Ever since I decided I wanted to be a scientist I’ve been going pretty steady. With hard work, great guidance and a good dash of luck, I am now a self-funded postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University.
As a consequence, everyone thinks I’m a “rising star”. But instead of taking pride when people remark on this, a brief rush of positivity is usually followed by the persisting feeling that they will soon find out that I’m slowly turning into a falling star. My research is not progressing, my collaboration attempts have all failed and I only compare myself with the brilliant people who surround me here at Stanford. My hopes of ever becoming a “real” scientist are slowly sinking.
Everyone tells me your postdoc years are the most important of your career. Failure or bad luck at this stage will haunt you forever. Universities will consider you for a faculty position only if you publish something in a major journal. And because of the sheer number of job-seeking postdocs – many of them beloved colleagues whom I wholeheartedly want to have a great career – the expectations are becoming ever more stringent. That leaves more and more of us stacking up temporary position after temporary position, putting our lives in limbo.
So what should we do? How do you know when it’s time to give up and move on to another career? I defer to the almighty internet. I read stories about professors who admit to having made it only because of their sheer perseverance, but I also find accounts from postdocs who got stuck in academia (so-called “permadocs”) and regretted it. I read other people’s accounts of the “academic blues” and what they are doing about it. All this only makes me more unsure about what I should do.
So I start exploring other, non-academic career options. I talk to people who left academia, and to people planning on doing so. I visit careers fairs and fill out personality questionnaires at Stanford’s career development centre. But this only reinforces my conviction that I like being a scientist and I have the skills to be one. I would be happy in another job only if it requires as much creativity, variety and flexibility as science does. Great. Either I drastically change my expectations in life, or I am back at square one.
What makes devising an exit strategy so difficult is the fact that while publishing is all-important in science, the people who might interview you for a non-academic job are not interested in your publications. They only want to know about your skills and motivation. But these are not easy to build when you spend most of your time trying to get publishable results.
I think it is fair to say that we can roughly divide postdocs into three categories: the ones who have the skills, the best mentoring, and good data; the ones who have the skills and mentoring but don’t get clear data; and the ones that lack either skills or good mentoring. With only a small proportion of postdocs making it to a faculty position, only the first group and perhaps a few lucky ones out of the second group will make it. This leaves a large share of good postdocs who miss the boat, mostly out of misfortune. But how do these unfortunates know exactly when their luck has run out and they should stop trying to climb the steep pyramid?
I recently put this question to a Harvard professor during a “careers in science” discussion. She couldn’t really answer it, but kept reassuring me that everything would work out as long as I just hung in there. My peers were supportive, telling me it was brave to ask the question that haunted everyone but that no one dared to voice. The faculty were supportive as well, but they all agreed that if I just persevered I would never “fail” in academia. It made me wonder whether the older generation just does not understand the harsh realities, or whether we youngsters see a problem that’s not there.
It would help if mentors were more honest about actual career chances, and stress the luck as well as the perseverance factor. But they also need to stop equating leaving academia with failure. In addition, it would take a huge weight off many postdocs’ minds if more permanent staff scientists were created; I was among those who gave overwhelming support to this option in a poll linked to a recent Nature article on the “postdoc problem”.
Even if such measures did not stop The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go? from playing on an endless mental loop, they would at least help turn down the volume – allowing postdocs, for once, to hear themselves think about their future research, instead of their future life.
The author is a European postdoctoral researcher working at Stanford University.