So you want to be a scientist…

Apparently, becoming a scientist is a bit like training to become a master in some medieval profession. In attempting to become a master blacksmith or mason, for instance, one would begin as an apprentice, training under a master for some years. An apprentice would gain the skills and wisdom of experience from their master – the more well reknowned the master, the higher in skill the apprentice would be thought to be. Eventually, when an apprentice gained enough skill, they could set off on their own as a journeyman. A journeyman would be skilled at what they do, but not yet skilled enough to be a master in their own right. Coming from the french word journée, meaning day, a journeyman would undertake a series of short tasks, typically for a day or two each, gaining further skill while learning how to be an independent craftsman in their own right. Only after gaining enough skill as a journeyman could one finally progress to being a master, and accept apprentices to begin the cycle anew.

Take the above, and replace apprentice with PhD student, journeyman with postdoc, and master with reader (or professor if you’re in the US – it’s slightly different in the UK) and you essentially have the academic lifecycle. Sure a journeyman worked for days at a time, while a typical postdoctoral research position lasts for 1-3 years on average, but the end result is exactly the same. A postdoc undertakes short term work while learning how to be a fully autonomous and independent scientist themselves. And the reputation of your PhD supervisor tends to precede you when you’re just setting out – or at least so I’ve been told.

Securing a good postdoctoral position sounds like a dream for anyone who loves science. Essentially, you’re freer and more independent than you ever were as a PhD student, while you don’t have to deal with all of the beaurocratic red tape that is the bane of most faculty members lives. Depending where you work and who you work for, your working hours can be nicely flexible when you need them to be and you can, in principle, devote 100% of your time to research. Or you can do what lots of other postdocs I’ve know have done and take time to work in outreach or organise activities around the department.

Make no mistake about this – this would be my ideal situation. Wrapping up the loose ends from the PhD, writing applications and proposals and submitting papers for publication. A few new skills would be nice too. As well as probably exploring a few different avenues of research to those which my PhD has focussed on. I quite fancy characterising exoplanetary atmospheres or possibly shifting my focus to something more astrobiological. Not that I don’t adore researching circumstellar environments, of course. Unfortunately, this little dream is something of a soap bubble and I fear it might burst.

The failure rate starts to shoot through the roof at this point, you see. Apparently, only 20% of people in the UK completing a PhD are able to secure an academic position in the long term. Usually it takes a succession of postdoc positions before getting the chance at a readership, during which time you essentially need to fold yourself into an envelope and address yourself “to whom it may concern.”

That last part doesn’t worry me so much. The part that worries me is competing with the several thousand astronomers looking for postdoc positions, most of whom are likely to be much better than I am. Dealing with heavy competition is an exceptionally daunting task when you don’t have much self confidence to begin with. And the jobs market out there is a bit like the Cambrian ocean – fight for survival, sink or swim.

In any case, life’s too short to spend time worrying about what you might not be able to do. So at this stage, it’s essentially about damning the consequences and going for it. Expect the academia tag on my blog to fill up with omg-I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing posts in the meantime.

I’m pretty sure I can find platform 9¾ somewhere. But I may have to run face first into a few walls before I find it.

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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6 Responses to So you want to be a scientist…

  1. Wow, that’s a perfect analogy. I’m now going to start referring to myself as an apprentice chemist.

  2. J.A. Grier says:

    You say “the several thousand astronomers looking for postdoc positions, most of whom are likely to be much better than I am.” This is statistically unlikely :) And in any case, getting a postdoc is much more about networking, contacts, and referrals. Oh, and it’s about stubbornness (that’s what worked for me.)

    Postdocs can have a huge range of experiences from fab to awful. Some PIs give postdocs lots of leeway, help them write proposals, and promote their careers. Other PIs limit what a postdoc can do, use them as expendable 3 year labor, and keep them away from other PIs as much as possible. Most are on the continuum between the two end-members, of course. Don’t just go for anything – find someone who will invest in you as much as you invest in them and their program/empire/slave-factory.

    One last thought, the “failure” rate at getting a long term academic job is somewhat misleading. Many astronomers come into the field with academics as their only career model. As they work, they learn others, and realize that they prefer something else. I have lots of very productive colleagues in labs like Goddard or APL, or soft money institutions like SWRI or PSI (i.e. me). Others end up migrating to space policy, science writing, astronomy public education, and on and on. The degree opens a lot more doors than just academia. Naturally, my perspective is skewed since I am in the US, but there it is.

    I wish you the best of luck as you move forward!

    One Writer’s Mind

    • invaderxan says:


      I guess a little tenacity can go a long way. And of course I realise that the picture I painted up there is somewhat rosy and idealistic. Not everyone enjoys the hand they get dealt each time – I know that just by speaking to people. But I do very much appreciate the advice. Thank you.

      Interestingly, I’ve heard a lot about people deciding that the academic life isn’t for them. Chemjobber, for instance, had a post about how a lot of chemists finish their PhDs finding industry jobs a lot more appealing. Personally though… It’s just a lifelong ambition for me, really. A dream that goes back for quite a few years. I’d like to hold a secondary career as a science writer in parallel, because I love writing and just talking about science generally. But pure research is just the dream…

      Thank you ever so much for your words, your advice, and taking the time to leave them. :)

  3. NottsScience says:

    Best of luck. job market statistics can be a real downer

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