Postdoc Purgatory

written by Synapse


I’m pregnant.

And yes, I realize that, unfortunately, this statement takes on a different weight coming from a lady-in-science.

I will be the third of the 5 Brainy Birds to enter the world of motherhood in about six months.

For those of us who want to pass on our genes at some point while continuing down this academic career trajectory, the when-to-have-a-child question can bring a range of advice.  The most common answer:  “there is no perfect time”.  I mean, who hasn’t seen by now Mary Ann Mason’s depressing stats concerning the academic “Baby Penalty” for women?

Perhaps certain times are better than others? Grad school?  Tenured?   Unfortunately, sometimes Biology trumps planning, and the answer is:  “now or never”. 

Being a postdoc is a strange limbo period for life decisions.  You have a position for a very limited amount of time – a grant for 2 years here, 3 years there, in my case.  Often, these positions require a move to a new location (city, state, or continent!)

And so, as postdocs, we get stuck in this period of Uncertainty. Where will I be living in a few years?  When will I be stable?

These questions used to keep me up at night.  I’m a planner. I wanted some feeling of stability before diving into that big life decision of having offspring. 

Then I faced the ticking clock dilemma and I realized – why let postdoc purgatory, and the inherent Uncertainty of this limbo period between grad school and a “real job”, hold up my life?

Luckily, this point also coincided with the moment when, after my 3rd year applying to faculty positions, I finally realized – does any of it really matter?  I have been pushing myself all of these years, eyes on this grand goal of Academia.  I have a pretty good CV (12 first author pubs, h-index of 9, 2 major postdoc grants) and I had been convinced that the only thing standing between me and my “dream job” faculty position is a really big Science or Nature paper  (my pubs are in relatively high impact journals but nothing that is going to put me in the holy-crap-she’s-a-rockstar! category). 

I am not socially incompetent either.  Both interviews I had were at top tier universities, and I was told I did “great” and that I was “really impressive” but there was someone else who filled some niche that I just didn’t fill well enough. 

Yes, I think I could get a faculty job somewhere.  But my two-body problem is not helping my particular career situation.  My husband (not an academic) will have to be near a major city.  I dragged him halfway across the world for my first postdoc. For this second postdoc, we lucked out and both found awesome positions in the same place.  But now, he pretty much has his dream job.  Would it be fair to drag him to Podunk, USA, population:12 where he would most likely be completely unsatisfied in his working life so that I can live out my dream of being an academic? After all, he’ll make more than I ever will as an academic.

The ticking clock highlighted what I had been trying not to think about for years – If I’ve done everything to set myself up to be competitive, what happens when the right job in the right place just never comes along or I’m not right for it when it does?

The prospect of answering the does any of it really matter? question with a shoulder shrug and a “hey, it might not”  frustrated me at first – Was I simply entering the academic job market at the wrong time?  Was I the equivalent of a 1990’s librarian who trained my ass off to master the Dewey Decimal System?

This whole time, I had felt like I was treading water, trying to keep my head up, waiting in limbo for the mythical right job in the right place at the right time.   But, then I realized:  it is self destructive to dwell on this self-imposed feeling of postdoc purgatory, waiting for my “real job” to start.  Even 1990’s librarians have moved on with their lives.

Of course, I will continue to bust my ass to stay competitive in case that magical perfect position comes along, but I am not going to let it run my life.  I am going to live my life, day by day, keeping my eyes and ears open for opportunities as they come, academic or other.  And I am going to breed on my own terms, dammit!

Uncertainty can be unavoidable with this career path. I can accept it, leave it, or try like hell to help change it.  If these harsh hiring times are making a disproportionate number of women face this same dilemma during postdoc purgatory, we need to figure out what this means for women leaving science at this stage.  We need to examine policies and support systems and make our voices heard in retaliation. 

And hey! At least there is one thing I can plan for – there will be some pretty big (and permanent) changes to my life in six months!



This entry was posted in Mom in Science, Parenthood, Post-doc and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Postdoc Purgatory

  1. Great post! Your point about dragging a significant other away from a dream job for a position, especially when your earning potential pales in comparison really resonated for me as a grad student with a lawyer partner. Thanks for sharing & congrats on the pregnancy!

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