Seeing the faces of the current crop of ERC Starting Grant awardees (congratulations everybody!) made me realise that I’m not an early career researcher any more.
“It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself ‘I will never play…the Dane.’ When that moment comes, one’s ambition ceases.” (Uncle Monty in Withnail & I)
Scientists are a pretty youthful bunch on the whole. I’ve always felt young. Maybe because in some ways doing science felt like never leaving school. Maybe because the sense of freedom and independence was invigorating. And for quite a while I was genuinely young. I was 21 when I finished Bachelor studies, 22 when I finished Master’s studies, 26 (by only a few months) when I got my PhD. When I left the UK and started my postdoc in the States I was almost the youngest person in the group.
My plan originally was to do two four-year postdocs, but things didn’t work out. The first insight that I had aged faster than I thought came when I tried to get a Fellowship for a second postdoc and realised there was almost nothing I could apply for. Then there followed a humiliating year-and-a-half in which I was repeatedly unsuccessful in applying for the limited number of things I was still eligible for: twice rejected for a Marie Curie Fellowship, twice rejected for a FEBS Fellowship, and three times rejected for a Schrödinger Fellowship (which had a 50% success rate), along with a single rejection for a Junior Researcher grant. Having led a charmed life up to that point, this hit very hard. I knew I was smart, I knew I was hard-working, I knew I was good at what I did…but I suddenly wasn’t fundable.
I was lucky that at around the same time my current project got a second wind, and I was in a well-funded group that was able to keep me on for another two years. I never considered applying for faculty positions at the time. I didn’t have the CV and more importantly, I didn’t feel emotionally ready to start my own group, and I think that feeling was accurate.
I was 34 when I finally started my group at the University of Würzburg, still youngish in biological terms but now rapidly aged in scientific ones. Preternaturally aged in fact, as is anyone who ends up doing a short PhD and a long postdoc. Aged 34, but with 8 postdoc years under my belt, I was already too old – too experienced in terms of postdoctoral years – to qualify for an ERC starting grant. I was far too old for an Emmy Noether award, the main funding implement in Germany for establishing new research groups. Four years later, now aged 38 and with the group still struggling to get going, I was too old for an ERC Consolidator grant.
Today, by any standards, I am or am approaching middle-age. I’m nearly 42. I have two wonderful kids that are now old enough to have a conversation with. I’ve directly supervised 16 Bachelor or Master’s students and over 20 rotation students since arriving in Würzburg, and really, really enjoyed it. But I never had money for even a single PhD student, I’ve run out of funding, and there is currently no space for me on the departmental payroll and therefore no possibility of tenure. My lab is now in the process of winding down its operations. I still feel young, but I realise I’m not young any more in scientific terms and not in biological ones either, no matter how hard I pretend.
I will never get a big-money grant. I will never play the Dane.
These kind of career dynamics are familiar to anyone in the arts. Not every musician becomes a soloist, not every guitarist becomes a rock star, not every actor gets a lead role. Artists understand this. Like ERC grant awardees, there are a few lucky young talents who get cast as the lead in a major movie, or get a big-money record deal. They are elevated above the status of their peers, and given the opportunity to explore the limits of their ability.
I’ve written previously about how talent is more widely distributed than opportunity in science. I’ve also written (funnily, in another Formula 1-themed piece) about the importance of seizing an opportunity when it arises. But sometimes that opportunity doesn’t come. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you don’t get the chance. Like Uncle Monty, sometimes you realise that no matter how good you are, how hard you’ve worked, how much you’ve put in, you’re not going to get cast as Hamlet. Sometimes, circumstances are simply against you, and talent, hard work, and ambition can only carry you so far.
You missed the train. You missed the boat. You feel like a castaway on an island working hard to be rescued – you write the messages in stone on the sand, you prepare signal beacons, you put messages in bottles, you do all the hard work that’s needed and that you’re capable of, but sometimes the boat never arrives. Or perhaps by the time it does, like Ben Gunn, you’re past saving.
Of course, we all know that the biggest discovery of any scientist’s career can come at any time, and sometimes relatively late in their careers, but nowadays that’s used more as a means of justifying sticking around rather than taking a clear-eyed look at what’s going on.
There’s a point when you realise that the money is better spent on these fresh young talents. I could fight on, I could light another beacon and hope that this time things will be different, but maybe I’m taking up space and resources that would be better given to someone less traumatised, less bruised, less boxed-in. And perhaps the best thing I can do now is try to make sure that the people coming after me succeed.
There’s something calming and ennobling about this. Something dignified. Bowing out gracefully, using the time to make sure that there’s a smooth handover of responsibilities and the best possible platform (complete with wayposts and warning signs) for whoever comes afterwards feels like a better use of my time than some desperate and likely futile last struggle. Chess players know to resign a position rather than fight on when the battle is already lost, and tactical skirmishes are of little help when a strategic defeat is looming. Every generation needs its Hamlets, but I’m not going to be one of them. Instead, I can take a seat in the audience and enjoy the show.
Once again, many congratulations to the awardees. You have been given an amazing opportunity. I envy you, I applaud you, and I wish you all the best.