OK, I just had an argument with a DOOR and I’ve been diddled out of two inches of my latte by Starbucks this morning. I’ve been wandering around all morning trying to think of a healthy way to vent, to resolve feelings of restlessness, while being reluctant to blog about it.
But, you know, what is a blog for if not for this? This blog is already clearly not an exclusively scientific blog, I’m not sure what it is really. And while it may have become a little bit more touchy-feely than I meant it to, it seems to be working out. People seem to be enjoying reading some of this writing, so that’s ok. This post, by the ever illuminating Athene Donald, tipped me over the edge to splurge.
I realised that January will be the half-way mark of my three year postdoc. This in itself is not so scary – I’m feeling very motivated about the work I’m doing and I believe it’s good work. But then I realised this might well be my first and last postdoctoral position. It is very possible that I won’t be able to secure another position in research after this one.
And then what do I do?
I’ve spent the last ten or so years working through my education, to get a terminal degree (which nearly drove me batty) in the field I want to contribute to – biology. I don’t want to do anything else. In my angry little gnome-head, I keep comparing myself to my brother, who is in the Army. A little while ago he was faced with the prospect of redundancy (despite his tour of Iraq and two of Afghanistan), which he mercifully dodged. Because, as he said, what could he do if he wasn’t in the Army? He’s been in the Army since he was 16 – who on civvie street has a requirement for a mortar specialist? The comparison, of course, is ridiculous, because I’d be in a better position than him. I’ve got those all important GCSEs, after all.
I’ve had this conversation with colleagues before. None of us can think of anything we’d rather do than research. Even if I *can* get another postdoc I’m in trouble after that – I don’t want to be a lecturer. It seems like a rubbish job, in all honesty. But anyway. The point is, you get sucked in, don’t you? Most people who do research are passionate about it. The thought of having to work in an office makes our blood run thick and cold. The thought of having to work anywhere which isn’t a lab or a lab-based environment is deeply unappealing. But, the fact is, a great deal of people with a postdoc contract at the moment wont get another one.
Which, for me, poses anther immediate and potentially more heartbreaking question – should we be encouraging good students to do PhDs? The heart screams “YES of COURSE, they should be given the opportunity to be able to love research as well!”. The aforementioned angry little gnome-head bellows “BUT WHAT DO THEY DO WITH IT?”. And I don’t have an answer to that.
Most people, from when they are small and pudgy and innocent of things like half-filled takeout coffee cups and sliding glass doors which don’t open for you, are told “if you work really hard, if you are a good person and do good things to other people, if you apply yourself and learn for learnings sake, you can anything you want to.” That’s what I tell my wee nephews, who are two and four. That’s what I was told up until the end of my degree, at which point I began to actually take note of what was going on around me. Yes, work hard. But it’s not enough. You have to ‘play the game’. You have to jump around in front of important people saying “look at me!” which may be impressive or annoying, depending on the mood of the important person. You sometimes have to keep your mouth shout, even when you’re trying to cope with unfair and inappropriate things. More than anything, you have to be in the right place at the right time.
Everyone should be given the opportunity to learn to love research, if that’s what they want to do. Everyone. We all know how important research is, I don’t need to rant about that. But where is research going? Money and jobs are drifting away like apparitions. So what do we do? Only let clever people do PhDs? All ‘A’s at A level and a first in their degree? You don’t need to be clever to do a PhD. You need to be persistent. Only let people who can afford to fund their own work do PhDs? We should be able to let anyone who is passionate enough to want to drag themselves though a doctorate do it, and do it properly, within the remit of good scientific protocol.
To be honest, I probably shouldn’t be here anyway. I failed all my A levels (apart from ‘Computer Science’ – go figure). I phoned the University and *begged* them to let me on the degree course I eventually aced. If I hadn’t worked three jobs I/my family couldn’t have paid for it. So, according to the above criteria, I’m not clever enough OR rich enough to do a PhD nowadays.
This all ties in with so many other issues on the radar at the moment. Being labelled a failure if you don’t use your PhD to get a job in academia. The idea that you need a PhD to do science. Postdocs and the two-body problem. Self-promotion. Imposter syndrome. It’s overwhelming for us young’uns at the moment, and I’m feeling a little bewildered.
But I don’t half love my viruses.