Tuesday, May 15, 2012

This IS a job, dagnabbit!

I finally realized why I'm struggling in my current career stage. I keep wondering when I will start my "real job."

When did I start thinking of a postdoc as less than a job? Yes, it's an apprenticeship of sorts, but terming it "not a real job" belittles the learning experiences I'm having, the skills I'm picking up, the independence I'm developing.

Which is why, when I didn't land a tenure-track job my first go-around, I felt like crap. Like a failure. Like I was damaged goods that could never succeed....

But you know what? I'm tired of thinking that way. I have a hell of a lot more options than most people I know. I don't have to worry too much about unemployment, and "underemployment" as a postdoc still pays really well. Bottom line: my career is advancing, and although I may not know where it's eventually going to lead, I'm going to do my damndest to enjoy the ride. Because it's heading somewhere great, even if it is unknown.

So there. I will now turn back to the positive person I used to know and forget about any self-doubt. I will still identify points of weakness, but focus more on ways to improve them. I will enjoy the time I have with my family, the walks I have in nature. I will stop obsessively worrying about what I will be doing in the Fall - I know I will be doing something great.

That is what I need right now - to enjoy the ride, to improve the view. I'll keep holding the reigns, but loosely....


  1. If it makes you feel better, I have a hard time of thinking of any part of academia as a "real job." Because as long as you keep working at it, every part of post-college academia is about learning, skills building, and independence. And those are all good things. However, if you're getting paid, then it is a real job!

    1. I'd argue that the only job I'd want (academic or otherwise) MUST be about learning, skills building, and independence.

      The good thing is that I know such jobs exist. :)

  2. although I may not know where it's eventually going to lead, I'm going to do my damndest to enjoy the ride. Because it's heading somewhere great, even if it is unknown.

    This is a fantastic thing to remember before, throughout, and after a tenure-track job search. There's always something new that you feel like you're reaching for to be a *real* scientist, be it a functioning lab, people working for you, your first big grant, promotion and tenure. It never stops, so you have to learn to "enjoy the ride".

    ...a postdoc still pays really well.

    Something funny happened when we got to TTT. Hubby and I got a bigger place (needed more room for our growing family), have started putting more away for retirement/college, and simultaneously found ourselves in a new tax bracket. We really don't have much more disposable income now than we did with my postdoc salary.

    1. Sadly, we've already noticed the "lifestyle creep" that comes with making more money (and adding a new mouth to feed).... But the point is that I'm not on food stamps and my family is no longer on Medicaid.

      As for the career, I really hope that I'll always have something to strive for, to get better at. I only wish I had a friggin' clue what it might be :p

  3. This.

    I found the TT job search to be a soul stretching nightmare. Why am I not hearing back from the gazillion job applications I sent out? Why is this person getting interviews and not me? etc. etc. etc. I was up all night with anxiety attacks over this crap. I am an optimistic and generally happy individual. Of course, in our field of experimental science my personality is selected for - I mean, for goodness sake, ~90% of experiments fail in some fashion and yet we turn up everyday ready to try again!

    It took me two years on the job market, but in the end I got several fantastic offers and I couldn't be happier with my future situation. But before the good news I had an epiphany moment like you write about in this post. I want to do science and that is what I am doing - regardless of the job label - so I am successful in my life's pursuit - the next incarnation is just about keeping the flame lit.

    1. Sorry for the slow response - I was drowning in a grant and only just now surfaced....

      It sounds like we're a lot alike - generally happy until we decide to job search... But seriously, so much of our lives is defined by what we do, and I think it's even more so after getting a PhD/doing a postdoc. After all, what was the point of all that schooling/sacrificing unless I can do X....

      The reality is that we have no idea how it'll work out and we have to be OK with it. Although I'll try and steer a bit and keep my eyes open for any opportunities.

      It's also nice to hear I'm not the only one who will need (at least) two years on the academic job market to strike it rich.

  4. Perspective from someone who chose to work in industry for a while before going back for a PhD, so that I wouldn't become a professional student with no real world perspective:

    When you have a "real job" in industry (with the exception of maybe some VERY early-stage R&D jobs), you are paid to execute a set of tasks to meet the company's needs. You have the skills to do so, you execute the tasks you're meant to do, and you're paid accordingly.

    In academia, your "job" is not to execute known tasks that you have the requisite skills to, you're meant to explore unknowns, and often get into areas where you have no idea what the hell you're doing. It's not called research for nothing. You don't always have tangible goals when you're exploring unknowns. For me, these factors add up to academia not feeling like a "real job."

    But I, like you, like constant learning. And that is the reason I am willing to give up my "real job" now to go back to school. In my ideal world I'd have the best of both worlds...perhaps I'll be an academic who is involved in technology commercialization and industry collaborations. I really like being closer to patient impact like I am now in industry...but the downside is less freedom to just explore cool things.

    On a slightly different but related note: Industry is not anymore financially certain than academia. Trust me, I worked at startups.

    1. "I really like being closer to patient impact like I am now in industry...but the downside is less freedom to just explore cool things. "

      This is the essence of my perpetual internal debate. Move to market and directly help people, or pursue the esoteric joy of basic research. Geesh, I think I need to come up with another option... :)

      I also worked in industry for a few years before I went to grad school, although I didn't have any goals as lofty as trying to get a real world perspective. I simply didn't know what I wanted to do or how to do it.

      And I totally agree that industry is not more financially secure than academics. It just seems that with more $$$ you get to squirrel away a bit more resources should something bad happen.

  5. I can understand your frustration about when does a 'real job' appear on the horizon but given that I've had to do so many different jobs since I graduated with a PhD and I entered the postdoc market when just as the recession hit it badly (postdocs in the humanities just vanished and haven't really returned)...I've had to rethink my perspective. I've come to the conclusion that my work life will probably be what's called a portfolio career since I can't see how one can live, let alone pay bills as an adjunct so that can't be seen as a 'real job'...TT jobs have disappeared in my discipline. The notion of a 'real job' is now a myth or least something that existed prior to 2008. The point of long winded comment is that perhaps you need to see what you've done as part of a portfolio career...and that you don't need to decide am I in one world or another (industry or academia)...but both. That's what I'm doing and I'd say that I'm mentally healthier and happier than my colleagues and friends who are in academia. I've gained a huge quantity of skills on the contracts working in industry that I've had that I would have never had the opportunity to gain. Yes, the learning curve at times in this sector was straight up but now I can ask to be paid much more than if I'd not been forced to deal with this sector before.

    1. What you call a portfolio career I call creating a job narrative. A way to connect every experience as a way to build skills to do whatever the hell you decide to do.

      And yes, I need to change my perspective and start writing my story. One nice thing about uniting all your job experiences is that you are forced to dwell in the positive and apply it towards an achievable goal.

      Now the only question is when I will make time to do it....