Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Nomadic Life of a Scientist to Be

Crane Beach, MA (Aug 7, 2004)

The most accurate adjective to describe the life of scientists is "nomadic". At precisely the time when most people find their first permanent job and settle down to build a family, aspiring scientists go to graduate school. For a subsistence salary, graduate students cross continents and oceans. They find their temporary place in some university around the world, where they learn the basic tools of the trade, and discover that science is based less on strokes of genius, than it is on persistence and hard work.

Graduate school lasts for 4 to 6 years, after which the newly minted Ph.D.s are on the road again, on to their first decently paid gig, as a postdoctoral research scientist, or postdoc for short. As postdocs, the young scientists learn to work independently, and build their portfolio of publications which is required, one day, to attain a permanent position. This chimera is however rarely found at the end of the first postdoctoral experience: typically two or more postdocs are required until a university, or a lab, will offer a permanent position. An all consuming tenure track position that will finally allow, six years later, to finally settle. All in all, from the day the aspiring scientists begin their undergraduate degree, to the time when they are tenured in a permanent job, it can pass more than two decades. During this period, every few years the scientists and their family uproot themselves, leave friends behind, adapt to a new life in a new city, in a new continent, a new culture, maybe a new language.

This happened to all of us, the few lucky ones that never looked at the abyss opening under our feet, and managed to hop ahead from step to step, school to school, job to job. It was quite an adventure, but not without casualties: all the friendships that were left behind, or that left us pursuing their own adventures, in some faraway corner of the world.

The photo above shows my friend Elena, when she visited us in Boston, and we went to Crane beach on the North Shore. We graduated together in Physics in Torino, then we did graduate school again together, in the same institute in Trieste. She is a biophysicist studying the electrical properties of brain cells. After her Ph.D. she went to work as a postdoc in Israel, then Paris. When she was in Paris I managed to visit her from time to time, when my own work was bringing me to the French capital. We have not seen each other since she moved to the University of Bordeaux where she has now a permanent job.

Of my graduate school classmates, not a single one still lives in Italy.

Crane Beach, MA (Aug 7, 2004)

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