Hitchhiking for a living

Today I talked to one of the important people at my uni and heard the same thing that I have heard before here in the homecountry: they would love to hire me, but there is no money to offer me (or any other early career researcher for that matter) any sort of security. Only if you have an ERC starting grant or equivalent, do you become interesting enough for the university to offer you stable employment. I defended my PhD in 2010 and everybody tells me that it takes at least another 3-5 years before I will be competitive for these grants. So until then, I will have to find personal fellowships or grants to be able to stay in academia. What frustrates me the most about this, is that I feel that I've invested quite a lot in myself, but now nobody seems to want to invest in me. Jim Woodgett put it very nicely today on twitter when he said:

Akin to hitchhiking for a living. Reliance on semi-random “goodwill” of others & odd jobs to keep goal alive.

I like this analogy very much. Because hitchhiking is fun and exciting, and a great way to get to places. You will probably get to your destination and to the people watching from the sideline or waiting for you at your final destination, it might not look that different than when you would have your own car. But if you have ever hitchhiked and found yourself at the end of the day at a deserted gas station in the pouring cold rain, wondering if you will ever get a ride out of there, you will know that it is not the same. Having your own car means that you can decide where and when to go. Whereas when you hitchhike, like Jim Woodgett said, you rely on other people's goodwill. They might offer you a couple months of funding in between personal fellowships, but it is up to them (and all sorts of unconscious bias too). They can also decide to just keep driving their car and leave you in the rain at that gas station, and there is no way of telling which one it will be.

9 responses so far

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    The problem is one of imbalance of graduating authority. During graduate school, we all recognize that the mentor is providing the opportunity, that the student is there to learn and to master new skills and that in exchange for this opportunity, both will prosper through shared ownership f publications. But being a postdoc is like adolescence. You are still dependent upon others for your basic necessities, your independent earnings potential is low and you still have things to learn. But you can also do useful things (mow the lawn, wash the car) for your elders and out skill them in other areas (computation, programming the remote, lifting heavy stuff). After a while, though, the tensions rise. The adolescent yearns to be given the freedom to pursue their ideas. The elders wonder why they are still paying the bills and making (what they see as) sacrifices. Diffidence and frustration build up. The neighbours think the kid can't get a job. The kid points to the fact that the only reason the house is standing is their diligent repair work. The parents don't like the boyfriend staying over.

    Enough of analogies for today. Point is, we seem to be resorting to a bizarre means of supporting postdocs. 1. By providing Hunger Games-like odds of survival. 2. By failing to gradually increase independence (in fact, the reverse). And 3. Worse, acting as though it's always been like this.

    What's the difference between a postdoc and a PI? One grant. Weighed against the relative investments made, surely there are better scaffolds and solutions?

    • kix says:

      I like the analogy of adolescence a lot because it is exactly how I feel...

    • hello says:

      Haha! What's the difference indeed?! My PD PI and I have the exact same number of pubs, and I even have more first authors!! Oh what I would do if I too had been a spoiled ILAF dunce who could afford a 3 year publication gap because "I'm bred from the HHMI womb." Half of me just wants to continue finding these folks and help the millions of uni dollars burn as I exploit the resources for new data and code that I won't share unless you earn my respect. Bring on the cleanse!! Welcome to adolescence, huh? It sure does sound like it.

      • babyattachmode says:

        Ha! Yes same here, my current PD PI has only 1 more paper than me, and I have more first author papers. Sigh.

  • drugmonkey says:

    you forgot the part about where the psychokiller dumps your body in the Everglades. maybe that's just a US phenomenon though......

    • babyattachmode says:

      In Europe it's really not that dangerous to hitchhike. It helps when not everybody owns a gun maybe...

  • Whoosh says:

    When it comes to hitchhiking there is the passive and the proactive approach. In the passive approach you stand at the roadside and wait for a car to stop and pick you up. In the proactive approach you watch the people refueling their cars and talk to the ones who have the nicest car, appear friendly and of the kind who appreciate to have a dialog partner during a longer car ride. For both cases applies: the more cars the higher the likelihood to leave the gas station.

  • […] the combination of a very insecure future, the fierce competition of other post-docs and the feeling that nobody seemed to want to invest in me made that when I saw an add for an industry scientist job, I decided to write a letter and see if I […]

  • […] know how a while ago I wrote about how being a post-doc is a bit like hitchhiking in the sense that you're dependent on others to get where you want to be? Today a paper came out […]

Leave a Reply