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.