Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Postdoc Blues: How Do You Know When It Is Time to Give Up?

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Postdoc Blues: How Do You Know When It Is Time to Give Up?

Article excerpt

They think I'm a rising star, says a postdoctoral researcher at a top US institution, but my hopes of a real career in science are sinking

Ever since I decided I wanted to be a scientist I've been going pretty steady. With hard work, great guidance and a good dash of luck, I am now a self-funded postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University.

As a consequence, everyone thinks I'm a "rising star". But instead of taking pride when people remark on this, a brief rush of positivity is usually followed by the persisting feeling that they will soon find out that I'm slowly turning into a falling star. My research is not progressing, my collaboration attempts have all failed and I only compare myself with the brilliant people who surround me here at Stanford. My hopes of ever becoming a "real" scientist are slowly sinking.

Everyone tells me your postdoc years are the most important of your career. Failure or bad luck at this stage will haunt you forever. Universities will consider you for a faculty position only if you publish something in a major journal. And because of the sheer number of job-seeking postdocs - many of them beloved colleagues whom I wholeheartedly want to have a great career - the expectations are becoming ever more stringent. That leaves more and more of us stacking up temporary position after temporary position, putting our lives in limbo.

So what should we do? How do you know when it's time to give up and move on to another career? I defer to the almighty internet. I read stories about professors who admit to having made it only because of their sheer perseverance, but I also find accounts from postdocs who got stuck in academia (so-called "permadocs") and regretted it. I read other people's accounts of the "academic blues" and what they are doing about it. All this only makes me more unsure about what I should do.

So I start exploring other, non-academic career options. I talk to people who left academia, and to people planning on doing so. I visit careers fairs and fill out personality questionnaires at Stanford's career development centre. But this only reinforces my conviction that I like being a scientist and I have the skills to be one. I would be happy in another job only if it requires as much creativity, variety and flexibility as science does. Great. Either I drastically change my expectations in life, or I am back at square one.

What makes devising an exit strategy so difficult is the fact that while publishing is all-important in science, the people who might interview you for a non-academic job are not interested in your publications. …

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