It couldn’t ever happen to me

George Clausen, Schoolgirls copy.jpg
George Clausen, “Schoolgirls”

Academics always need a Plan B, because career longevity is never guaranteed.

Have you ever seen a stoat bring down a rabbit? One of most shocking things about such scenes, which start off looking almost playful, is the way the victim is left to its fate. The other rabbits keep on munching grass, sometimes breaking off to observe their herd-mate being hunted down, but never intervening. As long as it’s not me that’s being chased. Eyes down, don’t talk about it. It’s like when a bully starts picking on a weak kid at school and you’re not brave enough to step in. It’s their misfortune, not yours, so don’t risk it.

Sure, you feel sad, and maybe a bit guilty for their bad luck, but you get to carry on in your little bubble of unpunctured insouciance. You know deep down that that extinction event is always a possibility, but the fear itself generates a cognitive blind spot that lets you dissociate the possibility of it happening (very real) from the possibility of it happening TO YOU (surely not!).

In academia, that dissociation is probably nowhere more prominently displayed than in career plans. Most of your friends and colleagues will leave academia (yes, yes they will), will wink out of your professional existence, but everyone clings to the belief that that same fate won’t, couldn’t, befall them. But the brutal fact is this: at best only around 1% of people who obtain a PhD end up as tenured faculty. But there’s often a pressure for young academics to prioritise a career in academia to the exclusion of all else, and to do that despite an attrition rate that would make a World War 1 troop commander blanch. Looking outside means not being a true believer, not being a zealot, not being committed.  

Consequently, when academics are asked about their career plan Bs, those “plans” tend to be contingency measures rather than actual strategies. If this doesn’t get funded I’ll apply for that, and if that doesn’t get funded then I’ll apply for that, and I still have a year on my contract so at the moment there’s time for anything to happen.

These are not plan Bs. A real plan B means mapping out a whole other career. It means working out what you will do if you have to leave academia, where the opportunities are, and what kind of timeframe you’ll operate on. And it’s an essential step for your psychological wellbeing and potentially also your future endeavours.

Having a Plan B won’t just give you a sense of what you’ll do if the dreaded “what if?” comes to pass, it will actually give you a reassurance, a sense of control over your own fate. By admitting you don’t have complete power over your future, and thereby making concrete plans for worst-case eventualities, you will probably find that your present circumstances aren’t as frightening. It’s the same kind of self-abnegation effect that often occurs with having kids. 

Everyone knows that a degree of luck is required in academia, just as in the arts, but it goes beyond naivety and into the realms of full-blown self-delusion by not acknowledging the possibility. In academia, you have to face up to the fact that through no fault of your own, either through bad luck, a chain of decisions that end up leading in an unfortunate direction, or simple politics, you may not get a permanent position and will have to leave. It’s an appalling waste and we all know that, but you need to feel that it’s academia’s loss more than yours.

We all have to do things in life that scare the shit out of us – learning to drive, having interviews, asking someone out on a date – but if your fear masters you and you avoid doing those things then you end up immobile, unemployed, and involuntarily celibate. So facing up to the possibility of a change in career is simply part and parcel of opting for a chronically risky occupation in the first place. You can’t hide from it, and you have to face it down. 

A plan B is not just reassuring, it’s empowering too. If you have a plan B, it means that every time you come to a career crossroads, each time you end up staying in academia, you’re making an active choice. In fact, you should really apply for alternative jobs whenever one of these career crunches comes along: it lets you be in charge of your fate. Sure you’d like to stay, but you know exactly what you’ll do if not.

And the responsibility for this doesn’t just lie with individual scientists – it falls to their mentors too. A good mentor will take responsibility not just for what their subordinates do now, but what they do next, and that “what next” bit of career planning means a Plan B too. Enthusiastic young academics will be full of a sense of invincibility and – if they’re lucky – won’t be disabused of that blissful bit of self-deception for some time. But for all but a very few, it will come, and without any planning the damage to self-esteem can be devastating.

For postgraduates, it’s important and helpful to start thinking about it while they start applying for postdocs; for postdocs, it is essential. A good mentor must explain the need and the role of a Plan B, and ensure that it’s instigated. Too many young academics assume their mentor will be disappointed if they leave academia when in all likelihood, just as in parenting, what good mentors want most is for their students to be fulfilled and happy. Blithely assuming that academia will work out is to be hunched, rabbitlike, and hoping the stoat doesn’t look your way.

5 thoughts on “It couldn’t ever happen to me

  1. #word This should be required reading. Part of the “problem” (I put that in quotation because deciding what to label as a problem is subjective, of course), is that if someone handed me a copy of your post on Day 1 of Graduate School ( ~ SEP-1981) I would have most certainly glanced at it and thought, “Right, well that is most definitely not going to apply to me, anyway.” And filed it away with other archival information, like how to sign up for a new library card, etc.
    I have often thought, at least in hindsight, that the whole system works, in part, precisely because the incoming trainees don’t have the experience to realistically assess their chances, nor any understanding of where the potential roadblocks and/or exit points lie. And so in Canada, at least, if a Professor/Mentor/PI sat us down and said: “It is going to be tough.” that would probably hinder their own ability to attract and retain new recruits.
    I may have told you this story before (I am getting pretty old now, and the memory is not what it used to be). Probably the smartest guy in our class of entering students in Biochemistry that year left after five years (essentially when his MRC (Canada) Doctoral Studentship award ran out). He had seen the writing on the walls. His undergrad grades were so high, that he had been accepted into Medical School at U.of T. right after second year undergrad (that would’ve been carrying on the family tradition)–you could still do that in those days, but he declined, you know, to pursue research.
    Initially, after leaving, he trained to become a carpenter, apprenticeship, the whole thing, worked in a furniture assembly line. Then at some point he got a teaching degree, and a few years ago I ran into him again (I am friends with his wife on Facebook), at a retirement party for my own mentor, held in the Faculty Club. My old friend had received an award from the Prime Minister of Canada for being the best Kindergarten Teacher in the country. I had this inner sense of ‘All is right in the world’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing…I guess all of us could tell a similar anecdote, which is part of the problem in a way. Academia needs to be seen as a positive choice rather than a default pathway, and the routes into other careers need to not just be better signposted but (as argued here) need to be considered and mapped out in parallel. Time-consuming as it is, there are real benefits to be had in terms of outlook. Anyhows, thanks as always for reading and taking the time to comment.


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