For scientists, there’s nothing more frightening than a major grant rejection. With the scarcity of funding at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts, it’s time to talk about options, says Atma Ivancevic.
Job stability and a career in research are rarely put together. Science is a windy, grueling, uphill climb that might end abruptly at the edge of a cliff. Halloween is a particularly scary time for Australian scientists, as it signals the release of #NHMRC project grant results. Right now, many laboratories are facing difficult decisions due to rejected funding for next year. It’s not a surprise — we see it everywhere — yet it’s a shock that affects the entire scientific community. For early career researchers across the globe, it’s a timely reminder to carefully consider and plan for the future.
So, what are your options?
Option A: Leave now
There are many reasons why leaving academia might be the right choice for you. Maybe you want a secure job for your future, or a more flexible career that lets you spend time with family. Perhaps you’re interested in trying industry life, working for technological or pharmaceutical companies. Maybe you just really hate writing papers. Science is grossly undervalued; it will never make you rich and it might not make you happy. It’s ok to admit if you want something different. If you want to leave and need inspiration, there is plenty of good advice from science escapees on Science, Nature, and Reddit.
Option B: Stay in research but be prepared
On the other hand, if you’re passionate about science and ready to fight for your research, it can be an immensely rewarding experience. Not many jobs give you the freedom (and resources!) to investigate your own ideas. You can travel to conferences, try different laboratories, and learn from experts in your field. You have the opportunity to make a breakthrough that can change the way we view the natural world. Science is like a drug — the more you learn, the more you want to learn.
But — and this is a big but — you need a way to pay the bills. The sad reality is that most PhD graduates will not get a job in academia. Even if you’re already in the field, funding is scarce. It’s important to follow your dreams but plan for the worst. Ensure that your skills are easily transferrable. Make contacts in both academia and industry. Don’t focus all your energy on an overly ambitious project in a very obscure field — always have side projects that can yield regular publications. It’s probably worthwhile having a savings plan, too. You need a back-up to tide you through if the worst does happen. Plus, being organized will make you more efficient in your daily life.
Option C: Never make a decision and flail helplessly as life passes by
It’s better to make a bad decision and learn from the experience than make no decision at all. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: life is short. Don’t forget to live it.
Most importantly, remember that you are not alone. Your supervisors have already faced these challenges — ask them for advice or get them to tell you their story. Talk to your colleagues to hear different perspectives. Suss out life beyond the lab from your non-academic friends. Heck, post a comment below and you’ll probably start a debate.
If all else fails, repeat this rap until you’re ready to decide:
Job security is a sad illusion in today’s economic delusion.
Is it time to leave for good?
Or is it better to persevere, and live in the hope of a research career?
Atma Ivancevic is a mathematician turned neuroscientist with a passion for writing. She currently works at the Adelaide Medical School in South Australia, using bioinformatics to investigate junk DNA and brain disorders. Next year, she’ll have made a decision between an overseas postdoc or a career in writing. You can connect with her on Twitter, ResearchGate or LinkedIn.