My Science Mid-Life Crisis: Too Old to Be the Prodigy, Too Young to Be the Authority

2. August 2012

Andrew Forbes

Although I feel like I graduated from university just yesterday, it recently dawned on me that I own a pair of hiking boots older than some of my graduate students. This realization came as a bit of a shock, and it led me to reflect on my current place as a middle-aged scientist in my field. Scientists my age are often stressed out, either because they haven’t made it big or because they have.

Publish or perish

Here is a quick pop quiz: Is your h-index about half your age? If not and you are 40 years old, then by my reckoning, you are not destined to join the halls of fame or win a Nobel Prize—unless, of course, you plan to work well into your 80s. (And, let’s face it, when was the last time you saw a member of the Academy of Sciences who appeared to be under 80 years old?) I was startled to learn that a recent visitor at my institution had published more than 500 journal papers. How did he manage such a feat? By my estimate, if you start writing papers seriously at age 30 and have a 30-year career, then you need to publish one journal article every three weeks to match this rate of publication. Don’t these people take holidays?

Scientific competition

It ultimately comes down to comparison and competition. Scientists love sizing up their work in relation to that of others. They also love seeing their names in print, being invited to speak at conferences, and getting selected to lead a team of researchers. I certainly do. Perhaps one way to avoid the science mid-life crisis is to work in a boring subject area where you will have little competition for the spotlight. The more arcane, the better. I believe there’s only one brave soul in stochastic singular optics, for example.

Unfortunately, however, that is unlikely to make you happy in the long run. I tell my students that it doesn’t really matter what you end up doing--whether it is academic, industrial or commercial--as long as you enjoy your work and you are very good at it. Sometimes we scientists forget the bigger picture. We are working towards the advancement of knowledge and society, and we all have an important contribution to make, no matter how small.

Making a difference

I recently read the thoughtful comments by Diana Antonosyan on this blog about the many challenges facing young scientists in developing countries. The situation she describes is true in my home country of South Africa—but with challenges come opportunities. In South Africa, and I imagine other developing countries as well, there is the chance to really make a difference. For example, my small research group is one of only a handful working in optics. I know all the other photonics researchers in the country on a first-name basis, and various government officials too. The community is small, and each individual effort counts.

In a context like this, one also tends to move up more quickly. The time between finishing a Ph.D. and leading a research group is astonishingly short. Before you know it, you are 40 and considered an expert in the country. Elsewhere, it would be much harder to distinguish yourself from the crowd. It is rare to be able to work in a place where what you do really matters. I encourage young people from developing countries to return to their homes and make a difference. I’m glad I did—even if it’s a small difference and I haven’t yet made my way into the Academy.  

Andrew Forbes (aforbes1@csir.co.za) is chief researcher and research group leader at the CSIR (South Africa), and serves on various national and international committees, including OSA.

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