Postdoc-ing and a year of tears

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***

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10 thoughts on “Postdoc-ing and a year of tears

  1. Beautifully written. I can only imagine how hard it was to put words to this feeling: it is to your credit that you were able to articulate it so clearly and deeply. By identifying and expressing it so concisely, I’ve no doubt you’re helping countless other post-docs finding themselves feeling the same way. Good luck and stay tough 🙂

    • Thanks for the encouragement! It’s always a strange tension being a thinking and feeling person at work. But there’s lot of incredible people to help, if you take a chance and let them.

  2. Thanks for this beautiful post! It helps, it helps so much indeed. Really, thanks for sharing (and for writing so well about what is playing in the back of my mind right now).
    And… with so many people living through the exact same issues, maybe it’s time to start the Postdoc Revolution 🙂 (a very French thing to say!).

  3. Well done for articulating so clearly and emphatically what so many of us are thinking and living. My post-doc ended with a crunch; 4 kids later, and with a husband smashing his PhD whilst working full-time….there is me, struggling to keep my head above water, trying to ‘stay in the game’. The ‘black hole’ after a post-doc is hard work. I was aligned with industry, so the black hole is more grey – the community that industry breeds (mine was forestry) is less competitive than university, and while I feel ‘left out’ at times, I am still in the loop. We help PhD’s and are getting better at helping ECRs, but the train of support forgets about early-middle career researchers. If I can help, let me know. Mentors don’t need to be the high-flyers, or top researchers. Just someone who listens and understands.

  4. Hi Sophie,

    Your brief personal essay was an eye opener to read. Many parts felt as if I had written them myself; and yet I did not realize I felt this strongly until I read your prose. As a 2nd year Post-Doc I feel many of the same emotions, grief, fear, frustration, that is appears you (and many other PDocs) have experienced. I lean on my family and friends for support, but also feel that they can’t really relate to our struggle (non-academics). Many times I have stayed awake at night wondering if I should just take one the many industry job offers and leave my academic career behind me. But, somehow I always convince myself to soldier on.

    I wish you all the luck in your future career, and leave with the thought that you are not alone in this and you can come out on top.

  5. I’m so sorry your post-doc experience is not working out.
    So much for the empathy, now for the tough reality. You should have chosen a place where team activity is humming; ie you can hear people thinking, feel the enthusiasm and have a boss who generates warmth and respect. You are lucky to even have a post-doc and its up to you to make a success of it. You are supposed to be a fully trained scientist who can pull yourself up, set your own directions and achieve.
    However, much worse is around the corner. Applying for and not receiving research grants will dominate your life, even if you are successful. Worse still, your employer, either public or private, can decide to change directions or save money and you can be deemed to be surplus and sacked. How you respond to such challenges will define your research career. However, it never gets any easier.
    What to do now? Go to your Prof and demand regular meetings to discuss your research direction and outlook. This is how we all do research, all the time, by team meetings and coffee discussions. But remember you are a senior researcher, so act like one. Good luck!

    • Thanks for your interest, but I tend to think this attitude is part of the problem. Ubiquitous mental health issues in young researchers can’t be solved by us pulling ourselves up or being grateful for opportunity.

      Maybe I’m lucky, or maybe I’m hard working and talented. Nonetheless, I agree that it’s a great strength of academia that competition is fierce. But it does not necessary follow that the best talent emerges successful fro the processes. I’m willing and able to do the hard work but together with a lot of ECRs don’t buy into the prevailing cliche that you make it, or you’re not good or strong enough.

      I’m much more interested in being open and honest and in doing so maybe (incrementally) help create an academia that supports and utilises its wonderful human capital.

  6. Sorry to hear about your diffict year Sophie. As a humanities academic I had some of these experiences as a PhD student, since there is much less in the way of community and mentoring as a graduate student in this more individualistic field. When I graduates with my PhD nearly 20 years ago I don’t know if the concept of an ECR even really existed!

    Teaching was a boon for me – not necessarily as a route to career progression, since teaching is still gravely devalued in comparison to research, but as a route to meaning and community. The competitive culture you describe is certainly present in the humanities in competition for grants and the like, but there is a great deal less of it when colleagues come together or work side by side teaching. There isn’t really one university but many, I reckon, and sometimes moving sideways into another domain can help with your mental health if not your career prospects! Best of luck in the future.

  7. Perhaps I should add that the casualisation of work in universities means that there are plenty of qualified excellent casual staff treated like “disposable nobodies”. I think this problem is bigger than the post-doc experience and reveals a cruel if pragmatic response to many years of underfunding higher education.

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