…but we also want a career.
As the new year rolls in and celebrations pass, we begin to wonder what lies ahead. For some of us this unexplored year brings excitement as well as insecurities that we might not be willing to admit. For most of us, however, we are in sync to the yearly rhythm of life, and neither look forward to the new year nor welcome it with fear. We welcome it as we would welcome any other day; with a gratefulness of being alive. The value of the individual is so often disregarded in our ever so growing population. To tackle the problems of the world we form collaborations and networks including a little something of each individual personality, bringing forth diversity in both intellectual and emotional intelligence, and create a much stronger force to solve complex problems. But we mustn’t challenge the importance and power of the individual. After all, what motivates us, as individuals, to pursue these projects can be a combination of selfishness and aspiration to make a difference to a world that needs much of it.
I started my research career by studying the mechanisms behind the biogenesis and repair of photosystems, which are chlorophyll-containing protein complexes that intercept and harvest light in photosynthetic organisms, and are therefore essential for photosynthesis. The power and beauty of photosynthesis is not only defined by its complex design and regulation, but also because it fuels the plants that we depend on as a population. Originally, and still after seven years of working in photosynthesis related research, I am driven by our lack in understanding how this process is regulated, and how plant species have evolved variations of this fundamental anatomical and biochemical design and use it to their advantage. As with any research that is funded, it is the value of the return that is accessed. With regards to photosynthesis research, it is driven by the efforts to increase the photosynthetic performance of crop species and increase crop yields. The return of this research is the possibility to introduce more capable crops with higher photosynthetic efficiency, greater grain quality and that grow with less water and fertilisers, both which are either in limited supply or expensive to use. While we can weigh the significance of this research and its goals, we have to understand who first elucidated the research idea and what their motivations were. I first started thinking about this when I attended a communication training workshop and the question ‘what work do you do and why do you do it’ was raised, which in retrospect is not the same as ‘what work to you do and why is it done’. Almost every researcher, in the capacity of a ‘post-doc’, answered the latter and took the role in representing the project and the overall project goals—in finding a way to improve the photosynthesis in crop plants, to increase photosynthetic performance, to increase crop yields, and make a difference in the world—and missed the opportunity to discuss their individual motivations. Could it have been a misinterpretation of the question or saying the answer that we perceive everyone wants to hear?
I don’t believe it is the role of post-docs to represent the overall goals or objectives of a wider project. It almost gives everyone a false sense of security, because so much information is missed between understanding the capacity of the post-doc in their relation to their specific role in the project, the background of the work that is carried out, why it’s important and how it fits in with a wider objective. To any person it may seem that research in photosynthesis has the potential to bring great innovation to farmers, which it does, but the timescale in which these products were to become readily available, if available at all, is not within the grasp of a post-doctoral research contract. By definition, post-doctoral research positions are relatively short term or temporary research projects, with the aim to introduce science graduates to academic research, and assist them in the pursue of further scientific training, as well as other technical skills. As researchers we are passionate about our work, so it’s not surprising if we engage with other scientists or the general public, but in what we think of as motivated speeches, we may come across as speaking if we were on the brink of success, when in fact, it could be years before anything is publicly released. Equally can be said about other research fields, particularly in clinal research, because the time between the conception of an idea for a medicine that aims to improve the quality of life and if it is eventually made commercially available can take years, if not decades. And it is the beginning phases of these projects that are extremely sensitive, because there is no definite answer to whether something will come from the research, and therefore any premature public dissemination that may seem as misinforming could have negative impacts on the progress of the research later on. We may achieve small discoveries or learn a little more about the biology that helps fund more research, but as far as a tangible product can be used in cases where people depend on it so much, may take years to achieve. It is a great communication challenge—finding the right balance between interesting results that can be said and what shouldn’t be said and who the audience should or shouldn’t be—and it might apply greater to early career researchers that are eager to advance their academic careers and pursue funding that can help make a difference, that they themselves, if inexperienced, have a misconception of how their work fits into the timescale of a broader, future project.
I am arguing here that while we can all have some degree of personal motivation aimed at improving agriculture, for example, we are first motivated by our career development—essentially having a job to pay the bills—and it is the combination of these two that create the drive for us to find solutions to world problems, while essentially enjoying the pursuit. With respect to clinal research, we might see an illness in a family member or experience it while working in a hospital, and these long term experiences or short glimpses in how an illness affects the quality of life in individuals and how that in turn affects ours, can influence us to reach out to others out there who are hopeful for such treatments. And this is what really drives us in conducting research. It is our very own experiences as individuals, and what we have observed and learnt so far in our lives, that motivates us spending long, exhausting hours working in a research laboratory, with very little comfort of knowing whether anything will work. The scientist is the one that appreciates failure as much as they celebrate success. The scientist is also the one that doesn’t need to have a specific wider goal in mind and instead can use their skills to delve in any project that is interesting to them. It is so easy to study one subject for a PhD, complete a post-doc in an unrelated field and settle in something new. This is because science is built upon unknowns, and the lure to answer these unknowns is too tempting for the scientist. But even as logical and calculating as scientists can be, we are still individuals that seek security and stability. We use the excuse of working in what we like, to build our careers and often at the start our careers, we constantly ask ourselves ‘what will be next’. And that is because for scientists to keep in active research, that research needs to be funded. Unless one can become an independent research fellow (funded through an independent fellowship scheme), the choice is but to remain in temporary academic research contracts, to the point that it might feel stagnating.
It is finding the right compromise between choosing to work in what you like and still have a proper career development, while acknowledging how you might be limiting your choices to one specific field or choosing to work in any field, not necessarily in what really motivates you, but still gives you some possibility to enhance your career. The stress of what’s next is something that will plague the common PhD graduate as well as the person finishing their post-doctoral contract. It is here when your individualism and motivations will count much more than technical experience. It is when the true definition of a research scientist is understood. It is not the person that will create projects to solve the problems of the world, it is the individual with a mind of unique thoughts and ideas that will have excellent time management skills and use that time to formulate the right questions; not to answer them in front of nations, but to selected individuals that are sourced having different, but related experiences. As small in service as the post-doctoral researcher might seem, it is from here that novel ideas are nurtured and passed up through the hierarchy of academics. One day, some of these post-doctoral researchers will be the ones to talking to nations.