Coke float drinking pocket rocket, planetary scientist, presenter, space comedienne

Remind me what the point of it all was again?

I’m trying to be an inspiration, trying to make everyone want to be scientist, trying to rave about how amazing what we do is, how much I love it, how I’d do nothing else. And most of the time I do believe all that stuff.

This is one of those times that I don’t.

This is tough, its hard, it’s depressing. It isn’t worth my time or effort because no one values us! In fact, I’m pretty sure most people are just laughing at us behind our backs. Being a post-grad student sucks!

The REAL grad student life is here.

And a nice Simpsons montage here:

This is the situation at the moment (thanks to our government and other such influential factors like money)….based on what I know in the space sector (I can’t speak for any other areas!)….

The government (via the research councils) give us £14k a year for up to 4 years to train us and allow us to become doctors of our chosen subject. Tax free, we live here and work our arses off and then at the end of it all….


So the natural progression is to go from post-grad to post-doc and then work your  way up that ladder until you eventually get a permanent position and hopefully a professorship.

Problem is, all our rungs have been taken away. Yup, a ladder with no rungs. How am I supposed to climb the career ladder?

I have very few choices and they all frustrate me.

I could try to get a post-doc position abroad. But I am a two body problem and both of us want to stay in the UK near our family.

There are almost literally no post-doc positions out there for people like me. My research council has seen to that.

There are fellowships I can apply for but I’ll only be considered if I have 2 years post-doc experience (how do I get that?). There was one I could only apply to if I had children. I politely told them that I could have children between now and the post-doc position starting (I had over 9 months left of my PhD back then) but for some reason they declined my offer.

I can’t apply for any job adverts now because they all want someone to start straight away, which I can’t do. So I’m left waiting it out, hoping that the right thing falls into my lap.

And when it does, I can almost guarantee it will be nothing like what I’m trained to do, and often we have to start at the same level as the graduates. So I’m fighting with 22 year olds even though I’ve spent the last four years getting more experience and more life experience than you can imagine. What is the point?

To top it all off, if by some miracle I do get a post-doc position the pay won’t be great (but then we have flexi-hours and lots of conferences and we can work from home whenever we need to and we get lots of holidays) and contracts rarely last longer than five years. After which the whole process has to start again.

Wrong place, wrong time.

I can’t help but feel that if I’d done something more vocational at uni and started work straight out of uni I’d be climbing that career ladder by now, instead of a student who feels wretched and useless and isn’t taken seriously. But then someone once said to me “being a scientist is your vocation”. Which made me feel positive for about ten seconds then doomed ever since.

Having chosen to do a PhD and be a student that little bit longer I also have a few confidence and ‘personal’ issues. I feel younger than others my age and people don’t take me seriously. My friends who are my age and not in science are taking sabbaticals they have been working so long. They have houses and fiancées and are planning weddings. I can barely plan my life as far as October let alone to next summer. And try telling your bank manager that you want a mortgage when you are still a student (even though I take home more than some people I know because I don’t have to pay tax!).

Science, particularly space science, just isn’t viable in the UK. We’re underpaid til the end, there aren’t enough jobs, no one gives you merit for your achievements. Things have got to change!

Space is exciting and awe-inspiring. But it isn’t a realistic future unless you are some of the lucky few.

Maybe it is my fault though. Maybe I should be more willing to move country or something. I don’t want to though! Which leaves my only other option, change jobs!

My time is running out and my biological clock is ticking. When am I supposed to excel in my career and  have four children and be able to pay for them all? I’ll be 30 next year for goodness sake!

And I always wanted to be in a career that worked for ‘the greater good’. I really should have become a vet.

The future feels, right now, rather bleak.

If I’d left school at 16 and gone somewhere and worked my way up, or even if I’d got into work right out of uni, I’d be happier and richer by now! I might not have met my boyfriend though, so I guess there are some plus points I’ve picked up along the way! Everything happens for a reason and all that. And I DO believe in fate, so maybe the reason I’m here now will become apparent in due course, maybe I’m just panicking because of the stage of PhD I’m in right now?

I want it all. I want happiness and love and to be with those I love, and settle down and have children and live a long and blissful and simply happy life. But I want a career and to use my PhD and to be remembered when I die. Why can’t I have it all?

I sort of wish that when I was younger I had slightly lower hopes and dreams. Becoming a vet is slightly easier than becoming an astronaut, for example. If I didn’t have SPACE in my head, my life would be much simpler! I sometimes think that if I win £10m in the lottery I’ll just go up to the ISS and be there for a few days so that when I come back I can actually start living my life without this pressure hanging over me!

But then I worry that going to space would change me so profoundly that when I come home I’m never happy with life on Earth and I end up topping myself. I’m a bit of a worrier, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Maybe mum and dad could have helped by making me go into pharmacy. Then I’d be qualified by now, I could take over dad’s shop, he could retire, I’d make loads of money, for the greater good. All the boxes would be ticked!

Maybe being in science is good, but maybe we are just in the wrong science. A friend of a friend is a psychologist who got her PhD  a year ago in the epidemiology department at UCL. She still has to write loads of grant proposals and the contracts are shortish, like ours, but there seem to be more funding sources and her PhD supervisor at UCL earns in excess of £100,000. What if space is a dead-end? What if I throw my life into it and it comes to nothing? No career, no job, nothing. What then?

But I guess you could say the same about anything, right? And space is pretty cool and special!

I was think what I could do if no jobs appear when I end. I was thinking “whats the point” of being a science communicator, what is the point in doing that? But again, you could say that about a lot of jobs. And if you enthuse the next generation about STEM subjects, even if they don’t go into the space industry they are more likely to take up STEM careers, which makes up about 80% of the jobs in the UK.

I’ve been fighting the thought of becoming a teacher. Again I feel like if I wanted to do that I should have just done it post Uni instead of ‘wasting’ time with the PhD. But when the crunch comes, it is such a viable career that it would be stupid of me not to take it. If I’d left uni and become a teach I can imagine I’d be head of department, physics teacher, spanish help, hockey coach. It’d be amazing! Bugger! The grass is always greener….

I like space science because you tackle the big questions but now I’m starting to think that its better to save the lives that are living now, change the lives that are living now. But then, if people didn’t look on the bigger scale we would never have evolved into the intelligent society we are today. And in 100 years time people will remember the big stuff, not the small stuff.

But would that make me happy?

I guess for now I have to keep plodding along. I’m so close to the end of my PhD I can taste it, and that is probably why I am feel so down in the dumps about it right now! I do have a secret positive feeling that things will work out in the end. The perfect career is out there for me, I’ve just got to wait until it drops into my lap!

And until then if I feel down again all I have to do is to wow a crowd in a pub somewhere, or tell a stranger than I’m a space scientist, and see their amazed reaction. If that doesn’t make me want to stay here, nothing will!

3 responses

  1. Matt

    Shelia, you do sounds awfully down in the dumps. Do cheer up please! 🙂

    I always thought that space science jobs in the UK were pretty good, being one of the world leaders and all, but I guess the cuts are going to really hit physics and astronomy soon.

    You never know what could be next, you’re always surprised by life, and they’ll be something around the corner, something you’re not expecting and it’ll be great.

    It’s all well and good working to save to lives now directly, but it’s the indirect stuff that has the biggest impact in the future. Without you budding scientist we won’t be able to move forward!

    Cheer up, and hope things start to look up soon!


    May 15, 2011 at 1:44 pm

  2. Aine O'Brien

    Cheer up Sheila, at least you officially get to be a doctor by the end of it! 😀

    Plus, I still think you’re awesome!

    May 18, 2011 at 8:02 pm

  3. You just dont know it yet, but when you finish, you’re going to have more opportunities than you can imagine! I know a few PhD’s and believe me, none are out of work, and are working somewhat close to their field of study. One of them is a Nobel prize winner and it is in an astronomical field. Having a PhD behind your name gives you incredible credibility in anything that you pursue.

    Chin up, all that you’ve done and all that you know really is only the beginning 🙂

    May 30, 2011 at 1:23 am

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