Winding down the academic dream

The past couple of months have seen two major anniversaries in my life – the 20th anniversary of starting my undergraduate degree at the University of Manitoba, and the 10th anniversary of me starting my PHD at the Australian National University. I also received a short extension of my work contract that will employ me until the end of this year. After that, there is only uncertainty. The confluence of these things has made me reflect on my adult life.

When I first started university, I had no illusions of an academic career. I was interested in programming, so I originally planned to major in computer science. However, after experiencing classes with two very uninspiring professors, I decided it was not for me (although the experience did immensely help me later on). I took an introductory geology course as an elective that year. Taught by renowned glacial lake expert, Jim Teller, it rekindled my childhood interest in geology. After some discussions, I enrolled in a geophysics degree, to take advantage of my relatively good math marks.

I think the experience that really ignited my interest in academic research happened after my second full year of university. I admit that my second year did not go well, due to mental health struggles (which I did not recognize until very recently), and tragedy. I was lucky enough to get a position as a research assistant during the summer of 2002, which gave me first hand experience in doing field work, data analysis and report writing. I fell in love with research! This really inspired me to succeed through the rest of my undergraduate degree. Had I not got that research assistant job, I may very well have dropped out of university after that tough second year.

After my undergraduate degree, still very uncertain of what I wanted in life, I went to the University of Victoria to do a masters degree. My initial interest was to do research in tectonics and the deep Earth. My project, though, introduced me to the much broader world of research on glacial-isostatic adjustment, sea level change, ice sheets and climate change. This obviously left a mark on me, as I decided to make these topics the focus of my research career.

After my masters, I decided it was not a good idea to jump straight into an academic career, knowing that getting a PHD might limit what I could do. I went into the resource industry for a while. Needless to say, going into industry in 2008 was rough. Though I initially found it fairly easy to get jobs, things dried up pretty quickly after the markets crashed. I still tried to stay in it up until the end of 2009, but even my boss I had said that things were unlikely to recover quickly and I should consider doing a PHD. Though brief, my foray into industry did teach me that it was not the stable, lucrative option that it first appeared. However, that brief foray allowed me to pay off all my debts, making it possible to return as a student completely free.

When considering a PHD, I decided that I wanted to do it outside of Canada (since the politics of the government at that time made climate science a target for attack). I wanted to find a research focused university where I could do investigations on ice sheet history. Going to the Australian National University (ANU) allowed me to do that. The ANU is a research focused institute, and our department had a vibrant graduate student cohort that made it a pleasure. Being around so many of the top Earth science researchers, who always were willing to chat, was inspiring.

Since 2014, I have been in Europe, first in Sweden and now in Germany, doing post-doctoral research. After doing a PHD, this is a natural progression, which many people, including myself, do at great cost to family life. I have learned so much in the past six years about ice sheets and climate change, and gained experience with supervision and collaborating. However, after six years, I still have no prospects on making a move to a more permanent position that also satisfies my family life. I have applied to positions, of course, but they have not gone anywhere. People have told me that my CV is great, but the problem is that each position probably has dozens of people with great CVs applying.

Perhaps the biggest regret was that I did not take a position as a lecturer in the city in Japan where my wife lives. This was a mistake on my part, as I did not understand Japanese culture when it came to jobs. It was a non-permanent position, in a department that had an uncertain future, teaching what were essentially first year undergraduate courses. The course load was so high that it was unlikely I would have time to do research. I tried to negotiate for better conditions (as people would do in places like Canada), but alas in Japan you cannot do this. That was probably the only opportunity I had to make the transition to Japan and be an academic, but leaving research in this way was too hard for me at that point.

I have tried to get a research grant in Japan, of course. There is a postdoctoral fellowship program I have applied for a couple of times. The latest round, which is the last time I could apply due to a rule of being within 5 years of graduation, did not select a single paleo-climate related project. The other day, I was chatting with someone who works at a research institute in Japan, and they said that the research in Japan is shifting away from anything related to paleo-climate and only focus on contemporary observations. This is a common theme in a lot of countries.

So, this brings me to now, as the clock ticks away on my last months of my contract. I have two papers submitted and another one in the works which should be done by the end of the year. Someone asked if this was it, if I would be satisfied. If these papers get finished and published, it will essentially clear off all of the projects I have been working on during the past four and a half years. That would be satisfying enough, because it would leave a clear break if this is it.

It is frustrating to think that it could be the end, though, as I have so many ideas of research topics to pursue. If I was not constrained by where I could live, it would be possible to continue. But after six years of post-docing, I think I have to come to terms with the reality that it just might not happen. Forty years ago, most people would have got a permanent position by this point in their career, even in a location close to where they want to live. The reality is that this is not really possible anymore, except maybe in a few locations like the USA and Northern Europe, locations that I cannot move to.

I want to end this by saying that I am absolutely not giving up. I will continue to try to get a job in researching paleo-climate. But I am not going to do it at any cost. I am closing in on 40 years of age, and I need to start planning for retirement. Continually working on 1-2 year temporary contracts, as I have for the past six years, is no way to do that. The coronavirus situation seems worse than the 2008 market crash in terms of the economy (to say nothing of the political environment), which makes me pessimistic that in the near term there will be opportunities. I cannot let my wife wait anymore. Getting a more robust job in a field like data science is appealing. The challenge now is to learn how to make this transition.