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[personal profile] liv
Wow, Three Weeks for Dreamwidth went by fast. I have run out of time and haven't even come close to posting all the stuff I thought I was going to talk about. However, I obviously still want to carry on creating content after the fest is over, so I will work my way down some of the queue. I made 8 substantial posts I think I wouldn't have made otherwise, plus another 4 long thinky posts which I didn't tag as belonging to the fest since they were more personal than I quite wanted to promote to strangers following the site-wide tag.

So that's a dozen "big" posts in three weeks, which is verbose even by my standards. It has felt a bit like DW has consumed more of my time than usual during the season. Then again, it's a time of the academic year which is relatively quiet for me. And I've had a blast, met lots of cool new people and got some really lively discussions going; I'm going to carry on exploring some of these things in the comments.

Anyway, one of my Three Weeks posts was a discussion of why I'm interested in the research I do. [personal profile] forestofglory quite rightly pushed me on talking about my feelings rather than just abstract factual things. She says:
I'd still like to hear more about how you feel your research is going. I know scientists aren't supposed to have feelings, but I want to know how you are doing as well as what you are doing.
This seems a very reasonable request, and although I do most naturally talk about more abstract things, I've often got some good out of being a bit confessional here.

I have thought for a long time that academic scientific research is an awesome job but an atrocious career. The further I progress in it the more that is true, and honestly I'm one of the lucky ones because I have managed to land a faculty position with job security and a decent salary.

My absolutely unfiltered honest initial response to being asked how I feel about my research is excited. I find it endlessly interesting doing experiments to find out things that literally nobody ever knew before I poked at some particular detail. I was also really lucky that I had a pretty clear idea from a young age what I was interested in, and I've been able to pursue that interest through university, post-graduate training and beyond. I probably could have succeeded at research into other topics than cell biology, but I have found something I really really care about and genuinely want to know every possible tiny detail of.

The other thing I really love about research is that I can carry on learning. I was very good at being a student, and a lot of what's wonderful about this career path is that in lots of ways I haven't had to give that up. Every time I read new articles or listen to talks from other scientists, I learn something new and interesting, and although I don't get the immediate reward of a high mark for reproducing it in an exam, I do have to recall and synthesize this information in order to understand my research data. It's hard to describe how much I enjoy that. The new information, the new parts to an endlessly complex and interesting story, yes, but also the challenge of my future depending on being able to learn it, not just note that something's interesting and then forget about it and move on.

My conversation with [personal profile] forestofglory was in the context of talking about being a PhD supervisor. Back in January, I wrote that post, because I had a moment of despair that kind of corresponded with PhD application season. I don't know what the hell happened, but the post made Hacker News and got 60 thousand hits within the first 24 hours of putting it up. There's over 200 comments on it here and another 200 at Hacker News, and it got discussed extensively on Twitter and when I turned up at Eastercon total strangers came up to me with, oh, you're the person who wrote that PhD post! The thing is, even though I think the apprenticeship-style system by which we train academics is incredibly broken, it's the system we have, and one of the things that's expected of me as a PI / Lecturer (US equivalent: Associate Professor) is that I supervise PhD students. And given that's what I'm expected to do, I really hope I can do so to the best of my ability and provide a useful, non-abusive training for future scientists.

I have a lot of different feelings about this, and tentatively I'll start talking about feeling committed. In some ways I've been extraordinarily lucky in that my first ever PhD student is particularly able and particularly well suited to me. I don't have much to sell to really brilliant students, since I'm working in a small provincial university with a shoestring budget, and I don't yet have much of a research track record because I'm at the beginning of my career. However, the way it turned out was that my Minion, for her own personal reasons, positively wanted to be in a smaller, more nurturing environment, and is also really really excited about my research. And she missed a First Class degree by one mark, and these days PhDs are so absurdly competitive that it's hard to get into the top places with a 2:1.

Minion is really unusually mature compared to starting PhD students. She's organized, dedicated, hardworking, and has a really good long view of the ultimate point of what she's doing, both to progress her own career and to contribute to the field. She is technically very good, partly because she had a year in industry between finishing her undergrad degree and coming to me, but also because she's meticulous and careful and has a talent for the kind of fiddly things that are involved in molecular biology research. She's a tortoise where I'm a hare, in that she works steadily and carefully and I procrastinate with occasional flashes of brilliance; [livejournal.com profile] fjm argues cogently that tortoises do better in the PhD system. I hate to say this, but the fact that she is a native speaker of English and was educated in a UK university also makes my life a lot easier; we share a common language and a common culture, both in general social terms and academically. When I take on more students in the future, I am going to have to work very hard not to be biased in favour of UK based students, because I really do not want to be racist or xenophobic. But for someone coming to this incredibly complex responsibility for the first time, having someone-like-me to work with is a real bonus.

I really enjoy working with Minion. Every time we have a meeting (which I insist happens weekly because one mistake I don't want to fall into is abandoning my student for months at a time with no guidance or contact) I come away from it feeling energized and excited. I love discussing her research in detail, looking at this particular image of a cell or delving into the numbers, troubleshooting, thinking of more rigorous ways to test our hypotheses. And we are building what seems to me like a pretty good working relationship. I was a bit scared that because Minion is quiet and somewhat deferential, and I'm loud and extroverted and domineering, I would end up bulldozing over her and not giving her a chance to develop intellectually. But actually, no, she is more than prepared to stand up for her own views, and six months in she's starting to take intellectual charge of the direction of the project. The things she's most interested in are not necessarily the same things I'm most interested in, but that's more than ok, even though I jokingly refer to her as the Minion I actually see her as a colleague, not a slave, and I think her vision for the project is really sound, even though it's not what I imagined would happen when I was planning it.

In some ways I'm more cut out to be a supervisor than a bench researcher. Because honestly, I have the intellectual chops for research, but I'm only middling good at the practical stuff. I'm somewhat clumsy and somewhat slow, and I'm never the person with the magic touch who makes the tricky temperamental equipment work. That's ok in that modern research is very standardized and almost automated, so you don't have to be a mechanical genius to be a successful biochemist. But it's still better if you are a mechanical genius!

The reason I'm not in the lab at the moment is mainly financial; I only barely have enough money to pay for the consumables for one person, and that's got to be Minion ahead of me. On the one hand, if I really passionately wanted to be pipetting and tending cells and all of that, I would probably have found a way to make it work in spite of the financial barriers. On the other, it's not entirely a good thing. At the moment it's fine because I happen to have a very technically competent student who doesn't need me, and I'm sharing a technician with my collaborator, and he's doing fine at teaching her the day-to-day practicalities of actually doing experiments. But this isn't always going to be the case, I might not have access to a good technician and I might have a student who needs more handholding than Minion does. So I do need to keep my own bench skills up, and it's worrying me that I am not in a position to do that. When you get to a very senior level, you're expected to spend your time doing admin and management and delegate the bench work to more junior people, but I'm a bit aware that it's rather early in my career for me to drop out of actually doing the day-to-day experimental work, and if I carry on not doing that I won't have the CV to get to a senior post. Because in the end, you can never quite "own" an experiment if it's carried out by someone else according to your instructions, you have to have seen things with your own eyes to be able to analyse results, just having numbers and error bars doesn't cut it. You have to actually be on the spot to see the unexpected thing that you weren't looking for that opens out a whole new aspect of the system.

In some ways I miss being a working scientist, in other ways the actual physical manipulation of cells and reagents has never been my favourite part of this job. I used to like it because I felt it gave variety to my life; sometimes I would read papers and think and plan or interpret experiments and do intellectual stuff, other times I would do near-mindless (but concentration-requiring, so often good for flow-state) experiments with my hands, and that was much better than spending all day every day doing either one or the other. But now that I have a proper teaching position I have plenty of sources of variety in my life and I am secretly happy to have dropped the aspect that honestly, I found least stimulating. So I guess what I feel about only being a supervisor, not a researcher in my own right, is frustrated (but a tiny bit relieved).

This is where I get sharey and personal. When I think about my career, rather than the specific experiments I'm running right now, I feel intensely anxious. The having no money is awful, partly because it really restricts what I can do, but also partly because it makes me doubt myself, surely if I were good enough to have an academic career I'd have attracted at least some funding by now? (The tiny bit I have comes from the university, so while I'm very grateful for their support, I didn't obtain it in open competition.) And because I have no money, I haven't published since 2009, and 4 years of CV gap means that there's a high chance I don't have a future, even if from today everything goes completely brilliantly.

The thing about being an academic scientist is that you can't be merely competent, you have to be brilliant. It's such a steep-sided pyramid, and there's almost no place for scientists who aren't good enough for promotion. The funding situation is that a charity or research council has enough money to fund maybe 10 or 12 projects each year. And they get a hundred applications, and 98 or 99 of them are good enough to fund, they can't be rejected on technical grounds. So you have to be in the top decile, effectively, or you get no money at all, and the competition isn't everybody in the world, it's people who've already got to the top of the highly selective and competitive process of becoming a lab head in the first place. And of course one of the criteria that will be used to tease out the top 10 proposals is whether the PI has a "track record" of making good use of the money they've received in the past to generate interesting science. If, like me, you've never received any money in the past, it's a big risk for anyone to invest in you just because you have a good idea. And because I've been desperately trying to get money ever since I moved to my current post in 2009, but haven't yet succeeded, I've more or less aged out of most of the schemes that are designed to give a leg-up to people starting out in their careers. This means I have to compete for funding not just with my peers but with people who have ten or twenty years more experience than me.

I am going to sound arrogant here, but I am pretty sure that the problem isn't that I'm not intelligent enough. Intellectually, I can hold my own with scientists with the most glittering CVs. The problem is that I'm not hungry enough. I haven't put every waking hour into trying to get funding over the last four years. I've invested the great majority of that time into teaching and educational stuff which is the other half of my job. Besides which, I've taken time off most weekends and rarely worked more than 40-50 hours a week, and I have a work-life balance which includes a lot of time for community volunteering and a fair amount of time for socializing either on the internet or in person. That's not what the picture looks like for most of my colleagues who have been successful. I don't think it's that I'm lazy, or not entirely anyway, it's that I can't bring myself to gamble everything on an attempt to be one of those who make it to the top, when there's such a high chance that I still won't even if I put in every waking hour to trying. But that comes straight back to the problem that there aren't really any jobs for people who are reasonably able and reasonably hard-working, only for people who are outstandingly brilliant and almost inhumanly dedicated. And really lucky; even among those who are brilliant and dedicated there is still a fierce competition for tiny scraps of funding.

And the truth is, I have a real vocation for teaching in a way I just don't for research. But I do believe that teaching at university level ought to be carried out by people who are research active, otherwise what they teach is stale and unlikely to inspire the next generation of academics. And most of UK Higher Ed believes that too; there are very few decent jobs for even the most talented teachers, if they don't also have a regular stream of peer reviewed publications in good journals, which means regularly succeeding in getting grants, and it means being much more effective than I am at the aspects of a research career which go beyond designing and carrying out experiments.

So one possible direction for my career is that I carry on as I am, keeping my head just above water, doing just enough research not to actually get sacked for incompetence, but always worrying that I won't quite make that minimum level. This pretty much means staying in my current institution though, because at this level there's not really a reason for anywhere else to hire me. If I'm lucky, I rise above that minimum level and make a discovery that's important enough to establish a reputation. Even then I'll have to justify what on earth I was doing between 2009 and whenever I get my lucky break, but I might then have a chance of a "traditional" academic career, the thing I thought I was going to do when I was a high-achieving student, eventually getting a professorship or perhaps even a Chair.

An alternative is that I build up the education and management side; I'm enjoying the latter a lot more than I thought I would. That might allow me to get a job doing something like running the biology department in one of the universities from the bottom half of the league table, where they would like to be engaging with research but realistically can't compete. I think I would really enjoy this in some ways, but at the same time, it feels like it's not really the kind of contribution to society I want to make. At the back of my brain for the past couple of years, I've been poking about trying to come up with ways of being creative about where I go with my career, some way of doing something that is science-related and probably within academia because that's the environment where I feel most comfortable, but that uses my skills and enthusiasm for teaching in some way that would be both satisfying personally and meaningful. Or else I simply desert the whole sinking ship that is the UK Higher Education sector (outside the really major institutions like Oxbridge, Imperial and Manchester) and start from scratch with a new career.

Even with all the negatives I've written in this post, I still feel extremely reluctant to let go of my dream of being a researcher. Partly because I want to know, dammit, I don't want to abandon the story halfway through, I want to find out what happens. And just reading journals isn't enough, you have to be embedded in the research community to really be abreast of what's going on. There's also the gender issue; I can't help thinking that if I move sideways or leave academia altogether, I'll be doing exactly what people stereotypically expect women to do. I'll be admitting I'm not able to hack the pace of real research, I'm not obsessively dedicated enough, which it what everybody says is the problem with women scientists. In some ways I want to prove I can succeed while also maintaining a work-life balance, being interested in everything, giving a lot of time to volunteering etc. And goodness knows that as a childfree woman I have it a lot easier than my peers who are struggling with all this plus parenthood.

So there you go, that's what keeps me awake at night. I do welcome advice but please be a bit tactful; if there were an obvious answer to this I'd have figured it out by now!
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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