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.