The Seven Ages of an Academic Scientist

I have been meaning to write about the seven ages of the academic scientist (to adapt Jacques speech from As You Like It) for a while, but I had a sneaking suspicion this might not be an entirely original idea. A quick search of the web shows me that Jerry Coyne  (Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago) has had this idea before me – and maybe many others too. His blog indicates we are all free to replicate his ideas, so you can read his thoughts at the bottom of this blog. Mine do not share quite the same emphasis as his, so here goes with my own:

1 As a student one does one’s own experiments, often incompetently.

The supervisor patiently (or otherwise) points out artefacts, inconsistencies and pays bills for accidental breakages. They also find funding for travel for the student to present a poster that 2 people come to look at in a slightly inebriated state at the reception-cum-poster session at some conference with massively parallel sessions but little actual scientific interaction occurring. There the student mingles with other students and misses the next morning of the conference due to a heavy hangover.  The supervisor advises the student on how to give talks to the group that contain all the elements of beginning (goals), middle (results) and end (conclusions) and also ‘borrows’ the slide with the one credible set of results to present in their own major conference talk (to which the student is unable to travel as its location is in a delightful part of the world that is very expensive to travel to).

2 As a postdoc one acquires supervisory responsibilities for junior students’ projects

The postdoc is now expected to be an expert, but not an originator of ideas or funding. As the only one in the group who knows how to operate key pieces of apparatus, the postdoc is greatly valued.  The supervisor is very friendly as long as the results keep coming, but can get fierce when things go wrong, particularly if some important deadline is looming. The postdoc must maintain an appropriately subservient air at such times, whoever’s fault it is, as future references depend on a continuing harmonious relationship with the supervisor. They are allowed to travel to interesting conferences to present their own work, but almost certainly not that of the students who they are informally supervising. The postdoc may find such a complicated role vis-à-vis these students frustrating and/or confusing.

3 As a research fellow, there is a need to scrabble around frantically for research funding and a permanent position, whilst simultaneously maintaining academic excellence in the actual research.

The research fellow is still carrying out their own experiments, but time to do so is getting tight.  It is imperative to set up one’s own group, with substantial funding personally obtained, but this devours time which would ideally have been spent collecting new data and presenting the work at major conferences. They must learn to multitask so that all these balls can be juggled in the air simultaneously, whilst nevertheless making it appear effortless. Appearances are found to matter when it comes to obtaining a permanent position. As the term of the fellowship draws to its conclusion, writing job applications (and, with luck, attending interviews) take up yet more time. This should be a time of liberated independence; instead it can turn into a tense nightmare and a race against the clock to find a faculty position.

4 As a lecturer one discovers that the role actually requires lecturing.

Lecturing, it is found, requires huge amounts of time to produce vaguely decent lectures and notes whose delivery, nevertheless, get hammered in the end of term questionnaire. A belated attempt to attend a course videoing one’s performance highlights all kinds of nervous tics never before suspected. By this stage it is hard to eradicate the habits of pushing hair out of the eyes, picking up pencils and putting them down again without using them and speaking to the side of the room rather than actually to the students in the lecture hall to avoid eye contact. The rookie lecturer can find this all very depressing. Meanwhile, one is still supposed to be winning major grants. The chances of finding time to do one’s own experiments become vanishingly small unless one is prepared to work 24/7.

5 As a professor one finds time is spent on myriad committees, many of which have little to do with science as such.

It is time to work out one’s committee membership style: conscientious, enthusiastic or useless, what is it to be? Whichever style is adopted, perforce or by choice, will lead to consequences which may be more or less desirable depending on taste. Is the drive to do (or, more strictly, lead) research still paramount, or has the desire either to acquire power or contribute to the greater good taken over? Or perhaps the professor has lost their research way so completely that sitting on committees is a way of feeling they are still doing something useful, when all the drive that got them to the professoriat has withered away due to an endless series of grant and paper rejections and they find their field slipping away from the ‘cutting-edge’. They will certainly no longer be safe in a laboratory unless some kindly student takes them under their wing to reinstruct them in the modern ways. The more successful ones will still get asked to give major conference talks but the slides will be prepared by the postdocs, along with copious briefing notes.  The postdoc may not necessarily get any credit.

6 As a senior professor acquires some label which pigeon-holes them into the sort of task they will be increasingly asked to do.

Perhaps this is as a safe pair of hands to sort out some immediate crisis; perhaps deep thinker in demand to sit on an ethics or foresight committee; perhaps selfish bastard  in which case they will have succeeded in avoiding the tasks they dislike; perhaps soft touch  so that they are seen as a useful person to have on committees because they won’t cause trouble but go along with the majority; perhaps eccentric in which case they will probably be left alone because no one knows what they might do next.  It’s too late to change your professional spots by this point. As I said, there are consequences to the style one first adopts. Students will send out warning signals if the senior professor is heard approaching a laboratory. Some at this level give many plenary talks on work that represents the totality of their life’s work (this may have stopped some years before). It can get very boring for audiences if wheeled out too often without any updates. Occasionally they may be generous and pass on an invitation to a junior member of the team to present a talk in their place.

7 As a retired professor, the main task is not to interfere.

After dinner speeches and committees involving awards to those a generation or two below them come their way. Finally there is free time to talk to students again as some of the more time-consuming duties are no longer considered appropriate. Such as teach.  This period can be very invigorating, as once again it becomes clear why science was so attractive in the first place. Until, that is, the ultimate stage of second childishness comes to the fore and memory plays tricks with what is true. Then it is time to retreat to some far distant outpost, where students past or present can’t penetrate and embarrassment at one’s failings can be safely hidden away.

The Seven Ages of the Scientist by Jerry A. Coyne, reproduced from his blog

  1. As student, listens to advisor give talk on student’s own work
  2. As postdoc, gives talks about his/her own work
  3. As professor, gives talks about his/her students’ work
  4. Talks and writes about “the state of the field”
  5. Talks and writes about “the state of the field” eccentrically and incorrectly—always in a self-aggrandizing way.
  6. Gives after-dinner speeches and writes about society and the history of the field
  7. Writes articles about science and religion
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16 Responses to The Seven Ages of an Academic Scientist

  1. Bob says:

    This particular portrayal reflects something my own PhD supervisor and part-time mentor once said (in an after-dinner talk at a conference, long after my own PhD days and following his election as FRS and the award of a knighthood). I paraphrase: one starts off in doing science, then writing and talking about it, moving on to lead it, and then to defining policy before finally being asked to reminisce via after-dinner talks. There are only five stages here: perhaps this represents an accelerated career …

  2. Uta Frith says:

    Though my main task is now not to interfere, i can’t help giving a visual comment. And in this comment there are only six ages:

    http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1436

  3. Six stages says:

    1 As a student one gropes through research.
    2 As a postdoc one starts to find a method to systematically produce new discoveries leveraging on previously gained insights
    3 As an assistant professor one tries to bring students into the team, with mixed results. Some greatly increase your productivity, others are net sinkholes of time and effort.
    4 As an associate professor one tries to get noticed by the bigger names in the field with mixed success.
    5 As a professor you get your wish granted and now you are asked to referee untold number of papers, be a member of every editorial board, be an external examiner of PhD defenses and write numerous tenure case letters (careful what you wish for).
    6 Haven’t gotten that far yet.

  4. There is another option for the aged professor. Get into blogging and defending good science. Since I (nominally) retired in 2004 I’ve written 366 posts (which have attracted 6900 comments) at http://www.dcscience.net/ and they seem to have had some influence in the real world. Many of them have involved some investigative journalism, an activity that has something in common with science. Many have involved a knowledge of statistics that stems directly from my science.

    The biggest advantage, though, is that you can’t be fired. That enables one to speak out for younger colleagues, most of whom are terrified to say what they think, in case it harms their career. In universities, as in any large organisation, there is huge pressure not to rock the boat. Being liberated from such pressures is about the only good aspect of growing old.

    It’s far more fun to grow old disgracefully than to sit around waiting for a knighthood. I recommend it.

    • David I’m not quite sure how to square my own blogging/damehood (well) prior to retirement with your comment; I certainly haven’t sat around waiting for either. But my intention was definitely to show that the retired professor could enjoy life with a new sense of freedom – which your comment neatly exemplifies.

    • i think this falls under the “gentleman scientist” category. by that, i mean, that special category where either your nest egg pays the bills or someone else does.

      • Sure, I’m one of those lucky baby-boomers that has a final salary pension, something that’s becoming rare. That’s enough to live on. I even get an occasional cheque from newspapers.

        I might add that I haven’t been paid a penny by UCL since 2004 despite having been a co-author on 13 ion channel papers from 2005 onwards (including a Nature article). Some people might call that exploitation,

  5. Grrlscie says:

    You forgot to include adjunct professor.

  6. Judith Lock says:

    As a teaching fellow I’m not sure where I fit in and neither does anyone else! My job requirements are solely teaching-focussed but that means I leave the 7 stages after stage 1, so how should my career progress?
    Teaching income is greater than research income but research brings kudos and therefore a research portfolio has more impact in job applications. My current job requirements therefore limit my progression along the traditional 7 stages, which gives me an underlying feeling of inadequacy and a lack of recognition from colleagues.
    My hope is that the 7 stages will begin to allow some flexibility for the recognition of both teaching and research achievements, and that my job will begin to have some flexibility to allow a small amount of research output. This needs to happen or there will be a growing number of people in education-focussed roles with no overall career goal. Being stuck at stage 1 is not motivating and ironically could ultimately have damaging effects on teaching quallity. In this way, those with education-focussed roles could also reach stage 7, through a sequence of modified stages.

  7. I am horrified to learn that I fit in to Stage 7, being a retired Professor. My experience is rather different from the one you suggest, Athene. When I retired, I took a deliberate decision to move to the West Country. Part of my plan was to try to write about science in everyday life with the aim of increasing public awareness and understanding. I do this through magazines and blogs and enjoy a different form of what David Colquhoun called investigative journalism; it has been great fun meeting local cider makers, bakers, beekeepers, university scientists, politicians etc. The coast and the moors are an added pleasure.

  8. Kate Jeffery says:

    I read this several times but couldn’t find the part where you work many glorious hours in the lab uncovering the secrets of the universe, producing a set of fabulous, highly cited publications that dramatically alter history and lead to a Nobel prize. Having reached level five I’m starting to worry I may have inadvertently missed that stage. Say it ain’t so!

  9. CamStudent says:

    As a PhD student (in your own Department and Sector), I find your ‘student’ description highly patronising and inaccurate. I can confidently say that by the second year most of us are competent at what we do, take on responsibilities and even have a significant say in deciding the future course of research. And I certainly hope to get more out of conferences than drunken revelry!

    • I’m sorry that you read this light-hearted piece as patronising. It is intended (as most readers seem to have read it) as amusing rather than accurate. Whereas many of my posts are meant to be taken very seriously, this was not such a one. I didn’t realise I needed to tag such pieces explicitly as ‘humour’ to spell this out. Read earlier ones about professors, lecturers, University and grant-giving committee members and committee chairs to see I am more than capable of poking fun at senior members of the academic community, and as I have made absolutely clear I never write about students in any way that could be thought to be personal. Since you know me I find it sad you don’t know that much about me.

  10. Laurence Cox says:

    I thought that I should test Jerry Coyne’s hypothesis about the seven ages of a scientist (specifically the 7th age). Last week the Faraday Institute held a summer school on Science and Religion at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge (I was in the audience). Of the 17 speakers there were: 3 Emeritus Profs, 6 Profs, 1 Associate Prof, 1 Assistant Prof, 4 Drs, 1 Rev Dr and 1 Rev.

    I conclude that there is no evidence for writing (and speaking) on Science and Religion, being concentrated in the seventh age, but a good deal of evidence for it being spread through the career of scientists who are also interested in religion. See
    http://www.faraday.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/index.php for more delails

  11. AnotherCamStudent says:

    Seems spot on, and shows what a stupid way of doing things we have in the UK, given that of the seven ages, only one is devoted to doing the science (badly – slightly offensive, but PhD students don’t get anywhere near enough master-apprentice type training in the lab, so probably fair. I appreciate the lighthearted nature, but you make a serious point and so work engaging with seriously).

    At present academic system is set up to reward persistence, rather than ability. Indeed, it’s obvious who will make outstanding scientists at the end of an undergraduate degree. Universities should be looking to recruit these students by offering competitive salaries and permanent positions, just like any other employer. It shouldn’t be a sacrifice to do a research, as this makes recruitment of top-notch PhD students harder for academics. Perhaps halve the numbers of PhD students, and pay them double? It would solve the undersupervison and student recruitment crises in one go.

    Being expected to wait through 3-4 PhD years, and anything up to 5 post-doc years for someone to tell you you’re smart enough to have a decent salary and job security is silly and anyone with an ounce of sense will go and get that in industry or financial services much much sooner. Narrowing the field by making academia an unattractive career option will lower the quality of the candidate pool, which is a foolish strategy for universities. However, for as long as academic jobs are massively oversubscribed, they won’t feel the spur to radically reform a functional, but by no means optimal system.

  12. Allo V Psycho says:

    A colleague of mine used to reckon that there were just three stages in scientific careers…..In Stage 1, when you go to a conference, you know all of the names in your field, but none of the faces. In Stage 2, you know all the names AND all the faces. In Stage 3, you know all the faces, but can’t remember any of the names. In confirmation, if I am ever so mad as to organise a conference again, I will insist on the name badges being printed in 86 point font, legible from at least 12 feet away.