This week I heard from seven female friends who are all in various stages of their careers, and none of them are happy.
One is most of the way through grad school, and already knows she doesn't want to stay in academia. To her credit, she's starting to look into what kinds of careers might make her happy.
One is about to graduate, and in addition to her fears about finishing (the same fears everyone has), she has no first-author papers and no job prospects. She wants to find a postdoc position, preferably locally since she has a family, and continue to work on something related to her thesis work.
One just graduated, and despite her fears about finishing, has no first-author papers and no job prospects. She's not sure she wants to stay in science at all. She's too depressed to function.
One graduated recently, has no first-author papers and although she has been on several interviews, both academic and industry, has no firm job offers yet for postdocs or positions. She knows what she wants to work on and where she wants to live, but she may have to give one or both of those up in order to stay in academia. The denial is starting to wear off, and she's starting to get really worried.
One did two years of postdoc and has now decided to quit. When asked, why quit now? She said I don't think I can... I mean, I don't think I want to... have my own lab.
This phrase, "I don't think I can" is something I hear all the time from women, but not so often from men.
That's not to say the men don't feel the same way. But more often what I hear from men who leave academia is that they think the system sucks, not that they wouldn't be good enough, if they wanted to be a professor.
One has her own lab, but hasn't enjoyed it at all. She misses the bench (sound familiar? I've heard this from young PIs before). And for complicated political reasons, she feels certain that she can't continue to have her own lab. She's already starting to look for an industry position, and is willing to move to a foreign country, if that's what it takes, to find something enjoyable to do in science.
One is a tenured senior professor who is losing funding and talking seriously about shutting her lab down. She has a few more months to publish some papers and apply for more grants, but it's crunch time now and she's struggling to deal with the pressure, and her anger.
I'm trying hard to stay positive, for myself and for them, but it's hard.
I don't have it in me to tell the grad students with no papers that it's all going to be okay. They all have papers in the pipeline, but as we all know, once you've left the lab, or your advisor's grant gets triaged, it just gets harder and harder to publish old stuff. Even if those papers eventually come out, I can't tell them that it's going to get easier.
I had a miserable time in grad school. Although I've had one good year here and there as a postdoc, and the bad things are different bad things, many of the bad things are the same old story. But I was one of those people who thought getting my degree would change everything.
News flash: a PhD degree by itself doesn't have magical powers.
To the friend who decided to quit now, I can only give respect. If I had known years ago what I know now about my chances of getting the kind of job I want, any sane person would have quit!
She's getting out before she's completely depressed and demoralized. She knows she's more than the sum of her scientific skills, and she knows no one is going to appreciate that if she stays where she is.
But the "I don't think I can" thing makes me sad. I don't know enough about her project or her expertise to make any objective assessments about whether she could, if she wanted to, have her own lab.
But if you don't want it, you're definitely not going to get it. That much I know.
My friend who misses the bench, makes me sad but also angry. I watch these young PIs who squander their big chance, and I know I would do things differently. I also know I would love most of the things they say they hate, and that these things would be easier for me because I've had such an "unconventional" experience.
I'm sad because she's one of my role models, and to see her not only say that it wasn't fun, but that she's quitting, is really hard for me.
And part of me says, Move over sister, soon it will be my turn!
I hate that I feel that way, but some tiny competitive voice deep down says, "I'm fine with these people leaving, because the more people that leave, the more room there will be for me."
It's terrible, but it's true.
So I am trying to stay positive. The silver lining is that everyone will, we hope anyway, find something we're happy doing, eventually. I don't believe in a master plan. I don't think any of the crap I've been through was "meant to be."
But I do think there is something in the saying about how you don't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.
There's some small comfort in admitting that, on a long enough time scale, every crappy thing that has happened to me eventually gave me some insight or skill that actually came in handy.
So to my friends who are suffering right now, I wish I could magically create enough great jobs and funding for everyone. But since I can't, I hope we all find something to do that is fun, that we love.
And I still hope my something is having my own lab, even if your something happens to be something else.