Time for a new mission?


Alice and her friends answer questions that you don’t want to ask your preceptor, peer, or colleagues regarding your career in science.

Dear Alice,

“[T]hose short stints may suggest a mismatch between your field and your patience. Are you in a hurry?” —Alice Huang

“[T]hose short stints may suggest a mismatch between your field and your patience. Are you in a hurry?” —Alice Huang

I’m on my third postdoc. After I received my Ph.D., I got involved in a high-profile mission for a couple of years and didn’t get any first-author publications out of it (although I did have many co-authorships). I wrote a couple of grants with no success. I wrote more grants this past year. I have applied for many faculty jobs but have never been shortlisted. I think my lack of publications is part of the problem, although I did publish all three chapters of my dissertation and two additional papers since receiving my Ph.D.

I’ve considered a career change, but as a Ph.D. I am really best at doing research and teaching. It seems there simply aren’t enough faculty jobs out there. So, do I postdoc forever? Should I try to learn new tricks?

There’s another complication: I have a wife who lives in a different state, so we’re trying to solve the impossible two-body problem.

—On a Mission

Dear Mission,

For employers, three different postdoc stints within 4 years wave a big red flag. Cautious employers will think either that you lack commitment or you that had other problems. Your use of the word “mission” suggests big science—the kind of science where projects can take years or even decades to complete. If so, those short stints may suggest a mismatch between your field and your patience. Are you in a hurry? In any case, in a field where long-term missions are the norm, those short stints are likely to look even worse.

Your final sentence has not been overlooked. It is difficult to live so far away from a spouse. Is it possible your frustration with your career is, in part, a consequence of this difficult lifestyle? Working out the two-body problem takes commitment and compromise. Some couples alternate priorities so that they favor each of you at different career stages—and they stay together. Focusing on areas with a high density of job opportunities can make it easier for the trailing spouse, whichever partner that might be at a particular time. Resolving the issue may require one partner to make significant sacrifices. Your training may be specialized, but you do have—or can create for yourself—other opportunities. So consider how committed you are to your work. Are you open to other possibilities?

Meanwhile, here’s my best advice: Be patient. Stick with this last postdoc—and this field—for a while before you jump to a new position. Let your next job be the one you aspire to.

—Alice

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