Yours Transferredly: New Territories Beyond the Great Unknown


Last month, I told you how the termination of my current research contract is rapidly approaching, how my last iron is in the fire, and that the funder of last resort, as it were, has decided not to cough up. I am, scientifically speaking, penniless and, for the moment at least, without any means to continue researching.

My first career, before I decided to reinvent myself as a scientist, came to a premature end. In that case -- unlike this one -- it was a conscious decision to leave a profession that I simply didn't like. That this current scenario is enforced -- I have no choice about whether to stay or go -- is made all the more painful by the fact that I've grown into this career as much as I'd outgrown the old one. Does this sound bleak and depressing?

A temporary spell on a desert island

It's not. You see, my impending lack of funding will not mean the end of my scientific career, because I don't intend to let it. After the life-changing stormy seas of my PhD, I've just had my first experience of clear blue water -- my first postdoc job -- and I'm hooked. Now I'm not about to discard my 10-year investment in science at this, the first financial discontinuity I have faced. No, I believe the end of this contract will shipwreck me for just a temporary spell on a desert island. I aim to be back into the fray soon.

My situation is not uncommon. I have a colleague, who, a few years ago, languished for half-a-year, unwanted, in the ranks of the unemployed. But she managed to get back into science by doggedly pursuing all the relevant opportunities and never losing faith in her own ability, and has remained employed as a scientist ever since. Her story is encouraging.

The run-up to the end of this contract bestows me with a heightened clarity of thought about my career options. There's nothing like a crisis to sharpen the senses and get you to look around, if only to figure out where the exits are. I have been head-down and focused, sailing along my own research course for seven years now. It is time for a change.

Here's rule one for anyone facing a similar situation: free yourself from your scientific past. Of course there is always pain involved in letting the past go. We scientists react similarly to many of our fellow creative professionals: artists, designers, and the like. We get personally involved with our work. The downside? The painful realisation that walking away from a project will toll the death knell for your future, already dreamed, research plans. This is especially hard when you know that it's only a matter of time before someone else makes the connection and does the very same experiment you had planned to do.

Yet, now that I've had some time to reflect, I've realised that what I regarded as my own research was never my own, not really. It just started out as an extension of my former PhD adviser's area of interest. How naïve I was to consider this work my own!

I am inspired by the many personal testimonies I have heard from successful scientists who have jumped ship at this same stage in their careers. The seven years I have had at the bench may seem a long time, but all things considered, I am still at quite an early stage in my career. I am, thus, potentially at a rather massive watershed.

Rule two in this journey: try to see an opportunity when one comes along. Temporary unemployment presents an unparalleled chance for change and for wiping your slate clean. Yes, call an end to grieving over those "wish-I-had-the-time" experiments that we all torment ourselves about. They are now firmly in the category of "never-to-be-completed."

The funny thing is that I am surprisingly relieved. I am, for now, unburdened by any constraints -- it's an explorer's dream again -- and it feels great. It's also reassuring to consider that it might actually be in my best interest to opt for a dramatic change of direction during my postdoc days. This could actually make my résumé look good.

Get your name out there

OK, so what am I doing about making the change? My third and final rule: make the break and get your name out there. I've already made a start by getting myself listed as a co-worker on two grant proposals, both as unrelated to my previous work as they are to each other. I have also registered my availability with all the group leaders I know who might be interested in employing me and my skills on any grant-supported projects they have in the pipeline. I just have to wait to see where the cards will fall. I feel rather like a hired gun, waiting to see who will come up with the cash that will fund my next postdoc position.

In the meantime, whilst I play the waiting game, I have some loose ends to tie up. I'm spending these last few weeks of my contract finalising and finishing off all the experiments I've been working on. I'm also busy archiving all my little tidbits of research, just in case I have the opportunity to fiddle around on the odd Friday afternoon when my next job comes along. I am also about to submit two major papers.

There are two reasons why I need to crack on with this now. First, I want to secure a place for this work in the literature before I move on to new things. Second, I don't want to have to work on these papers unpaid. With all this last minute business, I reckon I'll drop from fatigue when the first day of unemployment eventually comes along.

By then, I'll have to think about how to feed and clothe my family through the long hot summer of austerity. Anyway, I'm hoping it will be a long hot summer -- at least I'll be able to fill in my application forms on the beach. Next month, I'll let you know how I get on presenting myself as a highly qualified but unemployed perpetual-student type at the local state benefits office. Now that's going to be interesting. So stay tuned.