The struggle is real

Oct 22 2015 Published by under academia, having it all, uncertainty

Since I have been a postdoc I have struggled with my career identity. This is not my first post on the subject.

In grad school I was very happy. I had an incredibly supportive mentor. I had success in lab. I had the time to work as hard as I needed. Obviously a career as a professor at a research focused university was for me!

Toward the end of grad school I started to have some doubts. The number of experiments I had done that weren’t going to see the light of day was depressing. The balance between scientific rigor and competing against splashy publications seemed challenging. But things still seemed manageable and I forged ahead toward a postdoc anyways.

Many things were different when I started my postdoc. I had a kid! My mentor was much less supportive. I didn’t have the community I had had in grad school. My commute length, now including childcare drop-off, had more than quadrupled. On top of all that I didn’t have great success in lab and I switched projects three times in the first year.

So basically from the start of my postdoc I had a million reasons to question the tenure track life. To question whether I could do it. Whether I wanted to do it. The dream of a faculty position persisted in fits and starts but I spent long hours daydreaming of other careers or being a stay home mom.

There are many difficulties of being a PI but most of them I see as challenges to be overcome, not things that would prevent my career progression. The one that always holds me back is time. I work 40 hours a week and can’t imagine working more. I am — with children, commuting, working out, doing chores — busy until 9 pm every day. When am I supposed to work more? I’m afraid if I work on the weekends I’ll feel out of touch with my family and myself and lose my sanity. I feel strongly that my quality of life is important and I don’t want to give it up for anything.

I just attended a large conference in my field. There are so many inspiring people doing such neat research. People with children. People who seem happy! Busy, yes, but happy. Am I being too quick to shy away from something because it will be hard? Maybe if I paid for more help around the house (an investment in my career!) I would see the extra career work as manageable.

It is hard for me when people ask why I don’t want to be a PI. It is hard because part of me really loves the idea at being a professor. I love research (on good days anyway). I love mentoring. I don’t mind writing and I like the idea of laying out experiments in a grant. I’m really just scared that I won’t have the energy for all of it and I’ll end up unhappy. I’m scared that if I’m unhappy I won’t feel able to step back and reclaim my time.


5 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    It can be done.

  • potnia theron says:

    really, truly it can be done. But every person finds their own path towards getting it done.

  • Noncoding Arenay says:

    "The number of experiments I had done that weren’t going to see the light of day was depressing. "

    That's just the nature of science. I think everyone feels that way initially, but then you realize that it will always be so and there's no point fretting over it. I can tell you that as your work progresses sometimes you can get creative and connect your previous experiments that you thought were dead in the water to your current work and get them published. So, it may not end up all that bad.

    "I’m afraid if I work on the weekends I’ll feel out of touch with my family and myself and lose my sanity. I feel strongly that my quality of life is important and I don’t want to give it up for anything."

    People are different and might have different priorities, but I think one's family should be a major priority and I fully support your thoughts on this. Time management and delegation is key to be able to juggle many responsibilities. More on that below...

    "Maybe if I paid for more help around the house (an investment in my career!) I would see the extra career work as manageable." AND "I’m really just scared that I won’t have the energy for all of it and I’ll end up unhappy. "

    These two points underscore the need to take the load off your back so that you can put more energy where you really want to (career and family). Paid help is a huge resource that one should take full advantage of, especially on the grueling TT. I know people who have all sorts of help (house cleaning, snow removal, lawn mowing, etc) that allows them to work very hard on weekdays but frees up a lot of time on weekends to focus on family.

    With proper time management and "energy delegation", you can do it! Good luck!

  • Mikka says:

    It can be done, I'm doing it. I work 40-45 hr/wk, no weekends. Like you, I can't imagine where any additional time could come from unless, of course, at the expense of family time.

    One thing I know for sure is that at this rate I will never be a jet-setting BSD. I have a very small group, so that limits the number of Ideas I can execute. I have to prioritize the ones more likely to succeed (although all of them are knock-your-socks-off brilliant of course). We are doing OK for productivity (one medium impact pub and one glam pub in 4 years), but I can't see myself cranking out more than 2 per year even at peak productivity which we should hit this year. All of this is OK with me, as long as we are doing good science. But it may not be OK for some decision-makers come grant or tenure time.

    Funding of course is also limiting, specially with the rising salary and bennies costs. Partly, this is what terrifies me: that soon it will be very limiting and I'll have to step it the fuck up or perish. That will necessarily mean getting more money to expand the lab, which will mean either that I get people good and independent enough to take my ideas and run with them (postdocs), or that I inject more of my family time into the lab hand-holding grad students. Maybe as the kids get older this will seem more palatable, but for now I can't see it happening.

    Right now I am very happy with my situation. I have the best job in the world, get to tuck my kids into bed every night and spend the weekends with my family. In fact I think this is the happiest I've ever been. BUT I fully realize that this is only because up to this point I've been extremely, improbably lucky. Lucky with the job market, with funding, with publications and most importantly with the people I've hired so far, who can work very well without me looking over their shoulder. I don't know how much longer my lucky streak will run, and how I will do it when good things stop falling into my lap and I actually have to work my fingernails off for them. That, I think, will be the real test, when I will have to choose either go big or go home.

  • Morgan Price says:

    The idea that you need to work 50 hrs a week to be successful is like a zombie that won't die. There have not seen evidence to support it and there are plenty of counterexamples. That said, there are lots of good non-PI jobs.

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