PERLs of wisdom

Once upon a time, a long time ago, before most of today’s early career researchers were born, there was a young Australian postdoc living in New York. She’d learned a lot overseas and scored a couple of great discoveries/papers. Now, though, she wanted to return home, set up her own lab, lead her own team of scientific discovery hunters, collaborate with the best of the best.

Trouble was, timing wasn’t great. There was a worldwide recession, with very few academic jobs available, and research funding was tight. Her application to the Australian Research Council for a Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship was highly ranked but just missed out. It placed in the reserve list. Cripes. What to do now?

Meanwhile, somewhere else – where? – another young postdoc – who? – made a decision that changed our young postdoc’s life. That someone else had been awarded a QEII Fellowship, but declined the offer. Consequently, our protagonist moved up into the funded list and became a QEII Fellow. Hooray! A lifeline had been thrown out: she grabbed it with both hands and (almost) never looked back.

Opportunity is everything as an early career researcher.

Fast forward almost 30 years, that young postdoc is now the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Wollongong (UOW), an Australian university located an hour or so south of Sydney – and one of only two universities in Australia having an Indigenous name in its title. Fantastic!

Trouble is, timing isn’t great. There is a worldwide pandemic, borders are closed to international students, university income has dropped dramatically, academic jobs are being shed, and research funding is tighter than anyone can ever remember. Cripes. What to do now?

The Australian Federal Government provided short-term sustenance in the form of a bonus research block grant, to be expended by universities over 2021/2022. Block grants can be put to many uses, and each university decides on its own priorities – equipment maintenance, new equipment, small grants, large grants, teaching buyout, research support, research fellowships.

UOW is setting aside a large proportion of its bonus research block grant to Prioritise Emerging Research Leaders (PERL) Fellowships and Indigenous PERL Fellowships. This scheme provides a salary, a small grant, and a mentor to support the most vulnerable of our researchers: early career researchers employed on fixed term contracts ending within the next 6 months. Alas, current constraints mean that PERL Fellowships last just18 months, and there are not enough to support everyone that should be supported.

Nevertheless, UOW’s PERLs (of wisdom) Fellows will have a lifeline. Precious PERLs, grab that opportunity and run with it.

After all, opportunity is everything when you are an early career researcher.