A long tale of woe. This post has undergone a number of iterations in the last few weeks. It started off as an expletive-laden cathartic rant, not unlike my tirade at First Great Western. But I’ve calmed down a lot and re-written it to try not to sound bitter. Which was difficult, because I am.
I was going to title this post Leaving Science, but I could never leave science, intrinsically I am a scientist. I fucking love science. Which is why it is particularly painful to have to leave the lab bench and stop doing the thing I love. But I feel I have to.
I feel like I’ve been forced out of academic research science by a lack of opportunities to progress my career and become an independent researcher.
For those not in the loop, I should probably begin by explaining the career path in academia, or within life sciences at least. First you need an undergraduate degree, then you need a PhD. A PhD is effectively the start of your research career; you’re learning, but you’re learning fast and by the end of your three or four years as a PhD student you should be indistinguishable from the postdoctoral research staff in the lab. Which is handy, as this is the next step.
Being a postdoctoral researcher is a tough life. It is frowned upon a little (for no good reason) to stay in the same lab you did your PhD, so you’ll be expected to move. You’ll also be given a fixed-term three year contract – if you’re lucky – I’ve seen (and signed) far shorter contracts that that. As a postdoc your boss will have high expectations of you. That you will produce the data that will make the big publications. But you’ll probably also have to write those papers, supervise the undergrad and postgrad students, and do the ordering, cleaning and other jobs which keep the lab ticking over. For all this work you’ll be rewarded not with a tenured position, oh no. You’ll be rewarded with another fixed term contract – if you’re lucky. It’s a slightly crappy situation but everyone puts up with it, because it’s the only way you’ll ever get to be the boss.
Most postdocs would like to be the boss of their own lab. I’m aware there are some postdocs that don’t; who would like to be lab workers for other people for their entire career. However this is also very difficult and there is generally considered to be a time limit on how long you can be an academic postdoc, it’s a bloody mad situation, but not the subject of this post.
Traditionally there are two ways to become independent and to run your own lab and pursue your own ideas: i) you could get a prestigious fellowship with your salary and research funds provided by one of the research councils or a charity; or ii) you could get a lectureship with your salary paid by a university and you have to go and get your research funds from research funders and teach undergraduate students to earn your keep.
For the last two years I have been trying to become an independent scientist. I have written fellowship applications. Four of them in total. Each one a 50 page form of about 10,000 words. I mostly wrote these on my own time. In the evenings and weekends or on annual leave. The first three were all rejected, in one case without 96% of it being read by a single person and with zero feedback (thanks for totally wasting my time BBSRC). But after each application came a new iteration. With each set of feedback came useful comments to help make it better. Finally with my fourth application, I cleared the biggest hurdle. I got shortlisted by The Wellcome Trust. It was momentous, and I’m under no illusion as to how lucky I was to get to that stage. Unfortunately I wasn’t successful at the final interview stage. It’s not much consolation to me to be told I did really well to get through to the last couple of dozen in a prestigious national fellowship. If anything it hurt more than the rejections before interview, because I was so close.
“Well, I’m sure you learnt a lot for next time” said my Dad upon hearing the news. He’d be right of course, but sadly there is no next time. My time is up. For some reason these fellowships come with an “experience limit”, a maximum time you can be a postdoc for before applying. This is a bit like the postdoctoral time limit I spoke of above. But far more explicit. 6 years. If you’ve not made it by then, then they don’t want to know. So, I’ve had my chance, and it’s gone. What the point of these time limits? I have no idea, my best guess is that it is simply to limit the number of applications each time. But six years? It’s no time at all. Why would you exclude people with more experience? Especially in these days when data can often take years to appear in publications.
The other path to independence is a lectureship. I’ve applied for four of these positions too, at three different universities of various standing. In each case I wasn’t shortlisted, but in each case no-one in my peer group was shortlisted either. No other postdocs. Just established lecturers and fellows often from abroad. There’s been no-one at my own institution hired from postdoc level in the last five years either. So that’s four universities life sciences departments who haven’t hired a postdoc to be a lecturer in at least two years, if not longer.
You could say I have been unlucky to have been trying to make this transition to independence at a time when finances are tight. But there have been positions advertised. They’ve just gone to more experienced, more expensive, scientists. Universities seem unwilling to take a risk on an unproven scientist. Instead they let funding bodies take all the risks on unproven scientists and hire fellows with funding or scientists from abroad instead. Ten years ago a fellowship was a parallel to lecturer on the academic career ladder, my impression now is that fellow is the rung before lecturer.
Why is this happening? I don’t know. I’m tempted to blame the upcoming 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), a huge operation to assess the quality of research currently taking part in UK universities, the outcome of which will decide where future funds will end up, and has led universities to try and boost their REF score by buying in talent*. But there have been similar assessment exercises in the past decades and young lecturers used to be hired. And besides, I have been offered the opportunity to take part in a secondment scheme where the best postdocs were given part time positions as lecturers in order for them to be submitted to REF. However given this was not a tenure track scheme, with no research support, no opportunity to apply for independent funding, no formal teaching training and not even a pay rise, I politely declined “the opportunity”.
Is this just a case of sour grapes from someone who didn’t quite make the grade? It’s possible. Maybe I’m not good enough. In which case, I have finally got the message! I have given up trying to objectively assess the quality of my own academic output (so don’t envy those who are going to have to assess hundreds of academics during REF). I have had comments about my track record from referees including; “poor, with no outstanding publications in first position”, “very productive”, “very good pedigree”, “good but not exceptional”, “top-level scientist”, “5 first author papers in excellent journals” and my particular favourite; “the applicants CV is a weakness with only 11 papers published in 8 years”.
Whilst that final comment is the one that stands out. Just how many papers does a good postdoc have in 8 years? And I think you’ll find its 7 years. The first comment is the one which really annoys me. The two pieces of work I am most proud of during my academic career were to develop and adapt existing methodologies to novel applications in order to answer questions for someone else’s project. In each case I was third author on the paper in question. Being third author on these papers is understandable, but to have my best work overlooked because I wasn’t first author is heart-breaking. Judging someone’s research output solely on papers where they are a lead author is crazy. We do the best work as academics when we work together, with people of different expertise and different skills, but this is being discouraged by a proportion of the community who are not willing to give proper credit to collaborative working**. As the situation currently stands I would honestly advise new postdocs to think twice before helping out on other people’s projects.
My personal circumstances (a young family & elderly relatives) mean I can’t travel the country and/or world to find career progression, and why should I have to? My young family also mean I’m no longer willing to do the four-hour round-trip commute (that I’ve done for 7 years) and see out my current contract whilst blindly hoping things will change, when I have no evidence that they will. So I’m taking positive action to change my life. I’ve handed in my notice and am moving to a career where my skills in communication and enthusiasm for science are valued (another problem with academia). In September I start on a PGCE course to be a science teacher, and I’m really excited about the challenges ahead and my new career (see next post).
I’ve had a couple of comments (not via the comments section) suggesting there is more to being shortlisted for lectureships than having a decent research publication record. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, I have always been advised by *the great and good* otherwise. And besides, I do pretty well in this regard anyway; I have extensive public communication projects including working with The BBC, national newspapers, magazines and have done school and pub talks. I also have undergraduate lecturing experience (one lecture/year over last five years) which has excellent student feedback. I have requested further lecturing experience and formal training in my current post but was told this wasn’t available to postdocs, only to lecturers. Yet again a case of needing formal training to get a lectureship but not being able to get a lectureship without the formal training. I would honestly like to be the academic all-rounder with research, teaching and public communication all playing a part of my career. However I am repeatedly told that only my research output will count towards getting a job and thus I have concentrated on this in my professional life, and this post.
* I do have one suggestion for improving REF. Instead of assessing the output of individual researchers, assess the output of universities and departments. When a researcher moves from one university to another their work should count towards the output of the university where that research was carried out. This would incentivise universities to invest in potential rather than past performance.
** REF gives no credit for collaborative working either, with each publication only being allowed to be credited to one researcher. If two researchers have worked together on a project, only one of them can take credit for it. My idea to tie work to universities rather than individuals would also help with this and wouldn’t discourage academic collaboration within a department/university.