This post is almost entirely a bunch of navel-gazing and is probably uber-boring. You’ve been warned.
I’m feeling pretty eeeeehhhhhhh about my research and about being a postdoc lately. It’s weird.
I like my research question. I like it a lot. Most of the time, I really like doing the experiments too. I’m pretty hooked on the primary technique and I get kind of giddy about analyzing the data.
I like my mentor. I like him a lot. We communicate well, and I’m learning a lot of skills from him that were really lacking in my grad school training. That’s pretty cool.
So, I’m feeling a little weird about feeling apathetic about my job and my continued position as a postdoc.
There’s probably several reasons for this:
I tend to go through a trajectory of career and research excitement that runs from “OMG! This is the best job EVAR”! to “DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMM I hate everything about my life and it’s all because shit never works in the lab and I can’t pay my fucking bills and that suuuuuuccccckkkkkkkssssss.” I’d say in an ordinary 30 day period I probably hit the high and low of that trajectory at least once. So, maybe I’m just in a down-swing.
But maybe it’s more than just that. I’m coming up on the end of my “contract” period (which, let’s be honest, is not really a contract at all since I live in a state where your employer can basically fire you on a whim if they so choose, but whatever). My original “contract” was for 12 months, with renewal contingent upon me securing my own funding. This is quite typical nowadays in my field. My PI is pretty new and has not yet secured his first R01, though he writes for them like a fucking machine. I recently got scores back on my NRSA – they were decent – but we won’t know whether it’s funded or not until after council review and the Congressional NIH appropriations bill or some shit is decided. I’m choosing not to worry about the NRSA scores since they’re out of my hands at this point.
However, I am thinking about the what ifs…What if I don’t get this NRSA, and what if PI still doesn’t have an R01? Can he still support me? Will he still support me? What if he can’t/won’t? What if I end up unemployed? How long will it take me to find another position? Should I start looking now, just in case? Would that be a faux pas? Should I look outside of academia? What if I do and I get offered a position? Do I want to leave academia? Do I really want to stay? What if this is the only job I could ever be happy at? What if I choose to do something else for a while and find that I hate it and can’t break back into academic research? What if I don’t take that risk, and stay in academia, and end up living hand-to-mouth for the rest of my life? What if my life/job/whatever is meaningless?
Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between an existential crisis and melodrama. Anyone else have this problem?
There’s also this thing: I was hired to this lab to lead a particular project. (Let’s not kid ourselves with that “lead” business though – my minions are undergrads with full class schedules, so this really means that I *do* the particular project.) I was hired because I have a particular skill set that this lab did not, and our interests meshed really well in a way that would allow me to really take this skill set and my BigQuestionBiology in a new and exciting direction, while also taking the particulars of this new lab’s questions into new territory. Everyone was pretty excited about this, so we started plotting our world domination before I even started here.
There’s one small problem though. I was hired to do this particular project, and was told that everything was going to be all sunshine and unicorns because the department just got a big fucking grant to buy the shiny new toy that makes this project possible. Awesome!, says I, “when can I start?” But then, the shiny new toy didn’t show up for another 8 months. No problem, I had some new techniques and a new system to learn, and some new reagents to put together. I kept myself busy, and made some progress so that we could hit the ground running once it showed up. And then, when it got here, it turns out that it can’t actually do the thing upon which I had premised the most central aspects of this project. I was pretty crushed.
I’m also feeling a little like, “why am I here?” about this. Why would they hire me to do this job for which we do not actually have the tools? Well, because they thought we did. Why would they tell me we were going to get these critical tools when we got something else entirely? Well, either they didn’t think through why this wouldn’t really work, or since they are not experts in this particular technique, they just didn’t know any better.
Can we work around this problem? Sure, but not gracefully. The analysis will be a total mess with any conceivable work-around strategy. It will also ratchet down the impact of this project quite a few notches. We simply aren’t going to be able to make the same conclusions with these work-arounds that we would have been able to with the original strategy (but hey, sometimes that’s science, right?).
The thing is, I can do the work-arounds, but I’m pretty fucking bummed about that. I was really looking at this postdoc as an opportunity to really push things forward with this research question and at the same time sort of establish myself as someone who can do this pretty fucking awesome thing which can answer a whole host of questions for your fields and mine and so don’t you want to hire me? Now, instead of that, I’m going to have to McGyver a bunch of shit to make some tiny incremental advancement in a narrow question that not that many people really care about. If we can even get it published what with the messy analysis. McGyvering shit is cool, incremental advancements in stuff nobody cares about is less so.
I just…this is not what I signed on for.
But I don’t have any other hot options just waiting for me either.
I had another side project, just in case things got sticky with the primary one, which is always a good idea. But after spending several months on it, PI just killed it to save resources. I totally get why he did this – he’s really starting to feel the heat with respect to his funding situation, and he’s trying to be responsible and put time and money and effort into the stuff that’s going to get us some papers and him some grants and fast! But it also means that now all my eggs are in one basket, and resources-wise, that one really wasn’t a big drain.
And then there’s the fact that I’m starting to feel the heat. I’m getting a lot of “I really need you to be a role model to the grad students AA and that means getting out a paper per year. You’ve been here almost a year and your project isn’t close to publication yet.” I know that this is him dealing with the pressure to publish so he can get some more funding, and I do think it’s important to be a good role model to the grad students. I would be pretty fucking excited to have a paper ready for publication about now. But that’s not realistic.
I came to this lab with the expectation that the tools would be in place for me to hit the ground running with adapting this technique to the new labs system. I anticipated that this would take between 3 and 5 months, considering that I would also be adapting *myself* to a new system, and that I would be the only expert in this particular technique, so I’d have to do most of the trouble-shooting without the advantage of other people with this experience.
That’s not what happened though. The tools were not here for the first 8 months. That’s OK, I got a head start on learning a new field, and building some reagents, and I even got a fellowship written! But then the tools arrived and I find that they can’t do what I needed them to do, and so if I want to keep pursuing this question it’s going to take realistically at least another 6 months to adapt some kind of work-around and generate some data…assuming that it works. I repeat: what am I doing here? And will it get me where I need to go?
Part of my dooooooommmmmmm feelings might also be attributed to the fact that I’m facing some pretty strong impetus to move overseas at the moment and so there’s a good chance that I’m sort of psyching myself up for being ready to leave here if circumstances dictate.
And part of it is also watching my PI and other young profs keep running into that brick wall of funding (or lack thereof) and pick themselves up and try again, and again, and again, even though they’re worried as fuck about whether or not they’ll make it, and probably asking themselves all those same what ifs that I am.
I repeat: what am I doing here? And do I want to stay here in this limbo for the next 10 years? If not, where else should I be?