So what is life in academic research like? This page attempts to give a balanced answer to this question, which not surprisingly is a mix of pros and cons like any job. But whether a research career is right for someone depends on what things in life they wish to give priority to. Here I present a few of my thoughts about my career in research, which has now spanned the last decade (if including my PhD), and which followed my first career in industry. I hope that this page is useful for anyone considering a career in academic research or for anyone interested to find out more about this job sector.
A great thing about academic research is that you get to lead (with your mentor) the exploration of a subject that fascinates you (take a look at where I hope you feel the excitement of this exploration). You also get to work largely to your own schedule and sometimes remotely (to varying degrees depending on the preference of your supervisor). For myself, I also enjoy the creativity that comes with writing, producing images to communicate ideas, publishing your results and teaching. See for more info about my teaching.
No job is perfect, but generally I have enjoyed my career as a researcher and feel lucky to have been a part of a largely positive and constructive endeavour. I believe that exploring and better understanding the natural world is an important task. It has the potential to give us a better understanding of our deep links with nature, and how we can live in more harmony with the natural world. In the long run, ultimately our welbeing depends on our ablility to coexist with the natural world, which implies us not causing substantial largescale damage to the biosphere. I say potential because the impact of research depends on a number of other factors, such as effective communication and politics.
Probably the biggest downside of academic research, for me, is the lack of long-term job security and the destabilising effect that has on your social life. This situation wasn't at all clear to me when I set out on my academic career, which I view as being largely my own shortcoming. It is likely that you will need to move several times to maintain your research career and the long-term success of the career is not guaranteed. After your PhD you become what is known as a Postdoc or Research Fellow, where you work under a temporary contract (typically lasting 1–3 years) to complete a specific project. Once the contract is up you need to find and compete for a new job, that is, there is no simple work extension process. See this Vitae article Researchers' employment rights in the UK for more information about employment rights for fixed-term contracts, which reveals the situation isn't as clear-cut as it might seem.
This postdoc process continues until you gain enough experience and publications to apply for a permanent position, which usually means a Lectureship. The alternative is to win a large research grant (which usually require you to have previously published) which is attractive enough for a university to offer you a permanent future position (following completion of the research project). So far I've moved near to London for my PhD, then to Dublin in Ireland for my first postdoc, before quite unexpectedly moving back to the UK for my second position as a Research Fellow. I could just have easily ended up moving to Europe or The States. It's a `double-edged sword', moving around and exploring new places can be exciting, but at some point this constant moving about is likely to be too disruptive and you'll wish for more stability. For instance, without pausing for thought I can think of two researchers I worked alongside who gave up their careers to prioritise supporting their young family. It wasn't that they weren't capable researchers, they are exceptional.
Securing a Lecturer positon without a big research grant is not easy; these are highly competitive jobs that are not abundant. Consider how many universities there are in a country and then narrow the search to account for your specific discipline. Then narrow the search again for the likelyhood of a new Lectureship becoming available for a highly sought after and well paid job. Having said this about the long-term job security of research careers, it's worth pointing out that it's all relative. In a number of ways I've found my research career to be more stable than my previous career in industry where I worked as a Hydrographic and Geomatic Surveyor, however, it's possible that both of these jobs are a bit unusual. Working on ships in the North Sea isn't your typical 9 to 5 either (see for some info about that if interested). I suppose I've been attracted to explorative and challenging careers.
I would describe a research career as being fairly challenging. After graduating from undergraduate and masters degrees, you move onto a PhD with a low salary and the work often encroaches on leisure time, for example, working weekends or late into an evening to meet some deadline. Essentially you are running a project and have the responsiblity to produce results and apart from your supervisor there isn't anyone else who cares a great deal whether the work is successful or not. In this way, I imagine it's a bit like running your own business. The success of the career rides on your ability to publish peer-reviewed journal articles, which are a challenge. The peer-review process can be abrasive (and stressful in the case of work being rejected for publication after possibly years of work), however, it is key for ensuring the integrity of science, which in my experience has been a hallmark of the job sector. The career also lends itself to someone who favours careful patient thought and a desire to explore and find true answers to complex problems. Mistakes or new discoveries can mean re-working a problem several times which can take significant amounts of time, however, work won't get through the peer-review process (for publication) if it's flawed or not fully formed. It does feel great to publish your work. Teaching and giving conference presentations are part of the job so effective communciation skills are important.
So was it all worth it? Looking at it positively, I've had some amazing experiences, gained many skills and hopefully I can find a permanent position to provide more stability.