When I pictured my ‘adult’ life in academic science, it never looked anything like what it actually turned out to be. Trained as we are through the ranks, the neophyte scientist is constantly exposed to her bright future stretching ahead in clearly demarcated steps: PhD, followed by a few postdocs, then slotting into a university job with its own internal steps all the way up to full professor. Every working research institute she inhabits is a core sample through these ranks, with examples of every stage freely available for inspection and wistful admiration.
My own path, clearly, was the complete opposite of orderly. But recently I’ve become aware that, despite the untraditional nature of my advancement in the past few years, I am nevertheless now doing a grown-up scientist’s job in practice, if not in title. My official moniker, ‘Principal Research Associate’, is suitably vague, indicating that I’m a PI without a permanent job. Accordingly, my contract lengths are short and frequently refreshed, fuelled entirely on soft money. In discussions with various funding bodies and prospective alternative employers in the past month or so, it’s clear I’m lodged into a no-man’s land, too senior for most schemes (having passed the dreaded ‘expiration date’ of x years from being awarded a PhD) and too junior for those that require a firm tenure-track commitment from the university.
So what’s a girl to do? A more senior colleague may have accused me of ‘having my head buried in the sand’ recently, but another way of looking at it is that I’ve just getting on with the science. And the results have been a real joy. I’m involved in several amazing collaborations, have brought in small grants and PhD studentships, have been the co-author on a number of papers in the unit, and am supervising a number of junior researchers working on my projects. My H-index and publication record are strong, and I’m being returned in the Research Excellence Framework. At a recent American conference, I met all my major competitors and confirmed that I’m on the right track. The intricacies of the pathogen-host interactions I’ve been studying unfold like a flower of astonishing complexity, facilitated by the vast array of patients we have that kindly consent to being studied. When I open the lab door every morning, there is a spring in my step as I wonder how the previous day’s experiments have gone.
I still feel insecure sometimes, of course. Last week I travelled to meet a fellow academic to see if we had some common ground for a small collaboration. As I was ushered into his office and watched him speak with assurance, I felt like he was the real thing, while I was just an imposter. Looking at it objectively, however, we seemed about the same age, probably on equal footing with regard to experience. When I looked him up in the directory later, though, I found that he was considerably younger than me, having been appointed only this year and having received his PhD a full decade after mine, with a current publication list as short as mine had been in the late 1990s. So what was it that made me feel so inferior? Was it his gender? His confidence? Or was it something about the word “Lecturer” stamped on his door nameplate, making me feel like a junior post-doc all over again? Words are powerful things, and titles do matter.
I’m happy to report, however, that I’ve surmounted a real milestone in the past few days: the submission of my first two last-author papers.
By the convention in my field, the last author is the lab head, the one in charge, the source of the ideas. The big cheese. Last authorship is the territory of those that have finally made it, wherever or however ‘it’ may be. Perhaps ‘it’ isn’t something that has to be the top rung of a well-worn ladder of newbie dreams. Perhaps ‘it’ is just the place where you finally land, by whatever means necessary, and where everything just clicks into place.