The stress of small money

I was lucky enough to be awarded a fellowship in late 2015 that meant I wouldn’t have to worry about job security for a few years. When I found out, I was overwhelmed and relieved. I would have control over my own research agenda, salary for several years and project funds.

Working on a nationally funded fellowship has been as liberating as I imagined. But it has also raised some difficult budgetary situations. Before starting my fellowship, I was in funded postdoc positions. When I started each previous new position, I was provided with a computer, which is essential for my scientific work. In my field, a computer is a laboratory. I also had access to small sums of money for occasional travel or development opportunities.

My current fellowship is generous in many ways, but also highly restrictive. I have money available for travel to particular conferences, but I can’t buy a computer, for example. Computers are considered essential, and hence should be provided by a university, not a funding body, regardless of whether they are used glorified typewriters, projectors for cat videos or scientific instruments.

Universities do provide computers for researchers, but typically the same type of computer is provided to a computer scientist, sociologist or physiologist, regardless of need and usage. For example, many universities provide desktops, which aren’t always useful for field work, meeting patients or working remotely at other research institutions. I use a laptop for working remotely, submitting to and checking jobs on the national supercomputer at all hours, and working at conferences or other institutions.

I still use the laptop that was provided for my last postdoc, which is now old and a little confused. One of my biggest stresses at the moment is the inevitable thought of my computer dying, which will paralyze my research. What happens if I crash my bike? What happens if someone else’s water bottle leaks on a plane flight? How would my career cope?

A laptop isn’t hugely expensive and I would gladly consider buying one myself, even though this would take money from my own family. However, a laptop bought from my own salary is a personal computer and isn’t eligible for university software licenses, support or network connectivity. It would be useless for my work.

Computers are just one example of financial constraints that squeeze early and mid-career researchers. I have a colleague who was very interested in undertaking training in diversity and inclusivity but was unable to because she couldn’t raise the small sums of money required to enrol in courses. She thought that professional training would benefit her career, her discipline, department, and university, but it wasn’t financially possible.

Many young researchers are pressed by short contracts and uncertain job prospects, but even those lucky enough to obtain competitive funding are often pressed by having no financial freedom to obtain the necessary skills and tools to do their jobs.

These concerns might seem trivial, but they are a source of immense stress. These are the topic of many tea room conversation or postdoc email chains. I emphasise that I love my work, my department and my university. I feel incredibly supported and encouraged and helped wherever possible, but I still wake up regularly in a panic about what I will do when my computer dies.

Planning for this occurrence, or negotiating to obtain small sums of money occupy a huge amount of time and mental energy. Indeed, I could have purchased 2 or 3 laptops if I had sidestepped the issue and got a second job at the local cafe. Several weeks ago I was at a conference where I was told that young researchers have it too easy these days. I burst into tears.

The distribution of discretionary funds (which can be used for development and computers) to academics varies between departments and between universities and depends on a lot of factors including a department’s financial health. There are many good reasons why universities don’t or can’t throw pots of money at young researchers.

While I appreciate this context and the overall support, encouragement, and privilege of my position, I can’t help but think that a cohort of young researchers is occupied most by chasing small sums of money, rather than focusing on the grand challenges of their disciplines.

I am a climate scientist and I research an issue that affects every single person alive today and for decades to come. At the supposed apex of my creativity, energy and intellectual capability, I wake up every night panicking about affording a laptop, not about how I can help us all be best prepared for living in an extreme climatic future.