The perks and perils of short term research contracts

When you are starting a career in academia, you are inevitably going to be working on a couple of short-term contracts. A lot has been written about this, and I don’t want to repeat that discussion here – at the moment, there isn’t really a way around it, unless you are one of the few people who get a lectureship straight after their PhD (which could turn out to be a curse rather than a blessing!).

Being on short term contracts, and specifically, having to go where the work is, can make you feel out of sync with friends or university classmates who chose to work in industry (or, who got a proper job, as some relatives keep reminding me – they never stop asking me when I graduate or am done studying). They start to earn money straight after university; they buy houses and cars, and can afford expensive lifestyles. They build up a network of friends and colleagues, start to have children, and meet more people when they drop off their kids at the crèche or primary school. They settle down.

In academia, all of this is challenging, and it could get in the way of your career. Short-term contracts mean that it is hard to buy a house, or to settle down. The decision whether and when to have children is even more difficult, as the age at which women generally have children is exactly the age when independent research careers start to take off and require a lot of investment. Continue reading

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The diversity beneath our feet

Yesterday, Georgina Mace gave a seminar in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. Of course, I was at the front row (well, almost), as I have only just started at Manchester and I was employed to reinforce ecology and environmental sciences in the Faculty. I have seen Georgina Mace speak before, and today she spoke about biodiversity, and specifically, the decline of it.

In her talk, she highlighted trends in the decline of plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, and amphibians, mainly as a result of habitat destruction. She spoke about mechanisms of these organisms to cope with disturbances; some species just cope with changing circumstances, some move away to new habitats, and some (or, rather a lot, as evidenced by the graphs in her presentation) go extinct. At the end of her talk, she spoke about why biodiversity is important for humans. First of all, humans value biodiversity because of its intrinsic value – we simply want to know that there are elephants in Africa, or panda bears in China (although personally, I couldn’t care less about panda bears).  Second, we want to conserve species because we want to preserve the genetic library of life, and all the information about its evolution that is locked up in genes. And finally, we want to conserve biodiversity because it provides ecosystem services that are directly beneficial for humans, although the science underpinning this relationship is still thin on the ground. Continue reading

Manchester

It has been very quiet on my blog for the past two weeks. The reason is simple: I have not only started a new job, but I also packed and moved the lab, and we moved house – all in one week. So, it is about time that I reflect on my first week in Manchester, which is in many respects very different from Lancaster!

Our house is lovely – it is a red brick house in the south of Manchester, and it is beautiful, warm, and light. In contrast, although very nice, the two late 1800’s terraced houses we lived in in Lancaster were dark, moist, and cold, and so were all our friends’ houses. We got used to having a cold house by default – always below 15 degrees during the day – and blasting the heating for a couple of hours in the evening. This warmed up the air in the house, but never the walls, the bed, the contents of the kitchen cupboards, or the bathroom. I always wore two jumpers in the house, drank tea to stay warm, and slept with a hot water bottle – even in summer. To Dutch readers, this might sound medieval. In Lancaster, it’s just how it is – you either have a cold house with character, or a comfortable house without a soul. Continue reading