Editor’s note: this is a follow-up post to a recent article by Dr. Sabrina Zeddies on the Black Hole and it tries to dig around at the main contributors to postdoctoral fellow burnout.
In my first guest post, I shared my personal postdoctoral burnout story, but there is much more to tell. In the first instance, I thought it would be most useful to use this post to reflect on the main stressors that many of us feel in academic careers and detail how they can contribute to burnout.
- There is only one career and you shall follow it
Have you ever talked with your PhD supervisor about what you want to do after defending your thesis? Most likely, the focus was on where you want to become a postdoctoral fellow, not if you would do one. It may have even extended to after your first postdoc when you talk about the move to the next postdoc position before becoming a junior group leader and finally a group leader. University Affairs and others have pointed out for years that there are not enough jobs in academia at any of those levels to keep every PhD who was on the academic path in academia – but very little gets done about it. What has to change is the perception of these jobs in our supervisor’s minds and the way they are presented to us during our scientific training. When entering a master’s program (or even graduating from undergraduate science programs!), information needs to be given to students on all options they have on the job market, especially outside academia – and it can’t just be pamphlets, people need to hear it from their peers.
And please, dear supervisors, stop describing any job that is not following the same path as you as an “exit strategy”, a “plan B”, or a “second chance”. This makes it sound like the PhD student failed “the real job” and has to do something less demanding. This is total nonsense and it has to stop. After two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the boundary of research, pharmacy and industry, I met a lot of scientists who have found their passion anywhere from scientific writing to regulatory affairs and teaching. They are aware of their specific skills (more on that below) and found a job that fits them perfectly. A PhD is just the beginning of a career and by no means is it limited to academia.
(PS: If you do not want to stay in academia, Jonathan just wrote a series of great blog posts on this topic)
- Stuck in postdoc limbo
This topic has actually been covered on The Black Hole a lot and rightfully so, because it is a major stress factor. These days, when you become a postdoc, you might stay a postdoc for the next 10-plus years. Funding is getting more difficult and the chances of starting a research group are getting smaller and smaller. Supervisors (especially younger ones) are having the same issues – financial insecurity of their labs and their institutions means tough decisions, often resulting in that uncertainty being passed down to employees in the form of temporary contracts. The flipside to this is that employees (in particular the postdoctoral fellows) feel an overwhelming pressure to perform at a higher level than their peers to secure the few jobs that are available. They need to work harder, prove they are better (in science, politics, and career building!) than their peers. Time for hobbies, vacation, starting a family…. Are you kidding?
These young scientists need to get as many high impact publications out of their project as possible. At the same time, the very people they are collaborating with to achieve this may be applying for the same grants. Fellow scientists that they work with are also potential competitors on the job market. Job insecurity, financial insecurity and pressure to perform make a fantastic recipe for (mental) disaster.
- Relocate (and then move again…)
What happens when there is no more funding for a project? A postdoctoral fellow moves to the next lab. This is great for those nomadic spirits who love to travel, but what if someone made the decision to – gasp – start a family? How many times can one really ask their spouse and children to pack up and follow along to a different neighbourhood, city, or country? Are the children of scientists doomed to starting at a new school every two years? What about the (unreasonable?) demand to their spouse to look for a new job in another location? Perhaps scientists should all run their family life via Skype and WhatsApp? Is it reasonable to demand this kind of “flexibility” from anyone at this stage of life? How have we gotten to the point where young scientists are regularly in the situation where they have to choose between their private life and their passion for science?
- Lack of focus on transferable skills
Completing a PhD taught me a lot. I became an expert in a specialized subject but I also acquired a set of valuable transferable skills – nobody really mentioned that during my training though. The PhD training I received (and countless others I imagine) did not identify the value of such skills. This has also been recognized by others and you can read more about that here and here*. So when the time comes to look for a job, I was very insecure if I would be able to actually work outside of academia because I had become such a specialist. What we need are options for PhD students to recognize the transferable skills they acquired and showcase them to prospective employers. PhD training today should also include more than just learning how to pipette at the speed of light. Why not include training in project management or recognize skills in quality assurance. Only then we will prepare PhD students for a broader spectrum of job opportunities and not just train scientific experts on the gut flora of termites.
So, fellow readers of The Black Hole, what do you think? Do you recognize these stressors? Do you agree with them? What would you add to this list? What do you struggle with? We would love to hear from you!