or not for me--nor should it be. The more of us who stand up and admit it, the better. Why lie to ourselves? I have turned down more job offers in science that I have accepted. All my rejections were based on geographical factors and not over concerns about the science.

Returning to my present situation: if I were a proud person, I would perhaps be deeply embarrassed at my failure to secure continuous funding. I would cringe at the prospect of claiming means-tested state benefits to bridge the gap until I hear back from the next few grant applications.

I am not embarrassed. My situation--and that of others like me--is a reflection on two things: geographical limitations, and the fact that early-to-mid-career scientists' jobs consist of a series of insecure short-term contracts. What other profession generates 95% of its output solely through the goodwill of temporary contract staff? It does seem absurd. The trouble is, unlike other professions, we postdocs are just so darned keen to do the work that they've pretty much got us over a barrel. If science was a little less attractive to us the conditions of employment would have to rapidly improve so that employers could actually manage to encourage someone to take on the task.

So, when I enter the benefits office in the weeks to come, I will raise my head up high. When asked, I will say "I'm a scientist," and promptly draw attention to the precarious and fragile nature of the system. The same system in whose hands the responsibility for producing world-class science lies. I blame no one individual, and I am not even a little bitter. Honestly, I am not. I will take this knock on the chin and wait patiently for the referees' comments on the next grant. They're not going to get rid of me that easily. I wonder if Einstein ever felt this way.

Next month, Phil considers what an unparalleled opportunity for change temporary unemployment is.