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Yesterday a paper rejected, today a grant application turned down, tomorrow…

I’ve written about getting knock-backs before so I’ll try not to inflict my self-pity on you again, but there must be something in disappointment that triggers the tendency to become reflective. Often this rejection-reflection leads me to questions about my future. By contrast though, positive news doesn’t seem to bring on a burst of optimism about how well my career is going and how bright the years to come are looking. I don’t know why this is the case, perhaps there is a psychologist out there reading this who could tell me. I’m guessing there is a model out there somewhere that explains such a cognitive process, if there is something I learned about the field of psychology is that there is always a model.

On this occasion though I started to think about what the future is likely to look like, or at least what the sort of career I would like to have in the future, might look like. Obviously it would be quite cool if the future included hovering skateboards but given that Back to the Future came out in the 1980s, I’m starting to realise that Hollywood movies are probably not going to provide the answer I’m after. Even ones that apparently should be able to tell you what the future is going to be like.

Anyway, working out what my career might look like became really difficult quite quickly. At the moment I really appreciate the fact that my position is embedded in university research institute, I appreciate even more the fact that I have no appreciable administrative or teaching load – which means I am free to devote my time to research. Essentially I have a lot of freedom and not a great deal of responsibility. Looking forward though, I accept that the chances of me maintaining a position with those attributes are not particularly high. I’m sure you’ve read as many reports about the difficulty of the academic research job market as I have, it is easy to become discouraged. Anyway, it means there is the likelihood that at some point I will have to choose between shifting to a different field and taking a job in a different sector. Musing on future job opportunities lead to some thoughts into what it is that I really like about what it is that I do.

I certainly like the idea that the goal of healthcare research is to improve the care of people. Granted, the link between what ends up in a publication, and a sick person being better off for it, can get a bit tenuous at times, but the ideal remains. I am also fascinated with the capacity (and limits) of the scientific process to explain what is going on in the world. I am so fascinated by it that I also often feel a bit evangelical about it and like to help other people understand how it works (as far as I understand it!) Finally; I like asking questions. The process of trying to grasp what questions are relevant or important, and then sifting through and separating what is and isn’t relevant to the answer makes me feel like I’ve had a good day.

Assuming this is still what pushes my buttons, this is what I would like my (work) future to look like. I don’t know what opportunities will be in front of me in the next few years, I also don’t know whether those opportunities will be in a research institute, a university, a private company or somewhere else. But I am coming closer to understanding what it is that satisfies me work-wise, and I can see that the place where I work is less important than what work involves. In some ways the future as regards the chance of continually attracting enough competitive research funding to sustain me throughout my career looks somewhat bleak, but realising I am not tied to this idea of the future academic landscape is quite comforting.

And if it does not work out, the world is still waiting for someone to invent hovering skateboards.