Yours Transferredly: Standing in the Welfare Line


After months of not knowing whether my next grant was going to be funded, and then the intervening weeks of inevitability when I knew it was not, the big day has finally come. I am now officially filed under the heading of non-working scientist.

Frankly, I am relieved. All that hoping, all that waiting, was starting to sap my energy. Now, at least, I know where I stand. Unemployed. I feel like a line has been drawn behind my heels in thick black marker. Now I can only look toward the future, a future that I am looking forward to immensely.

Back to more mundane matters: in the absence of my less-than-splendid postdoc salary, who will pay my bills? In case you are wondering, I am not one of those lucky people who got into science because they could afford not to work in a proper job. This was my proper job. I still have an outstanding student loan to prove it. So, in addition to deferring repayment of my debts to the government, I need to get hold of some kind of assistance -- money from the government -- just to survive the short-term. The amount I expect to receive isn't much, but it'll prevent me from going under. So, off I journey to the state benefits office.

Whoosh! Fast-forward two days.

Sitting in the waiting area, I feel jittery and guilty without good cause. I know I haven't done anything bad, but I notice that, for some reason, I am trying not to look suspicious. Government officials have this effect on people. I guess this is just one of those unnerving places that life sometimes throws up to see if you can still make a fool of yourself. But not today. Today, I am just going to play it calm and cool, think before I open my mouth, and state my case clearly and concisely.

Sometime later, I emerge looking downtrodden, having let myself down badly. In the interview, I felt intensely self-conscious of being so well qualified, yet such an unqualified failure. Fancy having a Ph.D. and not being able to get a job! The official openly laughed in my face: their suggestion? "Had I considered shop work?"

Then I woke up. Yes, it was a dream.

The dream was real enough; after 10 years of scientific training I wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of standing in the welfare line. But I awoke determined to walk into the benefits interview that day with my head held high.

In the real waiting area, the one that I could touch and smell, I looked around at the other players in this bizarre real-life game. There were four people in the room: a couple of young people, that, to be uncharitable, I probably wouldn't consider employing, a middle-aged man who looked as if he had given up, and me.

After what seemed like an interminable wait, spent flicking through a couple of specialist journals I brought along (I wanted to make it obvious that I was an expert in my field and not just someone who said they were a scientist), I was called over by a nice young woman. After she had spent some time looking through my application form, she smiled and asked me what I was thinking of doing to find work. Not doing already, just thinking of doing.

I should have noticed this subtly encouraging signal, but I was too fired up to notice. "Just as I had thought," I said to myself, "these people are so pushy, frantic to reach their targets for getting people back into work." But I am no sponger. These are simply my rainy days. I just want to be able to pay my way in the short-term. Without a moment's hesitation, I began giving her a verbal download of everything I had prepared.

Handing her my immaculately presented résumé, I told her a rehearsed but condensed version of my recent life history, starting with my Ph.D. and first postdoc position. As she sat patiently listening, I gave her the works, from the two papers I had submitted recently (emphasising the paramount importance of getting papers published in this science game), to the several grant proposals I was involved in, one of which I hoped would provide the funding to pull me straight back into science.

On and on I went, underlining the encouraging things my boss had said about me, the ongoing international collaborations I had, and how I might be working abroad right now if it wasn't for my family commitments. Then, to cap it all, I piled on details of how I had already made contact with several group leaders I knew in other institutions, many of whom had recently made positive noises about grant pending opportunities. I paused for breath, then stopped myself, realising from her mannerisms that I had done a massive overkill. Ouch!

She began, politely, "Well, you certainly seem to have already done everything I could suggest. I wish you all the best in your search. We'd like to see you again in twelve weeks, just to see how you are getting on." She added how, with professional people like me, they think it best to leave it up to the individual how best to go about job hunting. No scorn, no "any job is better than none" lecture. I got the distinct impression that I was trusted, being left on a long leash, at least for a while.

Phew! With my finances propped up for the time being, and no one trying to encourage me to apply for jobs in shops, that's two fewer things for me to think about. And with my boss reminding me that I can pop back into work as often as I like, and even do some experiments if I want, what once seemed like the end of the road for me as a scientist now seems more like a sabbatical every day.

Next month, I'll tell you how I am spending my time -- wisely -- during my unpaid leave from the bench . . .