Musings on early-career academic positions…

About 2 1/2 years ago I had an interview for a Research Assistant position at an institute closely affiliated with one of the UK’s best universities. The position was a little below my abilities, as it didn’t require a PhD, but it was such a great institution and the post involved neuroimaging so I was hoping that the opportunities would outweigh the crappy pay and the dogsbody type tasks I would have been doing.

The interview was a little strained as, because they knew the position was a little below my skill level, they asked me why I wanted the position.  I answered that I was hoping to get some experience of the experimental design and analysis for neuroimaging experiments.  They pooh-poohed this and said that there would be no opportunities for that, and I countered and said that I would hope to at least pick a little knowledge up along the way.  They pooh-poohed this again.

I also asked whether I would be allowed to attend and present my PhD work at academic conferences – a good thing to do consistently as a young researcher building a name for herself.  They laughed and basically said that the testing schedule was too tight – it being completely planned out for the 3-year project.

So… what happened?  I did not get the position.  But I kept an eye on their website in an academic-stalker kind-of way to see who did.  And to get an idea of how their project progressed.  Well, they didn’t advertise the post-doctoral positions associated with the same project till a few months later – an early sign the timeline was slipping perhaps? And now, nearly 3 years later, when the project should nearly be finished they have just advertised for a new RA for a year-long position.

Perhaps they got more funding to extend the project? – this is not unlikely, as it was an ambitious and innovative project.  And I know they had to be positive at the beginning and think that they were going to keep on schedule and finish in 3 years.  But I do think maybe that it didn’t all run as smoothly as they thought it would and that is why it has over-run.

So, do I regret not getting this position?  No.  But I have to say that, don’t I?  To say otherwise would mean that I was unhappy with the jobs I have had over the past 2 1/2 years wouldn’t it?  Well… I think it would have been an amazing research environment in which to have worked.  And the lead academics on the project were, and are still, fab researchers whose research is challenging and innovative.  AND I think I would have advanced my knowledge of the design and analysis of neuroimaging studies beyond that afforded me by the job role I was in – I would have put myself out there and acquired that knowledge through asking questions and helping out with things.  Everyone has to start somewhere.

But some downsides to that position might have been – in addition to the drudgery of the testing testing testing I would have been doing as a dogsbody RA – that working with such brilliant academics could have resulted in not a lot of actual contact with those brilliant academics.  They might often be off attending conferences and the like, or maybe – as I would have been just a lowly RA – they might not have much time or inclination to bring me on in my academic career.  Also, I’m not sure I would have liked working in such a highly competitive environment.  Not that I know that this particular institution is super-competitive and unfriendly, but someone I know who is a postdoc at a similar institution has said that he would not want a permanent position there because it is so competitive that no-one shares their research with each other within the department because they might get scooped!  I wouldn’t want that hanging over me.  The collegial discussion of research ideas/problems/innovations is one of the best things about being an academic.

As much as I would still love to get a position at this institution later in my career, I am glad that I did not get this one.  Instead, over the last 2 1/2 years I got to live my dream of working abroad.  I have experienced two very different university environments in North America and have gained a wealth of cultural and academic knowledge from life across the pond.  I hope this experience will benefit me greatly on both a personal and an academic level…. wherever I end up next!

photo credit: killermonkeys via photopin cc

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