There is something very peculiar about the academic career track. If after finishing university courses you go on to do a PhD, it is typically because you want to do research. You then pour your soul into your research for years, trying to perform at the highest level you can, learn state-of-the-art methods to analyze your data, present your results at international conferences, write everything up into publishable articles, and try to get a couple of great papers published. A lot of work, challenging work, and I loved it! I still do. It’s a constantly changing adventure, tons of opportunities to learn new things, come up with interesting questions about how things work, meet likeminded motivated people. It’s a fantastic life if you like research 🙂.
So, if you love doing research in academia, and if for years that’s all you do and train for, then what is the next career step? Something in research, right? At first, yes. After the PhD comes the postdoc. More of the same (in most countries), except now you kind of know what you’re doing, you’re a bit more mature, and you can really continue growing rapidly to become a better researcher. And after the postdoc? Then of course you become a teacher and people manager with a lot of administrative tasks that also does some research.
After years of hard work and learning to become the best researcher you can be, the next stage is to start on a tenure track to becoming a professor, and this means you are suddenly expected to develop teaching plans, be a good people manager, become part of university committees? Over the years I have seen very few professors that were still able to actively do research. Most had to spend a large proportion of their time teaching or doing administrative tasks, and maybe had a few moments here and there to discuss research ideas, work on grant proposals, and provide feedback on paper drafts. Rarely any time for research, the thing and the passion that got them into that professor position.
So, what if you don’t want that? What if one wants to continue doing what they love (research) but doesn’t want to spend the majority of their time teaching and doing academic administration? I have been asking myself that question for several years, and don’t think I have a clear answer, except that I want to try to build a life in which I can do as much research as possible.
I am sure the possibilities depend on the field you’re in, and I’m considering this from my biology / ecology / statistician / modeler / field worker background. I want to keep the link with the academic world, because I think it’s exciting and motivating.
So what’s my solution? Well, I decided to try my hand at becoming a “freelance” researcher, not knowing whether that will even be possible because the grant and university systems are not set up for people like that. It could be a dream job though, for someone who loves research. Continue working on different projects, with different people, creating opportunities to learn new things! The never-ending postdoc!
This will start soon, after my current postdoc with Jamie Lloyd-Smith at UCLA, and although it’s scary to step into this unknown freelancing world, I am mainly very excited thinking about the possibilities. Let’s see where it leads!
Do you know of similar career options? Other options for researchers who want to maintain a link with the academic world without following the tenure track? Have you done something similar and have some advice? I would love to hear about it!
Thanks for reading,
Afterthought: a lingering question I have is also whether there is something intrinsically wrong with the academic career track. Is it normal that people who are trained to do research are then expected to also (want to) be great teachers and managers? Should there be more full-time research possibilities in academia?