Yours Transferredly: Time Out


This month, Phil explains how he is spending his time wisely during his unpaid leave from the lab bench ...

During the first couple of weeks after my funding suddenly ran dry, I actually seemed busier than I was before I left work. At first, writing two papers (now submitted) consumed almost all of my waking time. Add to this the time spent on the telephone, or in person, sorting my dwindling personal finances. I was nearly fit to drop by the time I departed on a much-needed holiday.

It was during this peaceful sojourn that I started to realise what a rare privilege I had been given: weeks or possibly months of unadulterated spare time. I am free of the burden of travelling to work every day, of being at work, of travelling home, and of making that difficult switch into domestic mode when I arrive at home at the end of the day. True, now I have to survive without a salary and to deal with the frustration and uncertainty of a career on hold, but the advantages of being unemployed are not minor.

Maybe you don't see it that way. Maybe you feel sorry for me. Well, let me try to convince you that you shouldn't. You see, even though this spell of unemployment is still only a few weeks old, I have already used it well, and accomplished a number of important things.

  • I am having a thorough rest. Like many other professions, science has a great potential to sap you dry. Stepping outside of day-to-day science has given my energy a massive boost. The effect was not immediate. It took weeks before I started to feel fresh when I woke up. I was so worn down that it took that long to recover. It's remarkable what the human body (and mind) can withstand. I'm glad to have freed them--mind and body--for a time from the punishing schedule they're accustomed to. I have promised myself things will be different when I get back in. We will see.

  • I have kept a foot in the lab door. From time to time I pop into work, as and when the need arises. Only the odd day each month, you understand; I'm not hanging out there pretending I'm still employed. When referees asked for an additional control experiment recently, I went in for the day and sorted it. This keeps me visible, which does no harm; who knows which group leader might have an upcoming vacancy for a postdoc, especially for one who can offer immediate availability.

  • I am casting more grant nets. I am a named researcher on three very different grant proposals, the funding of any of which would restart my arrested career, not to mention my livelihood, for the next 3 years. Two of the three have been submitted; the third will be soon. I have cast my net wide to maximise the chances of success; each proposal has gone to a different research council committee. If I was in a comfy (e.g., employed) position, I probably wouldn't have considered projects so different from each other. I have the right of first refusal on all three of these jobs, should the funding arise, a fact that I consider not just practically advantageous but also flattering. All that local networking has clearly paid off--or will have paid off if one of these proposals is funded.

  • I am rediscovering who I was before I became a scientist. I am busy avoiding a pre-mid-life crisis. You see, it has been a long time since I was free to do more or less whatever I please. In the last 10 years, my life has become complicated and sometimes I have felt pulled in so many different directions; in my twenties I never dreamt that life could ever get as busy as it has. In the last weeks, I have taken up hobbies, sports, and other pleasurable, long-suspended pastimes. I have got parts of my old life back and, for now, it feels great.

  • I am immersed in domestic life. Whether it's taking my children to school, hanging out the washing, or cooking dinner, I am now much more immersed in the domestic world. Indeed, some skills long since mothballed have re-emerged. Okay, my children have eaten some strange meals over the last few weeks, but this has meant there is less pressure on my hard-working wife, which means greater marital harmony.

  • I am getting my house in order. Do-it-yourself, home improvement-- call it what you will--I have been ticking off job after job on my domestic to-do list. A hammer and some nails feels crude and blunt compared to a pipette and a box of tips, but it's all rather liberating.

  • I am doing all sorts of stuff I would never have been able to do, especially in the middle of the day. I am now free to help people who ask for help. I can go to the school governors' meetings that are scheduled for 2 p.m. I am living in a parallel universe that I only ever heard about secondhand before I stopped work.

  • I am reassessing my priorities. I can't deny that this experience has had a major impact on how I think and feel. For the first time, I may even contemplate a life permanently outside of scientific research. I know that another postdoc job would be the most logical way for me to earn my next crust, as well as to fill the science-shaped hole in my life. I miss the buzz; of course I do. But there is a world outside of the laboratory and if push comes to shove, when this "sabbatical" ends, I now know that I'll get along in that world just fine, however I earn a living.

  • As a post-script, I will add that the more hard-nosed postdocs and other scientists may consider my current (hopefully temporary) unemployment to be an indication of a lack of scientific prowess. I would merely seek to remind them that they cannot know any better than I did what the future holds. Don't be too sure that you won't soon be joining me in the welfare line, and in the queue to re-enter science. Those of us in this queue are unemployed, certainly, and some of us may be geographically disadvantaged and relatively immobile, but we are not stupid. I am using the time wisely and, right now, I feel like I'm the lucky one.

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