Life after science

I was born in a small town in Belarus on the border with Russia, and now I live in Manchester, UK. I came to the UK first as a PhD student and then after giving birth to my son In Belarus as a ‘highly skilled migrant.’ In 2016 I realised that I belong to a ‘global elite that destroyed the livelihoods of ordinary people.’

In the atheistic Soviet, Union science provided a coherent worldview, ways, and means of existence. As a tween, I constructed a pyramid of human occupations. The scientists and artists were at the top as the noblest pursuits of knowledge and beauty. The teachers and medical doctors were a step lower as those who taught and cared for other people. The rest of humanity was in a useful but dull mass on the third step of the ladder. I decided to become a scientist – it seemed more practical than becoming a Big Name in Literature.

I spent school years as an undersocialized nerd winning national competitions in Biology. I found my crowd at Uni and started working in a lab as a first-year undergrad (my heart fluttered so much when I went to volunteer!). When the Soviet Union disintegrated, and money for science run out  I went abroad to practice science devoutly, at least 50 hours working week. The post-soviet scientists had a reputation of hard-working people, and we looked incomprehensibly at local specialists who worked 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday.

The modern practice of science has more in common with sport than you may think. And I’m not talking about performance-enhancing drugs. Just as sport, modern science requires for an adept to start young, practice it to the detriment of average teenage life and social obligations and retire early into the world, which does not care about your achievements in the separate greenhouse world warmed by respect and interest from the laypersons looking in from the outside.

Just like in sport, you arrive fresh, full of energy and ideas on the scene, improve your skill and understanding, overtake a few ‘old people’ and enjoy the peak of your career. And then one day you discover that you’ve become ‘the old people’ yourself and the younger generation thinks quicker and can work longer hours.

If you don’t become one in a hundred with a tenured position, you are unable to find a new contract as the very topics science interested in moved on and the tools are different. You say that you can learn, but nobody believes you. You are out.

In the best case scenario, you even find a different job. Not in industry, either because of curious disconnection of science and industry in the UK  or because there’s no industry. You are lucky to find something to do with post-secondary teaching – the school system is as insulated and wary of presumably narrow-trained and minded scientists as any industry – or with medical writing, or as a technician. But assuming that you find a reasonable job that fulfills your expectation despite the status loss, there’s also a question of life’s purpose.

I spent ten years on five separate contracts moving between universities. I was good enough to get a job as a postdoc but was firmly told by a head of an institute that I wasn’t good enough to apply for a Fellowship. Ironically, the same head praised people who gave him a chance.

I was spat out by the system where just one in a 100 of postdocs got a tenured position and was lucky, finding a technical job a former Polytech. My retired predecessor was a high school graduate.

Not doing experimental science provides immediate relief from the mental pressure. I’m less tired at the end of the day and working week. The feeling of pushing the envelope and falling behind all the time, of inadequacy, disappeared, as the most tasks do not require 100% of my brain power. But this leaves what US writer Clay Shirky calls “a cognitive surplus.”

At first, I was deliriously happy to have a permanent job, which freed me from a cycle of being elated after finding a new contract – working hard – getting depressed about uncertainty – feverishly applying to the new position – and getting one. And now, two years after my last postdoc, which would correspond to the ‘getting depressed’ phase, I am reassessing my life.

There are two things I miss most about science structure and purpose.  The structure of progression from a student to a Ph.D. student, to a postdoctoral researcher. Life punctuated by researching hypothesis to finally getting results,  publishing research paper, going to conferences. Even the cycle of a research grant. Now I have a job which stretches into almost infinity, not requiring rigorous training. I’ve seen former researchers filled with rage at what they called ‘being a skivvy’ for, as they feel, less qualified people. I am afraid of becoming like that.

As for the life purpose, Ed Balls, the former shadow chancellor said in an interview echoing my thoughts:   “The thing about being a cabinet minister that it’s really difficult, but it really matters. Nothing I’ve done since has ever mattered as much and been as hard. So I miss that sense of purpose and kind of difficulty and responsibility. I’d like to do something in my life that was as responsible again, but I’m not sure what that means.”

He took part in a reality show ‘Strictly come dancing’ – and almost won it. I continue being a volunteer administrator of Wikipedia. I started writing fiction but got depressed by the quality of it. I began writing essays – this is one of them. I write for biological web-sites and have a blog. I have written a couple of chapters of a book about feminism. I have approximately 35 years from retirement.

In many cases, highly trained, highly intellectual people who were discarded by modern science will do a lot of good wherever they live. One of my former colleagues, also a biologist, in his spare time writes learned papers about the history of science. Another acquaintance has four children and keeps various domestic animals on a farm. I’m just not sure how I can do most good without just dissolving into the mundane and having nothing tangible to show for the last 30 years of my life.



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