Time limits in research

Faliure, as illustrated by

“So that experiment didn’t go as planned? Congratulations, you are now officially a scientist”

This tweet (which I can’t find again to attribute), as well as many other things, claims that the secret to most scientific work is not genius, but persistence. “Scientists are people who keep going when most of us have given up”. There’s a lot of truth to that. But I can’t help feeling that it’s sabotaged by the way that science is funded these days.

If you get a surprising result, that’s great for science! Well, sometimes. Usually it means you made a mistake. If it’s real, it’s great for science… but it’s awkward if you have to get the work finished and the publication out for a deadline, and you have more things lined up to do after that.

When an experiment or a simulation doesn’t work first time… well, that’s normal, but a huge proportion of the research workforce is on short fixed-term contracts, and when you’re only in the job for a year, you can’t afford to explore too many dead ends. You can’t afford to take the failure and persistence approach that is idolised above.

I’ve just finished a one-year postdoc, and this has made me very anxious from time to time[1]. I’ve started to wonder how much of a correlation there is between people with successful academic careers (at least in STEM), and people whose experiments / models / observations / whatever happened to go right first time during their first postdoc. Obviously there is a strong element of researcher merit involved in whether things work, but there’s also a hell of a lot of luck. And if you need it to work first time in order to have the time to get everything finished and written up[2] before you’re in the next job and busy on something else…

[1] Along with all the other sources of anxiety that result from 1-year postdocs. That’s a much broader topic, but this is just one of the reasons that I’m really looking forward to my next job being a little longer!
[2] Or, just “in a sufficiently complete state that you can write it up in evenings and weekends while working on a different day job”, if you’re privileged enough to be able to do that.

Posted by simon in Reflective

Relocation, relocation, relocation

Photograph of an art installation consisting of two very high piles of brightly coloured luggage.

Photo: Susanne Nilsson, Flickr user infomastern. Licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

I’m about half way through a one year contract, so of course much of my headspace is occupied with wondering what comes next. (I’d rather it was occupied with great research, or any number of other things. This is one of many problems with the early-career norm of short-term contracts, but that’s another topic.)

As I look around at job adverts, naturally they are all over the world, and also varying in length. Recently I found myself looking at a short one in the US and thinking “I’m not sure I want to relocate intercontinentally for just a year”. My initial thinking was that I’d consider it more seriously for two or three years, but a one-year contract wasn’t worth the upheaval.

Then my officemate pointed out that I had jumped at the opportunity to live in Japan for two months, which is much shorter. I replied that I hadn’t actually “moved” there, it was simply a visit. But where does one draw the line? In my head, two or more years is definitely moving to a place, while two months is definitely a visit. Could a year be considered from either angle?

Possibly it’s less about duration than other things. In Japan I lived out of a suitcase, but I don’t think it really comes down to how many belongings one takes with. Perhaps it has more to do with whether one is getting paid in the other country, dealing with bank accounts, setting up local healthcare provision, househunting, etc.

Food for thought, and in the meantime I’m not ruling anything out.

Posted by simon in Reflective