In 2008, I wrote an article called “Breaking_The_Grey_Ceiling” which was published by Physics World in its “comment” section. It was about the difficulties faced by older students trying to “break into” the academic hierarchy in physics, and the benefits they can bring to the discipline if they manage to get in.

I followed it up in 2009 with another article headed “Will the last person to leave please turn off the accelerator?“, which dealt with the challenges facing young PhDs in particle physics, and the difficulties involved in balancing career aspirations with relationships, home-building and families. It consisted mainly of the results of an informal survey I had conducted among my peer group of 56 PhD students in the 2003-6 cohort.

This second article never made it to the press. Physics World did not seem too interested, and to be honest I did not push the idea too much because I was not sure I could face all the editorial interference and sheer quantity of alterations I had had to deal with in relation to the first article.

I still believe, however, that both articles address important issues that are still very much alive; furthermore, the first offers a partial solution to the dilemma posed by the second. Recently I have been thinking about such matters again as I watch my own daughters, now in their thirties, trying to juggle families, homes and careers.

Career patterns, life stories, are heavily influenced by the prevailing economic conditions. I was lucky enough to grow up in an age when jobs were relatively plentiful. Because of  changes that have occurred in the political and economic climate since those days, today’s graduates face a much bleaker situation. Nevertheless, there is still a certain arbitrariness in the way our lives progress and I want to question whether in fact there are other ways of thinking about career paths that are compatible, or can be made to be compatible, with the world we live in today.

In the articles mentioned above I lay much of the blame for the problems they highlight at the door of what I call “the conveyor-belt model of education” where education is delivered in one contiguous lump, starting at age 5 and finishing at 16, 18, 21 or 24, depending on how long you stay on the belt. It is an accurate model, I think, because the longer you stay on the belt, the further you will go (in theory).

But, of course, if you do stay on to the end, ultimately the conveyor belt dumps you at a work/life crossroads – right in the middle of the road, in fact, with fast-moving obstacles coming at you from all directions. You need to get on with your career, but you also want to settle down, get married, buy a house, have kids. Or maybe you already have the house and the kids; but how can you spare any time for your home life when you are expected to go to conferences and meetings all over the place, and maybe put in extra hours in order to get on in your job?

Part of what motivated me to write these articles was the unusual perspective from which I was able to view this issue – as someone who abandoned a potential academic career at age 20 for no good reason, then spent a few decades doing a fairly undemanding though reasonably interesting, enjoyable, and socially useful job, before going back into academia. In this age of career changes, when “jobs for life” are a thing of the past, it seemed to me that people in my position have a lot to offer the world of research and could step into the shoes of young postdocs who have fled to banking jobs.

Not that I’d actually recommend precisely the route I took, of course – getting back was quite a struggle, and one might well say “Tough!” – I’d had my chance and squandered it. But along the way I met others who had never had the chance in the first place, and who also had a contribution to make. Still, catching up with a demanding academic discipline is pretty challenging when you get past “a certain age”. But it can be done; and what we may lack in specialist knowledge of our subject is more than made up for by the skills we have acquired on the way.

Here is a suggestion for a less chaotic way of achieving the same end.

At the moment, people are expected to work from whatever age they are when they jump off the conveyor belt to whatever is the retirement age – let’s say about 50 years, from age 16 to 66, assuming the retirement age isn’t going to keep receding for ever. After that, we can live on a state pension, supplemented by any industrial or private pension we’ve contributed to. What’s to stop people being given the option of taking say a five or ten year block of their retirement a few decades earlier? For instance, you get your degree, then put your career on hold while you (that’s both partners – no gender-stereotyping here) set up a home, and have kids and  look after them till they start school. Then when you go back to your career, you have still got 50 years to work before getting your pension. But by that time the kids are growing up and hopefully things are a bit less hectic.

Maybe that is hopelessly idealistic; but I think one should at least try these ideas out. I tend to think of the way we live our lives as not necessarily being the best possible solution. OK, society has “evolved” in a similar way to the evolution of our bodies; but there again, nobody who knows anything about evolution would suggest that what we have ended up with is ideal. “Survival of the fittest” does not mean survival of the best. One of the arguments creationists try to use for their theories – the complex structure of the human eye – is thrown back into their faces by the observation that the design of the eye is hardly optimal, with the retina and optic nerve being somehow inside out, creating a blind spot. There are other examples that are sometimes given – including euphemistic references to putting the playground right next to the sewage farm. I think this is also true of the way we live our lives in society, and I think there is room for improvement. There ought to be a way of avoiding situations that lead to the sort of anguish expressed by one of my respondents at the end of the 2009 article – surely a cri de coeur that was literally crying out for a solution:

“Can’t get a job vaguely where I want to stay near my partner, and keep my pets with me, short term contracts make it hard to rent anything, pay is bad and I can’t face switching jobs every few months or years until finally getting tenure … I have outside interests and the people who are sucessful do nothing but particles, is my feeling. They expect you to be able to drop everything to go where it’s best for your career, there’s no work-around for a work-life balance.”