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why mid-career scientists feel neglected

Julie Gould: 00:09

Hi, everyone, we’re back. This is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. And I’m Julie Gould. We’re starting a new series all about the mid-career of a scientist’s working life. I’m calling it “the muddle of the middle”. I know it doesn’t sound appealing. But basically, it’s a stage that, as you’ll hear, has no clear beginning, a very murky middle, and no clear end.

So, as always, let’s start at the beginning with the question, “How do you define the mid career?”

I found it quite obvious when I thought the first and best place to look would be with the funding agencies.

Here’s a few examples of how they defined it. The British Academy says your mid career is when you’re no more than 15 years post PhD. Leslie Risser from the National Science Foundation in the USA says the mid career stage is…

Leslie Risser 01:06

….that period in time after you have received tenure. So generally around the associate professor stage. That’s the easiest way to define it. It’s a period of time where you you’re not an early career researcher any longer. You’ve been promoted, but you still have a long active career in the future.

Julie Gould: 01:28

The National Research Foundation in South Africa says they are researchers who are 40 years and younger and in possession of a doctoral degree.

I have to admit 40 years does seem rather young to be in the mid-career. But this 40 year mark is also used by the Ecological Society of America.

Only those 40 years and younger are allowed to apply for their George Mercer Award. Some researchers use awards like this as a way to label themselves in the mid-career, like Jeremy Fox, a professor of ecology at the University of Calgary in Canada,

Jeremy Fox: 01:59

I for a long time kind of harboured a sort of secret dream that maybe I’d win the Mercer Award, which is an award that the Ecological Society of America gives out as sort of their Paper of the Year Award.

And you have to be younger than 41 years old to be eligible for it, at the time your paper’s published, to be eligible for that award. And so at some point, I realized like, “Wait, I’m not, I’m not eligible for that anymore.”

Julie Gould: 02:27

I’ve got two more examples for you and these two groups appear to be a little more mindful and inclusive.

The Australian Health Research Alliance says a mid career researcher is “a researcher with postgraduate research experience with the equivalent of 5–15 cumulative years, allowing for professional or personal career interruptions.

The definition is inclusive of researchers with or without a PhD.

And finally, the UK Society for Behavioral Medicine says “a mid-career researcher is someone who has a general sense of developing responsibility or autonomy for research, i.e. an experienced and senior postdoctoral researcher.

“They are likely to be someone who is starting to supervise, manage or mentor doctoral students and researchers, and/or has started to show leadership in other academic or clinical domains (i.e. research-led teaching running or developing courses).”

But I think it is this statement from Cara Tannenbaum, a professor at Montreal University in Canada and scientific director of the Institute of Gender and Health for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, that really sums it up.

Cara Tannenbaum: 03:37

But more or less, it is the vague period between when you are still considered an early career researcher, and when someone tells you that you’re in the more senior part of your career.

Julie Gould: 03:50

So if you can’t rely on a solid agreed definition from funders and governing bodies, how do you know when you get to this grey murky zone that we call the mid career?

It creeps up on you, says Inger Mewbourne, the director of research development at the Australian National University.

Inger Mewbourne: 04:07

No one tells you you’re mid-career. You just suddenly are, because suddenly a lot of the supports that used to be available to you are not there anymore.

No one gives you a time limit for that. And it’s very slippery for most people, particularly in the sciences. You’re asked to do a lot more of the “boots on the ground” admin work.

And it just slowly dawns on you that suddenly you’re mid career, much like being middle aged actually. Suddenly, you find yourself extremely busy. And I think that’s the Tao.

Julie Gould: 04:40

Great. So the grey areas are a not very well defined section of the career whose end is vaguely determined by your peers.

Inger has a real knack for telling it like it is so I asked her to describe the difference between the early and mid career stages in the most honest way she could. In the early career, she says…

Inger Mewbourne: 05:00

…ignorance was expected and welcomed. And when you expressed any ignorance or did something ignorant, someone would tell you. Your supervisor would tell you, your panel would tell you, people that you worked with would correct you. People would show you technique.

I’m not saying it’s easy. But when you reach out to help, it is there. I think for the mid-career researchers the problems are harder to define, you’re expected to have your shit together, and maybe you don’t. Becoming vulnerable is more difficult.

And the stakes are just higher. I mean, often you’re at that stage where you’ve got to justify your existence there by the productive output, whether that’s papers or teaching, or whatever it counts to.

So that output and that record, and the building of the profile that goes with it, is a lot of work. And it’s work that often doesn’t get packaged into your week.

So your week might be dealing with people, bureaucracy, paperwork, presenting.

And so the actual writing is often in the evenings, I mean, even to this day, I can track my time really rigorously, like crazy rigorously. But I can’t fit writing a book into my year, I had to do it on the holidays like everyone else. Whereas when you’re an early career researcher, that stuff is sort of packaged in your day, the actual doing of it.

Julie Gould: 06:10

On top of this, you’ve got to remember that people might also have young families to look after, or elderly parents to take care of, or even pets. And let’s not forget those who aren’t partnered up, they want to go out they want to have a social life too. And people have hobbies and activities to help keep them sane. You know, there’s a lot that’s got to fit into your week.

Salome Maswime: 06:39

It’s juggling, juggling all the responsibilities and hoping none of the balls are gonna crash or break in the process, yeah.

Julie Gould: 06:50

That’s Salome Maswime, an obstetrician and gynecologist and associate professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and an awardee of the South African Medical Research Council mid-career research award.

At one point in her career, Salome had a few too many balls up in the air. As well as looking after a young family she was also working as a clinician, and she was building up her own research group. So did she manage to keep all the balls from crashing around her ears? No, she didn’t. Instead, she had to be a little bit clever with her time

Salome Maswime: 07:24

The important thing for me was, was balancing a full clinical load plus full and trying to develop myself as a researcher. And I realized that research was happening after hours.

And yet it was something that was really important to me. And so when I decided as well as taking the break from clinical, from day to day clinical practice, it was so that I could spend more time growing as a researcher, and a big part of it was, you know, protecting my time.

And, you know, not not doing calls, not having my weekends free, also mean that I’m working within, you know, normal working hours and trying to fit things that in the past, I was doing at night into my daytime job.

Julie Gould: 08:20

So from the perspective of somebody who is an outsider, someone who hasn’t been a mid career research scientist, it sounds like rather a tough position to be in.

Inger Mewbourne: 08:31

I think it’s actually really difficult part of your career, quite honestly. And now I’m starting to transition out of it. Now I see how difficult it was. It’s also like, life with anything, it’s the muddle of the middle, right?

So you’ve sort of got past the problems at the start, but things you don’t know that you don’t know and you’re in the middle of middle. And the guidance needs to be very bespoke, in particular to you, but there’s less people around to give you guidance.

Julie Gould: 08:57

Okay, so here it is. I’m going to try and be your guide through the mid career. In these next few episodes, we’ll talk to current and retired scientists and researchers about the definition of the mid career or lack thereof. Also about the clash of mid career and mid life, about time management, which is something that almost every single person I spoke to said was the most useful skill in working your way through the mid career.

We’ll also talk about managing politics in mid career, something no one tells you about before you get there, and a bunch of other useful bits of advice I’ve collected over the past few months.

Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.



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