A New Road

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.

You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet,

there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

I have a soft spot for Tolkien’s novels. For the last few months the fictional Middle-earth journeys have had me thinking about whether I should start my own. Two weeks ago I took that first step out the door and – after 17 years at the Formulation Unit – handed in my notice: I’ll leave at Christmas.

Where next? I’m becoming a Home Dad.

May the statistics be with you…

I, like many of my generation, were brought up in two parent families where our fathers did the earning, and our mothers did the homes. So for me as a man, dropping a vowel from my career to become a ‘carer’ feels a countercultural. But the data suggests otherwise.

A recent EU report showed that in the UK about 40% of carers in my age range (ie working age) are male, and in 2011 about 10% of the UK population were listed as carers.

However the studies also show that it’s not all roses: in the UK, male carers are more likely than female carers to have ‘no employment’ and overall caring is associated with a higher risk of poverty, mental and other health issues, and poorer employment prospects (gulp!).

The price of equality

The last few years have seen me wrestle with the public sector’s Equality and Diversity agenda: from the mandatory video and online quiz, to being deeply challenged by Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s story. I’ve accepted the equality of men and woman as working professionals (unlike the ‘70’s Britain I grew up in), and agree that we need to take active steps in promoting it (with initiatives like Athena Swan). But the past few weeks have pushed that agenda to a deeper, more personal, level. I talk the talk (about equality), but am I prepared to walk the walk (and make some sacrifices)? For various reasons my family won’t work with two ‘full-timers’: in order to allow my wife’s career to progress I need to step back from mine. This is my equality price.

Heading for the scrapyard?

After finishing my PhD I couldn’t get a job (and I looked pretty hard), so after a year I went to Strathclyde Uni for the MSc in Pharmaceutical Analysis: yes, I know – people usually do it the other way round – but I needed a ‘saleable’ skill set and that was the best way to get it! In 1996 I finished my third degree with an ‘impressive’ list of of ‘prize’ scholarships and ended up straight back on the dole queue. This taught me that it doesn’t matter how bright you are (and how many letters you have after your name to prove it), job offers don’t always come easy.

After 20 years of working I now have a far better understanding of what it takes to find a job. But there’s a nagging voice in my psyche that I’m now heading for the scrapheap because I’m leaving a career for care.

The working world is ‘competitive’ and not ‘caring’. Caring is by definition a process of putting time and energy into an individual, or group: competition is about recognising where and how to win, in an environment where the leaders get the spoils and the losers get nothing. The Nag tells me that my future employers would give their job offers to the candidates with the best scientific papers, the richest research grants, the most successful portfolios, and as a carer I’m never going to have a ‘bigger one’ than a career-er.

What achievement, skill set or portfolio can I develop by being a home-dad? And even then how could those attributes be defined, measured and ‘valued’ as assets in a future job interview? Will the future hold science success? Or scrappy?

What about part time?

Why not work part time at the Formulation Unit?

Because the FU lab sits on the boundary between development – where we accept that not everything goes to plan – and pharmaceutical manufacture – where everything must go to plan. Life on the fence is never an easy, or comfortable, place to be. Projects are in either ‘development’ or ‘manufacture’, but different experiments can be in either camp. Where an individual experiment ‘sit’ depends on the project, the science, the regulations, the risk, the timelines and a myriad of other factors, but where it sits is key to how we handle the problems that arise. Often decisions need to be made quickly, and whoever makes the call needs to be prepared face the law.

And that was my job! And sometimes it was heavy! And most of the time it was a blast!

But I honestly feel that I can’t do that properly if I’m only working a day or two a week.

The road less travelled.

It’s strange that nearly 30 years of study and experience (and probably about a million quid in training, overheads and salary costs) all comes to a close with a A4 sheet of paper saying ‘….I hereby give notice of the termination of my employment contract….’ The Formulation Unit feels awfully like Bag End, and the road ahead dark and uncertain.

Sam Gamgee's door, Hobbiton, NZ
Sam Gamgee’s door, Hobbiton, NZ

But maybe, just maybe, I’ll be back with a chest of troll-horde gold….

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