Fear of commitment

This picture has nothings to do with the post – apart from the title.

Last week I went to a fantastic workshop run by the British Ecological Society. This blog has almost nothing to do with that but concerns a conversation I had in the pub afterwards. I will not name any of the people involved since it doesn’t seem fair.

After the workshop we went to an agreeable pub that only slightly resembled those from the film “The end of the world.” On the plus side it had a reasonable selection of drinks, though you did have to re-mortgage your house to buy one.

While there I was discussing post-PhD career options with people. As far as I remember the conversation went a bit like this:

Me: “The lack of job security in academia scares me a bit.”

Person A : “Yeah it’s tough, I worked abroad for a post-doc and my wife and I found it really hard to live in a place I didn’t like to further my career”

Me: “For me it’s more the knowledge that most PhD students will never get a permanent academic position and that we might have to work 60 or 70 hour weeks for the best part of 10 years to get close. Personally that’s why I think it’s always worth having a ‘Plan B.’”

Person B: “But if you have a ‘Plan B’ you might not fully commit to the job. I mean look at [name redacted] it’s inspiring, she lives, eats and breathes science. That’s her life.”

Now, this last bit stuck with me.

Is that what people think?

That to be a committed scientist means you neglect all other things in your life? That you shouldn’t have children or even hobbies because they get in the way? That without that you shouldn’t be doing the job?

There was a lot of talk at the workshop about the fact that having a career break to have a family would not be seen by funding agencies as a bad thing. That’s great in practice, but if other people hold the same attitude as ‘Person B’ what’s the point? Having a child is surely more of a distraction than me thinking that I might want to switch careers at some point in the future? If these people sit on funding boards we should just give up talking about diversity in academia because it’s never going to happen.

My lack of confidence that I will get a permanent job in academia is not unfounded, it comes from personal experience and more importantly given that I am allegedly a scientist, from real statistical evidence.

I have a few friends that are now well into their scientific careers and have about 10 years post-doc experience. That puts them in their late 30’s. These friends have young families and have moved countries a few times now. They have all published well and have a Nature papers between them. Yet they are facing the prospect of being ‘retired’ by science because they can’t get a permanent position and they are too expensive to hire as post-docs because of the amount of experience they have.

Getting out of science when you’ve reached that point is much more traumatic than doing it early on. Maybe a ‘Plan B’ would have been a good idea for these friends. What they’re going through is really fucking hard.

Reading other blogs has made me acutely aware that this is not a problem unique to my friends. The proportion of PhD students that get a permanent position has been decreasing as the number of PhDs rises. Because most of the people who run things – invariably white, middle-aged men – got their jobs as a time when it was easier to get a permanent position they don’t recognise this problem. Better people than me have said previously that PhD training should acknowledge this and emphasise the ways in which our skills can be used outside of traditional academic roles – that is after all where most of us will end up, whether we like it or not.


Sorry, if that was a bit of a rambly blog post this week but I needed to get this off my chest. Please respond with your thoughts. Do you have experience of switching to a non-research job after a PhD? Or have you found it easy to hold down a job in research whilst having a satisfying life outside of work? Either way let me know.


5 thoughts on “Fear of commitment

  1. In Sweden, permanent positions in Science are rare. A lot of people rely on soft money (external grants) to cover their salaries. And a lot of people, even in the mid- and late stages of their careers have to attract money from funding agencies, not to hire PhD students and postdocs, but to cover their salary. It’s very competitive, and tough to not know if you have any salary say two years from now. It’s keeping a lot of good people from science, and keeping people from making plans that span than a few years in the future. I’m 7 years past my PhD, and have been thinking more and more about alternatives to science. And I’m far from the only one in my department.



  2. I have also experienced conversations like these, and I think it’s a shame so much value is placed on having what I see as a pretty unsustainable and unhealthy work-life balance. I also think that this seemingly widely-held belief probably has something to do with the major decrease in the number of women in science after a certain point – taking a year out to start a family is precious time away from the workplace when your colleagues and competitors might be making different life choices.

    1. Right. And these people aren’t necessarily bad researchers, in fact some of them may be the best of the best. But with an inflexible system that values papers above all else – including friendship and personal relationship – the current system is what you will get.

      It’s tricky to see how this would get changed though because the general public and politicians don’t realise the hours that scientists work and thus how much they are getting for their money.

      Also I think arguing a wage hike for scientists or for there to be more jobs is probably pretty tricky in the current climate.

  3. I don’t work in academia or science, I’m an ecologist. But your post strikes a chord with me. Ecology work can be very consuming, and I am a workaholic most of the time – going freelance this year made this worse but it also taught me a lot; one of the most important lessons I have learned, is that you MUST be happy with all parts of your life.

    I dedicated this summer to working, networking, reading and learning. Coupled with antisocial hours that my job requires, my social life suffered, I found it hard to find the time to ring home, I had no time for hobbies and when I did have spare time, I was too tired, or there was that methodology I needed to read up on, or training to organise.

    And although my work is great, and although I am my own boss, I felt all season as if I was missing something. So for a time I worked harder, thinking that would fill the gap. But it didn’t. And then the season ended in October, and I suddenly had free time again. I spent time with family, went to the movies, started horse riding again, concentrated on my blog, went walking. And over the past few weeks, I have realised that this is what I was missing – time to be me, to enjoy my free time and do the things that make me happy.

    Having a job you dedicate your life to at the expense of everything else may be satisfying for a while, if it is the job you always dreamed of. But when you retire, or suddenly tire of it after a decade or so, what will you have to show for it? If you haven’t been to that place you always wanted to go, you haven’t had children because you would lose your job, you haven’t nurtured friendships, what will you have? Nothing. And that is a sad thing.

    I always have a Plan B.

    1. This is an excellent summation of how I feel too. Happiness generally comes from our personal relationships and the part of work that seems to be most important is the people we interact with. My aim is that if I stay in ecology I want to work smarter not longer by being completely focussed while working and thus being able to have a ‘normal’ life. Easier said than done though…

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