My last post explained how I got into research. This post concerns why I got out*.
I loved many aspects of bench research. I think that performing original research is a privilege that few people are lucky enough to experience. It is almost a cliché among scientists, but there’s really nothing like the feeling when you’re the first and only person in the world that knows this fresh piece of information about how the world works.
I also enjoyed the sense of freedom. There are not many careers in the world that grant such independence so early on. I had my own projects, my own schedule. If I didn’t put the work in, it was only really my own prospects I would harm, which for me was a huge added incentive to get on with it and publish!
I loved attending conferences. It’s just not the same as an exhibitor. I loved presenting my work and getting instant feedback and new ideas. But my favourite part was the writing. I actually enjoyed writing my PhD thesis. Well, most of it anyway. And I was never happier than when writing a paper. There was something about writing up results than encouraged me to think about things in a different way, to clarify my ideas and develop new ones. I like to re-read my old papers every once in a while; as I’ve said before, I’m very proud to have contributed, even in a minor way, to my field.
So why did I get out? I came to realise during my PhD that a permanent research career might not be for me. First of all, I seemed to enjoy writing about my work more than I enjoyed actually doing it. I also wanted a life. To be successful in research, you have to give up a lot - weekends, evenings, friendships, sometimes relationships. I’d seen too many people sacrifice too much. I worked every weekend for the last year of my PhD and hated it. But then again, I knew that a few years of postdoctoral work would be great training for my ultimate goal of a science communications career. (The easy path to a temporary Canadian work permit** was another attraction…)
Money is another perennial problem in research. I could live on my low salary for a while, but there’s a reason why virtually no postdocs own their own homes. My fiancé, who’s a carpenter, was shocked when I told him how much I made; it was less than half of his average salary. All this and no job security beyond the standard 3 year contract.
Even if you do make it big and get your own lab, you’re suddenly responsible for your whole team’s job security as well as your own. Grants depend on the quality of the researcher and their work, yes, but also on trends, fads, luck, nepotism, reputation, political interference and geography. My own efforts to attract postdoctoral funding were thwarted in part because my standard British three year PhD just didn't generate as many publications as the five to six year period of postgraduate work undertaken by my North American competitors. I managed to complete my contract using my supervisor's core funding grant, but the pressure to attract funding is ridiculous at every level. I don’t know of any other career in which someone near the top can be highly respected by their peers, regularly invited to speak at international conferences, and still have to fight for their funding every few years. Grant renewal reviews are no fun for anyone, least of all the lab head.
So that’s why I’m here, gaining more useful experience to help me reach my ultimate goal of a career in science communication. That’s also the raison d’etre of this blog. (Feedback always welcome…)
Rant over. I will read, digest, summarise and communicate some more actual science soon. I promise.
*My apologies to former supervisors if you ever come across this. I enjoyed working for both of you, I really did. Ask my former colleagues if you don’t believe me!
**Postdoctoral research is one of something like three or four job categories that doesn’t require your employer to prove that there’s no-one already in the country who could do the same job, and that employing you would have a positive impact on the wider Canadian job market.