Tag Archives: careers

Academic Rapunzels, or Leaving academia – but hitherto?

This article is about the emotional effect of leaving academia. There is little actual talk about emotions in the article. It is largely an optimistic-sounding story of a career in science communication after a PhD. But why is there so much effort to justify this career “turn” and why is it so heavily about rebranding, organizing, management, objectives, timescales? Why is the first of three main lessons that unemployment is not the same as failure? A society must be very confused if enough people in it genuinely believe that work – or rather paid employment – is the sole kernel of their identity, and that unemployment equals failure.

So while the article sounds like a happy ending to a previously stormy journey through the post-PhD career, it is actually an article about what is wrong with the academic system. It is about leaving research, but not really leaving it, and instead finding work in the fringes, or what I like to think of as the scaffolding of research. It’s an article about an academic system which tricks a lot of people into thinking they are welcome, and then kicks them out because there is not enough space (or funding) for them. There may not be enough room in the lab, the lab is a cut-throat business, only the very best make it. Yet there is always room for one more in the scaffolding! We can always do with more people to take care of the scientists! These academic caretakers are doing a valuable job, some are happy and find their skills well applied, others swallow their disappointment because they are making a living and are even close to what used to be their dream. But why are there so many administrators, communicators, managers, strategists, and so few researchers, or “students” – as academic authors used to like calling themselves in papers only a few decades ago? And why is it mainly women who take these timid career paths out-but-not-really-out of academia, while male PhD holders end up in industry jobs in larger numbers?

The article reminded me of those multiple, identical articles I’ve read about how to find work abroad as a trailing spouse. The authors are all women, and they all say that while real jobs are hard to come by, look how great it is that we now control our own schedule and can work on our own macbook in a hipster cafe. And when you look at their signatures, they are all “freelance writers” or “professional bloggers”. And they do that because that’s what they chose to do. They combine work with family because that’s what they chose to do. And have time to bake cookies (and keep applying for jobs and not getting them) because that’s what they like. I am being cynical, but the point is: when lots of people choose something, they are clearly being reasonable. Being a para-academic who hangs on like Rapunzel on her own hair from the fringes of the academic scaffolding, over the abyss of unemployment, is clearly one of the open paths, or at least a path less closed than its alternatives.

I have no answers – only questions and quibbles.


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UK women academics in 1974

This page and every sentence in it wins the prize for most depressing work-related reading of the month. I keep realising that I must have grown up on a different planet. I really hadn’t realised how recently things were shockingly horrible in what we in the East thought of as the enlightened Western Europe. For all the ills in the socialis bloc, at least scientists and engineers were, and still are, equally divided by gender… (See e.g. The chart on P.21  of this 2012 report on gender in science in the EU)

Excerpt from “The academic labour market” edited by Gareth Williams, Tessa Blackstone and David Metcalf, Elsevier, 1974 

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FT: “The North needs to retain its science graduates”

According to a new report, tech startups are disproportionately concentrated in the UK’s south. Unsurprising, really. Some analysis and (a small number of) counterexamples here –  article byBy Murad Ahmed and Chris Tighe


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