It’s job search time. I’ve been looking into both academic and non-academic (read: academic-adjacent) posts. So far I’ve even had a few interviews that would have taken me away from academic research, well, the front-lines anyway. What can I say, I’ve been in some manner of school, either as a student or an employee since I was five. A thirty-five year addiction is tough to break. Even while I’ve been courting the grey side (remember…adjacent), I must confess to having been keeping a steady eye on academic posts.
The paths through academia are many and varied. As the adage goes, there are many ways to skin that (academic) cat. A common factor in whatever path you take through academia is the large amounts of work it will take to secure and maintain the position (for usually less money than you think you deserve). Work-wise, for every bit that makes it into print (read: exists as non-published research, hasn’t been peer reviewed and is not in the public domain for scrutiny), there are days, months, years of optimisation experiments as well as failed attempts and avenues of investigation that never see the light of day, so to speak. Watching the first couple of years of my Ph. D. lab work get reduced to a supplementary figure and two or three lines of text in the expanded methods section of the supplement of a publication wasn’t the easiest pill to swallow. Cambridge showed me that the celebratory haze around a Nature or Cell paper fades quickly and those impactful publications need to keep happening throughout one’s career. The money issue, well, that’s a whole other story.
For many, a tremendous element of luck is involved. Perhaps the first optimisation just works and gives you what you need to make reproducible observations. Some people are just naturals and manage to quickly develop the Jedi-like skills to just get things to work. Others achieve results through a lot of repetition. This isn’t a luxury that everyone is afforded though as post-doc grants don’t last forever, and as I was repetitively reminded, don’t often provide for more than salary.
Working in an embryo microinjection lab in Cambridge let me witness this first-hand. For me it was a steep learning curve, and all things considered, my work was made easier by being able to inject when the cells are nice and big, comparatively. Some of my colleagues astounded by injecting several stages later when the cell sizes were MUCH smaller. Some colleagues opted to focus on other aspects of their research, nicing–up to the Jedis when it came to the microinjection work. Now I sometimes work with single stem cells–IT’S FIDDLY WORK! The point is that just like in every other profession, there are naturals in science too, who work their ass off, publish well, and become instant academics. Sometimes these naturals are kept on as long-term research associates and lab managers because their gifts are too great to let go. Others move on to start their own groups here, there and everywhere, and the academic big wheel keeps on turning.
Also making that wheel turn, there are just as many (if not more) very good scientists who work just as hard, (if not harder), but luck, in whatever gender they wish to personify it, fails to smile on them. They produce, but maybe they’re secondary or tertiary authors on lower-impact publications, so it takes a few more of them. You can play the quantity v. quality game in academia too, but limited funding is forever forcing institutions to demand more higher profile publications within their researchers’ bibliographies.
Then there’s teaching and scholarship. My training is a mishmash of the Canadian, American and British academic frameworks. There are a lot of similarities, but just as with the cultures in general, there are also some reasonably fundamental differences. The tenure track concept more common in North American institutions doesn’t function the same way in British Unis. And with universities increasing the emphasis of their research programmes, meaning if you’re not publishing well, and bringing in grant funding, you don’t have tenure to fall back on and could find yourself out of work after a seemingly good career.
There are usually one of three paths you can be on. You can be a teaching-only lecturer; your role is primarily teaching, and possibly some other commitments to the university through committee involvement. You can also be on a teaching-scholarship path where you also primarily teach, but you take on administrative and strategic responsibilities that effectively help run and direct the department’s teaching programmes. The final path is a teaching-research path, where you can fulfil teaching and departmental obligations, but then you have to also maintaining a viable research programme (read: a good track-record of publication and funding)–the triple-threat of academic science, if you will.
The post I’m currently chewing on appears to be rooted in the teaching-academic path, but I spent a day speaking with various people within the department, trying to get their take on the position, perhaps provide an insight that I couldn’t. I was repeatedly advised to keep an eye out for the possibility to move back into the research pathway. This is an especially important consideration to bear in mind in a university that has a mandate from its principal to increase the profile of its research. And let’s just say that I get the feeling that the only real notion of tenure in the British system comes from wanting to keep the ratio of triple-threats to others on the higher side.
So why not just go after an academic-research position? While I’ve got a couple of projects that are about to bear published fruit, they’re not there yet, so I wouldn’t be the most competitive candidate for early career fellowships were my application to go in now. Then there’s the fact that the ideas I do have in the works for grant applications still need some preliminary investigation, another requirement to be competitive for research funding in this day and age. Good ideas and a track record aren’t enough, you also need to demonstrate that your line of investigation is both feasible, and to some extent going to succeed. One person I worked for in the past put it as needing to virtually do all of the work you were proposing, submitting it as preliminary data, just so you could get the funding necessary to dot the i’s, cross the t’s and send it out the door to prepare for the next one. Cat skins, cat skins, everywhere.
However there is yet another factor to consider with this post I’m pondering. The teaching is at Nanchang University in China. The lecturing would be in English, but the teaching takes place over four two-week(ish) stints, jetting back to London in between. A bit more of a loaded decision. It’d be an opportunity to immerse myself in a culture I’ve only experienced through the the various immigrant communities I’ve come into contact with in Canada, US and the UK. Maybe I’ll pick up a smattering of the language. All pluses so far.
The post involves a strategic role; developing the burgeoning joint-programme between QMUL and the pre-med programme at Nanchang University. Plus.
One thing I’ve started to think about is how that I may have to change my teaching tactics for a predominantly Chinese student group. Hmmm. I know this programme has been modelled on and modified from another similar joint programme with another Chinese Uni, and there have been lessons learned and improvements made. I’ve asked a few Chinese colleagues here at QM and elsewhere if they could generalise the student-experience in China versus the one here or in another English-speaking country. One answer I didn’t expect was, “Chinese students tend to be quieter [and] need to be inspired.”
I write this with great caution, not wanting to earn the label of gweilo. My secondary school in Canada became an ESL-haven who saw its Cantonese-speaking student population explode in the years leading up to 1997. Being one of the few white ghosts amongst a group of Chinese kids wasn’t uncommon. From a friend, it was usually meant in jest, but from a stranger the term tended towards its more pejorative meaning. At any rate, generalising that Chinese students are quiet and withdrawn is just the sort of thing that could get a Caucasian person in hot water, but that’s what he said. The hot water bit comes in admitting that these are descriptors that would apply to some of the Chinese postgraduate students (studying in English countries) who I’ve met in my career. Not wanting to generalise, I always assumed that the lack of gregariousness came from issues in communication in English. OK, one opinion, one person, but still…interesting.
But can I give up the rush of discovery that comes with research? That is the question. Another thought instilled in me from the various faculty members I’ve discussed the position with was: distancing myself from research too much by taking on such a teaching-heavy role brings with it the other consequences. Past publications, even impactful ones, have a window of five years (generally) in which they are considered to be constructive to your publication record. After that, you’re not considered active if you haven’t produced more. Makes sense, as competition for positions and funding is fierce. So leaving the lab behind risks not being able to make it back, even without having left academia, as by that point there will be plenty of others who have been productive during my (potential) downtime.
And finally, there’s this. I’ll work with researchers, probably even have a say in the recruitment of future researchers, but I may not be one myself. This last bit is a concept I’ve been wrestling with for some time. And from what I’m lead to believe, this process–this decision–is not uncommon amongst academics, early on in the skinning process.
So it’s decision time. Here kitty kitty.