The afternoons are darkening, the leaves are scattering to the ground — and the usual seasonal missive from HR has arrived in my inbox.
Actually, although I’m on rolling 3-monthly contracts, I haven’t received this kind of notice in writing since I started nearly ten months ago. Each time, they’ve found spare salary behind the sofa cushions at the final hour. The Unit here very much wants to keep me, but despite the fact that I’m REF-returnable, overseeing the production of exciting and clinically-relevant data and have already managed to bring in external funding, the receipt of a formal letter makes me wonder if the game is finally up.
So I have to decide now whether I should start seriously looking for another position. And if so, do I want to find an academic situation, or would I rather leave its uncertainties and instabilities behind me for good?
I’ve been here before, of course. After another redundancy in a small, low country that now seems a world away, I recall writing in my leather notebook all the pros and cons of academic research, industrial research and non-science jobs such as publishing, staring at them for hours as I agonized over what to do. In the end, with the economy in poor shape at that time, the decision to leave research was made for me. But not being in the lab made me fundamentally unhappy, and this memory too is fresh in my mind — as is the joy I experienced when I finally clawed my way back. I have been particularly content in this lab, feeling for the first time as if my talents and experiences are being used to their full potential, as if my efforts really could help patients and make a difference to their lives. Previously, my passion for the vocation had been lost in the details, and rediscovering it once again has been a daily source of intense satisfaction. It would be a personal tragedy if I had to leave it all behind.
Still, I am at heart a pragmatist. I have mortgage payments to keep up and food to put on the table; redundancy pay (less than a month’s salary) would not get me far. I believe myself to be eminently employable in a wide variety of roles, but it can take time to find a decent job. So it seems like the right thing to do is to roll up my sleeves and make a start.
Will leaving research, if it comes to that, become a life’s regret? I’m not so sure. I’ve come a long way since I last faced this decision. Tomorrow, I turn 45. Battling to stay constantly afloat seems increasingly unappealing. Meanwhile, the past few years of my expanded activities in writing, communicating, punditry and policy have revealed interesting career prospects that weren’t even possible for me the last time I was laid off. It seems likely that my love of research could face some stiff competition if I found the right role outside of it.
Having recently been accused by a higher-up in the Division of allowing my head to be “buried in the sand”, it might be time to face the inevitable with good grace and a sense of humor.