You matter? “I matter” – Can I get that in writing please?

I found this post the other day discussing ways to motivate women in science & tech careers. It resonated with me as a young person in science, currently trying to forge an identity in the world or research.

“These two words serve as an invitation to bright and talented young women to follow their passion, wherever it may lead them, to make a difference in this world.”

You matter.

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I think this goes out to all the postdocs who feel like all their hard work and commitment to their careers in science is sometimes a thankless exercise. A snippet of recognition.

When the dark winter nights roll in and you are still sat at your desk, drinking coffee with that nasty milk substitute powder because if you put milk in the fridge it will inevitably either disappear or curdle on contact with fridge-atmosphere and the campus cafes have all shut. When you think about how much healthier your bank account would look if you had one of those “proper” jobs. When your eyes hurt from sunlight on exiting the department as you’ve been seconded in an artificially lit laboratory all day (I worried at one point that I might start sparkling a la Edward Cullen). When you come into work in your “nice” clothes and end up grovelling around on the floor hunting for an escaped rodent test subject…

I do my job because I love science. Not for the money, or the prestige (although I do enjoy telling people I’m a doctor, but no, I can’t help you with any of your current ailments).

I do my job because I get excited about new research, explaining the rationale of my work to people, about statistically significant findings, about beautifully presented histograms. I’m a nerd. But I’m still human, and I sometimes feel like senior academics have a someone rose-tinted view of their experiences as a PhD student/postdoc. It is not a right of passage to work 80 hour weeks during your PhD, nor is it acceptable to sacrifice every weekend to go and prod some cells, or inject rats with antipsychotics.

I take my work home with me every night. I reply to emails from my UK collaborators at 2am if I wake up in the night, thanks to my iPhone I can also do this at the pub when I feel the urge to send a grammatically poor communication whilst making a rare public appearance where I drink in a social setting (not TV friends). I work my holiday around international conferences so I don’t feel guilty about going away from the University for too long. Thankfully I’m too technologically inept to work out how to remote desktop to my work PC from my home computer.

Maybe “I matter” is actually iMatter, and I can get it along with Self-Worth on the iTunes store?

This isn’t a personal rant that women should be treated differently in the workplace. I think all early career researchers should be. In an email correspondence with a collaborator/friend he expressed how constantly unsettled he felt with respect to hunting around for fellowships to try and remain in one institution as he didn’t want to have to be long-distance with his wife, who had recently been promoted in one of those “normal” jobs.

In a study of asylum seekers it was found that a lack of stability in terms of work, immigration status and accommodation impacted massively on their mental well-being.

Now, I’m not going to compare myself to an asylum seeker, but at the same time, for postdocs there is a constant nagging feeling of job insecurity that comes from short appointments, like a tooth-ache that won’t go away. One or two year contracts leave people feeling unsettled, particularly when grant money is only released once or twice a year. And these people aren’t those in their early 20s or late teens who see everything as an adventurous “gap year” from reality. These people are in, or are approaching their 30s, wanting to settle down and start families, surely these good genes will benefit society. When it feels like the carpet can be pulled from under your feet at any given moment, settling down simply does not feel like an option.

I’m trying to write grants at the moment. I feel like I’m attempting to buy time. Something tangible I can hold on to for a while that will fill me with self worth again and get some really interesting science done. To make me feel like I matter in an environment where I am sometimes made to feel like a disposable commodity. I think the only way this can be addressed is by universities sponsoring grants that postdocs can apply for to bridge any gaps in employment, and to increase the number of postdoctoral / early career researcher fellowships available for those that want to pursue an independent research project under the mentorship of a senior academic.

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