A pessimist would say: "nothing like comparing yourself to your peers who went into marketing straight after an MSc to doubt the value of spending nearly a decade in academia." Similarly, Science Magazine has a recent article on the price of doing a postdoc where they calculate that:
"On average, they give up about one-fifth of their earning potential in the first 15 years after finishing their doctorates—which, for those who end up in industry, amounts to $239,970."
Having spend 4 years in the US (3 years as postdoc and 1 year as non-TT faculty), I have definitely made economic sacrifices compared to peers who stayed in the homecountry, and especially to those who left academia after an Msc or Phd. Not just the difference in income between academia and outside (which by the way is a much larger difference in the US than in EU). But also think of moving costs that weren't compensated: moving back to the homecountry we were both postdocs again and the university compensated us for 500 euros total. The costs of moving an entire family across the Atlantic was at least 10 times and maybe 20 times that much. We spent a good portion of our savings on moving costs and I'm sure we're not the only academic family to do that. Also, not paying for retirement savings for 3 years, and having a tiny foreign retirement account that will cost about the sum of what is in there to move it here. I realize it is a privilege to be able to spend money on choosing a career that is not financially optimal and at the same time that means that academia might miss out on people who are not able to do that. But then again, shouldn't we all go to school for whatever job it is where you sell shady mortgages and get filthy rich? That's not what life is all about, is it?
I tend to be an optimist and I wonder if we're not missing the value of doing a post-doc here. Looking back, it was a great period of being able to focus solely on the scientific projects I was working on, without course work and the pressure to graduate that happens during a PhD and all the other stuff that comes with a more advanced scientific career either inside or outside academia. Also - to me at least -, it was a uniquely flexible time for having babies, being sleep deprived and pumping milk. Also, it was great to be able to live in a different country for a while. But I guess I could have done that while working for a company who would have paid for my moving expenses.
I'm not quite sure what the answer is here. I've asked before if you felt you spent too much time as a postdoc, but I guess the bigger dilemma here is how to deal with all these people that are in academic postdoc positions without the prospect of all landing permanent positions...? And what is the value of doing a postdoc if afterwards you leave academia?
A couple months ago I went to a networking thing with women I had never met before. I would encourage everyone to do this, because for some reason explaining who you are and what you do to people you've never met is really interesting and allows you to re-examine what you tell people about yourself and thereby how you see yourself.
I talked a little about how I had some doubts about whether I was enjoying my job and when I should worry about when to make a next step in my career. One of the older women said:
"You should realize that you have another 30 years of work ahead of you, so change doesn't need to come right this minute. In the meantime, you should try to enjoy what you are doing now."
I knew in a rational way that she was right, but it took me a couple weeks to really realize what she had said. And then when I was at SfN and I heard myself talk about what my job entails, I realized that I actually have a job with so many aspects that I really like. And it seems like just when I became aware of that, a really interesting opportunity presented itself: next year I get to take over from somebody on parental leave for six months who has a job that I have been wondering about whether I would like it for a while. I get to do that for 50% of my time and my current job for the other 50%. It will allow me to work at a different location with different people and see a different side of the company there that is a bit further away from what I have experience with so far. I'm super excited about it and also realize that this seems exactly the shiny new opportunity that I needed to get out of the disrguntled slumpy feeling!
Fellow tweeps @IHStreet, @Doctor_PMS and @LadyScientist have started a podcast "Recovering Academic" where they talk about what it is like to leave academia and find a job outside the academic world. I think it's awesome, go check it out!
Four years ago, I wondered "if I would ever make the decision to look for a job outside science, and if so, if I would regret all the time and effort put into trying to get data, write papers and get grants?". Before I left science, now almost two years ago, I spent more than four years as a post-doc doing slice electrophysiology mostly. Since I left academia, I've never patched a cell anymore.
Most scientists at the company I work at have done a post-doc, but many of them shorter than the 4,5 years I've spent as a post-doc. And then of course there are people around my age in more commercial jobs that have no PhD or post-doc experience at all (and probably get paid quite a bit more than me because of having more experience) So looking back, one might wonder if I've spent too much time as a post-doc?
I've given this quite some thought recently, mostly because it sometimes feels unfair that people who have an equal amount of experience-years end up in different positions. And I realize that if I had known that I would have ended up where I am now, I may have been able to get there with a shorter route. However, I also realize how much I have learned during my post-doc that is still very useful now, like writing, leading people and also just the experience of living somewhere else for a while. And of course the notion that work is also enjoyable, not just a race to get to some end-goal. So even thought I was afraid I would regret my time as a post-doc if I wouldn't be able to stay in academia four years ago, looking back I wouldn't have done it much different.
What about you? If you have left academia, do you wish you had spent less time as a post-doc?
it's been nearly two years since we parted. When we just met, I was so in love. I wanted to be with you, gather data and write papers for you. I wanted to science with you and spent many of my waking (and supposed-to-be-sleeping) hours thinking about you. I wanted to stay with you and worked so hard to try and make that happen.
But then, when I was all disgruntled and unsure whether us being together was really what was best for me, I decided to leave you. I decided to join industry. In industry, the building is shiny, the people have had training on how to communicate and I was even offered a permanent contract.
But when I look out of the window of that shiny building, I can still see you. I hear about you at home from my husband and from friends. And now that the honeymoon phase with industry is over, and I see the cracks in the shiny building and the fact that even with communication training, people are sometimes still jerks - but in a politer way - I miss you. I miss doing research without the boundaries of what is commercially useful and what is important to convince the people who need to prescribe or buy things. I miss being able to think of a project entirely by myself and write it down in the hopes of being able to execute it some day. And mostly, I miss the dream of being important someday; having my own lab that does breakthrough science and wins prizes for it.
And I don't know if this means I should try to get back together with you, academia. Or that I just forgot the disgruntled bits and only remember the good times we had together. Or that - perhaps - I can figure out some way to have a threesome.
Last year, I learned a ton of new things about doing science in industry in my new job. I've worked on new things like patent applications, collaborations and other things I hadn't done before when I was in academia. This year, the learning curve seems to be much less steep, and I felt that I needed to add something in order to keep myself challenged and engaged. So after long deliberation about how exactly to phrase this, I wrote in my notebook that for my weekly conversation with my manager I wanted to discuss:"more challenges, rather in interactions with people than in content".
15 minutes after I wrote that down my phone rang and somebody called to inform me about a Problem with one of my projects. All the rest of yesterday was spent on this Problem that can definitely be categorized as challenge, both in interacting with people as well as content.
The Problem isn't entirely solved yet and I haven't had my weekly conversation with my manager about me wanting more challenges (and I'm not sure if the timing is right in light of the current Problem), but I am wondering about the power of writing something down in my notebook...
Four years ago today, I published my first blog post. Since then quite a bit has changed: I had another baby, I moved, I quit academia and I'm still busy figuring out what I want in my current job.
To celebrate my blog-birthday, I'd like to know a bit more about you, my dear reader! Please comment (or de-lurk) and tell me about:
- who you are
- how you found my blog and how long you've been reading here
- what you like and don't like about my blog
For a training at work, I am reading "The 7 habits of highly effective people". I assume everybody in the world has already read this book, because whoever I talk to about this book says something like:"oh yes, I liked this or that advice that was given".
The first of the seven habits made me realize how I became such a disgruntled postdoc. This chapter of the book talks about proactive and reactive people, and how proactive people focus on their so-called "circle of influence": the things in life that you can influence, like problems at work that you can solve. Reactive people however, focus mostly on things in their "circle of concern": things that you cannot influence, but that do affect you, like the weather. As a postdoc it felt like my circle of concern was huge: there were so many things I felt were very difficult to influence, like circumstances in the lab, reviewers, the competitive job market, my inability to get grants funded, etc. I felt like my circle of influence was this tiny dot in a huge circle of concern.
After reading this part of the book, I think it is important to clearly distinguish the two, and - even as a post-doc with a huge circle of concern - to work on the things that you can influence, like figuring out what you want to do next and taking steps to go there. Also: writing and submitting manuscripts, applying for grants and considering to appeal rejections (although this may be more the pro-active playing field of PIs rather than postdocs).
One of the things that seems mentioned the least in the training of PhD students and post-docs is what I would call "your scientific gut feeling": this intangible feeling for what topics will be important, which questions will lead to important answers and which unexpected results can lead to important discoveries. I actually wouldn't know how you would train this in somebody, but I think it can be very important in somebody's career and for science in general.
I seem to have the reverse scientific gut feeling: the first time I heard about LTP in the hippocampus when I was in college I had some type of unexplainable aversion against the topic. Later, I had to admit that when this was the basis of learning and memory in the brain, I guess I had to start liking it a little bit.
Similarly, the first time I heard about a project I got involved with in my post-doc lab, I was extremely skeptical about the mechanism that we were studying. So much, that I started to look up evidence to disprove my PI's hypothesis. In the end, I had to admit that perhaps they were right, and the paper about this ended up in a pretty good journal, which I honestly had never expected the first day I heard about it.
So now, when I sit in a meeting and somebody talks about a method or results that make me feel annoyed, skeptical or even almost angry, I stop myself from asking skeptical questions, but I realize that this might be a very important topic and that this feeling may actually indicate that it is important.
How is your scientific gut feeling? Or how do you identify important topics or results?
Yesterday I talked to my manager about the fact that I don't really know where I want to take my career and where I imagine myself in 5-10 years. I ended with:"Or am I overthinking this?" And they laughed and admitted that to them, the idea that this amount of planning a career was not what they had ever done. They responded saying:"Personally, I try to have a job with as many aspects in it that I really like to do on a day-to-day basis". They continued:"So my advice would be that if you talk to people about what their job entails, don't talk about the tasks that they do, but about the things they like in their job. That might help you find what kind of job would make you happiest."
This advice sounds so simple and also so in contrast to what I've learned before, which is that you should work hard and in the end you are rewarded with something. That you need to climb a steep ladder to get to where you want to be. Maybe the end results is not the most rewarding thing in a job, but the fact that if you find a job that you like, going home everyday with a smile on your face is the best reward.
If you think about it, this is what we learn at school already: study hard and get rewarded with a high grade. You rarely get to wonder if you like what you are studying. Is this why so many of us seem to struggle with finding what we like doing later in life? Because we have learned to ignore whether we like what we are doing?