why mid-career scientists feel neglected


Julie Gould: 00:09

Hello everyone, we’re back. That is working scientist, a natural careers podcast. And I’m Julie Gould. We’re launching a new series centered around the middle of a scientist’s career. I call it “the mess of the middle”. I know it doesn’t sound appealing. But basically it’s a phase that, as you’ll hear, has no clear beginning, a very dark middle, and no clear ending.

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

I found it pretty obvious when I thought that I would look to the funding bodies first and best.

Here are a few examples of how they defined it. The British Academy says your middle career is when you’re no more than 15 years past your PhD. US National Science Foundation’s Leslie Risser says mid-career is…

Leslie Risser 01:06

….the time after receiving the job. So generally around associate professor level. That’s the easiest way to define it. It is a time when you are no longer a junior scientist. You have been promoted but have a long active career ahead of you in the future.

Julie Gould: 01:28

The National Research Foundation in South Africa says they are researchers aged 40 and under with PhDs.

I have to admit that 40 years seems quite young to be in the middle of a career. But this 40-year mark is also used by the Ecological Society of America.

Only those age 40 and under are eligible to apply for their George Mercer Award. Some researchers use such awards to distinguish themselves mid-career, such as Jeremy Fox, professor of ecology at the University of Calgary in Canada,

Jeremy Fox: 01:59

I’ve had a kind of secret dream for a long time that I might win the Mercer Award, which the Ecological Society of America presents as an Art Paper of the Year award.

And you must be under the age of 41 at the time your work is published to qualify for this award. And so at some point I realized: “Wait, I’m not cut out for this anymore.”

Julie Gould: 02:27

I have two other examples for you and these two groups seem to be a bit more mindful and inclusive.

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

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The definition includes researchers with or without a PhD.

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, ie an experienced and senior post-doctoral researcher.

“You are likely someone who is beginning to supervise, manage, or mentor doctoral students and researchers, and/or has begun to demonstrate leadership in other academic or clinical areas (e.g., research-led teaching, conducting or developing courses) .”

But I think it’s this statement from Cara Tannenbaum, a professor at the University of Montreal in Canada and the 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’s the vague time between when you’re still considered a junior scientist and when someone tells you you’re in the higher phase of your career.

Julie Gould: 03:50

So if you can’t rely on a solid agreed definition of funders and governing bodies, how do you know when you’re entering that gray, murky zone we call mid-career?

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

Inger Mewbourne: 04:07

Nobody tells you that you are in the middle of your career. You just suddenly are, because suddenly a lot of the supports that used to be available to you aren’t there anymore.

Nobody gives you a deadline for this. And it’s very slippery for most people, especially in science. You will be asked to do a lot more administrative work.

And it’s only slowly dawning on you that you’re suddenly in the middle of a career, much like middle age. Suddenly you are very busy. And I think that is the Tao.

Julie Gould: 04:40

Big. So, the gray areas are a not very well-defined period of the career, the end of which is vaguely determined by your peers.

Inger has a real talent for telling it like it is, so I asked her to describe the difference between early and mid-career as honestly as possible. In early career, she says…

Inger Mewbourne: 05:00

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

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I’m not saying it’s easy. But if you’re looking for help, it’s there. I think for the mid-career researchers the problems are harder to define, you expect to pull yourself together, and maybe you don’t. Becoming vulnerable is more difficult.

And the stakes are only higher. I mean, often you get to a point where you have to justify your existence there by the productive output, whether that’s presentations or teaching or whatever it is that counts.

So this output and this dataset and building the associated profile is a lot of work. And it’s work that often doesn’t get packed into your week.

So your week could be about people, bureaucracy, paperwork, and presentations.

And so the actual writing is often in the evenings, I mean to this day I can keep track of my time really tightly, like crazy tightly. But I can’t fit writing a book into my year, I had to do it over the holidays like everyone else. On the other hand, if you’re a junior researcher, this stuff is kind of wrapped up in your day, the actual implementation.

Julie Gould: 06:10

In addition, you have to consider that people may also have young families to take care of, or elderly parents to take care of, or even pets. And let’s not forget those who are not partners, they want to go out, they also want to have a social life. And people have hobbies and activities that help them stay sane. You know, there are a lot of things that have to fit into your week.

Salome Maswime: 06:39

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

Julie Gould: 06:50

Meet Salome Maswime, Obstetrician-Gynecologist and Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and recipient of the South African Medical Research Council’s Mid-Career Research Award.

At one point in her career, Salome had a few too many balls in the air. In addition to looking after a young family, she worked as a clinician and set up her own research group. So did she manage to keep all the balls from cracking around her ears? No she did not. Instead, she had to be a little clever with her time

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Salome Maswime: 07:24

The most important thing for me was to keep a full clinical load plus full balance and try to develop as a researcher. And I realized that the research was after hours.

And yet it was something that was very important to me. When I decided to pause not just clinical practice, but daily clinical practice, I wanted to spend more time growing as a researcher, and a big part of that was, you know, protecting my time.

And you know, not making calls, not having weekends off also means I work within normal hours and try to fit things that I used to do at night into my day job.

Julie Gould: 08:20

From the perspective of someone who’s an outsider, someone who wasn’t a mid-career research scientist, it sounds like a pretty difficult position to be in.

Inger Mewbourne: 08:31

I think it’s really a very difficult part of your career, honestly. And now I’m starting to get out of it. Now I see how difficult it was. It’s also like living with everything is the mess in the middle, right?

So you sort of got over the problems at the beginning, but you don’t know things you don’t know, and you’re in the middle of it. And the guidance must be very individual, especially for you, but there are fewer people who can give you guidance.

Julie Gould: 08:57

OK, so here it is. I will try to be your guide through the middle of your career. In the next few episodes, we’ll talk to current and retired scientists and researchers about the definition of middle career, or lack thereof. Also, about the clash of mid-career and mid-life, about time management, which almost every single person I spoke to cited as the most useful skill for working through mid-career.

We’ll also talk about managing mid-career politics, something nobody tells you about before you get there, and a bunch of other useful advice I’ve gathered over the past few months.

Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.



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