Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition, Part 3: Time to Strategize


Hello, folks, back for installment three of my postdoc adventures. Now that I’ve admitted that I’m as neurotic and despondent as Meredith Grey (in case you don’t watch TV, she’s the main character on ABC’s ” Grey’s Anatomy”), I have to figure out what I’m going to do about it and how things have to change for me to get myself back to a slightly more perky and functional state. I’m not asking for pre-graduate-school perky, but a girl can dream, right?

Funny how the research rug and all of the assumptions that used to hold it down can be swept from under you in a blinding blaze of money–yet you still find a way to persevere.

As you may recall from Chapter 2, I accepted this position on the understanding that there were a few projects that I could explore on arrival here. Project 1 had guaranteed funding, but it wasn’t something I was eager to build my future around. Project 2 was the one that excited me and seemed like the stuff careers are made of. Fact is, I was counting on Project 2 to resolidify my waning commitment to science.

But the funding for #2 was a mirage, which, when I arrived, evaporated into the mist. So now it feels like my raison d’être–my reason for being here anyway, and for being in science–doesn’t exist anymore. I feel like I should be excited by my work and I was, but then the exciting part of my work went away, leaving me with a question: Should I go, too?

My editor is worried that I might ruin my scientific career by voicing my discontent with how things are going. Yes, I write under a pseudonym and occasionally fear being discovered. But I contend that as soon as I put pen to paper to write about my life in graduate school, being found out was already possible. I can’t help but wonder: Am I ruining my scientific career by airing my discontent, which for me is the best kind of therapy? Or am I ruining my scientific career by remaining in the situation that’s causing my discontent? If I’m going to ruin my scientific career anyway, what’s the best way to go about it?

In a nutshell, I have three options: stay, switch, or go now. And if I choose option 3, I could either take another position in science or–gasp!–leave research altogether. Let’s explore, shall we?

Remain in postdoc for an indeterminate time. Get the research project–the one that’s left–done. Within this larger task, probe for the interesting science and cultivate and enjoy its small pleasures and satisfactions. Publish the papers. Go to the conferences. Recruit another postdoc to replace me. Go through the motions. Rinse and repeat.

On the positive side, I have funding and stability, and those are very real worries for many people working in research right now. I also like the team of people I’m working with, mostly. They treat me like an adult and not an adolescent, most of the time. Are these enough reasons to keep me here? Hmm …

This is probably the easiest of the options, in that it requires less decisiveness than the others. But that is part of the problem: I would feel like a fraud and a meek, acquiescent postdoc, executing–and I do mean executing–this option. But I have been the nicest, easiest-to-get-along-with person I’ve known for a lot of my life, which does not make confrontation, change, or anything that could cause conflict easy for me.

Remain in this lab but find another project or two to engage with. There is some meat in this option–there are a few things going on here that interest me–but a move like that will be politically complicated. Challenge 1: I’d still be in the same lab, so I might piss off my current colleagues, even if it’s done gently. Challenge 2: There is no guarantee of finding money, or having that money remain with me for the rest of the postdoc, on a new project. Advantage 1: Find more passion in my work–maybe. Advantage 2: Keep the job and the benefits.

Cut my losses and shove off for a new job somewhere else. As I said, option 3 has two suboptions.

Option 3a: A new, different research position.

Option 3b Walk away from research to pursue a “nontraditional” science career.

This option–or these options, if you like–have one huge disadvantage, which is also, you might say, an advantage: I’d be jumping off a cliff into the unknown. I’d be starting over again (more so, obviously, for 3b than for 3a). 3a probably means leaving for a new place just after I’ve settled in here–and I don’t know what the possibilities are. Is there a project out there that would engage my passions more than this one does? Or would I be setting myself up for more disappointment?

Leaving research seems even scarier. I’ve been indoctrinated with researchers’ mind, culture, and philosophy for so long, I have this irrational fear that I might not be capable/worthy of some other job that I might try to do. There is of course the other fear of what people will think, the “why is she doing X when she went to school for Y?” fear–and the fear of disappointing all the people whom you worked with during graduate school even if they may not have your best interests at heart.

There are so many options–and so few obvious ones–that there’s no way of knowing where I’d end up. It’s scary and exciting for exactly the same reason: The possibilities are endless.

If you couldn’t tell already, let me make this really clear: I’m terrified of doing the wrong thing and find myself immobilized, unable to make truly life-changing decisions because I don’t feel financially or emotionally ready to negotiate the change or the consequences of the change. So: What to do?

Advantage 1: Build a new network. Advantage 2: No bridges burned. Advantage 3: Learn about new areas of science-related work. Advantage 4: No commitments, at least in the short term, which sounds like the perfect thing for a commitment-phobe like me.

Sometimes I worry that I’ve been sold a line by the career counseling books and people peddling “passion.” Is there really such a thing as the perfect job? Is there really one thing, or two or three, that I was truly meant to do? Is it too much to expect to find something that will propel me beyond mild, uneasy contentment into something resembling true satisfaction and happiness?

It’s time for a poll, dear readers: What do you think Micella should do? Stay? Go? Switch/flee? Tell her why at [email protected]

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700042

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