24 March, 2006

Academia and me – time for a separation?

Last week Alex at the Daily Transcript posted on what he thought were the worst and the best aspects of a scientific career, a particularly apt topic for me right now. It’s an important point that any situation, and by extension, any career, will have its plusses and minuses, and all you can hope for is that the former outweigh the latter. I’m finding it hard to say that that is the case for me at the moment.

I did a PhD for two reasons: firstly, and most importantly, I was interested. But secondly, I had no concrete ideas of how to sustain a career with a scientific flavour (which I knew I wanted) outside of academia; at least, not without compromising my ethics and working for the oil or mining industry (whether you agree with that stance or not, you can’t deny that it would have been bad for me). And, despite the low pay, long hours and stress of the last four years, I don’t regret my choice. But if I stay in academia, the road ahead is by no means an easy one. Not that it ever is, of course, but I find myself in a position where I’m not even being employed as a post-doc, but as a technician running the laboratory of my former supervisor. I’m also providing some academic cover (which is nice, but rankles slightly given that those responsibilities mean I should be being paid a lot more than I actually am) but my principal duties are basically keeping the machines running so other people can do their research, rather than doing any of my own. For me, the fun, and the challenge, in science come from the problem solving: finding a gap in current knowledge and trying to work out how to fill it. Without that, the credit side of an academic life is fairly empty, making all the bad aspects just seem all the worse. Additionally, of course, not producing publishable research means that when the remaining papers from my PhD get through the system, there will be no more forthcoming, which is basically career suicide.

So why not find another position somewhere else? Here I come into a major shortcoming of my whole PhD experience; the lack of contacts I have made within my field. This was in many ways a consequence of doing a PhD focussing on New Zealand whilst based in the UK – you’re half a world away from the people who might want to talk to you about it – but (I realise now) it was also a failing of my supervisor (and, when he wasn’t proactive on my behalf, me). If I stay in the game, all that may change eventually – this is the gist of the counter-argument employed by my supervisor/boss, who also habitually waves tempting carrots regarding possible future foreign field work, etc. at me. Of course, he has another agenda: it’s highly convenient for him to have me around, because I’m more qualified than the average technician, cheaper than a post-doc, and much cheaper than a lecturer to cover for him. My question is, is the promise of my position improving at some indefinable time in the future enough for me? More and more I find myself thinking that it is not. The lack of a clear path forward combines with my nagging discontent to bring me to a watershed moment – considering leaving academia altogether.

The magnitude of that decision scares me slightly. Would this be a permanent move? Would I have much choice? I don’t know. I’m also unsure whether I’m not being a bit hard on my current position, which is, at least, a job. Any perspective you can offer, dear reader, would be appreciated.

1 comment:

A Palazzo said...

Sounds to me like you should do a postdoc. Just call (email) up a few labs that look interesting and go for it. If it's anything like my field (cell biology), lab-heads look for smart, ambitious individuals that have the right training - the topic of a prospective postdoc's thesis doesn't matter much.

Look, academia is hard. But in many ways I am happy being part of it. But you have to go out there and sell yourself to strangers.