Sometimes you find yourself in a crowd, experiencing the unreal sense that you’re wearing a disguise, or acting out a part in a play, or watching yourself in a web-cam feed. Last week I attended the biennial meeting of Wellcome Trust Fellows, a gathering designed to allow chances to network, learn about each others’ work and discuss future funding opportunities. The majority of participants were Career Development Fellows (CDF), but also in attendance were all ten Career Re-Entry Fellows (CRF), including me. I gave a talk about my research, which was very well received, but I in no way felt like a peer to all the confident, impressive CDFs in the room.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Trust’s schemes, the CDF is a highly competitive, prestigious five-year fellowship which allows a talented post-doc to take on people and become a new group leader. The Re-entry Fellowship, on the other hand, is a rather amorphous beast: it is also advertised as being prestigious and competitive, but as it’s for people returning to research after a break, this notion is subtly undermined by the implications of the relatively small selection pool. The CRF lasts only four years, and though the person is designated as the Principal Investigator and is, according to the Trust, meant to be an independent researcher in their “sponsor’s” lab, she can’t start a group. In other words, we really are just post-docs with our own consumables budget.
Or so I’d thought. But during one of the informational lectures from Trust staff, we heard the surprising news that we Re-entry fellows were meant to be entirely independent, and as such, really ought to be senior authors on our papers. At the moment I’m putting the finishing touches on what may be the only major manuscript I get out of this stint, and my name appears co-first with a former PhD student in my boss’s lab. But maybe this was unusual? During the next break, I sought out as many of my counterparts as I could find to see what they thought. Like me, the others were bemused and a little bit alarmed to hear this news. “There’s no way in hell my boss would ever let me be senior author,” one woman told me, with a bitter laugh, which seemed to be the prevailing view. Another said that, in fact, most of her papers were turning out to be second-author because her specialized technique was being used as a coveted “service” by the rest of her department – or “collaborations”, as they preferred to call it.
The psychology of the Re-entry fellow is tricky. For starters, we’re typically women, which already can affect how we feel about being on a non-traditional, start-again path. It is difficult to describe what it’s like to be out of research for a time, especially if you really didn’t want to leave in the first place. There are decades of dreams, hopes, ambitious and expectations built into a scientific career, dreams which for me started when I was a small child. And when you are already a very mature post-doc, coming back into the game is not so easy. How do you find someone willing to give you a chance? And when they do give you the chance, you are in an unavoidable position of submission: they did you a favor, and you are sincerely grateful. This is not a situation that makes you want to rock the boat, especially when you are already feeling insecure and rusty, surrounded by brilliant seminar speakers and new group leaders ten years your junior. Nobody in your lab or department treats you with what would be afforded a prestigious CDF: you are just an odd-ball mature post-doc. A Re-entry fellow may be asked to do lab chores, management, admin: the fellow is just happy to be there, happy to make life easier for the person who made it possible. The fellow may be asked to help out on other projects, for minor authorships – again, it may seem like the right thing to do at the time. And above all, the Re-entry fellow acts like any other post-doc – she is expected to attend lab meetings and one-on-ones with the boss, to heed project guidance – which means that, no matter how independent you are, you can’t say that you “own” your project – it’s just too closely circumscribed by the lab head. The bottom line is that none of us really feel in a position to insist that senior authorship, in this environment, would be appropriate – no matter what the Trust expected.
In retrospect, I am not sure the CRF scheme will achieve the aims that most of its awardees might want. The younger ones may bounce back, but for those of us a decade or more from our PhD and aged beyond most funding sell-by dates, what can we realistically hope for? Unless we are very lucky, four years with no technical assistance is not enough time to create a track record and line of research that would make us competitive for the next step, especially when it can take more than a year just to get back into the swing of things. I’ve heard that at least one CRF became a lecturer, but we don’t have access to the stats and fates of our predecessors – and it’s a relatively new scheme, so the sample size is probably too small to draw conclusions anyway. I am grateful to the Trust for the opportunity – of course I am – , but I can’t escape the feeling that when it’s all over in a years’ time, I will have let them down, that their generous support was too little, too late, and might better have been spent on backing a more convincing, younger winner. I wonder, sometimes, if I would have been better off not coming back to research in the first place, instead putting my energy into establishing myself in a career where I had a more realistic chance at future success.
I’ll never know, now. And only time will tell what will happen to me next.