Sunday, November 30, 2008

How close are you really.

Last time I saw my therapist she was asking me how much more am I willing to do to try to get a faculty position.

Q: Would I be willing to go door-to-door to find a way (funding, job title of some sort) to stay another year?

A: Um, no. I don't think I would. I don't think I can take another year of this. I don't enjoy it enough to put up with the toxic people and uncertainty for that much longer.

Q: Would you feel better if you just decided you won't be applying for faculty positions at all this year? Does that relieve some of the pressure?

A: Um, no. Not really. And it makes me feel defeated.

And I had sort of a horrible realization, that the way things are going, I'm much more behind schedule than I thought. My advisor's various excuses ultimately delayed everything by about a year.

And yes, there were some setbacks that were not my advisor's fault, including time out for me to feel sorry for myself.

But even including all the other problems, ultimately the biggest problem was my advisor's unwillingness to step up (or get out of the way and let me do it myself).

And the irony is that everyone's best advice was to tell me if I could just get this one person to, you know, mentor me or whatever, everything would be OK.

And my telling myself that if I just tried hard enough, I could make that happen.

So anyway I guess it's nice to have some validation... my therapist said that just because you think you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not actually after you.

I can haz career sabotage?

And she said it's pretty clear that where I am now is toxic (no kidding) and that I need to get out of there (yes, clearly).

I guess the part I'm not sure about is, well, let me use a metaphor. I sort of feel like I've been jumping from rock to rock trying to get across an ocean. And there's kind of a haze so I can't see the other shore. So I think I'm maybe one or two rocks from the end, but maybe I'm totally wrong about that. Maybe there are no more rocks and the trail just ends? Maybe that's why I feel like I'm stranded in the middle of the ocean and I don't really want to go back where I came from, but I don't really have another choice?

And to try another take on that ocean metaphor, I feel like I've already missed the boat. So I was running to the dock and the boat is pulling out and it's not moving that fast so I think okay I can swim. So I try to swim but I can't catch up, so then I find someone with a rowboat and ask if I can get in. But we still can't catch up and even though we're taking turns rowing, eventually the person who was helping me says I should just give up.

And I can't get across the ocean in a rowboat anyway. So my options are to what, try to call the coast guard? This is getting ridiculous.

Especially since there is no coast guard in the ocean of science.

I guess if I had to do it over again, and someone had told me I'd have teach myself how to build my own boat, I would have said no, thanks, I don't know how and the thought of doing it just makes me tired.

But they didn't really tell me that was what I'd have to do, did they?

So I guess that's the point of this blog for today. I'm telling you, now, so you don't have to make all the same mistakes. If you're not willing to be a castaway, don't bother. And even if you thought you were. Just ask Tom Hanks.

In a way I'm really glad I'm finally doing this therapy thing, and I kind of have to laugh that I'm doing it now, when my health insurance is bound to run out and I'm not sure what I'll do then. And I'm impatient to make more progress faster, even though I know that's not how these things are supposed to work.

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At 2:52 PM, Anonymous Pain Man said...

why do you need a therapist? I thought that's what blogging was for.

At 3:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

can you leave academia now, get some job in industry for a few years, and then try for academic positions again in a few years' time?

Maybe by then a lot will be better. More money for one thing (so that alone removes one huge mental burden), and less burnout from no longer being in your current toxic environment...

of course we hope that it won't be just trading one set of problems for another or having the same problems all over again but in a different place. But at least the pay will be better and having one basic need taken care of (sufficient money to pay the rent and feed your family) can make a world of difference mentally and emotionally.

At 5:07 PM, Anonymous figuring-it-out said...

i agree with anon 3:23 ... why not give industry a chance - there must be a place there for your fabulous science skills to shine! i myself have been contemplating the move for some time now... i just have to actually start applying.

some days, the way my boss talks about all the politics that go on in the dept / university, it makes me wonder why i'd put myself through that. might as well be better renumerated and have to deal with the same bs elsewhere. man i am so jaded lol.

again, i am rooting for you YFS and will try to send good karma your way. thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

At 5:14 PM, Blogger sara said...

It's clear that part of the purpose of your blog is to help those of us pondering this path to avoid the pitfalls you've had to deal with. However, I'm still left scratching my head wondering how exactly to avoid the problems you've had. I would guess that the most important way to succeed in academic science is to choose an advisor that is a good match, but I'm not sure how one could identify good matches versus bad ones.

In my first technician job out of undergrad I was welcomed with enthusiasm and open arms to a lab that looked wonderful at first yet turned out to be quite psychologically damaging. Luckily I was able to simply quit working there since technicians are not tied down as are grad students and post docs. The question is, how could I have known in the first place that the lab was a bad match for me? How can I make the right choice when (and if) I get acceptance letters in the spring? What questions can I ask during the interviews that will give me insight?

And lastly, if you do find yourself with a bad match, how do you get back on the boat, to use your metaphor?

At 10:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you should call the coast guard!

At 9:45 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Pain Man,

You're so funny. You're a regular, I guess?

I figured I would do the experiment so I can at least say I tried.

Anon 3:23,

I guess you're not a regular. And not paying much attention to the economy?

Right now the idea of taking a job I really don't care about seems worse than my current toxic environment, and a LOT worse than no job at all.


Yeah, from what I've heard there's no guarantee that industry will be ANY different. But thanks for the good karma, I can use that!


Yeah, I guess the thing is you have to be really present in the moment and pay a lot of attention when you're making these kinds of decisions. If you're really honest with yourself, you'll have some doubts and you should pay a lot of attention to those.

The only time I didn't have doubts was when I chose my thesis lab, which became a really damaging place to be after a series of unfortunate events out of my control. However, I had a LOT of very strong doubts about my graduate program, and I didn't like my other options much, either. I often wonder if I should have taken that as a sign that grad school in general was not for me, but at the time I was concerned about finding work and not having to depend on my parents anymore. I thought I'd like the chance to maybe have my own lab someday.

How do you get back on the boat. Good question. I think you have to act fast and get a team of people to help you.

But I worry that there isn't room on the boat for some of us. I'm still trying to decide how much longer I want to try to tread water, if the next boat will come along or if the storm is just too dangerous.

At 2:27 PM, Blogger chall said...

From someone who is in the same but different boat.....

I thought I'd be leaving my post doc, my place isn't really nice (funny, when I tell my therapist about my work place she stares at me and states 'that doesn't sound nice to work' and I just smile. that's not even the bad stories....)

anyway, I got offered two more years here. I said "I'll take it" and then I secretly hope that I will finish my projects soon, the ones I care about, and then maybe get another job and be out of academia. Part of me knows how hard it is to get an outside job at the moment, or even an Academia job. I am therefore 'happy' with my current post doc.

More than two years and I will be a hallow drained nonexisting person.

And there is always a new boat, a float or something that will get you on the ocean. the sweet thing is that since you don't really know where you are going, you can't really get lost. [that's how I am trying to see it at the moment]

At 4:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sara wrote: "The question is, how could I have known in the first place that the lab was a bad match for me? How can I make the right choice when (and if) I get acceptance letters in the spring? What questions can I ask during the interviews that will give me insight?"

IMO you can't really know ahead of time, and that's yet another reason why academia as a career is such a huge gamble. In industry people move around all the time, it's not a big deal. In academia you are tied to one place at least for some length of time because you need to build up publications and track records and it's hard to do that from bouncing around from one lab to another. Plus in academia the sub-sub-fields where you are trying to make your niche, are usually small "inbred" communities so it can be hard to truly 'get away' unless you switch fields, which is a whole other hurdle itself.

I guess the best any postdoc or grad student can do is to informally ask the people who would be your peers in that lab what it's like to work there.

I and other postdocs in my lab have actively recommended new prospective postdocs against joining our group UNLESS they were willing to live with a whole list of difficulties ranging from discrimination to an exploitive PI. And it seems they all have heeded our words and gone elsewhere and I'm very glad for them. (yes I have a matyr complex now)

And then I was once in the opposite position where I needed to switch labs because my funding ran out. A PI in another department was very eager to get me on board. His project sounded great, and he sounded somewhat OK so it looked like a done deal until...I informally took his grad student out for lunch (I paid) specifically to talk about what it's like to work for his PI and without the "paper trail" of e-mail... What he said saved me a lot of grief. He told me to run away, far far away!! He described the PI as being very verbally abusive and unpredictable with wide mood swings, going into fits of rage for no reason, I was terrified!! He said no postdoc lasted more than a few months which is why this PI is always looking for new postdocs and I was the latest on the list!! No wonder the grad student looked so miserable all the time!! He said he was just trying to get his thesis done and leave. Based on his words I did not work for this PI, I got lucky that another fellowship came through but if it hadn't I was prepared to leave for any job in industry rather than work for an abusive PI.
That was a couple years ago.
Informally I've heard that this same PI has now gone through at least 4 more postdocs since I last spoke with him, each of them stayed less than 6 months, and he is still looking for a postdoc. I'm glad I wasn't one of them.

At 5:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

but if you decide you no longer want to keep treading water, what will you do? You've said you will not consider going into industry, correct? So then, what is the alternative? what is your exit strategy (just curious)?

At 6:50 PM, Anonymous Tina said...

I love your metaphor. "There is no coast guard in the Ocean of Science."

I think I am on a rock near you...

It was funny (ironic) to read this post today, since I was just thinking that I hate science and I don't want to do it anymore. Which isn't true. I am just tired of being the only person my age who is still trying to find The Job.

It sucks.

At 10:00 AM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

I'm glad to hear you are seeing a therapist and I agree totally with what he/she is suggesting. You ARE in a toxic environment, regardless of the cause and you need to get out of there ASAP.

I know you've had problems getting things published and that you may not be competitive for jobs at institutions where you want to be, but now's the time to consider your alternatives and compromises. I hate cliches, but we can't always get what we want in life. BUT we can make the most of what we have and make sure we're happy.

Start applying for the jobs that are still open and put yourself out there. Apply for jobs that you consider to be "beneath" you as any job is better than no job particularly in the current climate where hiring freezes are commonplace (and getting worse by the minute).

Staying where you are isn't going to get you any closer to the job you want so suck it up and accept that fact. Starting out on your own with your own lab will be difficult, but it could give you the fresh start you need and could actually lead you to the position/school you want.

Languishing as a postdoc for another year won't make your situation better.

At 3:08 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Yeah, you're not alone.


Let's be honest. I don't think I can get ANY jobs in academia. If it was a long shot before the economy crashed and all these hiring freezes kicked in, it's even worse now.

I could be wrong about that, but I don't think taking a junior professor position at a low-level college is going to be a better stepping stone for a variety of reasons that I won't go into now.

The problem is that I AM making progress scientifically, even if I haven't been 'successful.'

I don't think I would be making scientific progress if I were getting paid to be a lecturer at a local community college. Those jobs don't come with lab space and startup, and I don't see the point in trying to take a faculty position where I wouldn't have the resources to continue my project.

Having said that, I wanted to double check the official definition of languish and here's what I got. I particularly like the example sentences.

languish |ˈla ng gwi sh |
verb [ intrans. ]

1 (of a person or other living thing) lose or lack vitality; grow weak or feeble :

plants may appear to be languishing simply because they are dormant.

• fail to make progress or be successful :

many Japanese works still languish unrecognized in Europe.

m being forced to remain in an unpleasant place or situation :

he has been languishing in a Mexican jail since 1974.

At 6:51 AM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

I don't think I can get ANY jobs in academia.

On what factors are you basing this conclusion? Do you have ANY publications in your area? Do you have ANY teaching experience? Are you just talking about getting jobs at R1/Ivy League/Mega$$$s institutions?

I'm not trying to be antagonistic (seriously, that's not what I'm about), but you need to be realistic about your situation and your options. Maybe you need to start with a few basic questions ...

1. Do you want a research or teaching track position?

2. If a research-only position is what you want, do you have funding or a feasible, fundable proposal?

3. Are you solely interested in positions at Yale/Harvard type institutions? If so, why? And why wouldn't you consider other top-tier R1 schools?

4. You said that you are making scientific progress but how much longer are you willing to invest in something that is sucking the lifeforce out of you and your career?

5. Is another postdoc an option for you in a related field?

You said that "I don't see the point in trying to take a faculty position where I wouldn't have the resources to continue my project" but you need to be realistic about what you want vs will be able to do. What sort of startup package would you need to be able to do what you want? Obviously, community colleges aren't going to provide you with squillions of dollars in startup, but there are a lot of R1 institutions that are willing to give new faculty very generous startup funds.

The longer you spend as a postdoc without making substantial tangible progress, the less chance you have of attaining the job of your dreams. Put a timeline on how much longer you are willing to stay where you are. What can it hurt to send out job applications? If you can market yourself well and have stellar letters of recommendation, you may be surprised as to what might come along.

At 10:24 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I guess you haven't really been here that much, so I'll fill you in briefly (because I'm too lazy to dig up the past relevant posts).

1. mostly research
2. i'm not eligible for funding without a job title change. i have a feasible proposal. whether it is fundable in the current climate, well it might need more spin but yeah, i think it's fundable. i've been told i need more of it published first though.
3. NO i'm not talking harvard/yale.
4. how long = -2 years.
5. NO, another postdoc is not an option i would consider unless it was a position that was truly independent, with lots of supply money, staff, and +50% my current salary. in which case it would probably not be a postdoc.

What sort of startup package. Well it depends on whether the equipment i need is already there. I have been subsisting on very little research money since i started grad school, and i'm sure i can continue to do so. but i'm also tired of having to beg, borrow and steal to get my work done. and it's especially hard if the not-quite-R1s that would consider hiring me are in the middle of nowhere. you can only beg-borrow-steal from places that HAVE what you need (e.g. are located nearer richer institutions).

If you can market yourself well and have stellar letters of recommendation

I think the point is, I can't and haven't. I'm not a marketer personality (YFS brand notwithstanding). And my letters always tend to emphasize that I'm not NICE enough. I think they all say I'm the sort of scientist who should have the chance to stay in science. And/or I know I have a couple of letter-writers who need to have some serious letter-writing lessons (especially when it comes to writing letters for women). But I don't have the papers. Without that, I don't have any "tangible" progress to anyone who hasn't read my lab notebook.

At 3:49 PM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

I HAVE read almost all of your blog so I am familiar with your situation, the questions were intended to be for you to assess your own options.

I'm not going to belabor the point, but the reality is that without papers and/or funding, you aren't going to be competitive for a research-only position - but you already know that.

And I COMPLETELY understand what it's like to be in a postdoc position and not be able to apply for independent funding (read my blog!).

The only way I can see for you to get out of your current sucky situation is to either:
(1) apply for a K99/R00 (which I think you already did in the past),
(2) consider applying for teaching positions that also want an active research program,
(3) do another postdoc (yuck),
(4) look for schools that offer independent non-tenure track instructor positions with start up funds (I know of at least one school that does this),
(5) ask about "promotion" to junior faculty where you already are even if it means just a change in job title to instructor or research assistant (this was the option I had organised before I got the TT job) and/or
(6) go to industry.

I know that your response will be that you don't want to do any of these and that's the system is to blame ... in which case you should prepare yourself for another lifetime of postdoc hell. I'm not usually this blunt when commenting on other people's blogs, but you need to step up and take charge of your own career.

If your referees aren't writing you good letters, you need to find people who will ... and perhaps address some of the issues they are mentioning as you need good word-of-mouth from your advisors/mentors to follow you EVERYWHERE you go.

As for being selective about institutions ... in the current economic climate, take ANYTHING that is offered as the number of junior faculty positions out there this year is only a small fraction of what there was last year (last year there were >10 in my field, this year there has only been 1). Even if the school is in the middle of nowhere, you can always COLLABORATE with other labs and spend a week or two in Other City to get work done.

At 2:43 PM, Anonymous mudphudder said...

I think people in academia love the pain--need the pain and one day, will probably contribute to the pain
Someday, you gotta wonder why we do it...


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