Careers in Science: “The Common Case Fails”

F&L: A career in science is considered successful if it leads to placement. Do those who do not achieve the position of professor have a strong sense of failure?

Melanie Stephen: For a long time, the question of an academic career was more about obtaining a professorship. This is no longer the normal way. In 2018 I was a participant in the FENS Forum of Neuroscience and a program called “Alternative Careers”. The room was so full that the organizers had to give another room for it. Alternative careers outside science are no longer an option, but the norm and professorships are the exception. And it’s not like other careers are inferior either. Within universities, it is still presented as if professorship was the real deal. In my opinion, it is good and important to ask this question.

F&L: Is there a high level of security thinking in research funding (mainstream research) and personal fear of failure?

Melanie Stephen: This is definitely correct. As a postdoc, unlike a professor, you have very few options. In addition, you are under a lot of pressure because you have to reach the professorship by a certain time, otherwise it will not work. No one is in the middle”. In France, for example, you can remain a research assistant for life, i.e. you can do research without a professor. In Germany “up or out thinking” is prevalent. This Of course that makes the failure of scholarship or research applications an existential question, as it immediately affects one’s chances of becoming a professor.

“You can only move on to a scientific career if you completely ignore these numbers and don’t think about how impossible it really is.”

Dr. Melanie Stephen

F&L: Are the risks of a scientific career not being adequately perceived or even suppressed?

Melanie Stephen: For many young scientists, science is much more than just a job. Because training takes so long, you have a certain image of yourself, which includes becoming a professor. You see yourself in the system, so to speak. If that doesn’t work you not only have to face the experience of failure, but you also have to question who you are now and what you have worked for all these years. A few years ago a statistic was published in the UK showing where post-doctoral graduates in STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – have made their careers. According to it, less than four percent of doctoral candidates find a permanent position as a researcher, and the chances of a W3 professorship are less than half a percent. You can move towards a scientific career only if you completely ignore these numbers and don’t think about how improbable it really is. Otherwise you have no chance at all. It’s like people who want to be a Bundesliga player or concert pianist: you take this path with great risk and little chance. You have to ignore it to be able to motivate yourself day in and day out—or you need an exaggerated self-image that believes you belong to half a percent anyway.

F&L: Did you also have self-doubt when your research proposals were rejected?

Melanie Stephen: I had that feeling many times and still have it partially. I was extremely lucky that it worked out for me in the end. But internally, I am no different from colleagues who have had or have had to leave the academic world. These are things like being in the right place at the right time or getting one project going well and then moving on to the next.

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About the Author: Forrest Morton

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