Lab Rats

You call this a job?

On the nowhere land of postdoctoral existence

Ian Brooks 28 May 2006

Favored postdoctoral reading material

Trainee: it conjures up pictures of some spotty-faced sixteen-year-old working towards his vocational degree at a high-street car mechanic

When are you going to get a job? When are you going to grow up and be a man?"

Years after I last heard them, those words still echo in my mind. They were spoken frequently by my late grandfather, and often followed with a Monty Pythonesque rendition kicking off with: "When I was your age…"

I was very close to my grandfather as a boy, but naturally we grew more distant as I grew up and discovered things like girls, alcohol and drumming in a rock band. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), I come from a family with what an evolutionary biologist might call a "long breeding cycle". We Brooks’s are a pleasingly long-lived family, but we breed late. So, as I grew up and wanted to reconnect with my grandfather, he was already well into his late eighties and didn’t know what to make of the nervous young man with a ponytail and earrings who used to turn up periodically at his South London home. Later, I moved to the States to attend graduate school and that was really the last I saw of him. Until one day I got a phone call and ended up rushing back to London to visit him at his death bed.

My granddad grew up in the early decades of the 20th century and started working young which, depending on which version of his tales of childhood hardship and woe you were listening to, was anywhere from the womb to fourteen years old. I don’t want to make light of his situation though. He fought for his country in WWII and worked every day of his life until he was forced to retire when he was well into his seventies. To him, and most of his generation and social class, men worked for a living. That’s just the way it was. School was for the elite, or for sissy boys who couldn’t handle real life. For me to still be in school well into my late twenties was anathema to him. The fact that it was graduate school made no difference.

So, when visiting him for the last time in hospital, I lied to him.

"Have you got a job yet then, boy?" The usual inquiry.

"Yes, granddad. I’m a teacher in the States."

It’s was really only a white lie. I was actually a teaching assistant in graduate school, teaching physiology lab to undergraduate biology students to earn my meager stipend. Heaven forbid I actually got paid for the ridiculous amounts of lab work I had to do as well! One of my biggest regrets is that he died before I graduated, so I could proudly proclaim to him that his eldest grandson was now A Man. A Real Grown-Up. A Scientist!

But there’s a problem with this scenario: even after having been awarded my PhD, I still don’t feel like that. And I don’t mean in some generalised way, where we can all claim we don’t feel our age. I’ve been reliably informed on many occasions that I look like I’m only in my early twenties, despite now being significantly older. And I certainly don’t feel like I’m in my thirties. I remember my father telling me on his seventieth birthday that mentally he felt like a twenty-year-old and physically, only in his forties. (Told you we bred late.)

But the fact remains I don’t feel like I’ve grown up yet, and the reason is work. My official job title is Postdoctoral Fellow. But as far as the State and my employer are concerned, I’m a Postdoctoral Trainee.

Trainee. It conjures up pictures of some spotty-faced sixteen-year-old working towards his vocational degree at a high-street car mechanic. Trainee. I’m in my thirties (albeit only just), I’ve been a "scientist" for ten years, and I’ve held an advanced degree for three of those. But I’m just a trainee.

In general, the university faculty look down on us as half-trained slaves – even the staff look down on us as non-entities. We’re paid a pittance, relatively speaking, to work ludicrously hours with no tangible reward. We don’t have the power or prestige of faculty, and we certainly don’t get the benefits of the permanent staff members such as technicians or secretaries. Vacation time has to be begged for (and is frequently denied), and there’s no such thing as sick leave, health care or a retirement plan.

If I choose to stay in academic science after my current contract is up in a couple of years, I face the prospect of doing another postdoctoral stint somewhere else. In my field of neuroscience, as in most others in biology, you need five or more years of postdoctoral "training" before you can seriously consider applying for a faculty position somewhere. A recent survey commissioned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that although more than 50% of postdocs want to go on to a faculty position, less than 20% will make it. Those are fairly bleak odds considering we have to work for an average of eleven or twelve years just to be in a position to apply to run our own labs.

In the meantime, we postdocs hear a lot from older, more senior scientists that these are supposed to be the best years of our career. We can focus exclusively on our science, allow our imaginations to run wild, do our best work. But in the increasingly competitive market of academic science, it’s starting to feel more like dead-end drudgery.

So what’s next? Where am I going to go? Do I stay in academic science, or move to industry? I’ll lose a lot of my freedoms if I do. Do I leave bench science altogether and go into journalism or law? I honestly don’t know. Next week I may feel different. But no matter what, right now I still feel like a kid, thinking: "when I grow up I want to be…"