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Mid-Career Blues – Mid-Career Changes

Researchers illustration

This October, in my role as President of the British Society for Immunology, I participated in a brainstorming away day for the BSI with some Trustees and senior staff, appraising our strengths and weaknesses and thinking about where the Society should be heading.

One of the things we are most proud of is our support for young immunologists: students and early postdocs. But last week, I read two pieces that brought home the challenges faced by many of those who pass that stage but still have no stability, autonomy or permanence in their careers. Perhaps our early career members have felt able to tell us what they need, while those with several postdoc jobs under their belts are have been less vocal in admitting challenges. For those going for career establishment grants, expression of self-doubt might be seen as weakness in the jostle for grant money and faculty positions.

First, there was a piece in Times Higher Education by a clearly talented and able European postdoc at Stanford titled ‘Postdoc blues: how do you know when it is time to give up?’.1 Despite managing to raise their own salary and being widely acknowledged as a rising star by peers and mentors, the author of the blog admits to being in awe of the accomplishments of others and being dogged by a feeling of inadequacy. They list their perceived essentials for success: high-impact papers (only the best journals will do), great support and mentorship, a spotless CV in the best labs and institutions and luck in making a genuine and original breakthrough for which you will be remembered. Not succeeding in just one of those areas greatly reduces your chances of running your own group and there is currently no career structure in most UK labs for the ‘permadoc’.

Second, there was a harrowing article in The Guardian by a trainee mid-career surgeon.2 She had just decided to abandon her childhood dream and a job at which she excelled. Approaching 40 with a string of qualifications to her name, she is working 60 hours a week to pay for her own accommodation while on call, her childcare costs, endless professional memberships, certificates, courses and exams that she is obliged take. She has no little control over where she works and has to cover the cost travel herself when involuntarily assigned to distant hospitals. Making life and death decisions is stressful even if you feel nurtured and well supported, but her life is clearly falling apart. Trying to get to see her young children and keep her marriage going is just becoming impossible. She just can’t go on  but by that stage, what else is she qualified to do?

The advantages and rewards of a creative and meaningful job in science or medicine, the wonderful friendships, the freedom to explore new ideas, job flexibility and opportunities for travel are fantastic, but the risks and personal costs are daunting. Many of you reading this may move out of academic research into other areas. Industry, science communication, administration and teaching (for example) are all positive choices for BSI members who have real talent in these areas and might lead to a better work-life balance.

The BSI has always supported those working in pure and applied immunology, but we need to be ready and able to support immunologists at all career stages including those who use their skills other than in traditional research: we are a ‘big tent’ organisation and should use our considerable resources to support immunologists wherever life takes them.

Peter Openshaw

We need to think hard about how science itself might need to change to avoid losing our best mid-career researchers through accident or misfortune. How do you think we can help? Please let us know.

Peter Openshaw, President, British Society for Immunology

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  1. Times Higher Education, 15/10/2015.
  2. The Guardian, 22/10/2015.

Image credits: Vector © Macrovector/Shutterstock, Peter Openshaw ©Will Strange/British Society for Immunology