In which we fail to meet expectations

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.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Careers, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to In which we fail to meet expectations

  1. Jenny, really thoughtful stuff. I didn’t know much about the Wellcome scheme which seems to sit somewhere between Daphne Jackson returner fellowships (which are entirely intended to ease returners back in but not as independent researchers but with support from a PI), and the Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships which may be for returners but not necessarily so (only requirements the need for flexible working and number of working years since PhD) and certainly are intended to be for independent researchers. The latter are also 4 years and people often do progress from them to URF’s if not to permanent positions. The duration is only a small impediment in this case.

    Do you think there is a mismatch between what the Wellcome thought and what is actually happening? Have they appreciated this? Will these fellowships be sustained as the funding at Wellcome is shaken up? I have already heard anxieties expressed about the specific case of maternity provision in the new structures. It is thought there may be a big leap from New to Senior Fellow at just the wrong time in many women’s careers.

    Maybe this is something that needs to be taken up with the Wellcome…..In the meantime, I hope everything works out for you personally.

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  3. Jenny says:

    I probably didn’t make it clear, Athene, but I think in many cases if the returner is young, it can work really well. And I was only speaking of the myself and the CRFs I met last week – I’m sure other schemes could have a much better outcome. The main problem is for older returners, who are no longer eligible for the logical next step, be that URF or Wellcome Senior Fellowship or equivalent, most of which ask that you not be 5-12 years (depending on the scheme) away from your PhD not counting the break. (Some actually count the break if it’s not for maternity purposes.) For older candidates who can’t get senior authorships in their 4-year stint, the main options are to try to get a second-tier lectureship, or to bridge yourself with a project grant in the hopes of building up that record – although Wellcome have just discontinued all project grants, as Stephen recently mentioned in his blog. But the latter is a dicey strategy if it doesn’t pay off – you’re 3 years older with no guarantee that the project will deliver the papers you need. I gather that being a lecturer might be more difficult now that teaching loads are set to increase, as well – though I think it would suit me if I could swing it. We’ll see.

    I think it’s the Wellcome’s view of CRF that might be a bit unrealistic. They can say we’re senior, but if no departments view us that way, you can’t force them to. Perhaps it needs to be made clearer to the sponsors at the outset.But again, with the set-up the way it is, true independence is tricky.

  4. @stephenemoss says:

    I know little of the CRF scheme, but from the way you describe it you might just as well have joined someone’s lab as a regular post-doc. Surely this is not what the Wellcome Trust intends with this scheme? You sound rather downbeat about the CRF, and I’m sure the Wellcome would be interested to know your thoughts if you have found it unfit for purpose.

  5. Jenny says:

    No, not downbeat as such – as I mentioned, I’m incredibly grateful for the fellowship, as returning to research was an amazing opportunity that I have largely enjoyed, even if it turns out I can’t stay. I’m just wondering about the bridging between CRF and the next steps, and whether it could be made easier. When I got the fellowship, I was hoping that the program grant scheme would be waiting for me if I couldn’t quite get the papers I needed to progress. There are a few other program grant schemes, though, so it’s not entirely hopeless. I have chatted to the Trust, and they have been very receptive to my concerns.

  6. cromercrox says:

    ‘Principle Investigator’. Hmmm. Your Freudian Slip is showing.

    But seriously, your talk of being grateful just to be there reminds me very much of Athene’s post on self-confidence, and mine on Ladies of a Certain Age. As I write, Mrs Crox (46) is heading off for a job interview, so this is a rather tender subject. Sympathies.

  7. Jenny says:

    Ah, I’ll fix the slip, thanks. Best of luck to your wife. I think it’s difficult to be on the job market as an older person, regardless of gender.

  8. Sarah says:

    Nice post. I don’t know much about cell biology or how the day to day work differs from my field, astronomy – beyond, you know, there being cells and biology involved. But how much do you think the experience depends on which lab you work in, and what your exact research topic is? There is a big difference between astro departments around the world (even within countries) in how supportive they are of independent research, i.e. how much they let you take leadership, and how much non-project based interaction there is (e.g. science coffee meetings, journal clubs…. not tied to a particular project).

    I think a problem may also lie in how these fellowships are branded – to me “career re-entry” reads “oh ok then, I’ll give you a shot”. It doesn’t exactly make a fellow feel as super awesome as she probably is, and sends the message that she’s “just happy to be there at all” so will be happy to make the coffee at group meetings. Maybe a different marketing strategy for such fellowships could already go a long way?

    In astronomy we have these special-circumstance-flexible-working-conditions fellowships that are so heavily marketed to women of childbearing age, that everyone sees them as “pregnant women’s fellowships”, deterring lots of other applicants with special requirements (single parents, caring for sick relatives, mental illness….). It really annoys me.

  9. Jenny says:

    Sarah, I think you’re spot-on about the branding. A Trust staff member was telling me that the CRF was really prestigious and I should use the title wherever I could, but all I could think was that “career re-entry” brands me as a sort of person…not the serious, gung-ho sort, but the sort who doesn’t put Science first. In my view, the title would work against me – I’d rather be known as an anonymous “post-doc”. I think women who get women-in-science scholarships and prizes might feel similarly. I so don’t want to be churlish about the opportunity I’ve been given, but the way it’s packaged and perceived – yes, there’s a problem in my view.

  10. ricardipus says:

    Regarding branding – I think you’re right, the “re-entry” part of the title is likely to carry stigma of some sort (unfortunately). I’d be tempted to refer to myself as a “Wellcome Trust Fellow” or the like (providing the WT allows this slight massaging of the title) and explain it on interview. The Wellcome Trust name carries a lot of weight so it seems to me that leveraging that brand as much as possible would be a good idea.

  11. Jenny says:

    That would be duplicitous in my view – I would never dream of misrepresenting myself like that. I did it once by accident and the reaction (I think I put ‘Wellcome Career Fellow’ in an email and missed off the ‘re-entry’ in haste, and they thought I’d missed out the ‘development’) was so powerful – oh my god, I didn’t realized you’d got a Wellcome fellowship – and having to explain what it really entailed was a bit painful.

  12. Eva says:

    That’s unfortunate that they mention *now* that they’d rather have all the CRFs as last authors. If you’d known at the start, you could have asked. And if there was something official stating these expectations when the fellowships were awarded, the perpetual-second-author CRF could have put her foot down about being used as a tech.
    Hope it all works out, though.

  13. Jenny says:

    Yes, it was all news to me, so I’m not surprised the sponsors don’t know – as far as I know there was nothing written down. I’ve just been to their website and still can’t see any hint of that in the wording. I totally agree that clarity at the beginning would be ideal – but I wonder, then, if certain sponsors would decide not to give space in their labs if they knew they’d have to give up a chunk of turf. It would certainly inform the agreed-upon project. It’s such a grey area, it’s really difficult to know the best way to do things.

  14. Andy Russell says:

    Shouldn’t the Trust stop awarding these CRFs in/to groups that don’t treat them in the way they are intended?

  15. Jenny says:

    Well, as I mentioned above, the ‘rules’ seem to be unspoken. If even I wasn’t aware of this, you can’t expect the groups to know.

  16. Steve Caplan says:

    Jenny,

    I think you are “meant” to do lab science–don’t give up, you are an inspiration to us all.

    Specific comments to follow by e-mail.

  17. I’ve only known one person on one of these Fellowships at all well, back when the scheme was very young, which was someone who had been out of the job market entirely for a decade raising a family. They were fairly evidently a post-doc in the PI’s lab, and at the end of the Fellowship they took an administrative job in a Medical Faculty. Said person is now a pretty senior/ important administrator… so the Fellowship was clearly of benefit to them, though it didn’t achieve the officially stated purpose. Indeed, their story rather bears out Jenny’s comments.

    Seems clear that any analysis of this sort of scheme in terms of outcomes would need to have “age” “years post PhD” “total years postdoc experience” and “gap out of science in years” as variables for analysis.

    If there is one thing that I would like to see change in the UK science career structure, it would be that we NOT have this phenomenon of skilled and committed people being eased out of lab science due to the age / no-posts-for-postdocs-that-old phenomenon. We’ve talked about this before here and back at NN, and I have often pointed out that this is one of the areas where North America actually does it better than the UK. I have certainly met 55 yr-old 25-yr veteran electrophysiology postdocs in US labs. I’ve never met one in the UK.

    Anyway, hang in there, Jenny.

  18. chall says:

    I think it’s very hard to “claim” last authorship from someone you worked with like that, even if you have your own money, especially after the fact you’ve been in a certain “type like” position (post doc or eq.). Then again, I have seen post-docs in thier PI’s lab get last authorship on their own money when they were on their way out the door so… maybe it is more what you allude to (as others) in regards to self-confidence and “self asserment”? I don’t know.

    What I find the most uncertain with the whole re-entry part is what you write “where do I go from here” when the most (?) of the grant funding afterwards seem to be aimed at “younger” scientists rather without the gap so what did WT think was going to be the career trajectory? Or maybe that’s asking too much really since it is on individual basis? nevertheless, some stats on where “re-entry people” have gone after their 4 years time would probably be helpful, or at least interesting!

    Sorry for not having any better insights – but your post made me think (as usual) – and I hope and think all will work out for you in the end.

  19. Jenny says:

    The Wellcome Trust changed their schemes after I received my fellowship, so it’s all very new, their shift towards funding fewer, brighter individuals. But of course the WT is not the only funding body, and there are a few opportunities out there that I will definitely chase up.

  20. Frank says:

    Jenny- I hope things work out in due course.

    It’s strange that a WT CDF is a prestigious thing whereas an MRC CDF is for first-time post-docs.

    At my Institute I think there would be quite a tough selection process to go through before accepting a new independent investigator, much tighter than it would be for just accepting a postdoc into a lab.

  21. antipodean says:

    On the subject of senior authorships for senior postdocs/CDFs. This minute I’m sitting procrastinating over one. How did I get it? I asked the professors if I could have it and they had no objections. Maybe this is just because I work for good decent human beings? But if you don’t ask they can’t very well say yes.

  22. antipodean says:

    I’m not meaning to be a smartarse, either. I’m in almost the same boat. Last year my fellowship was rejected and this year feels like a bit of a last chance. Last year one of the pieces of advice I got was get on as last author on a couple of papers. One I organised naturally and the other I plucked up the courage and asked.

  23. bean-mom says:

    Jenny,

    This post really resonates with me. Like you, I am on a career-rentry fellowship, easing back into the lab after four years away to raise my family and pursue other opportunities. I am in the U.S., and my NIH-funded career-reentry mechanism *does not* have the expectation that I am treated as an independent investigator; I am very much a regular postdoc with extra money for lab consumables. Indeed, the money is not technically mine, but explicitly awarded as a “supplement” to the PI who graciously took me on. (And at that word, “graciously,” I must pause to consider that perhaps you and I are almost overly grovelingly grateful for our positions, when really, our PIs also benefited from having experienced researchers in their lab who came with free salaries and reagent money? I digress.)

    My career re-entry fellowship, like yours, was awarded with the intention that it would launch me back onto a tenure-track research position in academia. How realistic is that? Not very. I am ten years past my Ph.D.; even were I to get a tenure-track position tommorrow, I would be considered too old for the typical “early investigator” career grants here in the States. This particular fellowship was and is, really, my last shot. Then again, if I hadn’t gotten this position, I’d have no chance at all. And for the thousands of freshly minted Ph.D. competing for postdocs right now… what chance do they have? What chance does any postdoc have these days? It is brutal. Like you, I consider that under different circumstances, I might have been better off pursuing a different alternative career with better prospects. If I lived in a bigger urban center with more “alternative” career options, I might well have done that.

    But I read something the other day that really struck me. The cell biologist Doug Green writes in an advice essay in The Scientist:

    “This is a creative enterprise that has this in common with all other creative enterprises — you do it not because it provides you with security and a stable career ladder, but because you can’t bring yourself to do anything else.” http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/57903/

    I am grateful just to be back in the lab. I don’t know where I’ll end up–but neither do any of the younger postdocs and grad students I know. (And to be absolutely honest, I’d be thrilled to be a permanent postdoc/staff scientist if my institute would have me)

    Best of luck…

  24. Jenny says:

    @antipodean – You are absolutely right, and I will ask. But the draft has been around for a while and the authorship feels set in stone. This does not mean it can’t be re-carved.

    @bean-mom – thank you so much for sharing your experiences. In my opinion, a young postdoc and a mature/re-entry post-doc will not be considered equally for future positions, as by definition the young one has not already seemed to have blown their chances the first time around. Perhaps I am just cynical on this point, but I do very much hope that I can still compete. One could argue we have more experience, even if it hasn’t been applied in a more targeted fashion. And yes, I too could live with a permanent postdoc position, but these sorts of stints are very rare in the UK. I wish you the very best of luck with your re-entry and I hope you knock ’em dead!

  25. ricardipus says:

    Misrepresenting? Not at all. You have a Fellowship, funded by the Wellcome Trust. Yes, on your C.V. you should list the details of course (I’m by no means suggesting you change the name of your award – hence my comment “if the WT allows…”). But saying you have a Wellcome Trust fellowship is not inaccurate in my view.

    Although I suppose that I am looking in from the North American perspective, where I guarantee almost nobody will know or really care what the difference is between a “CDF” and a “CRF”. In the UK I imagine people will know of these distinctions, and perhaps look carefully at them.

    I’m curious though – how do you rate your career chances against, say, someone coming from a foreign country? We have here a lot of medically-, industry-, or yes, even research-trained recent immigrants who often end up as “postdocs” more or less by default. They may have oodles of experience and/or professional qualifications, but the end result is that they often end up doing a couple of postdocs and finding themselves in situations that (at least superficially) seem similar to yours (minus the novel writing capability, of course).

  26. antipodean says:

    I was in the same situation. It’s never carved in stone until pubmed gets it!

  27. Jenn says:

    I’m not a scientist. What I know about politics in the lab I’ve learned from friends in genetic research. I’m also American. So I’m an outsider to a lot of these discussions. The one thing I can comment on is that you are an excellent writer, good enough to draw me in even though the things you write about are outside my experience and frankly, not my usual topics of interest. Write a book, please.

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  29. Achillespubtalk says:

    This post raises a lot of key issues on the economic sustainability of research led science in the UK and ensuring investment in skills and expertise is effectively progressed through job stability and a proper career structure. I am not a researcher but as a science educator, manager and business developer, like many working in and alongside HE, I have been dismayed for years at the culture of short term contracts, lack of tenure and inability to plan a normal lifestyle with few permanent research jobs and a plethora of first rate talent. From the outside looking in it is a credit to the abilities and tenacity of researchers like Jenny given the working infrastructure that the UK remains world class in many science areas – but for how long given the economic constraints we are now in.
    However Jenny your own position has in my view many possibilities to be hugely optimistic about. But the realities given the world we now all face in the UK may be less likely in pure science research but that other doors open equally challenging and fulfilling and most importantly become economically viable and do sustainably pay the mortgage! I have just read both of your novels for the first time one after the other, one pleasingly on a Kindle, and thoroughly enjoyed them, excellently written with great plots and characters. Importantly you have uniquely created a brand (Lablit), a science marketing movement and a professional digital communications channel and network for science awareness – with lots more to do and achieve. It may now be the optimum time to feel the fear, pull together all those talented transferable skills and go for it all full time and set the whole thing up as your own business. You may be surprised where private and public sector backing may emerge from, given the political ascendancy of science, and you have a year to plan and pull it off!

  30. Jenny says:

    Dear Achilles, thanks for your kind words. I have worked outside research before for a number of years before going back, and though I was in a successful and permanent position, I really longed to be doing research. I’ve always done my writing and other activities on the side (I’m about to put up a blog post on this topic, check back tomorrow), but the benefits of being in research at the same time are the inspiration, credibility and knowledge that only being an active scientist can bring to science-allied pursuits. I have no doubt I can find something else if science doesn’t pan out, but the prospect saddens me.

    As far as running my own business, I don’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body, and I don’t know if I could take the stress and uncertainty of that route on my own.

  31. Achillespubtalk says:

    I understand the pull and lure of research and had felt the same some years back over teaching. Ten years ago I dived out of academia and set up my own business, having for some time wanted to prove to myself I could do it and was surprised how successful and rewarding it quickly became. Yes hard work, but when you make the opportunities and network infrastructure you have done, the stress and uncertainties are far less. It is like working on a string of temporary contracts but with one huge aphrodisiac and that is you are in control and independent and if in the end you don’t like your client you go and find another one.
    You can cut the cake various ways too such as continuing part time research, perhaps with some teaching and keeping your hand in and the rest of the time leading LabLit Ltd. I am afraid you already are an entrepreneur – too late now to put the reagent genie back in the flask bottle – lots of potential – go for it.

  32. antipodean says:

    This isn’t just the UK

  33. Jenn says:

    Holy cow, both your books are on my reading list already. I hadn’t made the connection. They just got bumped to the top!

  34. Jenny says:

    Glad we cleared that up! 🙂

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