Thursday 26th July saw the launch of SciLogs.com, a new English language science blog network. SciLogs.com, the brand-new home for Nature Network bloggers, forms part of the SciLogs international collection of blogs which already exist in German, Spanish and Dutch. To celebrate this addition to the NPG science blogging family, some of the NPG blogs are publishing posts focusing on "Beginnings".
Participating in this cross-network blogging festival is nature.com’s Soapbox Science blog, Scitable's Student Voices blog and bloggers from SciLogs.com, SciLogs.de, Scitable and Scientific American’s Blog Network. Join us as we explore the diverse interpretations of beginnings – from scientific examples such as stem cells to first time experiences such as publishing your first paper. You can also follow and contribute to the conversations on social media by using the #BeginScights hashtag.
I feel lucky today. In the last month, I've gone from all but giving up on a research career, to being offered two incredible opportunities: a fellowship in France for two years to work on a major Neanderthal archaeology project, and the chance to write a popular book combining my research with my hobbies. While both these breaks haven't just fallen into my lap, I think it's important to recognize how it can sometimes feel at this 'starting out' stage that our futures are at the mercy of someone else's dice roll.
There's been some discussion recently about the non-linear career trajectories that many in science end up forging. As an early career researcher, I'm no exception to this. Chance is something that, whether we admit it or not, plays a role in the increasingly winding paths facing scientists just beginning their postdoctoral lives (I'm including here my own field of Palaeolithic archaeology). In fact, I'd been feeling decidedly unfortunate since finishing up my PhD in 2010 as I began to realise that my expectations of “what happened next” were somewhat naïve in their timescales. It became obvious that it takes on average at least two years after graduating to get a postdoc or academic position.
I hadn't expected to simply walk into a job or have funding appear out of the blue, but neither had I expected the current alarmingly low chances for attaining them. Two UK government funded sources for first postdocs (AHRC and NERC) have been withdrawn, leaving just three other bodies providing major funding (British Academy, Royal Society and Leverhulme Trust). However, with hundreds of applications from across the sciences and humanities, the success rate for all three is under 7%. As an added fun twist, the Leverhulme fellowships are not full grants, but instead require the host institution to make a matching contribution. This has led to a situation where there are hundreds of potential applicants champing at the bit, yet many universities simply state that they are not putting forward anyone at all for that year's competition.
There are a few other small grants around, and I was lucky enough to win funding from The Prehistoric Society and the Lithic Studies Society to work on the late Neanderthal archaeology of La Cotte de St Brelade, as part of the Quaternary Archaeology and Environments of Jersey project. This was just enough to pay for a few weeks' travel and subsistence, but not nearly sufficient to record the entire lithic assemblage of c. 6000 artefacts. Frustratingly, although I have an Honorary (unsalaried) Research Fellowship at the University of Manchester- and therefore access to lab space- it wasn't possible to bring the collection over. Aside from postdoctoral funding, securing a lecturing position at a university is just as tough a call. Even for relatively specific job descriptions, there are usually over 100 applicants, including scholars at Professor-level from abroad. This leaves the majority of early career researchers with little chance.
Two years after my PhD I could no longer afford to continue working unpaid on research projects while concurrently trying to support my household with part-time jobs (at the same time as publishing and writing applications). So in January 2012 I took the decision to get off the hamster wheel, and focus on other ways to earn a living, while keeping archaeology in my life. I wrote about these 'Plan B' options for the Day of Archaeology blogging event held in June, by which point the first of my big breaks had occurred. Through my active presence on Twitter, following people related to all my interests, I'd had an exchange with @chiffchat, a Senior Commissioning Editor at Bloomsbury Press who was just as into bird watching as me. What started as a tweet from me about Upper Palaeolithic cave art ended in June with the offer of a contract to write a book titled “Dawn Chorus in Eden: Humanity and Birds in Prehistory”. It was lucky, certainly, that I decided to tweet on something that caught the eye of a natural history editor with a fondness for prehistoric archaeology. As science communication is something I've enjoyed doing for years, writing for a popular audience seemed to offer a fresh path after my stalling research career.
Within the past fortnight I've had my second stroke of good fortune, which has turned everything upside down in the best possible way. As I was travelling to see my family and celebrate the book, I received an email. I could see from the subject line that it was regarding an application I'd written for a Marie Curie Intra European Fellowship last summer. Although I'd been unsuccessful, it made sense that as the 2012 deadline was approaching, another hopeful applicant might contact me to ask for information. As I opened the email, my eyes scanned over the sentence “your proposal, which was placed in the reserve list, can be now funded” and my heart literally skipped in my chest. The Marie Curie system involves writing a long and fiendishly complicated application for a project to be undertaken at a laboratory outside your country of residence. When the results were released in December 2011, although I had scored well, I was just 0.2 points below the cut-off for funding. As the final major postdoctoral grant I applied for, it seemed to mark the end of my last chance at a research career. But the Marie Curie system operates a reserve list of highly scoring projects, meaning that should extra funding become available or other applicants drop out, you still stand a chance. Almost 8 months later, I'd forgotten about the reserve system, and so receiving that email felt like opening the most amazing fortune cookie.
Over the past two weeks since then, I've been astonished at how strongly my appetite for the chance to do science has come back. In order to cope with repeated disappointment over the past couple of years, and the prospect of having to step aside from a research career, I'd forced myself to come to terms with following other paths, which although interesting, were not the same. There's nothing like seeing stones and bones feel the breath of air for the first time in tens of thousands of years as they're excavated; nothing like the first hesitant hours where you get to know an assemblage of tools, and start to understand the individual pieces and their part in the bigger picture. Letting go of this was an emotional process, and so the chance offered by the Marie Curie Fellowship- to work in one of the top Neanderthal research groups in Europe- led to an exhausting roller coaster of feelings. Initially I was ecstatic, then worried about being apart from my family, and unsure whether the salary would be enough after steep taxes. Finally, after hours of debating, I was sure that this was the right thing for me, and I followed my gut reaction by saying yes.
My experience of a challenging start to a research career isn't unique; in fact it's probably fairly typical now. It's clear that random glitches and steps forward do occur, yet there's another kind of luck that happens because you give it the chance. If I hadn't decided to start tweeting, initially because I wanted to communicate about my research, I wouldn't be about to sign a book contract. Equally, if I hadn't chosen to give a paper at a particular conference, drank a little too much wine and enthused about Neanderthals with a senior researcher from the PACEA laboratory at Université Bordeaux 1, I wouldn't have found a host for the my Marie Curie fellowship. I'm not necessarily any more deserving of the opportunities I suddenly find I have, than all the others who haven't yet had a lucky break. However, my experience of a stalled and re-ignited science career shows that hanging in there, remembering what you love doing and gently blowing at the embers can result in success, especially if you've done as much as possible to load the dice of fortune in your favour.