Everyone knows how tough it is to climb the ladder as an early career researcher.
It was a point that was spelled out again in a recent Times Higher Education article (“Postdoc blues: how do you know when it is time to give up?”), which described the inner conflict that keeps many postdocs trapped in an “endless mental loop” of unfulfilled aspiration.
The conflict exists between their hopes for a future in scientific research on the one hand and the reality of academia on the other. And sooner or later, young researchers have to decide what to do about it.
The author of the THE article describes how his explorations of alternative career options just reinforced his conviction that he belongs in the laboratory.
And this is not something that us postdocs only tell ourselves: the established powers within academia keep telling us that something will work out eventually, as long as we do not give up and keep working as hard as possible.
But can we rely on this? The author concludes with a call for academic mentors to be more honest with their charges about the risks of pursuing a career in academia. But is it realistic to expect brutal honesty from mentors who are themselves part of the system?
Wouldn’t it be better to seek advice from external experts? From people who are familiar with tricky situations in another context, perhaps?
In some ways, the postdoc question has parallels with those in an unhappy relationship. The love-match in question is between young researchers and academia: a great romance blighted by commitment fears and threatened by harsh reality.
So where better to ask for help than in the online forums where the lovelorn go for romantic counsel?
To put this theory to the test, I posed the postdoc’s dilemma in two such forums using the following relationship analogy:
“I've been in a relationship with my boyfriend for about seven years (before that we had already been friends for some time), and he actually embodies pretty much everything I've ever wanted in a life partner. Ever since I was a little girl, I have imagined my future husband just like him. So I invested a lot of time and effort in order to catch his attention and to establish our relationship.
In principle everything is great, and most of the time I feel just happy to have such a wonderful boyfriend. There is a catch, though: he does not want to commit himself.
At the same time he expects me to give up everything for him. To give just a few examples: I’ve been living abroad with him for quite a while now. The main reason is that he told me the relationship wouldn’t have a future if I didn’t come with him.
Also, being in my early thirties I would like to start a family soon. But I have postponed these plans for him, because I’m afraid that I wouldn’t have enough time for him any more if I had to take care of children (he had hinted a number of times that this might be a problem).
Generally, he says he is not sure whether he really can promise me anything lasting. In principle he would not mind getting married some day. But he would want to wait a couple more years to see if we both really match and whether I keep investing enough effort in our relationship.
Unfortunately, my boyfriend is very attractive to others. So I think that I would be replaced very quickly if I didn’t do everything that he wants me to. If I ended the relationship, he certainly wouldn’t be the one asking me to come back to him.
The strange thing is that I just cannot break up with him. Somehow I have set my mind on having this relationship, to such an extent that I feel I could never be happy without him. I find myself clinging to the hope that he just needs some more time, and that eventually everything will be fine.
Day to day, everything is great between us. But the uncertainty is terrible. And my fear is that at some point I will be too old for a complete re-start, if it turns out that our relationship ultimately has no future. What can I do?”
The first response to the post was quick and to the point: “Wow, what the fuck!?”, says commenter Mia. “That’s the stuff great cinema is made of.”
Her take on my problem is that it is only he who sets the rules: either it works as he wants or I am out. This is true, and in academia we call this “publish or perish”. She is certainly right that it is not a very modern form of a relationship.
Her advice? “Don’t let him monopolise you. You must not always dance to his tune. In the long run, you won’t find satisfaction if your needs do not matter at all.”
Mia says I must fight my corner – after all, no one else will do it for me.
She is probably right. But how?
“You have to break your behavioural pattern and show him that there are limits. It’s not very likely that anything will change if your strategy is just to wait. For him, everything is fine the way it is.”
There’s more advice from a second commenter, who calls herself Paradise: “Follow his example and fight for what you want. Then you will be much more attractive as a woman. Do not be meek and mild,” she advises.
So send a clear message? Something along the lines of: “We want more permanent jobs for young researchers, otherwise we’ll strike” – that sort of thing?
Mia isn’t sure it will work – “He would probably rather die than descend from his high horse,” she warns.
Again, she’s probably right. But shouldn’t we try nonetheless? And if so, how?
“If you stay strong, he’ll give in. Otherwise he has never been worth being in a relationship with,” offers a third commenter, Muschel.
So we should stay strong – but isn’t this what young researchers are already doing? And still we wait and wait, without an offer of a permanent job.
Paradise comes back in to point out that there are plenty of other fish in the sea – if he’s not interested, then it may be time to look elsewhere.
And of course she’s right, there are plenty of other career options outside of academia.
But is there really no chance of finding a compromise?
“I'm afraid it’s hopeless. The guy sounds like an egomaniac to me. You can’t win against those kind of people,” says a fourth commenter, Liveticker.
“A friend of mine has caught a similar type. He knew perfectly how to manipulate her just as he liked. In the years that they were together she changed completely. At the end he dumped her and now he’s doing exactly the same thing with the next girl.”
And, sad to say, that’s how it often goes. Then, one day, you wake up to find that you are a frustrated, super-qualified jobseeker in your mid-forties.
But what can you do? Ultimately, everything comes back to one question, which is posed in the online forum by Paradise: “Do you still love him?”
For most of us, the answer to this question is “Yes”. And that’s the problem. Because in matters of the heart, rationality goes out of the window.
A final commenter, Oror3, concludes: “I have thought about your situation. Only together we are strong. My intuition tells me: stay together!”
Sibylle Anderl works as a postdoctoral researcher in the field of astrophysics in Grenoble, France. She is a regular contributor to the science blog Planckton, hosted by the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Twitter: @sianderl