Moving on – when it’s not your decision

On February 23, 2015


Science is one of the most adventurous careers one can choose. There are so many opportunities for changing your field of study that it allows you to live the dream – having a job that will never get you bored. People say artists and writers have unique features: they are creative, dreamers, always thinking outside the box. Well, I don’t deny it – but I claim these all for us too. More than this, we have a significant responsibility in making things work, to bend our imagination to reality.

All these opportunities are spread worldwide and there is a great incentive for people to move around: do your first degree in Europe, your PhD in America and a postdoc in Asia. Yes, this is all possible with science and, after all, who doesn’t like to travel? The only drawback happens when you decide to stay, particularly in academia: then starts the long-lasting battle for funding. This doesn’t happen just for your PhD or your first postdoc. For most scientists, those who believe in their ideas, it is a life-long process.

Science creates innovation and jobs, and helps local economies. But when you look at the numbers on grant applications, it is easy to understand what has been going on. The number of applications is the same or more than seven or eight years ago, but the number of conceded grants is decreasing.. The implications are less PhDs and, most of all, fewer postdoc positions available. Furthermore, there is now a generalised fear that even well-stablished researchers won’t be able to keep their labs or their complete staff.

So sometimes, moving on is not your first choice – but it might be your best decision.

I come from a country in which the main export is its brightest students. Science was never the main priority in Portugal, and it fell even more in the ranking after the recession. Education is free until we finish high school and public universities will charge around €1000 per year for the bachelor’s, so most students will have the opportunity to get their first degree if they want to. German industries are always looking for freshly trained Portuguese engineers, and English hospitals for Portuguese nurses. Most say we are overqualified, which is the same thing the employers will tell us in Portugal, with one unavoidable difference – over there it is an excuse for denying the job.

I am one of the privileged so far – I chose to move, to live the English dream. Some of my colleagues, though, wanted to stay and develop our home country, but it was not possible. I think, for most, the idea is always ’we will get knowledge and technology outside and bring it back‘. It reveals a great deal of loyalty for the country – which is easily explained when you overfly our coast on a July morning – but also probably a deep gullibility.

Image: São Jorge castle, Lisbon. Leaving such scenes may be hard to do, but it’s often necessary to carve out a scientific career. Credit: Shutterstock/Sean Pavone

About Marcia Costa

Marcia completed her degree in biomedical and biophysics engineering at the University of Lisbon, but it was during her Master’s internship at the University of Virginia that she discovered the potential of ultrasound waves to destroy tumours. She is currently a medical physics PhD student at the Institute of Cancer Research, Sutton, studying radiotherapy and high-intensity focused ultrasound treatments, with a strong interest in medical imaging.

3 Responses to Moving on – when it’s not your decision

  1. Utmost commiserations Marcia. I am greatly bothered when I see things like this:

    “The number of applications is the same or more than seven or eight years ago, but the number of conceded grants is decreasing…”

    • It was not my intention to offend any funding institutions – simply sharing the concerns of many scientists.

  2. We always hear “we need more students doing physics!” but quite honestly I think that is a crime with how little chance there is to get a permanent position. They should at least be informed “If you do physics, you will only get a job in academia if you colour inside the lines.”

    Science is a great place to be creative? I cannot claim to know about most sciences, but for physics? We need to stop telling young people this.
    Perhaps when you are 40, if you manage to land a job.

    Pardon my cynicism. I left academia, and it was my only interest for years.