There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but on this occasion it is not an entirely welcome one.
It’s the time of year for this sort of reflection. The institute is in the process of awakening from a long hiatus: people are slowly trickling back from holiday; the abstract deadlines for several autumn conferences are drawing nigh. The ash tree towering over the courtyard outside our building has started to shed golden leaves onto the pavement, and there is a definite coolness in the morning air as I walk to the Tube under pale blue skies, and in the evenings as I cross campus for the commute home.
I’ve realized, with a little jolt of shock, that I only have fourteen months of funding left. Fourteen months seems a lot less than the “year and a half” I’ve been carting around in my head all summer.
Suddenly, it seems like the right time to take stock of what I’ve achieved to date, and to start formulating a sensible end-game plan. The past three-and-a-bit years in the lab, of course, are easy to document. I am second author on one published paper, and a minor co-author on two additional papers, one published and the other in preparation. Of these three papers, two are in collaboration with other labs. I have also been an author on two review articles, one in first position and one in second. And of course, I’m currently writing up my screen and putting the finishing touches on the biology I’m showcasing as an example – although the end result will be submitted to a solid publication, not a top-tier one, and the person listed second will be noted as having submitted equally to the work.
I’m proud of what I’ve achieved to date, but it is nowhere near enough. How can I best work these final fourteen months to my advantage?
As with many things like, it all starts with a list. What am I working on, and how are these little projects shaping up? There are, I realize, far more threads than I had thought. But I no longer have the luxury of chasing after dozens of leads, the glorious let’s-try-everything-and-see-what flies mentality of the person with three or four years of exploration ahead. No, I can see all those enticing doors closing in front of me, one after the other. I have to reckon like a cold-minded economist: which projects have the most time invested in them already? Which are most likely to lead to a high-profile paper – if the theory pans out? What, in fact, is the likelihood that the biology will be novel enough to give me that sort of paper at all? Would I be better off investing in just one main blaze, or keeping one or two other flames kindling in the background just in case? Is it really true that the recruitment panels would rather I’d gambled and won on one big payoff instead of three solid papers that might fall more safely into my grasp? Even if it means I might end up with nothing to show for my time? Everyone I trust about things like this assures me that this is the case: in the current funding situation, it’s top-tier or join the dole queue.
And then my particular situation leads to the toughest question of all. I have been a post-doctoral researcher for nearly ten years, not in real time but in elapsed research time (if you don’t count my career break). It is highly unlikely that I would be able to score yet another fellowship, even if I wanted to. So another part of the equation is whether any of my current projects seems interesting enough, or mature enough, to found a new lab on, if any university or institute will have me. It is one thing to write a paper on a topic; it is quite another to spend the next 30 years pouring my passion into it.
As I take stock, I am forced to admit that I am still rather far from the area of specialization that has always been closest to my heart, and which – up until now – I have spent most of my research career devoted to. When I started in the lab I was under the impression that the lab was firmly ensconced in that field, but the day-to-day aspects of my screen didn’t ever seem to end up there. I always intended to get back to it, to bend one of my projects in that direction – but this is the sort of activity that requires head-space, and time to read and reflect, and in that glorious let’s-try-everything-and-see-what flies mentality, there never seems time to do more than the conveyor-belt of experiments that follow logically one after the next. I have a bright swarm of new ideas in my head, but have yet to forge them into the solid research plan of my future dreams. And even if I had, new research plans require preliminary results – and when would I squeeze those in? Shouldn’t I be devoting all of my energy to get the paper I need just to survive and, eventually, to searching for a position and writing the grants I’d need to underwrite it?
So you can see, I’ve got a lot of hard thinking ahead, and a lot of difficult decisions. I will try very hard to stay positive, but I know it will not always be easy. I battled fiercely to get back into the lab, and I will be broken-hearted if I have to give up the dream. But equally, if it becomes clear that I cannot win after a protracted siege, I will not shy away from walking away either.