Or maybe an alternative title could be “The Accidental Academic”.
This November I heard back from the two main Swedish funding agencies that I didn’t receive a grant this round. For me this means not only that I don’t have funds to run my lab, but also that I don’t have a position for myself. Because my temporary professor position is coming to an end, no grant also means no funding for my salary and I’m transitioning to being an unemployed academic.
So, should I stay or should I go now? The question has been rattling round in my head ever since I got the grant rejections.
This isn’t the first time I’ve questioned my career in academia. I began my undergraduate degree ages ago and stayed for all of one semester. This had a lot more to do with moving very far from home (Halifax to Vancouver) and feeling overwhelmed by a big school and a big city then it did with anything academic per se. My small scholarship wasn’t enough to cover my costs, I couldn’t work enough to live, and my family couldn’t afford to pay my way. At that point it made sense to drop out. Two years later, now with the help of student loans, I went back and slowly worked through an undergraduate degree while working part to full-time. I knew I didn’t want to continue to work the kind of unskilled labour that I was doing in Vancouver long-term but I certainly didn’t go back to school to become an academic. I thought I would end up in healthcare (it explains why a plant ecologist has degree majors in biology and psychology) but I got caught up in research.
My economic position meant that I was very motivated to do a co-op program that would give me work experience. That and a few key courses would expose me to research and ignite my interest. I still wouldn’t say that my career in academia was set but suddenly I saw the possibility. An opportunity came up to do a masters and I leap at the chance. But although I really loved the research, at each stage I questioned whether I should keep going or not. Partly I was protecting myself against the possibility of failure, I kept the option open that I wouldn’t continue with research. I have always been keenly aware that it is highly competitive to find research positions at every stage and that I might not get a position. In some ways, I kept wondering if the axe would drop and the time would come when I wouldn’t be able to continue. But I got a masters position, a PhD, and an assistant professorship. Have I reached the point where I can go no further? I hope not but there is a distinct possibility that I have.
I see lots of examples around me of good scientists leaving science. I see others making compromises to keep their career that I am unwilling to, like living in a different place from my family. I see others who seem to have it all, until you talk to them about the compromises and gambles they and their partners have made. And then there are those who get lucky. I’ve had my share of luck too.
I know I am not alone. That is comforting* but doesn’t change the fact that I will have to eventually answer the question: should I stay or should I go? For now, I’m not giving up the fight. I’m applying for positions and grants. I am working on papers and reminding myself that despite the frustrations and uncertainty, I do love being an academic. But I’m also reflecting on what I am good at and what other career options I might find satisfying.
I am trying to stay positive. I’m reminding myself of the great opportunities my career has offered instead of focusing on the ones that it hasn’t (like a permanent position). I have travelled to interesting places, met wonderful colleagues, and most importantly been able to learn so much about the ecological world outside my door. If this is the last stop, it certainly has been a fun ride.
For now, I’m planning my life as an unemployed academic for the coming months. Who knows, maybe they will be even more productive.
*In part that is why I am sharing my story here.