This morning a couple of the Twitter folks linked indignantly to an article over at Nature Jobs titled “Enough doom and gloom Part 3: Standing upon the great infrastructure of science“. The article offers advice to junior scientists still pondering their career futures…
Embrace serendipity and uncertainty. Like scientific research, sometimes the best personal discoveries and questions come when they are least expected. Pay attention to the trends in science funding – do all that you can to contribute to the conversation and to the cause of science.
Many of the tweeple, several of them self-professed members of the disgruntledocetariat, offered their discontent that the article seemed to be telling them to embrace unemployment or insecurity in their future or an inability to care for their family. This, of course, is a bit of a red herring. Unemployment continues to remain low for PhD-level scientists (2.1% and relatively unchanged since 2001). There is a reasonable amount of certainty that earning a graduate degree, which is often subsidized, is a strategically good move if you want to be employed in the long run.
Of course, sitting among the postdocitude makes it difficult to see that, but I think that is largely because of how the postdoc is regarded. Many see the postdoc as a “job” and it is, in as much as it pays a wage. But it’s really not. It’s a temporary trainee-level position whose very nature is transient. If you’re looking at it as offering any type of long-term job security, you are bound to be disappointed.
If you’re looking to stay in academia, the article’s advice is decent, although some might argue that it’s common sense. The first bit from @KlassenLab, ahead of the paragraph with the seemingly offensive advice, is particularly good:
Klassen applied for about fifty positions, and from these, went on over five interviews. The entire process took about four months of tireless work, although ultimately worth it when he got a job at a major research institution. His advice to PhD students that want to continue in academic research is to “set yourself up early.” Think about the next step and align yourself with this goal long before your last year as a graduate student. There are jobs out there, just keep in mind they will be offered by an entire range of institutions, from the smallest liberal arts schools to the big name universities. “Realize where you fit according to your specific background.”
Stop thinking about your trainee-level position as a “job” where you’re just collecting data and churning out publications and start looking at it as an additional opportunity to develop translatable skills in mentoring, budget management, scientific writing, etc. And have some damned humility about it. Set up a plan with your mentor and identify skills that you can improve and define a training plan to get there. This will make sure that, when it comes time to apply for a job, you are able to communicate that not only do you have great scientific ideas, but you are well-trained to execute the plan you propose. I have reviewed several research plans for people around the internet already this job season and this is always the part that is missing. There may be scientific ideas that are interesting, but does this person really have a plan to be successful. After I was hired at my new gig, it was communicated to me that part of the reason I was hired was because it was clear that I had been successful, that I had independence, and that it was clear that I had a plan going forward for how to build my empire.
Which brings me back to the seemingly offensive paragraph. The current funding situation is rough and institutions are risk averse in their hires. The uncertainly and serendipity that one needs to embrace is dictated by this. If you approach science saying “I study A with tool X,” it’s a recipe for failure. Understanding the uncertainty of the job market and funding climate and adapting to it is really important. Over the last year or two I have found myself surprised on several occasions. Some of the stuff that I did, that I thought was the greatest science I had ever done, had a harder time being accepted into the literature. Some of the wackier stuff was either funded or accepted for publication. In the three months I have been here, I have submitted three different grants to three different agencies, each with a different spin on my central research program. There is no certainty in science any more and if you can’t make the uncertainty part of your life and accept that you may end up working on a path that is different than you intended, it’s going to be tricky to feel successful. It’s also important to be savvy in evaluating data and experiments, looking for the serendipity that will guide the next application. That, my friends, is the reality of the game right now. If you can’t embrace it, it’s hard to be successful.
As an aside though, I was interested in one of the responses that I got when I challenged the righteous indignation to the article. I’ve been successful. I did a very limited job search and received offers from a high proportion of them, although I was in a bit of a different place in my career at the time. Who am I to criticize the feels of someone still in the trenches? That’s some real barrio thinking – that once somone’s out of the shit, it’s no longer appropriate for them to comment on the struggles of the people. That, plus another interaction later in the morning in which I felt like my general philosophies about the conduct of science were regarded as trite is making me feel like…