On being an early career researcher

So the last post about bad papers was a massive moan, for which I apologise. Sometimes you’ve just got to put it out there – papers are the currency of science, so writing crap papers devalues science in the same way shaving the metal off of your coins to melt down devalues currency (not that anyone actually does this anymore (little known fact: Sir Isaac Newton’s day job was fighting the devaluation of coins)). Today’s post will be mainly sunshine and light, I promise.

Today’s post is about being an early-career scientist. I’m going to (try) and keep it non-moany – after all, I’m a white middle-class man so the rules for competing in academia are almost all constructed with me in mind. Almost being the operative word. To give you a bit of background, my job title is Impact Research Fellow and I’m at the University of Stirling. I’m my own boss with my own modest pot of research money, some lab and office space and access to undergrad researchers. I can teach a little, but am not required to do so. A pretty sweet deal.

My job is awesome. It really is – it’s like being an eight year old except you consume about a litre of coffee a day (I am making assumptions about other people’s childhood here with regards caffeine intake). My job is play. I think of things I find interesting and I go and play with them – it’s just like playing with Lego, only the lab toys are more expensive*. I have time to read papers; time to come up with new ideas; time to realise many of my new ideas are bollocks; time to learn new skills; time to review papers; time to write blog posts; and time to write papers. A collaborator of mine said “enjoy it, as you’ll never have such freedom again”. I’m feeling pretty smug, and many of you probably now hate me for it.

The picture below is of my desk, and it captures my life at work pretty well.

DeskHere’s the catch: my contract is for two years. In those two years, I need to either (1) win a grant that covers my salary (another fellowship, this time funded by someone other than the university) or (2) get a lectureship at this or another university (For the Amerifolk among you, a lectureship is like an Assist. Prof. with tenure). Option (2) is very hard to achieve without having previously achieved option (1) – well, it’s just very hard in general.

So, the wonder job will end after two years if I don’t win more money. To continue the analogy between my job and an eight year old playing with Lego: I have to construct an awesome Lego structure that is better than the other kids’ Lego structures in the eyes of a bunch of Lego engineers OR ELSE I DON’T GET TO PLAY WITH ANY MORE LEGO.

What happens if I reach the end of my contract without having secured another fellowship or a lectureship? I could go back with playing with someone else’s Lego (do another postdoc). That’s fine in theory, but since I have a partner with a career, I can’t really move across the country/world again (nor do we want to; my wife and I have a life here**). So what are the options? Looks like I (and others in my position) have to be the Lego master. I’m trying to get out as many papers as I can at a good rate (that puts some pressure on collaborators, I can tell you). I am applying for as many things as I can while to clock ticks away (I have a year left on my current contract). This isn’t just me; most people who are between the end of their PhD and being a lecturer face the same issues. The end is always a possibility. Still, I can’t complain; my key task is to be really good at something I love doing. Most people don’t have that luxury.

*Mind you, Lego is more expensive than a lot of my lab kit.

**The itinerant researcher model is designed for single people with no ties. As many people have written, it’s stacked against women as: (1) having a penis STILL means people take you more seriously; and (2) having kids while roving between jobs is hard. Even if you’re a man, if you’re in a relationship with somebody with a career, you can’t really go moving around. My wife put her career on pause while I did my postdoc; there’s no way she should give up the job she loves just because I see another postdoc on a different continent. The itinerant researcher model is hard on women who work in research; it is also hard on those who have partners in research.

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One thought on “On being an early career researcher

  1. These are very familiar struggles. I am just finishing my first (and only) two year postdoc, after which I am leaving academia for a research job with an education and careers charity. It’s a positive and active choice for me. Piecing together short-term contracts for the foreseeable future doesn’t fit with the rest of my life plans, so I’m going to use my skills in a different but exciting and fulfilling way.

    You should join us for solidarity and advice at #ECRchat on Twitter (plus a bit of moaning and despairing, but we try to keep that to a minimum!)

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