Deborah Pardo on the mobile postdoc….

On the social compromises of early career research scientists…

Reaching an early-career position in science implies that you and I have already made some sacrifices in our personal life and social life in general. I wanted to write this blog because we don’t often talk about it. Not sure this will change things very much but it’s an attempt to make steps towards finding the best balance to be both happy in our lives and professionally efficient.

I come from a very nice place on the south-eastern coast of France, where there is a strong local culture and people are convinced they are living in the best place in the world. I am sure this applies to a lot of your home towns… or not. By wanting to be a researcher, by definition you have to move and spend some time abroad. By going abroad I don’t only mean travel, but actually living in a foreign country and sharing other people’s cultures. Moving…. such a great feeling; your thirst for discovery, meeting interesting people, seeing the world, opening your mind and so much more. But on the other side it creates a GAP.

A gap first between cultures that is sometimes bigger than you would have expected. For my first post-doc I did not go very far and ended up in Cambridge in the UK. This is truly a great place and a very stimulating environment to work in… But I just sometimes don’t understand people. Everything is always “amazing” and “lovely” but please could you tell me what you really think? From my culture it appears to be inefficient, it would help everyone to move forward if we could make the difference between what is very good, average or bad. There is no shame in telling someone if he is in the wrong direction and why. But I guess English people as far as I understand just don’t want to offend… so I end up having to rely on such webpages: http://www.buzzfeed.com/lukelewis/what-british-people-say-versus-what-they-mean. This is at times funny but sometimes it becomes tiring. And this is just Europe, I can’t imagine the gap between cultures when you change continent.

The second gap that you encounter while getting expatriated for your job is with your childhood friends/family. Once one of my best friends told me just before I left for ERASMUS to Sweden: “I don’t understand how you can choose your job over your boyfriend, I could never do that, and it is so selfish for the poor him staying alone here”. Well, I guess some of you have been through this as well. It is very hard not to be understood and/or supported. To reach the point where we are now, we had to make choices. And this starts by a passion, a conviction, something stronger than just going to a random boring work to get money. I believe the need to discover and better understand the processes around us, is something not intrinsically felt by everyone. The ones not feeling this might never understand… but on the meantime eventually the gap grows between you and your old friend and family members. With the amount of work you get and the little amount of money you receive, the gap grows even more. Family members getting sick, grandparents getting old, newborns that you saw only once, a whole wedding organisation missed and great parties that you could not attend because it was too expensive to come back just for that. I guess we are all facing that and it is hard, but in the end you have to be really strong to take it and keep working very hard while sticking to who you really are. At some point in our career we might actually reach a moment where this is not such a big issue anymore…

Another gap is of course in your relationships It seems like distance relationships or no relationships at all are an early-career researchers’ speciality. Again, you either need to find someone really understanding or someone as passionate as you (although this might complicate things even more), but the forthcoming suite of short term contracts in different cities or countries might become a real issue. And I am not even talking about building a family. For both men and women in research it is hardly ever the right time for having a child as you need to maximise your working time so much in order to get recognised by your peers. I would argue though that it is even harder for women, first to feel ready, to have the right contract, an understanding boss, and not being too scared of dropping research for a while. Unless your partner and friends are in the same position, you end up being so much slower than everyone else (this also includes becoming a homeowner) that the gap might grow again, between you, your friends, your partner, your family harassing you, the time you still have biologically while you can still conceive and the idea of your life you had before…

The final gap I can think of is with yourself. Why am I doing this? Can’t I just give up everything and go back with my loved ones or to a random boring work to get money as everyone else? Why am I always thinking about work during evening and weekends and holidays? Who cares anyway about the tiny little specific questions I am investigating? Is it really the life I want/deserve? I find it hard sometimes to believe in what I am doing, and I believe I am not alone in this case. Also in research jobs in general, work has no end. Therefore the more you work the furthest you can go! But this just opens new questions and you need to work more to answer them…. in the end I think we just need to sit and think what the right balance is for us. Because we pretty much all know it already, we just love what we are doing so deeply that things are not going to change. But at least it was nice to try and be aware about them by writing this blog, hope you like it!

 

 

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