Thursday 12 October 2017

Being an academic

This blog post was prompted by a long twitter conversation on science careers, number vs quality of publications, and the inevitable inclusion of the term ‘glam mags’. Although twitter is great for an immediate exchange of ideas, it isn’t good for nuance. Here are some of my thoughts on a career in academia.

First, if you want to be an academic in the long-term, you probably can be. It may not be the academic career you dreamt of, or at the university you wanted to be at. You may not be teaching exactly what you want. You may not have much time for research at all. However, if you decide to be an academic, you work hard, and you aren’t precious about your definition of ‘success’, then it’s a career like any other. There are plenty of people out there without glittering CVs who are grafting and getting by, but ultimately are fully fledged academics who do amazing jobs day-after-day for little praise or reward.

Much of the conversation on twitter relates to academic ‘success’ rather than simply what it takes to be an academic long-term. People obviously have high expectations, and want to be successful. I get that. I want to do amazing science with clever supportive colleagues, teach happy engaged students, and have a vibrant well-funded lab. Where I think there might be an issue is the expectation that this is what it means to be an ‘academic’. To me, this is what it means to be a high-flying successful academic. None of us have a right to expect such a career. I am grateful that I have a good solid job in a university I like. If I have success over-and-above this, it is a massive bonus. I will of course be under pressure from those above me to be that high-flying academic, and I will work towards that as best as I can, but I can’t expect it and it certainly isn’t a right.

So what is my advice to those more junior than myself? During your PhD, do the best possible science you can and try to ensure you publish at least one good solid paper. This is clear evidence that you can push a project from start to finish, and that you have developed a set of experimental/methodological skills. If you feel you have time, apply for fellowships that might propel your career into the stratosphere, but don’t bank on it. Concentrate on finding a postdoc in a lab where you feel you would fit in, you can further your skills set, and you can do good science. Join twitter and read conversations about careers, glam mags, etc. but don’t let it get under your skin. Understand the system you are trying to navigate, but appreciate that there is a huge amount of inherent noise such that there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for career success. Most importantly, enjoy yourself as much as possible. If you do commit to academia and don’t get that dream job, you will probably look back on your PhD and postdoc positions rather fondly. If you do stay in academia though, well done you. Regardless of what your CV looks like, you’re a success.