Life after PhD in the medical research hamster wheel…

I got to meet up with some colleagues from my past research life recently. A few different but related things struck me as interesting. These thoughts are filtered through the increasingly dysfunctional eyes of a cynical, white, male, and increasingly-curmudgeonly ex-researcher. That aside, there may be things of use to others in these thoughts.

Options other than bench work and grants.

We’re told there is a range of options for a PhD apart from staying on the bench or moving up the academic ladder. We’re probably not told enough about the options for those who have had their PhD for a decade or more; we should be.

In the evening’s little group, even among those still on the bench/going up the ladder, murmurs suggested change would be welcomed and needed.

Some of the real-life options among those gathered and those who used to work among us – a few requiring additional training – included:

  • Public Health. Working to support the wider community in an applied science role.
  • Pathology. Testing, quality assurance, working with automation, planning, organisation – still lab work but again, applied.
  • Medical editing/writing. Making use of all the skill, time and brainpower that went into writing grants, papers profiles, bios, and presentations.
  • Management. Keeping science running by managing facilities, quality management systems, budgets, equipment needs, training, keeping up with facility activities and compliance with regulatory requirements
  • School teaching. Included setting up science classes and representing women in science to girls interested in STEMM as well as classroom teaching roles.
  • Retirement. Not an option for the younger of us.
  • Death. Some managed to stay in science for most of their professional lives.

The ones you thought would be in science forever, might not be the ones who stay

In my past research life, I was lucky to be based at one Centre. I saw a lot of people pass through it. Some of them, I was convinced, would be carried from their lab in a pine box with a pipette or a red pen in their rigid fist. But those who left early and those who hung on were sometimes an eye-opener.

There were those who seemed to have no interest in the getting of grants, the mentoring of students, the writing of papers, the applying for ethics and so on. Some are still going, or have gone on to excel; successfully competing in a very competitive area.

There are also those who thought it was their calling – they loved science, they loved discovery, the bench, the spark of a room full of like-minded people thirsting for knowledge. But they were slowly broken down and used their remaining strength to get out and start something different.

But grant-funded science research picks the best of the best, so attrition is to expected.

In a perfect world, the system would be geared toward rewarding those who are the best of the best. In the real world, not everyone with a PhD conducts novel, useful, applicable or world-leading research, or is a great mentor, manager, advocate, employer, writer, presenter, chair, communicator, accountant and leader. Not all are capable of even half of that. Not all should have to be. Not all want to, but they still love science and feel it is their calling. Some should just never be in any advisory or managerial position over other people. Or data. Ever.

The system also needs research scientists to perform the expert work in support of that best-of-the-best sliver. These are people who still love the science, still contribute ideas and have the skills to do the complex work, but do not want their lives to revolve around it or be consumed by it. I’m not sure we adequately recognise that ‘scientific research’ encompasses many things. It can be both a fulfilling and regular vocation, and also an all-consuming single pathway.

The system often rewards those who have had the good luck to work with the right mentors in the “good” laboratories and to work in leading-edge areas of research. By the way, these are things to chase if you’re sticking with research. What was once edgy can quickly become dull, so the agility and creativity to reinvent oneself, or one’s lab, and keep that skillset relevant, is essential to ongoing success in postdoctoral research science roles.

A comment on gender

It’s not news to anyone in, well, in almost any area, that the senior research system is not equitable. Again – I have been very lucky to work for Organisations that try hard to create the best environment for that to happen. But in the end, humans. Well, to be more honest, men. Medical research more often rewards and lifts up males than females into its senior ranks (Professors, Chairs, panels, media commenter).

Women less often see themselves in the leading roles they aspire to fill.

Research rewards those who have the right networks and those who can spend long hours away from home and family. Time pressures can especially impact on women who often juggle multiple roles and who may not be as ready to self-advocate as their male colleagues.

Women also may not get the support for those multiple roles at home that their male colleagues do. Hi males – have you, today, stopped and thought about how successful you’d be if you were also feeding the kids, doing their homework with them, having to do school and sports drop-offs, the washing, planning the week, cooking, shopping, counselling a partner….? But hey women, grant applications have balanced all that up with their “career disruption and ‘relative to

Everyone seemed agreed on one thing – the pressure was high.

Plenty of jobs are stressful, so why the special fuss about academia? Click on image to enlarge. Full Guardian Article.

Some of those sitting around that night were still active researchers or “post-docs” – male or female. They agreed that stress was constant and could be high. That was written on some faces.


Being tired – emotionally and physically – is not helpful for creativity. In competitive research, creativity is an edge we must be able to access.

No-one there was a starry-eyed noob and no-one had come this far without collecting a range of impressive scars. Every time we get together we recall some fun and some worrying shared times. We’d all faced down various types of (male) leaders as they unfairly took flight at someone or something. And across decades we’d seen a range of…managers…who hadn’t helped create a workplace able to reduce pressure.

We talked about suicide among those working in science – there had been some lives lost to it among those we knew since our last session. While these deaths seemed to be mainly tied to issues outside of the workplace, it was clear in all of our non-expert opinions that workplaces filled with negative, frustrating, stressful and poorly managed interactions hadn’t provided anything that could make a day brighter, or at least, stop adding more pressure to an already hard life.

In research, there is always the expectation that time spent in the lab/office is the best way to spend time. Presenteeism. Always on. There will be those reading this who reject that way. I really applaud you. It was often that case that when work finished at work, it picked up at home for me. I enjoyed a lot of that of course, as others do. Others also find the pressure to successfully compete is too high which doesn’t help science outputs.

Myths and guilt cannot fuel a healthy lifestyle. And long hours don’t allow time for healthy activities and family time and hobbies, Or imagination. Or quality sleep. If this sounds too familiar, perhaps now is a good time to look around and see what else you can do.

A ‘normal’ 39 hour week mixed with defined outcomes is better for our health, but ultimately, choose what is best for you. Don’t let others manipulate you into making that choice. Research is sometimes described as a lifestyle rather than a vocation. It’s also considered a career but that’s hard to envisage when seniority relies on funding luck and any sense of permanency or security is rare. But it can also just be a job; something to pay the bills. And a lifestyle doesn’t have to exclude health, wealth, hobbies or family and friends. I personally think suitability for the research life is a major requirement to stay in research so vocation better describes the investment and career, but that’s been my life, and your experience can and should differ.

Working in science research can be such a wonderful thing, but it also means making sacrifices. Apart from physical and mental health sacrifices, there can be financial sacrifices to a life in research. Some of these sacrifices may not manifest clearly to you until you can look in the rearview mirror. Why must a science research working life mean giving up so much? Is this what drives good scientists to leave science? Perhaps because we’re constantly told research could never be ‘just’ a job, or an essential component of the progress of the world (with relevant security, funding and cross-disciplinary support) but something we scientists are lucky to be doing. Other professions (law, medicine, engineering…) manage to financially reward life-consuming efforts while also letting professionals do what they enjoy.

Perhaps increases in funding in the future will offset this in Australia? But I’m cynical, and not without reason. Time and strong leadership will tell.

A concerning pattern in the relaxation.

As I drove home that night something else dawned on me. The memories we all shared, also shared something in common.

Plenty of jobs are stressful, so why the special fuss about academia? Click on image to enlarge. Full Guardian Article

A not insignificant number of our ‘fun times’ were generated when the consumption of alcohol was a central focus of the gathering. Dinners, after-work get-togethers and conferences. Especially conferences. Alcohol always featured. Maybe it was a pressure-valve for release, a way to loosen tongues and speak without the constraints of the workplace. It did seem to relax us.

There isn’t much literature that I can find specifically describing alcohol consumption among post-doctoral medical researchers, but as I thought about it more, it’s there at the same problematic levels as it is elsewhere in the community. Sometimes at worrying levels. Possibly this all just flows on from the mental health issues and drinking culture at University, or earlier in high school. But maybe it’s more fundamental. The use and abuse of alcohol is just threaded throughout our history. I was a willing participant too. I’ve changed that a bit now because I’m responding to the research that better defines the list of poor outcomes associated with regular and binged alcohol consumption. Increasingly, research finds that reliance on regular alcohol intake is bad for us. It’s now known that there is no level of helpful alcohol consumption. And anyone who has lived with alcohol as an unwanted house guest through their child-hood knows all too well the direct and collateral damage caused by the effects of regular drinking.

Research isn’t simple, neither is working in research.

The community needs science in its lives and we need a range of quality scientists to research it.

Others have spoken about the flexibility that comes with working in science research. But working longer and more often isn’t flexibility. It’s also true that to work in this field that we all loved at some point, exacts a real physical and mental toll. We chose it. But we need to remember that there is much more to life than work. The impact of the ‘work more’ culture is really obvious among research scientists. Once you’re able to see it.

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