Naturally, I ought to have been chronicling the demise of my research science… (the next word delivered in the style of the cop in The Big Lebowski in reaction to The Dude’s concern for his Creedence tapes missing with his stolen car)… ‘career’ in these pages – they supposedly being a scientist’s we b log – rather than withdrawing into virtual absence. But I am undergoing an uneasy acceptance process and just couldn’t rouse myself. And who wants to read a foot-stamping Ptolemaic litany of complaints anyway?
In summary: May’s bluff call for applications for ‘Voluntary Severance’, followed for the best part of a month by me resorting to my usual policy when bureaucracy kicks in – ignore it. Try to forget about it. Let my gut come up with the way forward, but no longer able to disregard the squeakiness at its tail end come deadline 30th June, finger twitching over the button in the last few minutes before the 5 pm close. And then I realised, I’d done it. After the fact! Because the likelihood is (as observed by a particularly astute confidante), I’d already made the decision some time ago. It’s a nebulous faculty, free will.
Here’s the (edited) bumph I included in my application:
I am fortunate to hold a good position as a Senior Research Fellow. During ten years here as a postdoctoral researcher, I have secured two personal fellowships, and an Innovation Fund award, on the back of notable publications. Following the cessation of my fellowship funding two years ago, I moved onto a permanent, HEFCE-funded contract, but have not managed to acquire further funding. With the current financial climate limiting the provision of research grants, this is a situation that may be difficult to rectify. This presents me with a dilemma: without funding of my own, progression beyond my current level / spinal point is unrealisable, and I would be unable to secure a position of equivalent salary / stature at another institution.
I have therefore come to the opinion that I must consider leaving academic research and seek a new direction. A voluntary severance payment would be opportune in facilitating a difficult and financially uncertain transition.
I can’t help but smile wryly at the paradox of having to talk oneself up in order to lose one’s job. In order to be considered deserving of a cushioned landing onto the scrapheap, I had to pitch it so as to remind those who tick the boxes that I have been useful during the last decade. That there was a fruitful period when paper-fellowship-paper-fellowship-review-review-book chapter demonstrated a degree of worth. But the clue is in that list: the infrequency of the word ‘paper’ (because reviews don’t really count, do they?). And in the window for the next research assessment thingymajig, I can only return (a second author) one.
Stubbornness can be both a positive and negative quality in science: essential to attacking difficult problems; a hindrance when it prevents conceding defeat and re-directing effort and resources along more productive routes. Some time back, having realised the academic career trajectory wasn’t for me (nor I for it), I took a space-taking year out on study leave, uncertain at the outset whether I would return. However, the break from the lab refreshed me, and so, not liking to quit (and needing to get paid again), I decided to give it another crack. But I’ve spiralled further into the black hole of an apparently (to me) intractable problem, throwing heaps of negative data out behind me like a Stalag tunneller in search of light and breathable air. Meanwhile, the economy gets fucked up, public sector cuts follow, and the HEFCE pot into which I dip my salaried snout is not deep enough to sustain fund-less, paper-deficient, solo-toiling fellows parasitizing the taxpayer (and feeling guilty about it – at least until I weigh it up against how much the bankers cost us). And time flies, and eyesight deteriorates, and knees stiffen, and the hairs on my head turn grey, while black ones descend from my nostrils, and cotton wool forms in my ears quicker than progress, and I’m increasingly unlikely to land a grant (regardless of Vince’s confirmation of the hollowness of the Blue Spectre’s pre-election “We’ve got to increase our science base!” bullet-point).
It’s a double wrench: leaving research and leaving academia. Especially when there isn’t time enough to follow up that now reproducible pattern towards something honestly informative. Particularly poignant is liquid nitrogen’s cold reminder of all that work which came to naught; or that didn’t get followed up (because I’m not a Hindu god). But I don’t blame anyone else for my ineptitude/erroneousness. If I was better at it, then I’d feel more secure – and would enjoy it more… and hence be better at it. Because I do love science. But it’s not about me; it’s about money; and science doesn’t owe me a living. It has been a privilege, but I’d rather walk now than be less remuneratively pushed later.
I’ve heard it said that the best scientists know the right questions to ask. I guess they also know whether and when to close down Dick and Harry and put all their attention into Tom. I chanced it, and called it wrong; I could see the wood, but didn’t reach the trees. It’s time to escape. Just don’t ask me where to yet. I reckon on some wondering and wandering while I figure that one out.
That’s a courageous decision, Lee. I hope it all works out for you.
I’ve debated bailing out of academia several times over the years, but never quite done it. Do you think your decision would have been different had you had a "standard" academic post (teaching+admin+research) – where you would presumably shift over to teaching as a research career, or at least funding, went into a stall – rather than a Research Fellow job?
I have the same near-zero likelihood of progression beyond my current spine point – absent research grant £££ – but if my fate is to end up as mostly a teacher of students (and science writer on the side) rather than a research "PI" then I guess that is something I can probably live with.
Thank you for this wonderful, and candid, post. I see my future self in your situation and it makes me very sad – but I hope that I can face it with the same courage that you seem to have, and wish you luck finding your new place in life. Keep us posted.
What a sad post, Lee, but also optimistic and brave. Did you get any response from them yet? I, too, look forward to reading about what the future brings.
It’s a shame that the main blogs page (network.nature.com/blogs) thinks there are no comments on this blog, even more than an hour after they were written. More people would read this if they knew a discussion was taking place. I guess it’s another MT4 bug.
Yes, I spotted that too, Jenny. The same problem is afflicting my blog, and probably others.
Well, now it says there’s 3 comments when there are 5, so progress? If I do the maths on the timestamps, we’re looking at about a 2 hour delay on reflection of comments….
Yup, noticed that. Think I reported it but I can’t remember what I have and what I haven’t reported. I know I’m no longer getting email notifications, so apologies if I’m slow responding to anybody.
Austin – I too have for some time been debating getting out of what I do realise is a nice position (and repeatedly beat myself up about it). It is hard to let go; but I feel like I have little choice now. Would it be different had I a ‘standard’ academic post? Hypothetical: I’m inclined to think ‘No’, but that’s just me.
Jennifer – I’ve noted from reading your stuff that there is overlap in our situations, and I likewise wish you luck if and when that time comes (although something tells me you won’t need it).
Maxine – Whose ‘them’?
I wasn’t predicting such kind words – thanks.