I've been spending quite some time away from the lab, attending conferences and so on. It was useful to get the latest on what's going on in my field (I am a bit secluded from other going ons in my area where I am at) - but more than that, it has given me time for reflection. Not in terms of planning my next few months of work (as I had hoped) and not in terms of crystallising my thoughts for big grant proposals that are due in the coming year (as I had also hoped), but in terms of how the different generations of scientists look at academia - more precisely: how they look at academic careers.
I must say that I really tink that "my generation" (i.e. the ones that have had there labs for less than say 5-7 years) have the best of both worlds. They still remember what it's like to struggle as a postdoc, but they also know what it's like to have made that next step (something you cannot possibly completely envision if you haven't done it yet - no matter how much you prepare yourself). Now I am not patting myself and my contemporaries on the back: this is just how it is. In another 5-10 years, I will no longer really know what the current academic climate is like - although I would like to believe that I will keep up with "the real world" by interacting with the younger generations. But I'm afraid, that I will inevitably follow in the footsteps of my predecessors.
So when do you get out touch? I honestly think that after 10 years it just becomes more difficult to put yourself in the shoes of the younger generation. In the same way that you cannot relate to their music preferences and their online viral videos, you cannot really know what it is like to be in their position. Unless you try really, really hard.
Over lunch and dinner, almost invariably, professors over the age of 50 would utter phrases like "I think the young people are just to negative. We just did it, even if we didn't know where our careers would take us" (fact check: none of them spent 2 years on the TT market after a successful postdoc like I did, growing closer and closer to desperation with funding running out and no job on the horizon). They would sigh and wonder why postdocs and even PhD students are so focussed on their CV and their output, rather than on the fun of doing science (fact check: because they see people like me crash and burn, the lucky ones succeeding, but with plenty of good people not being able to build the academic career they always dreamed of).
And where do I find myself? I find myself wanting to fight a system that is overly hung up on publication output in an easy-to-check numbers game, while not taking the time to care about actual content. A system that expects me to spent ample time on teaching and outreach activities, while at the same time ultimately not rewarding those efforts because, well, high impact papers. A system that literally demands that I publish papers in high-impact journals of the CNS family (because we all know that is something that just happens when you work hard enough, right?), while at the same time pretending to promote open access. A system that I have to fit myself into if I want to get tenure in a few years, even if I keep telling myself that I will fight the system after I've passed that hurdle. But will I? Or will I ultimately fall victim to the system, and be assimilated by it? Even Jean-Luc eventually could only fight off the Borg for so long.
And as for the young ones? I tell them not to be naive. I tell them that yes, it is hard. And if their heart isn't in it for 100%, then no perhaps it is not worth the struggle. And I tell them that if they really want to be in science, that they then have to make sure they position themselves in the best possible way. But I also tell them to do science for the sake of doing science. To not build their CVs by just ticking of boxes, but by developing themselves into the scientist that they want to be. Because the system may be a rat race, but it should not be occupied by rats. It should be rebuilt by original and creative individuals, who each bring something different and unique to the table. And I hope that as long as I keep telling them that - as long as I keep telling myself that - that then, one day, the system will change.