Times are bleak but don’t despair – just do stuff and meet people

Shaun Khoo is an Australian expat and addiction neuroscientist at the University of Montreal.

He also edits Neuroanatomy and Behaviour, a no-fee open access journal (Twitter: @epistemehealth). His ORCID is 0000-0002-0972-3788.


Image by Daniel Cheung | unsplash.com
Image by Daniel Cheung | unsplash.com

I’ve never heard good career news in science and academia.

Even before the pandemic, every few years, the Arts Faculty of a major university would shed a huge number of jobs. Australian scientists would be subject to periodic funding cuts or reforms that frequently promise to create a “lost generation of scientists”. As another round of funding cuts looms, this time triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, we are once again facing the prospect of becoming a “lost generation” of academics.

However, as an early career researcher who is likely to end up in these endlessly lost generations (it seems academia’s better off counting the researchers we’ve kept), I don’t feel that we should be alarmed. We cannot control the political and economic currents that shape academia and our funding opportunities but we’re not completely powerless. There are opportunities out there. I can’t predict what those opportunities might be, but I know that the only way that I – or anyone else – will find them is by continuing to do stuff and meet people.

Dropping out or taking off?

Most of us who go through with a PhD want to work in academia. We like some combination of learning stuff, doing new things, research, or teaching. But, statistically, it just isn’t possible. There have never been so many PhDs competing for so few academic jobs. And the jobs that are left have never been more insecure. In the United States, this is represented by the growing adjunct underclass, while in Australia it is represented by a casualised and underpaid academic workforce. The hard reality is that the vast majority of us will eventually drop out of academia.

But dropping out of one career path does not mean destitution and ruin. There can be stigma to leaving academia, which may be due to the grief of giving up a dream or the beliefs of others that people who leave academia didn’t try hard enough. Leaving academia is certainly a difficult personal decision and an evergreen genre for careers columnists.

But if we do leave academia, it does not mean we are failures and our careers are over.

In fact, leaving academia may be just what we need for our careers to take off. Following simple economic laws of supply and demand, academic jobs for early career researchers do not pay well. In the United States, the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates shows people with PhDs in virtually every discipline earn higher average salaries outside of academia. The differences are huge. A life science PhD can expect around US$48,000 as a postdoc or US$95,000 in industry or business. An engineering PhD can earn US$50,000 as a postdoc or US$108,000 in industry or business. The only exception is the arts and humanities, where salaries are just low everywhere. If being part of a “lost generation” of academics means doubling your salary, the loss belongs to the academy, not to us early career researchers.

Finding those jobs

The challenge then for early career researchers is how to find those jobs, apply for them, and interview for them. I’ve read numerous careers columns over the course of my degrees and postdoctoral career, some of which purport to advise readers on how to do these things.

Given how most career advice is pretty evidence-free and tainted by survivorship bias, my key conclusions are simply that we need to do stuff and meet people, and that this applies both inside and outside academia. Importantly, these fundamentals have not been changed by the latest round of cuts, nor are they altered by the pandemic.

Do Stuff

Doing stuff means engaging in some kind of professionally meaningful or productive activity.

Whether you’re working on your day-to-day research or engaging in some kind of extracurricular activity, doing stuff will keep you developing professionally. The more stuff you do, the better you’ll understand what you like and what you’re good at. The more you do stuff, the more you’ll learn new skills or gain insights into industry trends. All of this will help you move forward with your current work or transition into a new sector.

Whether in academia or not, making a positive contribution is fundamentally how you gain some kind of job security. As the Journal of Cell Science’s “Mole” says :

“[P]ut your effort into the things that make you an invaluable part of your institution, including developing an exciting research program, becoming an outstanding mentor, and being a trusted and valued collaborator by your colleagues.”

There are always going to be some things that stand in the way of this – from bad luck to once-in-a-century pandemics – but the fundamentals remain the same. Doing stuff that is productive and meaningful is one of the keys that we need to move forward.

Meet people

The second half of the equation is meeting people. As the Mole pointed out above, things like mentorship and collaboration are important. If you’re in academic research where we focus very intently on one thing for years at a time, networking may not be something you love. Nonetheless, meeting people (in a COVID-safe way) is still going to be essential for surviving the turbulence ahead.

Fortunately, there are just as many ways to meet people in professional contexts as there is stuff to do.

Some people might be the type to contact strangers and ask for informational interviews. Others, might be the kind to send their recent paper in an email to a professor they admire to let them know about their work.

My preferred way of meeting people at work is at work. When you do stuff, like volunteering for open days or joining a project, you meet people. Every time you meet someone and they get to know you and how good you are at doing stuff, there is a small chance that they will be in a position to help you in the future. It might range from something as small as sharing a job ad, to as major as investing in your start-up, but as long as you keep meeting people you’ll always be in a position to reap those rewards.

Don’t despair

Times look bleak and the outlook for funding and opportunities in academia only ever seems to get worse. But the fundamentals of career progression have not changed: If we keep doing stuff and meeting people, we’ll keep developing our skills, reputations, and networks.

Pandemic or not, these fundamentals are the only things that are really important for creating career opportunities for us.

So, don’t despair. Even if you or I join this round’s “lost generation” of academics, we will probably be OK. In fact, we’ll probably just double our salaries.

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