Application season

I have been in Holland for 2 years and therefore it is application season again.

This reminds me of Berthold Brecht’s poem that goes something like:

I don’t like to be where I came from.

I don’t like to be where I am going.

So why do I watch the change of the wheel

with impatience?

I am currently working like crazy on completing several grant applications that all entail about 40 pages of material, with research programs for 4-6 years spelled out in painstaking detail, filling out absurd amounts of forms and trying to obey hundreds of pages of obscure instruction, that vary greatly from application to application. If you fail to follow one of them, of course, the application will not even be considered. I don’t mind much doing this for some reason. I like the fact that those grants are so difficult to get, and that I have some chance to get one. I like to try to sell some extremely vague project that I might do in 4 years as something tangible and interesting.

However, looking at it closely, the grants I am applying for are actually not that attractive. If I land such a grant, I can lead a small research group for a few years, working with people I can choose and employ myself on the topic I want. This sounds good, but in truth these kind of grants are just there to keep good people in the system without having to give them even a tenure-track position. They will work hard and even educate PhD students, but they get not much in return. It is part of the pyramide scheme of academia that is just becoming more extreme with every year. Once, people got tenure shortly after their PhD. Now I have already done 2 postdocs, and these “group leader position” is just another intermediate stage. If it is over, I will be without a job again.

So why am I applying for this?  I am not sure. “Because that is what I do?” I cannot even say “Because it is my dream to be a professor, and I take the risk.” No, it is not even really my dream. I just have a number of ideas of what to do in the next years with a small research group, and I write them down and submit them. There are some problems I feel like I should help solving in my field, because I feel qualified to do it. I just want to do what I feel is my job and what I am trained for.

I know that this does not make much sense from a personal standpoint. Perhaps I should get out of academia while I still can. But it just seems like such a waste to me. I know so much about my topic, and I know that there are some really specialized, detailed things in my field that nobody in the world understands better than me. It seems quite absurd to me if I left now, and instead copious amount of new PhDs are hired who have to learn again what I know.
But I guess the hidden reason behind this strange system is that basic research is not really done in a way to expand knowledge most efficiently. Instead, I think one can best understand it if one assumes that every institute and every country just tries to maximize the number of publications. Of course, people who are quite advanced but do not yet have tenure are  the most productive. They are highly qualified, have invested much in their career, and are afraid of losing their job and publish like crazy.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense to delay tenure to later and later in life and to make the cut between people who get it, and who don’t, as late as possible, to keep people on their toes.

If I was clever, I would walk away from the change of wheels, and wait for the bus.




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2 Responses to Application season

  1. Good luck with all those forms! It’s good you don’t mind filling them in, because many people just seem to get endlessly depressed/frustrated by the experience. I do hope it doesn’t grind you down over time.

    I note you use the word ‘waste’ in your article. I do get nervous when people use it, because it immediately conveys a sense of failure and something being thrown away. As a professor I am, of course, in a very different position and my views inevitably reflect the fact that I survived through that fellowship/PI stage. But I have written previously about why the word ‘waste’ makes me so bothered. Over at Occam’s Typewriter Jenny Rohn and I had a robust exchange a year or more ago about the hellish period that is fellowship application time, the links can all be found in that post of mine. In the UK I continue to press wherever I can for a more comprehensive study of whether the career pyramid from PhD student to professor has anything like the right shape. Maybe one day our Government and policy makers will sit down and think about it all, but it is definitely an international problem, similar all around the world.

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you! I will certainly get tired of the applications at some point….

      I agree with you that of course if I left now my efforts up to this point would not not all wasted, as you write in your post. I have contributed a little to my field and certainly improved a few skills that I would be able to transfer to another career.

      However, of course there are also non-transferable skills, like my detailed knowledge about my subject. Throwing this away would be very painful for me and it feels like a waste. I have always kept up quite well with the literature, and by now I just notice that I know a lot of things that other people around me seem not to be aware of because they read less. This makes it also very easy for me to help younger people with their projects, which is what I enjoy most at the moment, and to come up with new ideas.

      If I think about it, the feeling that I would not like to waste this knowledge might be the main reason I am still trying to stay in science. Which is perhaps stupid. If I am honest the actual programming and detailed analysis work, and the competition, often bores me by now.

      Anyway thanks for letting me realize this! I am not sure what to do with it… 🙂 but it is good to be aware of it.

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