DM Physioprof put up a post on grad school malaise some time a week or two ago and today “B” chimed in on the problem of postdoc malaise. B’s problem is quite different than the grad school question that DM dealt with but it is an issue I have been hearing a lot lately so I thought I would cover my opinion of the issue.
It’s just coming to the end of a (way too short) 2 year appointment with the dream (tenure track job in my case) not in sight for myself and almost everyone i know who’s in a similar situation, it’s so hard to be motivated about… no, not finally my own research appointment and group, but the next postdoc! What do we do? I am so close to quitting, but anytime I say this to anyone there is a loud ‘NOOOOOOO! you can’t you’re too good at this to leave academia”. Well I’m apparently not good enough to get a job offer (everything I interviewed for went to people who were already assistant professors by the way).
Will I and my peers really feel some great relief and revival in our second postdocs after hauling ass across the country or continents and get started in yet new labs and with new people? Really? Really really? Because I see a bunch of us running on empty with no end in sight… For me, the PhD was never unattainable, doing science was never a chore. But chasing a goal that seems unattainable and spending all my time doing job applications is dreadful and makes me hate every day…
I heard many stories like this at the APS meeting last week. It seems fairly clear to me that the short window of opportunity in which I got my tenure track job is closing somewhat as institutions deal with the realities of the present funding crunch. This has a very adverse effect on postdocs that are ready to hit the job market. While it undoubtedly is not the ideal situation for people like B, it is an opportunity for people in her situation to take action for their career development, just maybe not in the way they would envision it.
B appears to have done a two year stint as a postdoc and has been out interviewing but has not been able to land the job she wants (or maybe any job at all). B obviously loves science and isn’t ready to give up on her dream. First off, I concur, don’t do it, stick with your goal because it is attainable and it is still early days for your budding career. In B’s case I would suggest that she start looking very hard into doing another postdoc. In particular, do a postdoc that will give her some skills that will greatly enhance the chance of landing that dream job. If there is some technique that B doesn’t know and would be a big plus to the future research program now would be a good time to pick it up. Another option would be to go with a mentor who will allow for a good deal of independence in the research program to allow B a shot to develop her research aims to the point where an R01 application is immediately apparent from the preliminary data she has generated. This can be a big plus when going to the interviews and it can make your chalk talk really shine.
Postdoc-ing is a funny thing. Often times you feel that you are ready for your own lab but as you progress a bit more it can become clear that you weren’t quite as ready as you thought you were. Take me as an example. I was a postdoc for 4 years total in two different labs. After 2 years I hit the interview trail but didn’t get any takers (although I thought I was ready). After the failures of those early attempts to get my dream job I did a bit of self evaluation. The facts of the matter were that my story wasn’t ready to go and I needed to learn more about how to fully test the hypotheses that I wanted to go after as a PI. So, I buckled down, albeit somewhat reluctantly at first, and got into the business of creating my story. By the time I hit the interview trail again my hypotheses were backed up by a good deal of data and I had a nice story to tell. Moreover, in hindsight, I learned that the approaches I had proposed on my first tour were overly complicated and that I hadn’t effectively couched the relevance of my work for a wide audience at a basic science department. I think I actually got close to getting a job on that first tour (after 2 postdoc years) and looking back I am happy that I didn’t get it. I wasn’t ready and I never would have had time to get the program off the ground, start a lab and get grants written much less recruit good people and begin mentoring them to be productive in the area I wanted to pursue.
Finally, the funding situation appears to be as bad as its ever been right now. I obviously don’t have the experience to make such a statement but many senior colleagues I know have this opinion so I’ll run with it. Everyone knows that something has to be done and NIH appears to be set to make a concrete commitment to make some changes that might get us back on the right track with a little help from congress and a new administration in the white house. Moreover, there is no denying the greying of faculty at research institutions (see the Zerhouni presentation on WriteEd’s site — link above). Unless these universities are going to close up shop to a large degree in a decade or so (slight chance), there will be new rounds of hiring for junior faculty and a continued commitment by NIH to get junior PIs into the funding game at an earlier career stage. With all this in mind, B, stick it out!! It seems that there are some colleagues at your institution that are pulling for you and we’re pulling for you too. Maintain that optimism about your profession and focus on what you can do to make yourself the best scientist you can be. Some things are clearly beyond your control right now but you can reorganize to get them back into your grasp over the slightly longer term.