MentorDoctor: Burned Out or Just Getting Started?

Luis Echegoyen, Ph.D. Chair and Professor Department of


Editor's note: The MiSciNet MentorDoctor team welcomes Next Wave's GrantDoctor as a guest advisor for the month of April.

Dear MentorDoctor,

I am a minority doctoral candidate and I plan to defend my thesis this coming summer. My advisor and others in my department have encouraged me to do an academic postdoctoral fellowship, but I'm suffering from "burn out." I love science, but I don't know if I really want to be a postdoc and eventually a professor in charge of a lab. Help!

Sincerely,Unsure of Future

Luis Echegoyen: Of all the different stages in my career, the best and most memorable was my postdoctoral year. A common reason for "burn out" during your Ph.D. is multiple responsibilities: teaching laboratories, taking courses, doing research, and writing a dissertation. The postdoctoral experience is totally different since research is the only major responsibility, and it may be the only time in your life when you will have the luxury of concentrating exclusively on research. Gaining postdoctoral experience does not mean that you have to end up as a professor in charge of a lab. It will broaden your scientific experience and help you find a job wherever you decide to work in the future.

If you really love science as you say you do, don't forego the opportunity to spend 1-2 years dedicated exclusively to the research enterprise. It will be a rewarding endeavor.

Isabella Finkelstein: Congratulations! The end is in sight for your Ph.D. Those of us in academia think that academia is the place to be, but it is not for everyone. You have many options to continue in the sciences, including industry and government. You can continue research at non-academic sites or you can get involved in science policy or administration. You probably have been too busy finishing your degree to investigate the many opportunities available to you.

You do not mention your area, but in some sciences, postdoctoral experience is a necessary part of your training. You should look for a postdoc that will complement your current research area yet provide you with a new training experience. On a very positive note, the postdoctoral salaries have increased considerably in recent years. Let me suggest that you take some time to do the following:

  • Visit the National Postdoctoral Association to review the options available to you.

  • Investigate postdoctoral training at NIH, FDA, NASA, and the Department of Energy. There are fellowships that prepare you for other avenues than bench research; however, many of them do require at least one year of postdoctoral training.

  • James Stith: Congratulations on reaching the point where you can actually see the finish line. Upon attaining your degree a world of opportunities will be open to you, but it is important to consider your next step carefully.

    You have suggested what you don't want to do, but you did not indicate what you want to do. If you want to be a professor at a major research university or do research in a major laboratory, a stint as a postdoc is extremely important. If you want to pursue other objectives--work in policy, teach at a non-research intensive institute, etc.--then the postdoc experience is not nearly as important. If it is indeed burnout that you are experiencing, then taking a break is a good idea. Make sure, however, that the break not only gives you the chance to recharge your batteries, but also provides a set of skills that will serve you in the future.

    You did not indicate your subject area, but many professional societies sponsor congressional or other government agency fellowships that provide valuable experiences. Many societies also have staff positions that allow you to interact with society members-- providing you with a first-hand look at the broad range of employment opportunities and activities of those with backgrounds similar to your own. Talk to leaders in professional societies in your field.

    The reality is that most people who earn a Ph.D. spend their careers outside the classroom and the laboratory. Examine the broad range of options and consider which choice is right for you. Good luck.

    The GrantDoctor: Do the postdoc, but do it right.

    What does that mean exactly? Career-development experts recommend that you use the postdoc to expand your research horizons. So get out of your narrow niche. That ought to solve your burnout problem.

    Find a new area of science that excites you, something considerably different from what you're currently doing but for which your basic skills prepare you well. Or make contact with a scientist--you may know someone already--you greatly admire. Tell her you love her work and would really like to work for her. Ask if she is willing to have you join her group. Then write a proposal for a postdoctoral fellowship, together with your new mentor. As you write your proposal, take the time to map out a serious training and research plan. A serious training plan will increase your chance of winning the fellowship. So will changing fields.

    Why a fellowship? It will make you more attractive to that PI that you admire. Also, with your own fellowship you won't be offered the insulting pay that some employee-postdocs have to tolerate.

    By doing the postdoc, you will keep your options open. If you decide to pursue an academic career after all, the postdoc is essential. The change of scenery--a new lab, a new research focus--should make things fresh and exciting again. But if it doesn't--if you find you don't enjoy this exciting new research opportunity--then you can be sure that it's time to find a new career.

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