Near-death experiences

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Life in academia involves repeated brushes with imminent career extinction.

For people who spend most of their lives in the comforting surroundings of a laboratory, scientists know more than most about dodging bullets. Hamlet may have bemoaned the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but his predicament at least had the luxury of choosing between doing something, and doing nothing. In science, it’s more about ensuring that you remain a moving target. Stop moving, and you’ll soon be more St Sebastian than great Dane.

These chronic brushes with death, probably more even than experienced by Baron Munchausen in Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film, stem always from the same cause: lack of money. Annihilation, when it comes, is a calamity almost invariably brought on by lack of funds.

And it’s not a slow, painless obliteration either, a flash of flame on the horizon that sweeps everything away moment later. No, it’s a drawn-out radioactive decline, like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly – bits slowly dropping off and sloughing away until only a squeaking chitinous roach is left behind, bewailing its lack of fortune.

It starts early. Even the choice of PhD is fraught with peril – often because you have to make a life-changing choice without any knowledge of what the parameters for a good decision are. In Russian roulette you at least know what the odds are, but when choosing a PhD you don’t even know what game you’re playing. You might have your innocence dashed early by finding the right supervisor but them not finding the stipend to support you. You might dither, miss the application deadlines, and miss out. You might make it to the selection, but not find a mentor. Or you might find a mentor, only to find out they’re a sociopath. And even if you avoid all those pitfalls, you may find that your choice of PhD has set your future trajectory more firmly than you realised when you first signed up.

It goes on. Applying for fellowships as a postdoc is probably a young scientist’s first encounter with what will become depressingly familiar: continual anonymous criticism, and not all of it objective. Sometimes it’s overtly belittling. Sometimes the knife is slid subtly between the ribs – ‘“Nett” ist die kleine Schwester von “Scheisse”’* goes the German saying, and it’s true that describing an experiments or proposals as “nice” is a Judas kiss as fatal as any in Gethsemane.

Sticking around doesn’t make it easier. As postdocs age, they get more expensive, and fewer options remain open. Like Christians fleeing from the lions before the baying hordes of the Circus Maximus, it’s the oldest and the youngest that will get cut down first.

Attaining group leader status brings what might be termed the “William Tell experience” – sending off grants is akin to standing, apple on head, like the Swiss hero’s son while two or three (masked, of course) crossbow archers take aim. At least one will always miss the apple, sometimes seemingly on purpose.

So why? Why endure it all? Why put up with the perpetual torture of raising part or all of your own salary, eking out coins like a Dust Bowl pauper? Why spend a lifetime like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, painfully ascending from floor to floor, covered in blood and broken glass, improvising bandages, perpetually running out of ammunition, outgunned and outnumbered, but stubbornly unshakeable in the belief that what you’re doing is right? There’s no glory here. It’s a struggle more like Monty Python’s Black Knight, hosing from his stumps, but indefatigably yelling ”I’ll bite your legs off!” in spite of it all.

Or is it that very endurance that defines us? A band of sadomasochists, Cenobites every one, a secular priesthood of flagellants sustaining themselves on grit and gallows humour. Right or wrong, there’s little alternative but to learn to live with it and develop better nerves and thicker skin (or simply go mad). It takes the resilience of a Terminator – riddled with bullets, cratered with shotgun shells, scorched with flame – to stay the course, but many do. And as any trench fighter or extreme sports enthusiast will attest, it’s the very proximity of death that makes you feel most alive.

All of you, hang in there.

*  ”Nice” is the little sister of “s**t”’

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