As crocuses push through muddy earth, the air softens on campus and the undergraduates wake up from hibernation to resume clogging up the pizza queue in the refectory, I feel the weight, yet again, of the swift passage of days and months.
It’s that time of year again: our annual staff appraisals. Being subjected to this exercise is, for me, a surreal experience. Before I returned to academic research, I was leading a team of eight scientists in biotech and, after that, a group of six editors, giving me many years’ experience on the other side of this process. Appraisals now, in my status as lowly post-doc, administered by a boss several years my junior, only underscore how far back I have slipped in my career progression. And progress is never as quick as you’d like, especially when you’re flying solo again after years of achieving things as a team. Looking back at last year’s appraisal document, I saw with discomfort that my main goal – submitting the big screen paper for publication – remained unfinished (albeit lurking only a few weeks off, if all goes well).
The chat was informal and went well, but with only eleven months of funding remaining, there was no avoiding the serious discussion about My Future. And the boss made no secret of the fact that he didn’t think I was cut out for the cut and thrust of lab head existence. It was not framed in a particularly negative way: I am, I was told, a woman of many talents, and I probably would not find focusing solely on research to be an adequate outlet for my interests and passions. Obtaining an independent fellowship might be tricky with my track record in the current climate. Attempting a bridging, three-year project grant would be a gamble on success. Yet if I went the way of a lectureship position, I’d probably end up frustrated by a situation that didn’t even allow, these days, a fair shot at performing any significant research at all.
Over the past few months, I’ve noticed that my boss is not alone in the assumption that I would not like leading a group. Last week in the common room, a colleague told me about a particular Oxbridge artist/writer-in-residence programme, and several professors we were drinking coffee with thought it would be the perfect thing for me – not seeming to realize the double-edged implications of their hearty praise or how it might make me feel. I know I am fully capable of leading a group and writing novels at the same time – after all, I’d done it before, quite effectively, for a number of years. But although one of the professors always urging me to leave science “for writing and that sort of thing” probably spends as much time playing tennis and watching the cricket as I do working on the side, her hobbies are somehow not considered to be incompatible with science – neither do they impinge on her serious reputation. (I’ll leave for another time the fascinating topic of why physical activities, like sport, or passive entertainment such as TV, are fair game for scientists, but intellectual activities that may take up no more time are viewed as best, an odd quirk, or worse, a fatal distraction from research that taints the purveyor as “less than serious”.)
So, do I want to be a lab head?
Yes – and no.
Would I be capable of pulling it off and still keep up my writing and other science communication endeavors?
Absolutely. I can do anything I want, and I always have done.
Would it be the best course of action for me?
Your guess is as good as mine.