Oooh the academic career can be such a love - hate relationship!
As I am preparing to move (again!) in a few months, it strikes me that this movement of scientists is everywhere. Especially in ‘early career’. Moving is an expectation.
This is of course beneficial for science especially at very early stages , as interpersonal relationships with other research lab can develop into a greater collaboration network , and nonetheless one can get a feeling about how other places work and, let’s not forget this, learn about new techniques that might be location-specific .
Nonetheless, there is plenty of evidence for the damaging effects of this constant moving around. It can break down personal relationships , be destabilising for mental health, and bring to breakdowns and burnouts as one has to prove itself in new contexts.
But today I wanted to take it further, analyse and discuss how the constant moving can have consequences for science itself. And in particular , when we talk about ecologist and field biologist.
I admire some ‘older generation’ ecologists, and can barely hide my amazement when I talk to them! They know so much and remember so much. They might be able to tell you that back in February 1973 (insert other random month/year far in the past and the same applies) the plankton population shifted because of some weather anomaly and in that same year the mussels stopped growing and the fishermen were complaining about it and fished out a population in a nearby area, and then there was a collapse of some other species . Maybe there was no actual study published or done to document that fact but they remember and now you can go do a causative experiment to see whether really that weather anomaly could have caused the decline of x or y.
Another example would relate to comparisons between past days to help explain what is happening today. Maybe you meet such older prof in your current place of work now and he will tell you a tale of how the seabed used to be cover in oysters and how many fishes there were or how many species, or how much bigger they were back then. Perhaps he will dig out a study that google scholar would have never found, perhaps an old notebook with data. Perhaps it will just remain as simple as a nice tale. But it will give you something to work with .
Now, of course he ( or she, but there are more ‘hes’ for the generation in question ) is older than you so he knows more.
But by moving, will we ever be able to be the same? Will students and young scientists come knocking at my door for my expertise on that particular strip of sea? I wonder...
For example, I did my PhD in Northern Ireland focusing on mussels found in the loughs there and in particular the very peculiar Strangford Lough, now I am for my first postdoc for just under two years working with mussels in the eastern scheldth, in the Netherlands, also a very peculiar bay system, and for my next job I will work in yet another lagoon environment in the Mediterranean Sea if all goes to plan...
Now. You can say that I am still working in my research topic and that I am following a continuous line , but there is so much I still don’t know about each of the systems I already worked on. Of course when the time comes that I need a piece of information I can go dig it out on the internet. But even this has proven hard with language barriers, where ‘government’ sites are in a foreign language,and even knowing what government body to consult to extract past fisheries data or past storm. Yes you can ask (and I did!) but wouldn’t it be better to work in the same system at all times ?
And of course , we can still consult our knowledgeable colleagues since they are not yet retired (and the ones who are are happy to still help) ..
But what when they will not be around anymore? What when we will be the ones of ‘retiring ‘ age?
I would love to think that if I am still here and in academia by then I will be a font of knowledge for the younger ones. I would like us not to rely so much on ‘how much will technology store’ and try to store in our heads. I am hoping to stop the continuous movement soon and find my place and build some knowledge which is both deeper and deeper into my specific subject area, but also wider and wider and can encompass the whole ecosystem.
Here’s to dreams
If you are a scientist , whether in your early career or further on, I would love to hear what you think about the way academia is moving, the way contracts get shorter and fighting for money is harder , and whether this can take it out on making some good science...
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