Highlighting different experiences in palaeontology. This issue’s palaeontologist, Paul Barrett (Natural History Museum), describes the ups and downs of his career, and his experiences dealing with mental health issues.
Following a series of interesting discussions on Twitter, which set out the problems and perils faced by early-career researchers, I thought it might be somewhat therapeutic (for me at least) to sit down and think about the pathway that has led me to my current position. This isn’t intended to be preachy, to trivialize the problems faced by others, or to brag, but I thought it might be of interest to the broader discussion about careers in academia and how they might progress.
During my PhD, in the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Cambridge, I had a blast. I was lucky enough to be a member of a large cohort of friends, all of whom were really into what they were doing and who knew how to have a great time while doing it. I had the funding to do what I needed, opportunities to earn extra cash through teaching, was at a university where life was made pretty easy in general, had a terrific social life and a strong mutual support network. As the end of my PhD loomed closer and the spectre of unemployment appeared I started applying for jobs – in total, I applied for something like 20 positions in a relatively short space of time. Of those applications, I only got long-shortlisted for one (which was ultimately unsuccessful) and on the day my funding ran out I had only a couple more irons in the fire and went to sign on for unemployment benefit. Luckily, the last decision I was waiting for struck gold and I got a fully-funded four-year fellowship at Trinity College Cambridge. So, two weeks after I signed-on I went back to the job centre and signed-off as the job started almost immediately. This gave me a financial cushion and the freedom to do what I wanted to academically – I had no ‘boss’ as such, just my own research proposal to work with. The first six months of my fellowship were spent completing my thesis and the rest of the time pursuing various other projects. In many ways this was a great time – I had a salary, no other responsibilities, could set my own agenda, and I continued to work in a place with established linkages and friends – an ideal first job in most respects.
It wasn’t all roses, however – during the second year of my fellowship (a few months after submitting my PhD) I suffered a lengthy bout of clinical depression and had a period of around nine months where I simply wasn’t able to function. I couldn’t work and could barely bring myself to interact with anyone else – a large portion of this time was spent lying on a sofa staring blankly ahead, with periods of intense, unresolvable restlessness in between. Thanks to support from my partner, friends, family, GP and Trinity I got through it, although I was on medication for around 18 months and had regular counselling during the first (and by far the worst) months of this illness. Trinity responded well, allowing me as much time as I needed to recover and offering to add time to the fellowship to account for the period where I was too ill to work. They didn’t offer any other formal help, aside from general moral support, but they did give me reassurance and space to recover. The depression wasn’t due to the fact that my future beyond the length of the job was unclear, nor to any stresses involved in the job, but to a combination of other personal reasons, related to the fact that my cohort of friends gradually departed (while I remained), a certain amount of PhD post-partum anxiety, and two other coincident minor, but worrying, illnesses that got blown out of proportion. Apart from this, the majority of my postdoc period was, on balance, pretty enjoyable. Other than the eventual stress about where the next job might come from as the fellowship ticked down, I was able to set my own agenda and was treated as a grown-up by my colleagues in permanent positions. I was given opportunities to shoulder some collective responsibility – I, along with the other junior fellows, participated in the running of the College in a minor way with the same voting rights and privileges as the other fellows – and I never felt marginalized. Luckily for me, I applied for and got another job while still in the tenure of my fellowship, so went straight into this, without an extended period of failed applications or unemployment.
My next job was a fixed-term lectureship at the University of Oxford. It involved a move to a department that I found much more challenging, not only due to the change in role – which involved more formal teaching as well as the associated administrative demands it made and the need to increase my research profile (not to mention some pressure to get that first grant) – but also due to the different set of personalities I encountered. It was a less enjoyable place to work than my old Department and if it hadn’t been for a handful of friendly staff who took me under their wing, I’m not sure how long I would have lasted (although I eventually built up a small research group of my own, which helped buffer me from the isolation I’d felt on arrival). In addition to not being a fan of my new department, I took a quick personal dislike to Oxford – a city too large to retain the charm of the university precinct, but too small to have the diversity and distractions of a bigger city. It was isolating socially and much more hierarchical academically than anything I’d witnessed in Cambridge: although I was a full member of faculty, most decisions in my department were made by a small group of senior professors who rarely consulted more widely. In addition, there were few people who had any inkling or interest in the sorts of things I worked on. My partner was still a PhD student at the time, and still based in Cambridge, so we also had the added strain of maintaining a long-distance relationship while neither of us had much money. Although I lived in Oxford for a while I had no real social life, nor much in the way of an intellectual life either, and when my partner got a job in London and moved there I soon followed. For the next two and a half years I commuted back and forth from London to Oxford: this was physically exhausting and financially burdensome, but it meant I had a social life again. To be fair to my boss at the time, he supported my decision to move and enabled me to work in London one day each week out of term time. I became a visitor at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM), with Fridays becoming a research day in the collections.
The Oxford job was a four-year fixed-term post and as the end drew near there were relatively few opportunities available. This led to another period of anxiety and I spent time applying for the few relevant academic jobs that arose and for individual fellowships (with zero success at making a shortlist) and I began to have serious discussions about alternative career paths. At this time, the NHM dinosaur researcher job came up and I was lucky enough to be shortlisted. Following the interviews, I wasn’t the first choice candidate (that honour went to a colleague and close friend who went on to head up another major dinosaur collection), but I was the reserve and when this candidate declined I got the job. In many ways the NHM has been exceptionally kind to me and I find myself in constant awe of the collections, the building, the sense of history, and also my colleagues who are hardworking, brilliant to hang out with and dedicated. As with all permanent jobs, however, there still loomed the prospect of passing my probationary period, something that wasn’t simply a rubber-stamping exercise (several of my near contemporaries failed probation). Nevertheless, I was able to cross the Rubicon and the stability that my now permanent job afforded boosted my productivity, which has enabled me to climb the greasy pole within the Museum’s ranks. Even now there are still anxieties – we’re a public institution and in times of austerity permanent jobs get cut, and I’ve seen good, productive colleagues lost to these purges. Although the days of worrying regularly about changing jobs are to some extent behind me, and I’m financially stable, I now have different burdens of expectation in terms of getting consistent grant funding, contributing to managerial and corporate roles, and in maintaining a research profile, despite having less and less research time. These were not stress factors when I was an early-career researcher and my earlier jobs were less pressured and more research oriented. In addition, when you reach middle age other burdens come into play – your own health can be more of a concern, and parents, and – if you have them – kids, take more of a toll on your personal time in terms of finding that work/life balance.
Many of the career-related problems that academics face are not unique to academia. My friends who work in other sectors have also had to change job frequently, including changes of town or city, often with young families in tow, and difficult decisions regarding relationships, children and other life choices have to be made. They’ve also faced periods of uncertainly and unemployment and a few work in industries where there isn’t much support to deal with these issues. I’m sorry to say that the pressures don’t go away or lessen as you transition into a permanent job – they just change. Moreover, although I think that things are genuinely tougher for postdocs now than they were in my day (a topic deserving of a fuller discussion), to some extent those in my generation have been there too – facing the same uncertainties over the next job, where it will be, and how this will affect our lives outside of the workplace. I’ve had two particular lows in my career (my period of depression and my first year working in Oxford) and in neither case were they associated with career worries, but with other factors. Career worries were real also, but I found mechanisms to manage them, which involved keeping a dialogue going and being realistic about the next stage when things didn’t look like they were going to work out the way I wanted.
As I said at the outset, I just wanted to set out my own experiences as a potential case study, so those currently going through the early stages of their career can see how things might pan out. Some of you might recognize some of this, others might think I’ve been fantastically lucky (with no cause to pontificate), and others might be disappointed that the challenges they face now seem tougher than those I had to overcome.