It’s been a hard year.
In the second half of 2014, I moved universities. It was an obvious decision for personal reasons – the end of my contract at Melbourne University was looming and my partner and I would be able to live in the same city for the first time in years.
I had thrived in my first postdoc. I was energised, at times manically so. I enjoyed the steep learning curve of changing fields after my PhD, I loved beginning to teaching and learning to supervise and I thrived in developing an understanding of how a university works.
I expected my second postdoc would follow accordingly. I’d write papers, get students, develop my lecturing skills and metaphorically take over the world.
Instead, I’ve spent the bulk of the year sitting in an office by myself crying.
To be fair, the year has been flavoured by the typical confluence of life events* – my partner has been furiously PhD-ing while working three jobs, we have been enduring the stress trying to start a family and navigating the usual ups and downs of living in the world.
Nonetheless, my year of tears is deeply rooted in my struggles at work. In my early career researcher (ECR) series from earlier in the year, I promised to describe how I had tipped the balance of my own career in favour of the rewards, rather than challenge, of pursuing an academic career. I suggested that academia can be a space for big thought and great discovery. It can be a flexible, exciting an energetic place of collaboration.
If I am honest, this is not at all what I’ve been feeling recently about my career. Rather, I’ve been feeling lonely and disconnected and that my ambitions are stifled. My qualms about the industry and my place within it have exponentially come to outweigh my enjoyment of work.
Recently I’ve felt that academia is an anachronism. It is highly conservative and is infuriatingly risk averse. More personally, I feel that development opportunities for young academics are intentionally limited and that the industry purposefully consumes young researchers.
I’ve felt brutally, heartbreakingly lonely in my professional life. After 30 years of pursuing my unwavering desire to be a scientist, the chasm between dream and reality was shattering. I hoped it would pass. Instead my feelings of failure and disappointed snowballed.
Ostensibly, I was a thriving young researcher with potential to succeed. In July this, I received a career award for my promising start to my research career. The experience was excruciating. The colleagues I have long respected and admired congratulated me, and students sought me out to ask questions about my career. Meanwhile, I felt that everything inside me was tearing apart and couldn’t be put back together.
I had come to the unavoidable conclusion that I was a fake. I had failed – I was beyond uninterested in my research and had grave hesitations about academia. At best, I was destined for an unhappy, lonely and unfulfilling career of under-employment.
I flipped and flopped, ummed and ahhed. And eventually out of necessity, I spoke up and sought advice about my work struggles, my disappointment, and my broader qualms with academia. Surprisingly, everyone I’ve confided with has a personal connection with my experiences. I’ve since heard story after story of the first year of a postdoc or tenure-track position spent idly sitting in a dark, lonely office crying.
For many, the transition from PhD to postdoc or faculty is shattering. Although willing and capable of undertaking the higher expectations of the next rung of the academic ladder, young researchers often face an enormous disconnect from collegial PhD life to a postdoc life without a community. You are no longer a student supported by other students but still not yet “someone.” Meanwhile, competition is fierce and so many of us end up sitting in our offices in the lonely pursuit of unfulfilling papers.
I’ve heard stories of month after month and year after year of wondering if there is any point in continuing. The excitement of learning independent skills is short lived, and then what? When I first started my postdoc, I quickly learned new skills, but opportunities in academia rapidly plateau. What now? When is the next chance to learn something new?
I love science and though I’ve just indicated otherwise, I firmly believe that academia is one of our great public institutions. I love riding my bike onto campus every morning. I love visiting other universities, each with their distinct feeling but the commonality of young and old people enjoying themselves and nourishing their intellectual needs.
For some, participating in this culture and learning to be an academic is an unrivalled, rewarding experience. Unfortunately for many postdocs, it is overshadowed by feelings of intense loneliness, sadness, disappointment and failure. A recent survey of my department revealed that some 30% of junior academic staff couldn’t name a single person in the university as a mentor. They feel hopeless; there are no options for career development and that there is literally no one helping them. We are simply dispensable nobodies.
I’m still in my year of tears and am equally comforted and appalled by the ubiquity of my experiences. We simply must do better to help empower young researchers to fulfill the promise of their education and training, in whatever that might be.
* Otherwise known as a cluster-f***