Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ten Years

Test Tubes

It's ten years to the day since I defended my thesis and could call myself a researcher. You do research well before you get your doctorate of course, but this is the "driving license" of science that qualifies you for research jobs, apply for funding in your own name and all the rest.

Science is an apprentice system. Your Ph.D. is your apprenticeship, followed by a post-doc in a different place for a few years to make connections and work independently. After which you get a "tenure track" (to take the US term) job that eventually leads to a full-time position as a lecturer or even a tenured professor or PI.

But there are far more qualified people today than there are positions. That two-year post-doc can now be a decade or more of temporary research jobs. The vast majority of PhD:s will never get a full-time position anywhere. Of course, not everybody enjoys teaching, and a tenured research position is a high-stress job similar to starting, funding and running your own research company. Most young researchers eventually leave for a career in industry or government.

I've had six jobs at four places1 so far, and there is no full-time position in sight. I'm pretty gruntled2 though, and the situation is a deliberate choice on our part. I have neither the interest nor capability to become a PI, and I lack the teaching experience and the Japanese I'd need to be a lecturer. Instead we figure I'll continue to work on research projects for as long as it is fun and as long as I can find new projects to join.

Once I no longer want or can find new research jobs I'll look for something else. But until then I'm quite happy doing what I do, and I hope I'll be able to for the next ten years as well.

#1 Administrative shuffling has given me a different employer or title a couple of times, even as the actual project has stayed the same.

#2 That is, not disgruntled. It should be a word.


  1. Gruntled should indeed be a word. I think it was Steven Pinker who used this in an example of negations that aren't used in their positive form. Gruntled, evitable, consolate, chalant, shevelled...

    Makes perfect sense yet is still awkward.

  2. "shevelled" — now there's a word we should be using more.

    "Oh my, you're looking particularly shevelled today my dear."

  3. It's good you have an option to continue working on research projects, if you don't have to move long-distance too often. In my case, I put a line after exactly ten years of postdocs and four different universities: too much moving and too much uncertainty with no job in sight. Now working in computers and trying to obtain funding as an adjunct. Good luck to you!

  4. Actually, I've long put the limit at moving. I continue as long as I can find stuff without having to uproot our life here.

    Of course, with the size of the Osaka-Kyoto sprawl, there is quite a lot of opportunities well within commuting distance, so it's not as impossible as it may sound. Also, we're not averse to _ever_ moving somewhere, just to chasing short-term jobs year after year.


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