The most common feeling I experience during my working day is one of discomfort. I feel stupid. Unfortunately, this is elicited by the very nature of the scientific beast; in research, you are constantly testing different approaches, perfecting new techniques, trying to get your head around some puzzling results, and writing papers that will be critically torn-apart by the best minds in the field. You are constantly trying to reassure yourself that what you’re attempting is sensible and worthwhile as you stumble through the unknown. To a certain extent feeling stupid is a necessary part of the process.
Every now and then, this background uneasiness is ruptured by peaks of elation. You finally get a fiddly experiment to work or a paper is accepted by a journal for publication. These moments of success keep you hooked on science. Late last night was a case in point: I finally finished debugging some data analysis code, replotted the key graphs, and submitted the paper I’ve been working on for the past few weeks to an appropriate journal. I woke up this morning feeling pretty good about things.
Finishing my paper means that I’ve finally got some spare time to devote to that other constant concern for young scientists: securing the next pay packet. As a post-doctoral scientist you are only ever employed on short fixed-term contracts: two or three year positions within a particular research group. This means that you end up spending a lot of your time simply applying for every job you see to try to continue supporting yourself for the next two years.
You are also expected to regularly change institutions, moving up and down the country, or the continent, settling in one place for only a few years at a time. Permanent positions - university lectureships - are exceedingly rare (acutely so at the moment with the faltering economy and academic cut-backs), and so you can easily get stuck in the uncertain rut of post-doc’ing well into your thirties. This makes buying a house and settling down to raise a family very difficult.
The reality is that the life of an early career scientist is erratic and unsettled, more so, I think, than most other professions. Science must remain a competitive pursuit, but it needs to offer greater career stability and more permanent positions if it is going to remain an attractive prospect for young students.
To this end, I have been helping run a lobby group called Science is Vital. Over the last few months, we have been gathering scientists’ views on the state of science. We polled people from all over of the country, from different research fields, and at different levels in their career (from students to fellows of the Royal Society).
Yesterday we delivered the report to David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, detailing the results from nearly 700 respondents. We summarised the widespread dissatisfaction our respondents reported feeling at the pattern of successive fixed-term contracts and the shortage of permanent posts. We also pointed out the risk to the stability of the UK research base, and indeed, the economy, if nothing is done.
It wasn’t all negative though as we also suggested ways to improve the situation, namely by introducing permanent positions for advanced post-docs alongside principal investigator roles and allowing post-docs to be able to apply for their own project grants.
We wait now, with bated breath, for a response.
by Lewis Dartnell, astrobiology post-doc