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Why I turned down a DECRA to work in the United States

Me on one of my field trips to the Nullarbor working on desert reptiles. Author provided

Why I turned down a DECRA to work in the United States

My decision to turn down a lucrative Discovery Early Career Award (DECRA) worth A$385,000 was outlined in an ABC report broadcast last week.

The DECRA is a prestigious grant given by the Australian Research Council to support early career researchers. It is highly competitive, with only one in seven applicants awarded funding. So turning one down is rather rare.

My refusal of the DECRA was perceived to be a protest against waning Australian science funding, and that was indeed a factor, but my decision was actually more complex.

So, here’s the story of why I turned down a DECRA, and the opportunity to return to Australia to continue my career as a scientist, in favour of building my career in the United States.

Moving abroad

In early 2009 my postdoc funding ran out and I was planning what to do next. I wanted to stay in Australia, but there were no available postdocs in my area of evolutionary biology. And outside of a postdoc offer from overseas, an Australian Postdoctoral Fellowship (APD, a predecessor to the DECRA) was my only option to continue working in Australia, so I applied for one.

At the time, I had moved to be with my partner after us living apart for two years. We had met while I was living in Canberra and working at the Australian National University, and he was in Sydney at the time, although he later moved to Adelaide.

Unfortunately, my APD application was unsuccessful. However, while I hadn’t necessarily been looking for work in the US, I was offered a position in one of the top labs in my field at the University of Michigan. After living on savings for 12 months, I took the US position.

While I moved to the US, my partner stayed in Australia. Like around 50% of female academics in natural sciences, my partner is also an academic, and was in the midst of his PhD. We didn’t see each other in person for ten months.

Then, in mid-2011, with my funding in the US exhausted and my partner’s thesis finished, we both began applying for postdocs. He had by this time joined me in the US. There were few postdocs available in Australia, yet the US offered opportunities for us to both maintain viable research careers and live in the same place. We eventually both got postdocs at Yale University.

Yet, after years of short-term employment and frequent moving, I yearned to settle and have a family, ideally in Australia. So, since 2010, I have applied for almost every available Australian position that I could.

I also continued to apply for US positions, and consistently made short-lists and interviewed at research universities. However, I was unable to achieve the same success in Australia as in the US. Except for being invited to apply for a CSIRO position that was cancelled when the Abbott government came to power, I was never able to make a short-list.

Life decisions

Thus, in early 2013, I was ready for a make or break decision. I was now in my mid-30s and wanted a family, so the pull to settle was higher.

I didn’t yet have a job offer either in the US or Australia, but decided at least a DECRA may take me back to Australia, even without any guarantee of a job thereafter. I didn’t care. If I couldn’t find permanent work after the DECRA, I would leave science and find something else to do with my life if it didn’t work out. Yet I also continued to apply for faculty jobs in the US.

Recently, I was offered a fantastic opportunity to join the faculty at the University of California, Merced as a tenure-track Assistant Professor. While not strictly permanent, I would have six years to show I was a productive member of the faculty, and thereafter may qualify for tenure. At the same time I was also awarded a DECRA worth A$385,000.

I might have taken the DECRA to come home, but I was by now disillusioned with my prospects of getting long-term employment in science, and the political support for science had taken a dramatic turn for the worse after years of decline. The UC Merced job allowed a tangible view to maintaining a strong career doing what I love.

My new UC Merced colleagues also made a tremendous effort to keep me and my partner together, which is mostly unheard of in Australia. To the disappointment of my family in Australia, but with their understanding, I turned down the DECRA and decided to make my life here in the US.

Science in Australia

My story is not unique. In fact I have been very fortunate. Many scientists who have stayed in Australia have done it tougher.

Short-term contract faculty and adjunct positions are increasingly common in Australia amid consistently declining funding rates for universities since the Howard years. Universities aren’t growing. Faculty are retiring and not being replaced, yet class sizes are increasing.

Furthermore, university positions are rare, especially for couples, affecting recruitment of women.

Legislation was also introduced to make PhD students pay fees. A lot of Australian university research is PhD-driven. If passed, this legislation would disadvantage Australian labs for recruiting even top Australian students.

PhD students generally don’t have to pay fees in most other countries, so top Australian students would essentially be better off going overseas for their PhD studies.

The Abbott government has also taken a sledgehammer to the CSIRO, eliminating many non-university positions for research scientists and cutting the organisation’s staff by around 10%, possibly as high as 20%.

As I made my decision, with a child on the way that I would have liked to raise in Australia, I thought about what my future would look like there. I ultimately chose security for my family and me, and a better career offer.

The DECRA was designed to attract/keep the brightest young minds and is largely viewed as a gateway into Australian faculty positions. But for me the lack of long-term promise after the award or attached to it was not enough to take up this prestigious honour given the alternative opportunity I was presented with.

Promises of increasing opportunities are difficult to expect under the current funding climate unless there is a dramatic shift for greater investment in Australian universities and research agencies. So while I will continue my research work on Australian fauna, I will make my life in the US.