What I find less than perfect about my career

Well of course after singing the praises of academia, it was only inevitable I would turn to the areas I do not enjoy quite so much. At the risk of becoming a caricature of myself, I will try not to complain too much, but frankly it is hard. The issue really is the absurdity of it all and the way it is portrayed by those who do not realise the problems and pressures we face. While I am hardly political, it is difficult to swallow the endless platitudes about how important science is and how we must protect academic freedom, and maintain standards when grants are cut, salaries are a joke, competition for jobs is fierce to the point of brutal, and job security is virtually non existent. I may have to revisit some of these ideas later as they genuinely are that important to the problems faced by academics as a whole, but for now I will try to keep it short.

These are of course my opinions based on my experiences, but I do have friends in other branches of science and academia and the complaints I am sure are recognisable to many and not unique to me. As before, in no special order:

1. Jobs. There are not enough jobs, the pay is terrible and there is no job security (most contracts at the postdoc level are 2-3 years). Now that is true of many jobs, but when you have to train for about 10 years with little or no money (higher school education, degree, masters, PhD) to then be stuck in a market where there are few jobs, all on short-term contracts and with poor pay and then the government wonders why everyone leaves to work in the city, you cannot help but think that they are blind. I simply could not have afforded to do what I do without financial support from my family, and by not having a family of my own to support. I know too many people who have had to leave academia because they have just run out of money, or can’t get a job. I am not saying there should not be competition – there is not enough money to employ everyone who wants to be a palaeontologist and not everyone can be a professor, but you can’t keep training more and more people and expect them to fill fewer and fewer positions.

2. Time to qualify. Part of 1 really, but part of the reason the pay is so bad is you are typically 3-5 years behind all your peers who have been working since they got a batchelors degree, and with a company who will promote you, give you a pension, shares and the rest. Age 35 I know people still paying off their student debts and who earn less than the starting salary of a junior clerk in a bank who is 18. We don’t want huge salaries – we do it because we love it, but we are forced to leave to earn a living wage *after* taking years to become qulaified for jobs that no longer exist. Thanks for that.

3. Sexy science. If you don’t work on the topic that is hot right now, you can watch you chances of getting a grant or job diminish by the day. For biology right now it is Evo-Devo, before that whole genome sequences, and before that molecular based phylogenies. The money is not handed out equally and it shows. While PhD hunting years ago, in one day I counted a total of 58 positions in ‘biology’, 2 of them were not based on molecular / DNA work. And again, they wonder why they are running out of taxonomists, or why anatomy is so far behind.

4. Awkward customers. As in any job or career, not everyone you will meet or work with is nice and friendly and helpful, and of course some are downright difficult, awkward or nasty. Now in a normal job you could move to a different company, swap to a new department or regional office, or if things were reall difficult, appeal to the company HR, boss or whoever. Of course that is true to an extent within departments or individual research institutes, but if you need access to a specimen and it is denied to you, or someone is repeatedly rejecting your papers or grant applications, or whatever it can be diffiuclt to even find out that it is happening (thanks to the general anonymity of peer review) let alone act on it. With academic jobs few and far between and competiton fierce, if you are having a disagreement with someone, a job in that place will not be appealing (and if they are on the hiring committee, you probably won’t get it either). Again, this is not uncommon in the ‘real world’, but if you are a banker there are lots of banks you can work for, with lots of offices, not true if you are a palaeontologist.

5. Work pressure. With the competitiveness for jobs and grants, young academics especially are forced to work very long hours. Contract work, as I have mentioned before, often gives you little scope to explore your own research, or spend time writing you own grants. A good grant application can take weeks of full-time work to produce, and with your commitments to research and teaching, that often has to be done on your own time. But the time they take means you will only be able to complete two or three applications (and probably more likely just one) for a given round (generally two a year). Fail here and you are out of a job. Fail again, and you almost become unemployable – if you are out of a job for 18 months or two years you are too far behind to catch up.

6. Personal loss. Between all the extra hours you work, short contracts mean you are often moving city or country, poor pay, long absences for fieldwork or museum visits and the rest, it is perhaps no wonder so may people drop out. Even the travel can be a drag. You fly out on a Saturday (your day off), work for three weeks (missing three weekends with no overtime or extra days off in lieu, stuck in a hotel on your own in the middle of nowhere to get to some provincial museum), and come back on a Saturday (your day off, now jetlagged from a 12 hour flight) and then back to work on Monday. Nice.

7. Peer review. As discussed here before, it is bad. It could be a lot worse, but it is not great. The worst thing of course is the lack of control, a brilliant paper can be rejected repeatedly over bad reviews where it has simply been misunderstood. When you are competing for grants as a young researcher when a good publication list can make the difference between success and failure, and it takes six months to get a rejection, it does not help. Papers can be held up for years by referees and slow journals and it can seriously affect your chances of getting a job or a grant if you have nothing published to show for all your work because it is all in review. Incidentally this goes for grants too – having them rejected for outrageous reasons by ignorant referees is a real issue, and unlike a paper, you can hardly resubmit it, or send a letter to the grant body director once the deadline has gone and the money has been allocated.

8. Unrealisitic expectations. Apparently it is fine to expect us to keep on working long hours without overtime, lose our weekends to our work without days off, make trips in our own time, accept low pay, low job security, limited contracts, pressure to publish, excessive administration, and the rest because we enjoy our jobs. Well, yeah, we do – we do them in spite of those things, but that is hardly a reason to continue if you expect the next generation to enter academia as a career. It is hardly the best motivator and it will actively discourage people who cannot afford to get so far behind with debt, or have a family to support, or just do not feel they can give up an even vaguely decent standard of living to pursue a career with so little going for it.

It is hard not for me to come over bitter in all of this, but that is probably because I am a little. I am doing this because I want to and because I enjoy it, but I do see the pressures it puts on my friends and colleagues and I know people who have dropped out and continue to drop out because of these reasons. I am not a fool, we are palaeontologists, we are not looking for cancer cures, or into renewable energy but science is not supposed to work (quite) like that. I don’t expect us to be valued as much as brain surgeons, but I do expect us to be valued more than train drivers or street cleaners. We give our own time and expense to gain our qualifications to be less valued that those without any higher education. We are in a capitalist system, and we will only be paid according to the market forces, but then our salary also comes from the government ultimately, so they can pay us more if they really want. We also make them money with new patents, new lines of medical research, new tecnhologies and the rest, but if we do ot have the necessary salary or support we will leave and where will they come from then?

If science is important to a society it needs to be supported, and cutting positions, cutting grants, and keeping wages at a frustratingly low level while somehow claiming it is comparable to industy salaries (let alone business) is frankly ludicrous. It simply isn’t, and if people expect us to continue to work under these conditions, and more, expect the next generation to accept them, then they are making a mistake. The idealism and naivete of youth? Perhaps, but I do see the effects and I feel them myself. I know how lucky I was to have the support to get me through my training, and I therfore know that others who do not have it, cannot make it no matter how talented, and these people are lost to science, and that is sad for both them and academia.

This is a revised Mk.1 post, to see the original with comments etc., go here.

4 Responses to “What I find less than perfect about my career”


  1. 1 segan123 09/07/2008 at 12:15 am

    Oof… Yeah, that’s definitely an unpleasant situation – I didn’t realize things were so bad. I hope they look up soon, though; academia is an undoubtedly important factor in our society, it definitely deserves more acknowledgment than it gets.

    – Segan

  2. 2 Christopher 26/09/2008 at 9:25 am

    Hey

    Through various search terms on many independent occasions I’ve come across your wen/blog site and thought it might be worth contacting you. I was specifically reading your blog of July 9 “What I find less than perfect about my career”. After 20 years I got so fed up with these issues I wrote a book – see below.

    I have been in basic research for over 20 years and it has too often disappointed me how all too easily genuinely talented people slip through the academic cracks never to be heard of again. Indeed as a result of both my own frustrations over the last 20 years or so and observating similar struggles of so many other people, I wrote a book about these and other issues (Convergence…go to http://convergence-cpr.com).

    Whereas there are legitmate “glass ceiling” arguments I feel these dont go deep enough into the problem that affects all young would-be scientists (even those a little more seasoned).

    At the most basic level, my novel Convergence is about 4 postdocs who face a constant battle to get their feet on the next rung of the academic ladder. There are typical roadblocks that will be familar to all postdocs. However, at a deeper level I ask why is it that there are some who no matter how impoverished intellectually or how bankrupted in sincerity they may be, they always seem to do well while those that possess clear scientific intellect and an abundance of sincerity do so poorly.

    Sometimes people need to see the precise manner by which such biases occur, indeed some need to see it blow by agonizing blow, for the penny to drop. How can such otherwise smart people not see they’ve had their pockets picked? Really it’s a mind set, that it just never occurs to some that you can’t just be academically smart or sincere about why you’re into research, without critical networking skills all that potential is lost. In the end such people end up cycling thorugh one postdoc position after another and then disappear without a trace.

    The book asks so many questions about the dynamics of the academic community, but ultimately I try to provide food for thought with 4 cautionary tales for those wanting to pursue a career in the biomedical sciences.

    As stated, after reading your webpage, I thought I’d take a gamble and contact you. I’ve gotten very frustrated with agents, publishers, online directories and various other “resources” that are supposed to direct traffic to new books or authors. So I thought by contacting you, I might at least take a more direct route to alerting the core audience my novel tagets that my website exists.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this email.

  3. 3 David Hone 02/10/2008 at 4:31 am

    Dear Christoper, thanks for the comment / mail. It is, in a peverse way, nice to know I am not the only person who thinks like this and that palaeontology is not the only affected discipline, though of course it would be better if it did not happen at all.

    The one thing I would add to your comment is that no matter how smart we are, we don’t know what questions to ask. Why do smart people make dumb mistakes? Because they are dealing in something outside of their realm of experience or training. I don’t know *how* to get a postdoc and the only advice I have ever had from anyone I have asked is “Just apply for lots and hope”. This came from everyone, pretty much without exception who between them come from biology, palaeo and geology, several FRSs, professors, heads of department, five different countries and must have 150 years of experience between them. No one seems to know, and thus have no advice to pass on. Nor do I know what to ask someone.

    Where do you find the information on how to get a job? What should I ask? Where are the jobs listed? I ask my friends, peers and superiors and no-one has any good ideas. Most jobs get passed around by e-mail as far as I can tell and simply demand a CV and a list of papers for an application which hardly lets you shine as an applicant.


  1. 1 Bonus journal apoplexy post « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 28/10/2008 at 4:35 pm
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