I write this from the rather jaundiced personal viewpoint of being a failed research scientist, so I feel well qualifed to comment certainly on the cons of this particular 'career path'.
Having graduated top of my class with a first class degree in the hopelessly useless but very interersting subject of zoology, I went on to complete a PhD on - essentially wildlife management - which was funded by a three-year university scholarship. Unfortunately the PhD took me five years to complete - which is not at all unusual in this field, where obtaining data is often strongly dependent on seasonal working. My university fees had been paid by the original scholarship, but there were no additional funds available for my day to day living expenses - hence for the last two years of my study I 'self funded' by working part-time as a telephone operator for BT. The PhD itself was however a success and I published a number of papers (about 4, I forget) resulting from my work.
After my PhD I got a teaching job at an agricultural college that was running a new BSc course in my field, for which I was designated course tutor. I was expected to start up 'original research' to support the course but this didn't work out in practice, and I soon left to take up a DEFRA-funded post-doc in wildlife biology at a well-known university.
That was the final nail in the coffin of my 'career'. It is imperative, if you want a long-term career as a research scientist, to build up a strong publication record - this means submitting your findings to peer-reviewed journals for publication. I wasn't able to do this during my postdoc as due to a combination of inept project management and frankly, over-ridingly bad luck, the overall study produced no useful results during its three-year span of funding whatsoever, and the subsidiary papers I had written in the interim - all based on garbage post-hoc analyses of pre-existing, low-quality datasets, instigated at the insistence of my boss, were all quite rightly rejected by every journal I submitted them to.
After my three years of DEFRA funding on the postdoc were up, I was kept on as teaching / research assistant in my boss's research group but my paid hours were cut to part-time. I was however able to partly supplement my income with other teaching work in the department. I wasn't able, as a junior researcher to apply for grants for further funding to continue my own projects as I had no official / long term standing as a researcher or staff member at the university and my lack of publications made getting a further independent research position elsewhere unlikely. This is the so-called 'postdoc trap' that has been discussed in the trade journals 'New Scientist', 'Nature' etc. - it means that it is very difficult for new researchers to secure permanent positions with any level of job security. In my case after the end of the DEFRA funding I found myself entirely dependent on the goodwill of my current boss for ongoing employment - a situation that although I got on with the boss reasonably well, I found quite unacceptable, and I left to take up a short-term teaching post later that year. I am currently taking a 'career break' while I care for my young family and if I do return to work in this general field, it will be in a post with some degree of long-term stability - ie. in a teaching capacity, as probably a college lecturer.
I think my experience highlights a lot the general cons of working in short-term research.
Post-docs are always short-term contracts; once the designated funding runs out you have no job security whatsoever. Most post-docs are in their late twenties to early thirties but it is therefore nigh-on impossible for them to undertake what I would call 'normal' activities for this stage of life - such as buying a house or starting a family. It may be possible to obtain a mortgage if you are - as are most post-docs - a short-term contract worker, but if your next research appointment takes you to the other side of the country, what use is there in putting down roots in any one place? Even simple matters can become absurdly difficult. Due to the attitude of my boss during the term of my post-doc for example, I found it difficult even to find the time / money to do something as simple as going on a week's holiday.
The early years of one's research career are also critical, for building up a strong publication record. If, like me, you select a 'dud' post-doc study to work on (ie one that produces no useful results whatsoever) you will have squandered the time when your competitors in the future job / research market have been publishing many papers of their own. In my case I found it impossible to catch up following the end of my post-doc and my own research career, such as it was, was stymied from the outset.
The post-doc / senior supervising academic is also in my experience a source of discontent. It can very much develop into a relationship based on a disparity in power between the parties involved - more so I think in research than in other fields - wherein the postdoc finds themselves dependent to an unacceptable degree on the ongoing goodwill of their supervisor for their continuing career. My boss's research group, for example, was filled with volunteer workers and other 'hangers on' all jockeying for position and desperate for him to provide them with research funding / a PhD place.They all curried favour to a nauseating extent which made for a very unhealthy atmosphere to be working in in general. Perhaps for this reason, the net result was that there was little or no sense of worth (to the reserach group) of any of the individual researchers; it was the boss, and his international reputation that were of paramount importance throughout.
Possibly because of (in my field) the number of people willing to work for free, extra, unpaid work is also often expected 'for the love of the research'. If employed by a university (though I believe the civil service scientists organize themselves somewhat differently) you cannot in my experience treat - certainly at least field research - in any way as a 'proper job'. You don't get much holiday leave - or at least, you aren't expected to use it - nor are there scheduled lunch breaks or tea breaks or benefits of any kind! In my field, night-time working and surveying early in the morning and late in the evening was routinely necessary and I frequently worked long hours, and at weekends, for no additional pay (and the pay isn't that great in the first place: incidentally, nobody becomes a post-doc for the money). The commonly-stated 'perks' of post-doc-dom - in terms of attendance at scientific conferences abroad - certainly weren't available to me unless I paid for the trip, accommodation and conference fees myself, as my boss was unwilling to 'squander' money for conference attendance on any of his junior researchers. (I suspect that he was also unwilling to encourage his staff to build up the professional dialouge and relationships with other academics that are the result of scientific conference attendance although of course, I have no concrete evidence for this).
In any case the extra-curricular working, if you are a successful researcher putting in the hours for their own benefit, is undoubtedly a major part of a researcher's life but if - as in my case - you find yourself constantly forced to chip away in your own time at what you already know to be a thanklessly pointless task, this soon becomes a source of major discontent.
In summary I found my post-doctoral reserach to be an overall negative experience. The aspects of research that I personally enjoy - the application of novel methods in research, and even thrill of discovery, if you like - all came secondary, being subsumed by the stifling environment in which I found myself working.
Based on my personal experience, I would recommend a career in scientific research only for the very young - those who have yet to want to settle down - and for those who feel so driven by some sort of personal vocation to excel in their particular field of interest. Although I would have once been of the very strong opinion that personally, I fell into the second of those categories, my experiences as a post-doc at university X have left me with an attitude that I find I can't express any more clearly than by quoting the words of the great Bob Dylan -
"I used to care, but things have changed."
And as I near my forties, I find it that scientific research is no way any longer exactly my cup of tea
After enjoying myself that bit too much at university, I came out with a 2:2 Pharmacology degree from the University of Bristol. I didn’t want a science-based job straight away – I wasn’t sure if I actually wanted to do a proper job at all, or if I would in fact be happier staying on the little island I currently lived on, making and selling my hand-designed jewellery. After six months however, I was incredibly bored, working as a playgroup teacher and earning under 80 quid a week after tax (plus the odd 100 every couple of months from the jewellery). I had seen science articles in newspapers, and read articles from the Vet Record my father left hanging around, and thought “What a waste! I understand this, find it interesting even! And thousands wouldn’t!” One thing to note though - my real name is not “Saffy” and I do not go to test tube exhibitions! I just found it so infuriating to have a qualification I was completely wasting. So I decided to do something about it, not least to have a proper job and earn some proper money - no harm in giving it a go after all! First thing I did, was subscribe to The New Scientist – which after a couple of months was where I found my current job. Finding a job is not easy in science– if you do not have any experience, no one seems to want you, so you cannot go about getting any. It can seem that unless you work for free, or for about 9000 pounds a year (before tax) in one of the Central London Hospitals, you will find nothing, I applied for everything I could do and waited to see just what came up. It is a good idea to take a year out in industry, as this provides you with at least some experience – if you can get it abroad, all the better. With a 2:2 and no experience, I was exceptionally lucky to find something at all, let alone in 2 months. Many of my friends have given up looking in science and done courses in business management, or started PhDs. So, my mothe
r was wrong – a science degree does not actually easily and instantly lead to a well-paid job. Anyway, enough of how I got my job and hard it was finding it, how about the job itself? I work as a Research Assistant at Novartis, a large international drug company, at its Research Institute in Vienna, Austria. I work in a pharmacology laboratory on ulcerative colitis and Crohnes disease, which basically means that I do high-throughput drug screening and a bit of research. I work essentially as a laboratory technician, though actually have more of a say in what we do, as I have a recognised understanding, and so can give valuable contribution to our team. The work is in fact rather variable – some days are hectic and are 14 hours long with no time for a coffee break and very little for lunch, whilst others are much less busy, where we take longer than the statutory 45 minutes allowed for lunch, and several coffee breaks. Obviously there are many in between days, which generally consist of performing assays for various acute phase proteins, cell markers and cytokines; FACS analysis (where cells labelled with antibody markers can be analysed by a big machine according to cell type/sub-type); and cell purification (we purify out a specific t-cell subtype involved in the disease). Of course, you might have to work with animals, or with animal tissues - so if you are a strict veggie or against drug testing on animals, this really isn’t for you! You may also have to work with human tissues and blood – this is however all tested against any diseases you might catch, and the company I work for supplies Hepatitis B, as well as several other vaccines, free of charge. We do a lot of immunology, but it would be impossible and probably quite dull to have a job that was so specific to one area of science anyway – diversity being the spice of life! Other laboratories work on cell culture techniques, DNA and protein pur
ification and other such things. There are many areas of science, and of research, but I shall only relate to the ones that I have experienced myself. My job is ok. It can be interesting, and also at time rather boring. To me it is just a job. The area interests me, but science in its nature is monotonous – everything needs to be repeated many times to be considered valid proof. The lab is generally fairly relaxed; for example, use of lab coats is optional in my laboratory, as we are all sensible enough to realise that if we are dealing with something harmful or messy that we should put one on. There is no dress code either, the labheads are often in jeans, though some people feel the need to dress up a bit anyway (me being one of them – comes naturally to a fashion victim) which is also no problem, and allows me to don my jeans every so often when I can’t be bothered to make the effort/iron some days!! I am supposed to work 40 hours per week, and though this generally is less than what I actually do some weeks, I am on flexitime. This means that on some days I can go home before my 8 hours is up, or come in later than usual in the morning. Flexitime is good for this type of job, as your experiment may not specifically end 8 hours after you arrived at work, and obviously some days are longer than others - so when you clock in and out you keep a record of the actual time you’ve been in, and can take the excess off at another time. In Austria, being a catholic country, we also get a huge number of days off for Catholic holidays and National Holidays - and if it is one day before or after the weekend (Thursdays or Tuesdays) we get the joining day off too and so enjoy a 4 day weekend! I also get about 33 days holiday a year in addition to this, as well as nearly 3 weeks off at Christmas. You may also have to come in some weekends (experiments don´t take weekends into consideration!) but for this you will at least get t
ime in lieu, though I always prefer to be paid for working in what should be time off. Some other benefits here include a non-contributory pension (only redeemable if you work here until retirement); a subsidised canteen; free legal advice (and help) if you need it; wholesale prices (about 40-50% off retail price) on most pharmacy and prescription products (of any brand name) from the company shop; and free health care from the work doctor, who will give you innumerable supplements and many pills and treatments you may need free of charge should you need them or become ill at work, as well as administering vaccines free of charge (you usually have to pay a doctor to do it over here). There are of course company parties, at Christmas, and on several other occasions (Oktoberfest being one of them!) as well as many laboratory parties which involve lots of free food and Sekt (sparkling white wine), and parties in your own lab – when the boss decides to let you all drink Sekt instead of working in the afternoon (tends to be birthdays, when the lab has done well, when someone is leaving, or just for the hell of it!) So, it’s not all work, work, work! Not exactly my dream job, but it pays enough as the living costs over here are much less than in Britain. For me, it is just a means of getting money, I do find it fairly interesting, and I really enjoy living in Austria. Unless you are really into science though, it can be a bit dull – science, as I said, is very monotonous and repetitive. I earn approximately 16,000 pounds a year before tax, but get quite a bit extra in overtime payments for work I am obliged to do at the weekends/over holiday periods. This is however worth more in Austria than in England, as the cost of living here is lower than in the UK. Examples of this are as follows: a pack of 20 Gauloise cigarettes is 41 Schillings, Marlboro lights 43 Schillings – both under 2 quid a packet; the average rent is less
– much less considering Vienna is the capital city; travel expenses are about a quarter of that in London (1 week zones 1234 in London can buy you a month card for the whole of Vienna); and also one tends to find trips to the supermarket cheaper than expected. We also all get a pay rise every January, which is based on the increase in living costs in Austria, and an additional amount determined on your previous years grading. Anyway, that´s just my opinion on the company I work for. Other companies are more than likely to be different, especially if they are in a different country. I only wish to write from my own experience however - and this is, after all, my first job. I do know however, that private drug companies pay much better (and give much better benefits) than University or Hospital placements. They also tend to have better equipment, and are much more willing to order the best and more expensive materials for you to work with, if they are necessary. There are better jobs out there, but this job pays the bills and can be fun at times. All in all, I would say, not bad really for a job with so much time off a year!