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
- As student, listens to advisor give talk on student’s own work
- As postdoc, gives talks about his/her own work
- As professor, gives talks about his/her students’ work
- Talks and writes about “the state of the field”
- Talks and writes about “the state of the field” eccentrically and incorrectly—always in a self-aggrandizing way.
- Gives after-dinner speeches and writes about society and the history of the field
- Writes articles about science and religion