Pondering the “next step” as a late-stage postdoctoral fellow

 In career exploration, for postdocs, PhD/Postdoc Blog

As a postdoc entering my 5th year, it is time to make some difficult decisions about my next career step. This is a time when many postdocs begin to question how they want their lives to progress. Does one stay in academia or move into a (horrendously named) “alternative career”? My goal over this and the next 5 BEST blog posts is to take you on my personal journey of finding a career that fits my interests, skills, and aspirations for my life, and, importantly, coming to peace with my decision.

I am not going to provide much detail on the mechanics of the job search or the importance of career exploration as those areas have been covered by others, including BEST bloggers Erin Gallagher and Irfana Muqbil in two series of excellent posts on this very website. I want to make this series of posts personal, which will be challenging given my personality. I am going outside my comfort zone of sharing my feelings/desires/dreads so that maybe others on this journey realize that it is more than OK to do so. I think discovering and accepting your feelings in addition to taking a logical approach to the “pros” and “cons” of a position is critical to making a holistic choice that will be good for your soul.

The “default path” of obtaining a Ph.D., doing a postdoc, and ultimately getting a faculty job is so ingrained into the culture of academic training that it often seems like considering other career options is going against the logical, natural flow. However, the career landscape for available tenure-track faculty jobs has become extremely different from that of our mentors. I think mentors and trainees are implicitly aware of this but when you personally go through the faculty search process, it becomes very apparent just how tough it is to obtain these positions.

I knew through following academic and higher education news sources that landing a tenure-track faculty position was going to be tough but my experience applying last fall really opened my eyes. I applied to 26 positions that I thought fit my research interests and expertise (neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience), mostly in psychology departments at R1 research universities. I had a total of 1 on-campus interview and it was for the job description I felt least fit my expertise. I think this result reflects two things: 1) landing a tenure-track job at an R1 is VERY difficult and 2) trying to predict which departments you think would be interested in you is virtually impossible. As with landing any job, the academic job hunt is all about “fit” and if you aren’t the right fit at the right time, you can’t expect to land the job.

So, where am I going from here? Will I persevere and win the tenure-track lottery? Do I even want the tenure-track life (there are a lot of pros and cons)? If I move into a career outside academic research and teaching, was my postdoc a waste? Of course not (more on this point in next month’s point). Along this line of thinking, I recommend you check out Michael Harris’s BEST blog piece on the “Sunk Cost Fallacy.”

Over the course of this blog series, I hope to share my experiences in finding a landing place after the postdoc. I am going to try to be fairly open about the struggles and doubts I experience and hopefully offer perspective on finding happiness and purpose in life. I think it is ingrained in American culture that your career defines you. New people you meet invariably ask, “What do you do?” to get a sense of who you are and what you value. This is unfortunate. You are so much more than a job or even a career (acknowledging the distinction that often gets drawn there). Through volunteering in something you deeply believe in, you can also find purpose, even if your job has no direct impact on the world. The key here is to know what you can and can’t sacrifice in a job or career and how you might be able to fill a particular void in your life through activities outside of work.

In closing, part of the search for a post-postdoc career is a search for yourself. This sounds kind of intimidating and it is. Hopefully, though, by going on this journey with me you will see that people do come through to the other side and along the way they often discover what is most important to their wellbeing and happiness. Seems like a pretty nice outcome after navigating the hard, twisty road to a career. Ready for the ride?

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