The trouble with getting a real job

August 22, 1997

Poverty wages, contract posts, overt sexism. Scientists share their 'horror stories' with Martin Ince

Earlier this year Alan Hale had his name publicised on a global billboard. Stunningly visible to everyone in the northern hemisphere, Comet Hale-Bopp was one of the sights of a lifetime. But Hale, the New Mexico-based astronomer who was its codiscoverer, has used the renown it has brought to publicise a problem which is all too down-to-earth for him and thousands of otheracademics.

Hale is a professional astronomer. He discovered the comet with a telescope from the driveway of his house. But he is also founder of the Southwest Institute for Space Research in New Mexico, which he set up in 1992 after years of working as a university teacher on poverty wages.

Hale used his 15 minutes of fame to publicise the problem of careers for scientists in the United States and elsewhere, in astronomy as well as other disciplines. The THES printed his appeal for "horror stories" from academics who have had trouble getting real jobs. The responses, copied to Hale and to us, are unanimous about the scale of the problem.

Many of our respondents are sufficiently eager to stay in academic life that they have asked us not to use their names, or to use their accounts as background only. This bears testimony to the fear which often accompanies their anger - and to their extraordinary determination to build scientific careers in the absence of money, job vacancies, encouragement or even the rudiments of proper treatment by superiors.

One of the few who is willing to be named is Phil Adams, 35, now at Durham. He got his PhD at a former polytechnic in 1986, went into industry, came back to academic life in 1989, and is now two months away from the end of his third short-term contract. He has never had a contract lasting more than a year, a system which suits companies and universities all too well. He has 40 published papers and patents, and points out that one person senior to him has received pay rises and a promotion to reader. He has not, despite the research money he has brought in to the department.

Dr Adams says he enjoys research and would not like to turn into a research manager, but is irritated that he cannot buy a house or put down roots because of job insecurity. Also irate about discrimination is another chemist who has wandered from theoretical chemistry to theoretical physics and then to electronic engineering to place herself in a world where industrial money to fund research is less tricky to come by. Yet she is still a research assistant more than 20 years after getting a good honours degree and a doctorate from a distinguished UK university. In between, the number of research contracts and postdoctoral positions she has held has been in double figures.

While blaming governments for not valuing science enough, she points out, too, that all the men who started their research careers alongside her got nice jobs years ago. She has been, she thinks, the victim of overt sexism and an informal male network for career promotion. Research, she thinks, is one of the few activities where people's worth can be judged objectively, making it all the more shameful when it is not.

However, an email from one person whose position most of our respondents would envy suggests that the problems of the research life do not end when the long-term job offer appears. A 44-year-old with a permanent post in a noted US medical school thought things were looking up seven years ago when he arrived there in the team of a distinguished professor - but since then has had four interviews and no further offers from 100 applications. He rejects the idea that more funding for science research is the answer. Instead, he calls for institutions to set up a safety net to allow people to avoid being jettisoned at the end of contracts. He thinks things have got so brutal that the competition has become self-defeatingly intense. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (not his institution) already operates such a system.

One problem is the interdisciplinary nature of his work. In five years hardly any interdisciplinary posts have been advertised in The THES, he says, and one effect of a shortage of cash is to make research funders draw in upon established subject areas.

Despite his experiences, this writer disagrees with Matthew Freeman, a biologist at the Medical Research Council, that long-time researchers should be told bluntly that it is time for a career change. But light is shed on the possible oversupply problem by Simon Mitton, science director of Cambridge University Press, whose work brings him into contact with astronomers all over the world.

Dr Mitton says many graduate students today do the work technicians did 25 years ago, and that it should be made clear at an early stage that they are not potential professors. "I can tell horror stories of close-to-useless doctoral students clinging on for years on end on the breadline because gutless supervisors would not throw them out."

David Brown, an Australian now in the department of neuropathology at the University of Gottingen in Germany, has a happier tale to tell. He moved from Australia to New York in a tangled series of maneouvres involving horrific office politics, and then to Germany, where he has more rights, more money and more success. But, he says, more than 90 per cent of the group in which he worked on his PhD no longer make a living from research. Whether they are happier or more miserable as a result depends on whether they view themselves as failed researchers, or as people in whose lives a PhD formed an interesting stage.

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