It has been a while since I wrote about the challenges facing those setting out on the academic ladder. Those who, having got past their PhD viva are now starting to progress through the ranks of an Early Career Researcher (ECR) as postdoc or beyond, trying to establish a niche for themselves in the tricky world of departmental politics, fellowship competitions and the like. This post is triggered by various articles I’ve read recently, reminding me of the challenging, scary world these people encounter on a daily basis.
Firstly there was a cri de coeur from a postdoc struggling to find a new position. He states that
‘it seems that the most important relationship in my life, the one I have put above all others — my love for academic research — is falling apart, owing in no small measure to circumstances beyond my control.’
For him, based in the US and working in the life sciences where an expansion of postdoctoral positions has not been matched by any increase in permanent positions, the problem has been compounded by the threat of sequestration due to the mire of US politics. In similar vein, I came across a sad but well-argued piece on Zinemin’s blog who had thought long and hard about the pros and cons of staying on in yet another postdoc and decided on balance sticking with research science just wasn’t worth the battle for her. She points out that many people advance arguments to justify staying in academia that aren’t really sufficient and may often be self-deluding.
These laments can be paired with a piece I came across on the LSE Impact blogs about the casualization of labour, zero hours contracts and unpaid positions. As with other parts of the economy, where unpaid internships have been common, so the university sector seems to have been heading down the same path. The idea that a university should expect PhD students (in this case in Theology and Religious Studies at Durham) to work for free in order to gain experience is dispiriting. But, as has been seen in journalism, banking, politics and the like, not taking on such positions in order to acquire the skills future employers require can have a high opportunity cost. Nevertheless, I hope it is a move that the academic sector firmly and loudly rejects.
There are too many people chasing too few jobs in academia. That is the long and short of it. So it is worth considering what can make a difference on your CV beyond assuming some formal but unpaid labour of love. A recent post from the US highlighted this point, although in a way that I felt came across as rather smug. Nevertheless, the writer points out that there are ways to distinguish yourself from the crowd and it is worth thinking this through. She obviously felt that some of her colleagues moaned about their lack of success without really looking at why their actions were liable to lead to failure to progress. As GMP put it on her blog
I am smart and I work hard, and most importantly — I am aware of how the successful people around me are, and what games they play, and I try to learn how to play them well, too.
This sentiment strikes me as putting it a little strong. Playing games is not what progression should be about but nevertheless it is naïve to assume that natural brilliance will out simply by virtue of existing. However it may well be that some people are sufficiently arrogant that they come across (to quote GMP again) as
‘too vain to try and find out what the missing parts were or were too stubborn to implement the needed change’.
She highlights relatively basic skills such as the ability to write and present clearly as ones some people just don’t bother to try to perfect. I wonder how true this is, although it is undoubtedly the case that some people manage to do better than others. Practice does help, but most people who have passed through my group have tried to work at this. Some clearly find the English tongue harder to get around than others, but I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t want to be able to deliver a cogent talk or write a paper with punch. I think it is dangerous to assume those who aren’t too brilliant at delivery are failing through laziness.
However, I think there are other aspects of the job not everyone takes as seriously as they might. These include being willing to take on roles, which may not in themselves seem glamorous but which may confer valuable experience. As a local example I could cite postdocs whom I have seen take the lead on organising our annual contribution to Physics at Work. Each year the sector in which I work, Biological and Soft Systems, puts on what is essentially a ‘show and tell’ session for a flood of schoolchildren. Our talk has been well honed over the years, but with every season there are new students who need to be taken through the delivery of it and encouraged to try out their own talents at outreach. The organiser gets no formal kudos, but a lot of respect and it is undoubtedly something to put on the CV. Equally, the research fellow who does a little voluntary (but paid) teaching may feel that that is taking valuable time out from their research; or they may feel (as I feel they should) that being able to demonstrate both experience and commitment in this sphere may count for something as they apply for permanent positions.
I think there is a real danger in being uncompromising about what you are prepared to do or coming across as overly focussed. Learning new skills is always likely to be of benefit, directly or indirectly, and if all you do is concentrate on your own narrow concerns this narrowness may be seen as representing an unwillingness to grow or a lack of interest in some of the skills academics need. One immediate benefit of trying out new things is you find out your strengths – and weaknesses. Better to become aware of what you should never try again and what you are really rather good at sooner rather than later. If you don’t practice getting your voice heard on some committee whose work you aren’t that bothered about, how will you get your point across when it is something close to your heart? If you don’t try talking to small groups of the public, you won’t know if you should be participating in major talks at your local science festival. And these different experiences will, once again, be beneficial on that CV that may yet represent the passport to a faculty position.
Or, on the other hand, you may discover that nothing will make up for the long hours, the lack of job security, and the unattractive habits of your colleagues. In other words, academic science really isn’t for you; you should stop burying your head in the sand about this and explore the wider world.