Sunday, January 6, 2013

Before Professor comes Postdoc: Lower career rung, just as much job stress

If being professor is the "Least Stressful Job of 2013", then being a postdoc is just as carefree and joyous.

Its one of those mornings where I woke up stressed at 6am (and its a Sunday, of course). My recent restlessness is a consequence of much deep thoughts over the holidays--examining and reassessing my postdoctoral path, trying to figure out how I can use my time most efficiently in 2013. You see, I'm aiming for the tenure-track.

I've been following the discussion surrounding Susan Adam's Forbes article quite closely (see responses, "Top 10 Reasons being a University Professor is a Stressful Job" by David Kroll and "Do College Professors Have Less Stress?" by Emily Willingham). While these articles do a fabulous job of dispelling the notion of University Professorship as a "Least Stressful Job of 2013", there isn't much talk of the career path that leads up to this Holy Grail of Academia.

In my experience, postdoc stress has been the most dangerous kind; its a subtle, constant kind of stress that silently creeps into your life and impacts your mindset in stochastic, unanticipated ways (like waking up early this morning, suddenly anxious about not having a high enough publication output). Getting my PhD was of course stressful, but my thesis was the end goal and gave me a light at the end of the tunnel. The goal during my postdoctoral career is vague and nondescript "get a faculty job somewhere".

For those of us on an academic career path, a postdoc position is considered "training" -- after getting your PhD (and proving that you can do science), you readjust yourself and gain the additional skills necessary for a successful career as a professor. The trouble is, part of postdoctoral training is developing independence. Everyone stumbles initially, but we soon begin to form our own scientific identities--being distinct from your PI is encouraged and required. We postdocs formulate our own research questions, personal obsessions, and project ideas. Many of us effectively start functioning as professors; we write grants, mentor students, and seek out new collaborations.

For me, being a 3rd year postdoc is like being an Assistant Professor, but without any street cred or institutional support. Much to my constant frustration, it seems like even senior postdocs are commonly viewed as unvetted scientists. The NSF program officers I talk to seem to encourage grant submissions from postdocs, yet I've gotten grant reviewer comments saying things along the line of "not sure if a postdoc is capable of managing this project". The nature of postdoctoral contracts doesn't do anything to dispel this myth either--with short-term funding that can dry up at any instant, we're forced to move around and follow the money if we can't get our own grants. In my opinion, the transient nature can undermine both our science and professional reputation. You lose time when you move--establishing yourself in the rhythm of a new lab always seem to take up a minimum of 6 months (a lot of lost science time, particularly when postdoc contracts are typically 1 or 2 years).

At every university I've worked at, postdocs are essentially regaled into some sort of institutional purgatory. At my first post-PhD institute, there wasn't a whisper of a support network for postdocs. Administrators didn't even have an idea of how many of us were on campus (not even an email list!). In comparison to many universities, UC Davis (my current workplace) is pretty good to their postdocs--we have awesome benefits, have a voice in the form of the UC postdoc union, as well as admin that send us information about training and career opportunities (although the events themselves are mostly aimed at grad students). But even at UC Davis we still don't have a dedicated postdoc office--there's no one specifically assigned to look after postdocs, even though they represent a large and distinct group on campus. The Postdoctoral Scholar's Association, which I'm a member of, is pretty much a grassroots organization run by the postdocs themselves (although we do get institutional funding for postdoc travel grants and scholarship awards). In terms of social support, its hard to settle in and meet other postdocs. There's often little opportunity to socialize with your peers on campus (at least faculty members have some sort of forced socialization via departmental meetings).

I've held the title of Postdoctoral Researcher for nearly 3 years. This year was my first year dipping my toe into the faculty job search process. I think I'm a pretty good postdoc--I work hard, try to think outside the box, network my ass off (I actually love socializing with other scientists), and consider both the nuances and big picture ideas within my discipline. But as Emily Willingham pointed out in her recent post, not all faculty positions are alike, and its hard to tailor your postdoctoral career when you're never exactly sure of the job search criteria. I've heard different advice from people on faculty search committees; some say that in order to get an interview, applicants must have glamor publications and grant support. Other people I've talked to have said that's ridiculous; grant support is a bonus, but search committees look more at your scientific lineages (the labs in which you've trained) and your letters of recommendation. The process seems almost entirely stochastic, and the best you can hope to do is cast a line in every direction and cross your fingers that something bites.

So as a postdoc, I've even found career advice to be stressful - the faculty search process is a black box, varying widely across institutes. As a postdoc, how do I focus my scientific efforts to maximize my changes of getting a job? Tasks like grant writing are extremely time consuming and have low chance of success, particularly given the current funding climate and the fact that as a postdoc, you just don't have a proven scientific track record yet. Its akin to trying to cram for a test, but only having minimal information about what's even going to be on the exam. This has been particularly true in my case, since I've switched research focus during my postdoctoral career, and my research is highly interdisciplinary (read: I don't seem to be specialized enough in any one particular field, but instead have a broad knowledge across disciplines. In my experience, interdisciplinary science seems to be encouraged in principle, but penalized in practice, e.g. in peer reviews from postdoctoral fellowship grants). The objective feedback I've gotten on my CV hasn't been surprising in any traditional sense--I was encouraged to get more grants, get more (any) glamor publications, and aim for single-author publications that showcase myself as a thought-leader within my field. And of course I've been trying to do all those things--for three years now. Its not like I've been twiddling my thumbs; success always seems to be just out of reach, despite a plethora of politely encouraging rejections.

As a postdoc, I constantly feel like I'm at the mercy of others; I'm toiling away in a corner, waiting for my big break. Whether it be for grant proposals, high-impact publications, or faculty job interviews; the outcome is never in my control. I can be (and have been) smart about the process--learning from experience, seeking out advice from mentors, grasping the nature of the competition--but I know this knowledge won't guarantee success. The competition is absolutely cutthroat; even if you play the game correctly, you might still lose.

Postdocs stress about their research and career advancement, but that's all piled on top of stress related to our other responsibilities. For the large part postdocs are shielded from university teaching duties, although to adequately mentor grad students and undergraduates (a common feature of our job) postdocs must invest a significant amount of time with each mentee. We often load our travel schedules to breaking point, rightfully reasoning that it is important to disseminate our research and talk about our work with other scientists (who will potentially serve on above-mentioned faculty search committees).  I firmly believe that a strong professional network opens many doors, and my current PI, Jonathan Eisen, is living testament to this fact. Hence, I had a pretty grueling travel schedule the first two years of my postdoc...one of those schedules where you're grateful for constant jet lag, because sleeplessness means you can squeeze in more science. And then there's the service--being invited to organize conferences or meeting symposia, contribute to campus initiatives, etc. You can be picky about what you agree to help out with, but these type of leadership roles are important for beefing up your CV and building your reputation amongst other scientists.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones; I don't have a family or children to worry about; many postdocs also have to juggle personal stress stemming from finances, childcare, and work-life balance. I can't even imagine what that's like, since I barely manage to take care of myself.

What's the solution? I can't say for certain, but personally I do think that securing faculty job will help me to calm my nerves. I'm not afraid of working hard (and I don't think getting tenure will be easy), but I do believe it will be easier to accomplish my scientific goals once I have "status" and support within an institute. I'm looking forward to leaving the stress of postdoc purgatory.


12 comments:

  1. Holly,

    Your post read like my own postdoc story, all the key points are sadly familiar. You even included mention of family and other external stressors.

    Alhough it's slightly different in Australia - we don't have tenure track vs regular postdoc, and travelling is very expensive (most meetings are USA /Europe) - the path to academia is just as tenuous as you describe. I see many of my good colleagues leave every year, and once again I ponder where I am heading.

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    1. For the last three years I was a post-doc and I know what you are talking about. I achieved a lot during these years but at the end of the day I am without a job because of funding. So now I decided that I will call it a day, and although it is not easy but I will have to stop hoping for a scientific career and go into something completely different

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  2. This was a great essay. I can certainly relate. I thought once my dissertation was finished I could relax into my postdoc position (currently in month 9) but found I'm just as stressed, if not more so, for different reasons. Anyway, I guess it's comforting to know I'm not alone in this.

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  3. Relax.

    You will be fine.

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  4. Holly, thank you so much for an excellent blog. It could easily have referred to my own life/career in the UK. I survived eight years of being a post-doc, jumping between about six different grants (losing momentum at each change) just to maintain a salary. Despite publishing a dozen papers and being awarded good/excellent in every performance review, there was absolute reluctance to provide me with any security - postdocs were firmly regarded as second class citizens and most people were sympathetic to their plight but ultimately said 'tough - get over it'. Now I Have finally secured a permanent position (in a different group at the same institute) which offers me intellectual stimulus along with financial security; amazingly my former PI seems annoyed/confused that I left their group. I recognise that this is the way science is, and always has been, but it seems at odds with so many other careers.

    I wish you well and hope things work out for you.

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    1. I'm also grateful for your willingness to share your experience. I encounter many of the same stressors and find myself wondering how on earth I wasn't prepared for just how bad it can be. My institution doesn't give ANY attention to postdocs (which makes for even more isolation), everyone in the lab is miserable but my PI doesn't like feedback of any kind, and and she definitely seems annoyed that I'm leaving. The shining light at the end of the tunnel is that I have a TT position waiting, where I already have an ID, an email address, and RAs. Every time she talks down to me, I look at my *faculty* ID and smile. There is hope!

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  5. I appreciate very much your description of the stress we postdocs have. Hoever, while hoping it won't discourage you, TT is not less stressful. I am working for a Assistant Professor on TT in the US. He and his peer young PIs at our institute struggle to fullfill the funding and publication requirements they need to not get fired after the 5-year starter package. There are times when he is straight up panicking.

    This is especially hard because you put the success of your career into the hands of young postdocs and grad students whose real qualification and passion for that particular job you can't really judge until it may be too late.

    Making the step into tenure track is also a step to fewer job options. Industry prefers young postdocs. Older postdocs or even 'failed' PIs have a harder time finding an alternative career.

    As you are writing, advice is usually ambiguous and different sources contradictict. I guess it is wisest to pick the traits that fit your personality as a scientist and delevop them to become the scientist you want to be. A profile is not just defined by your chosen topic and no CV fits all jobs and institutions. People like you and your work or not, there is no standard other that you must show that you are a somehow productive scientist with passion for your work. People who don't like the way you do YOUR science you don't want as colleagues anyways.

    Now, all this may sound wise, but I just began my third year as PD ;) Seeing things like this, however, allows me to keep my sanity while working hard and chosing what scientific actvities I prioritize - nobody can do everything. If you try to 'make the right moves' all the time you would probably end up hating the job. And then you will quit or try to 'push through', burn out and become an un productive, miserable wreck. That, I do have some experience with. Thank goodness, my PhD advisor was a very sensitive, understanding and experienced mentor who knew which advice I needed at that point.

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    1. Wise words indeed, and much appreciated. With TT profs, I think a major issue is often the management of graduate students and postdocs--sure, your career is in their hands, but oftentimes I just don't think there is enough of a dialogue between PIs and staff to help each other manage their expectations, and churn out the products that are needed for *both* of their careers. I've been lucky to have amazing mentors during my PhD/Postdoc career, but even then, without me sitting them down and saying "this is what I want, this is my plan, is that OK?", I'm not sure if that conversation would have ever happened. In terms of grants and funding, that's another issue entirely. The climate absolutely sucks right now, and I think the reliance on bringing in grant money (as has been argued many times) is a system-wide problem perpetuated by University business models. That's a whole other can of worms, but for me, its made me realize the deep flaws in the system and try to search out an alternative model (e.g. pursuing private foundation support, where the model is to invest in people that show huge potential, and also making your work attractive to a wide array of funding bodies) to at least get me kickstarted. I also think that exposure and networking are inherently tied to funding success--people need to know your work and your ideas.

      You're absolutely about prioritizing what you have a passion for, and cherry picking advice to tailor your own career plan. And certainly trying not to panic--its not productive for anything!

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  6. Yes getting a TT job will make it easier to get funding and people will take you more seriously. But you'll still be at the mercy of others who will determine which grants get funded (what you'll predominantly get to work on) and whether you get the high-impact journal articles that lead to tenure.

    Even if you play the game correctly as a TT professor, you may still lose. I've seen very well funded/published scientists not get tenure at very highly ranked schools, and I've seen a wonderfully creative (but less productive) scientist be denied tenure because of an obvious affinity/excellence in teaching at a land grant university.

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  7. Nice information about.I am feeling happy to comment on this post. Thanks for you sharing.Career Advisor good information in career.

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  8. Thanks for this nice and very accurate description of the postdoctoral period. I'm currently finishing my 2nd year postdoc in US (after a co-directed PhD in France/Spain) and I'm started to apply for faculty positions here. Through your testimony I feel somehow, and ironically, "less stressed" as I see that all the feelings I have, the total incomprehension of this system, the uncertainty about the future, are not coming from "ME" but rather a general situation shared by several (all?) of us. I guess there are too many postdocs (w/ respect to the faculty positions) and the shaded and chaotic path is also a way for the system to make a selection.
    Good luck to all the postdoc peers.
    Somehow you're "lucky" being on your own, without a family. I'm married, and it's true that trying to conciliate both aspect can become a nightmare.

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  9. Hi Holly,

    Thanks for this excellent piece of writing, a true resonance of my experiences over the past three years. I have a family and a little child, and just as you said managing things around with all the given stress is sometimes frustrating. For me I have further frustration as I have recently seen exercise of unfair favouritism from your very own Boss (creating an academic post for one of his recent postdocs, who barely had any publications at all -- must have been something more than favouritism -- but I would not know). I had more than 45 related publications with some high-impact journals and high-profile conferences, but I guess he did not notice that I was there.

    Just like you said -- I also keep myself motivated thinking that good things have to come through hardship -- keeps me working harder despite all the agony.

    Good luck to you all peers.

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