Why I will leave science (part one)

Firstly this is not a resignation letter. However while I may not be leaving academic science today or tomorrow I will be soon and probably forever. I am being just a touch melodramatic in language here but it is still true barring exceptional events as I will explain. The current zeitgeist in academic research encourages public confessions of how researcher do it because they love it1. I do not, it really interests me for sure but I do it because I get paid. If I did not get paid I would not do academic research it is as simple as that. Since I am a fully trained scientist with many years' experience in some of the world's top universities you may wonder why I worry about being paid in future. The answer is simple a reliable career pathway does not exist in academic research. The current system has many serious flaws which become more and more clear the longer you are in academic research. Just two of the more serious flaws:

  1. An individual's scientific ability and creativity is almost entirely independent of their career progression2
  2. There is no safe pathway that you can rely on or trust to actually occur. 

Neither of these matter much for most "young" researchers. I mean that in the same way that job security, working conditions and pay do not really matter if you are single, do not have family commitments nor a mortgage/long-term agreements and you can move overseas at a month's notice if needed. Incidentally if you are in this category, enjoy it as it will not last for long.

Like poor working conditions the lack of a reasonable career pathway is a widely accepted problem that goes virtually unmentioned in public especially by those powerful enough to do anything about it. Partly this is because only the small minority who successfully get through the career hurdles stay in science. As such those upstream of the hurdles tend to immodestly believe that it was their hard work alone that got them there no matter what the statistics say3. If you chat to these previously successful people on how they succeeded it normally sounds like lottery winners explaining their technique to win the lottery.

The pathway issue is also relatively recent and consequently many current senior scientists have absolutely no personal experience of it whatsoever leaving them with slightly misguided opinions on how to guide people through it. To give an example of this I recently attended a workshop designed to encourage young academic researchers to apply for fellowships (basically awards designed to allow a break through to the next stage of a career) some of the "encouragement" included stating facts like4:

  1. It can take several months to make a strong application. 
  2. Roughly 8% of applicants will be successful. 
  3. No matter how good your application it can fail if any random referee (possibly from a different scientific background) does not find it exciting enough. 
  4. It is best to move to another country or university for a year or so. 
  5. If it is your first fellowship you may need to put in very long hours if your project falls behind (these extra hours are unpaid of course). 

All of this for basically the same pay as you are already on for a 2 to 5 year extension to your contract. Does that sound like a career pathway you would like?

Keep in mind also that the future value of research and researchers is notoriously hard to estimate. It is wild guessing at best and a sly mechanism for old boy networks to manipulate their preferred candidates to the front at worst. In any case even if you could somehow devise a perfect predictor of scientific outcome it would be a flawed system as the vast majority of scientific talent and training is wasted. Oh and I do mean wasted as the vast majority of "wash outs" get jobs that will not avail of most of their substantial expensive training.

Now if I was rich and doing research only as a hobby for personal kudos this would still be irritating but that is about all it would be. But to repeat the opening point I do research because I get paid. If I want to continue soon I will have to cross my fingers and try my luck. I am under no illusions it is highly unlikely to come to anything.
The backup and thus overwhelmingly likely outcome is that I will go into private industry. The literally thousands of hours of high level training in coding, complex data analysis and various other research methods paid by the UK tax payer and charities organization will be sold off to the highest bidder. Now if it was only me that this affected honestly I would not really mind. My apparent selflessness stems from the fact I will likely end up with a good stable job and far better pay than I currently am on (and as I may well not be in the UK my quality of life will likely rise beyond the wage change effect). However it is not only me this affects for example I think it will be very harsh on those kind hearted people who done charity marathons and various other fundraising to pay indirectly for my training. As I will explain in part two of this post this working practice is also very hard on science in general and that also annoys me.


Footnotes

  1. People make a big song and dance of how amazing science is. Normally their definition of "science" appears to be vague and better approximated by "knowledge" or "progress". Personally it seems juvenile to harp on about how it is good to learn things.
  2. It occurs to me I might sound bitter of others' success here. Maybe but I have been very successful in academia and to date everything has went swimmingly for me. As I point out above this is nothing to be proud of I am merely one of the lucky few.  
  3. call this the house owner phenomena. It occurs often when talking to people who have stuff that is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.  It is basically the incorrect belief that as you obtained something everyone else who cannot obtain it is not working as hard as you/someone-related-to-you did.
  4. To be fair a lot of the workshop was useful and not all of the points that followed apply to all fellowships. But the fact that they appear at all is still very revealing.