“What am I supposed to be doing?” by Hanna Granroth-Wilding

This question has been battering my brain for many months, disrupting any attempt at a rational approach to career progression. This post is about what that “supposed to” means in the short, medium and long terms. I want a career in research, so I write this post in two minds, but it shares some of the ways I’ve been learning to moderate my expectations to allow for a dash of reality. You can jump straight to the last three paragraphs for discussion and conclusions.
We’ve heard a lot on this blog about persistence, keeping your head down, and not admitting defeat, mainly from people who have managed to stay in research. But a lot of the readership of this blog are those who haven’t yet achieved that, and are trying to work out if they ever will. I recently came across an enlightening statistic (I think it’s for sciences across the UK, but not sure): of all PhD graduates, 7% go on to PI-type careers. 7%!!! Of course, many PhD graduates know that they want to leave academia. Nonetheless, the general feeling experienced by lots of young researchers is that not being able to carry on in research makes you a failure. A 93% failure rate? Not even medical exams are that strict, and it’s not like we’re doctors! (Oh, wait…) Hopefully I can provide a perspective from – at least temporarily – that other 93%.
After my PhD, I tried for post docs for almost a year until I had to broaden my horizons. To spend that long looking (supported by a researcher husband) was a luxury. In that year I did some unpaid research, some paid teaching, and worked on my papers, everything I was “supposed to” be doing to increase my chances of getting that postdoc or grant. And I wanted that position, so I did those things, but still no research job. Ironically, to carry on pursuing my aim to be a scientist is probably the least evidence-based life decision I’ve ever made.
But I needed a salary. In my own view, I’m “supposed to” contribute equally to our household, and I felt I wasn’t contributing anything. It often seems that, if you really wanted a research career, you’re expected to do without a salary for as long as it takes. But man cannot live by dreams alone. I started looking further and further away from ecology, more and more disappointed, and still no luck. But suddenly, just as it’s supposed to, something came up, and now I’m the editor for ecology & evolution papers at a top-tier journal. I’m getting an inside view of science publishing, I’m reading more broadly than I would have thought possible, I’m learning lots about what makes a paper successful, and my work-life balance is better than since before I started writing up. From day one, I got responsibility and respect. Yet when I first got offered the job, I saw it as a demonstration that my days of scientific endeavour were numbered – that I’d failed.
As I mentioned, one feels that PhD graduates are “supposed to” get postdocs. Why? It’s a step towards PI-ness, which we’re “supposed to” want. In a way, I think PhD students should be expected to become scientists: it’s only fair that we give the funders of these (mostly) government-supported postgrad training schemes for researchers a return on their investment. The problem is that there aren’t enough positions for us to do so. And in reality, that’s not why most PhD students expect to become researchers – I think it’s partly because we’re generally accustomed to being successful, and partly because in our work life, for every PI we see, we don’t see the other 13 post-docs who didn’t end up as PIs. Academia is more of a vocation than most careers, and that’s what is “supposed to” carry us through the first few years of professional life where, after almost a decade of training, each step is more likely than not to end in rejection. This typical career progression is very different to our peers and friends in industry that we see climbing slowly but surely up the ladder.
Another important “supposed to” is what our nearest and dearest expect of us. Which, unhelpfully, can be completely the opposite of what our professional community expects. For lots of my peers, the message from family is that we are supposed to settle down, buy houses, work 9 to 5, because that’s what grown-ups do. Touring the world via the medium of temporary research positions seems to them detached from the “real world”, which makes it very difficult to reconcile their expectations with those of potential employers.
My key point in trying to pull apart these expectations is that it can be very liberating to find out which are yours, and which are other people’s. Of course, if you are set on a career in research, and you know why (I hope this is where I fit in), then godspeed and may the force be with you. But for a lot of PhD graduates, I suspect that determination is driven by outside expectation, a fact that’s hard both to spot and admit. This outside drive makes it harder work to maintain motivation and increases the feeling of letting people down when it doesn’t work out, and to top it all lessens the feeling of reward when things go right. This will remain a problem until the number of PhD places is brought more in line with the number of research positions out there.
So for all the aspiring minions out there, I encourage openness of mind and courage of your own convictions. In concert with this, I challenge supervisors to send their students out into the world feeling positive about everything they’ve learnt and about the contributions they can make in lots of different professional spheres. I’d like to see a change of atmosphere among the pre- and post-doc communities to one where it’s more acceptable to, for example, actively seek out teaching fellowships if we know we enjoy and value imparting knowledge. The only universal “supposed to” in my view is to be engaged members of society, using our powers for good, whether that’s defending threatened habitats or making other people happy by spending time with them.
Many senior researchers seem to have got where they are because, as they say when asked for advice, “I was very lucky and took all the opportunities that came my way”. Might I one day be talking to aspiring young science journalists, saying the same thing, having forgotten that when I first saw it, that opportunity looked remarkably like admitting defeat?