To PhD and beyond!

Junior academics often seem a slightly embittered lot. However, it’s important to extract the right messages from the bitterness. Remember that the four, five or more years we spent working towards our PhDs were hard, physically and mentally; all that time on the same project, most of it spent either worrying that you don’t have any data, or worrying that the data you do have make no sense; finding yourself in the lab at nights and weekends, but also finding completion to be an ever mutable, ever-distant target; it’s no wonder most people go a little stir crazy, and that’s when it goes well. My PhD worked out pretty well (especially compared to some horror stories out there – I was fortunate to have a supervisor who stuck up for me when it counted), but for a long time it didn’t look that way, and I’d be lying if I told you that looking back didn’t occasionally inspire the odd shudder or five.


Then, after all that effort, we get – what? A secure job? A decent salary? Professional respect? Well, let’s just say that the last is both by far the most likely, and also a long way from a sure thing. No, the PhD is but the first step on the path to the mythical land of tenure, and the next step – getting another research position – is a doozy. There’s a glut of newly-minted doctors competing for a shrinking pool of positions and research money: PhDs are cheaper, and (in the UK) post-docs don’t count towards the all-consuming RAE. Even if the recently completed want to stay in science (by no means a sure thing), the pickings are fairly slim right now. And even if you do manage gainful employment as a post-doc, on average it’s only a year or two before you’re thrown back into the job-seekers’ melee.
Given this somewhat depressing situation, I have to acknowledge that I’ve been pretty lucky. I was lucky to be offered work in Southampton; even if it was only a fairly low-grade technical position, staying involved in science, and getting in a lot of rewarding teaching experience, was far better than menial temping. Then I was even more lucky to find a proper post-doc position, ideally suited to my interests and expertise, here in Johannesburg (and, perhaps, also lucky that my terminally unexciting personal life permitted a guilt-free intercontinental move).
But although I’m now (hopefully) secure for the next two years, my path after that is currently a big blank. Of all the sources of stress for the early-career academic, this is probably the most insidious: looming over the natural impulse to build personal and professional relationships in your current home is the thought that this time next year, you could be in a different city, in a different country, working on a completely different project. Or you could be unemployed.
In my case, of course, I actually left a permanent (if non-academic) position in Southampton to come here, gambling my short-term job security for the potential of longer-term career gain. Only time will tell if that was a good decision or, a crazy one. But if the project here pans out; if some of the loose ends from my time in Southampton also bear some journal fruit; and if I wangle myself some more teaching experience here in Johannesburg; then I’ll have built myself a reasonably strong platform from which to embark on my next job search. Even then, though, I’ve no guarantee that I’ll be successful in finding something. Rinse, lather and repeat for a few cycles, and I may get to the stage where I am informed I can’t get tenure because I don’t bring in enough funding. All of which is a long-winded way of saying: I feel genuine sympathy for Rob’s situation, but for those of us further down the academic food chain, actually being in a position where one would even be considered for tenure seems like an unlikely achievement.
Personally, I’ve sort of reconciled myself to the fact that my academic future depends as much on the vicissitudes of fate as my own ability, motivation, and perseverance. I’m not using this as an excuse for fatalism – by playing my hand as well as I can, I can certainly improve my chances – but in the end I may be forced to take a different path. Fortunately, much as I enjoy science, I’ve never been one of those people who believes that any job outside of the academy is a consolation prize. Right now, all I can do is appreciate where I am, and what I’m doing, and see where it takes me.

Categories: academic life

Comments (3)

  1. “Of all the sources of stress for the early-career academic, this is probably the most insidious: looming over the natural impulse to build personal and professional relationships in your current home is the thought that this time next year, you could be in a different city, in a different country, working on a completely different project.”
    What a beautiful quote. It really captures something…sad, but real. I hope that you keep us posted on your academic peregrinations, and your thoughts about them. It’s valuable.

  2. Mirjan says:

    Hello!
    I’m on my first year of my PhD, and I’m thinking about it a lot. I love science, I love lab work and most importantly, this way I think I can really contribute something for humanity at large.
    But then again, you stumble upon some articles which are not so nice ie. your post and this one: http://www.physics.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html
    And then you think about your future – do you live to work, or work to live? What about starting a family?
    It sucks. But to quote my favorite artist:
    No one said it would be easy
    But no one said it’d be this hard
    No one said it would be easy
    No one thought we’d come this far
    Good luck and thanks for all the fish!
    Mirjan

  3. Chris Rowan says:

    I love science, I love lab work and most importantly, this way I think I can really contribute something for humanity at large.
    Well, you certainly have the right attitude! I don’t think science is something you can do just to pay the bills; it has to be something you really love doing.