Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition, Part 3: Time to Strategize

Hello, folks, back for installment three of my postdoc adventures. Now that I've admitted that I'm as neurotic and despondent as Meredith Grey (in case you don't watch TV, she's the main character on ABC's " Grey's Anatomy"), I have to figure out what I'm going to do about it and how things have to change for me to get myself back to a slightly more perky and functional state. I'm not asking for pre-graduate-school perky, but a girl can dream, right?

Funny how the research rug and all of the assumptions that used to hold it down can be swept from under you in a blinding blaze of money--yet you still find a way to persevere.

As you may recall from Chapter 2, I accepted this position on the understanding that there were a few projects that I could explore on arrival here. Project 1 had guaranteed funding, but it wasn't something I was eager to build my future around. Project 2 was the one that excited me and seemed like the stuff careers are made of. Fact is, I was counting on Project 2 to resolidify my waning commitment to science.

But the funding for #2 was a mirage, which, when I arrived, evaporated into the mist. So now it feels like my raison d'être--my reason for being here anyway, and for being in science--doesn't exist anymore. I feel like I should be excited by my work and I was, but then the exciting part of my work went away, leaving me with a question: Should I go, too?

My editor is worried that I might ruin my scientific career by voicing my discontent with how things are going. Yes, I write under a pseudonym and occasionally fear being discovered. But I contend that as soon as I put pen to paper to write about my life in graduate school, being found out was already possible. I can't help but wonder: Am I ruining my scientific career by airing my discontent, which for me is the best kind of therapy? Or am I ruining my scientific career by remaining in the situation that's causing my discontent? If I'm going to ruin my scientific career anyway, what's the best way to go about it?

Part of the answer is easy: For now at least, the writing will continue. I seem to be working some of my issues out, experimenting with varying solutions, and keeping myself honest. Reporting back to you lets me be the canary in the coal mine, because I know not everyone has found their research bliss; the e-mails I receive suggest that my madness is somehow helping other people too. So I'll keep digging until I find a decent solution.

Writing, at the moment, is something I can do. Otherwise I'm paralyzed, overwhelmed by a need to do something to improve my situation but unable to act. If I were reading the stuff I write, I would probably advise myself to run for the hills; I have actually already gotten e-mails to that effect. But running without further assessment might leave me worse off than when I started. Like I said last month, even if you plan things out, every situation is its own black box, ripe for chaos and decay. Blooming and wondrous prosperity are to be hoped for, but right now chaos and decay are the order of the day.

In a nutshell, I have three options: stay, switch, or go now. And if I choose option 3, I could either take another position in science or--gasp!--leave research altogether. Let's explore, shall we?

Option 1: Stay. Remain in postdoc for an indeterminate time. Get the research project--the one that's left--done. Within this larger task, probe for the interesting science and cultivate and enjoy its small pleasures and satisfactions. Publish the papers. Go to the conferences. Recruit another postdoc to replace me. Go through the motions. Rinse and repeat.

I can do this research; that is not the problem. But is it the earth-shattering, groundbreaking, life-altering, career-propelling work that makes me want to get up in the morning, stay late in the lab, and shout out to the world what I do? Um ... let me get back to you on that.

On the positive side, I have funding and stability, and those are very real worries for many people working in research right now. I also like the team of people I'm working with, mostly. They treat me like an adult and not an adolescent, most of the time. Are these enough reasons to keep me here? Hmm ...

This is probably the easiest of the options, in that it requires less decisiveness than the others. But that is part of the problem: I would feel like a fraud and a meek, acquiescent postdoc, executing--and I do mean executing--this option. But I have been the nicest, easiest-to-get-along-with person I've known for a lot of my life, which does not make confrontation, change, or anything that could cause conflict easy for me.

Option 2: Switch. Remain in this lab but find another project or two to engage with. There is some meat in this option--there are a few things going on here that interest me--but a move like that will be politically complicated. Challenge 1: I'd still be in the same lab, so I might piss off my current colleagues, even if it's done gently. Challenge 2: There is no guarantee of finding money, or having that money remain with me for the rest of the postdoc, on a new project. Advantage 1: Find more passion in my work--maybe. Advantage 2: Keep the job and the benefits.

Option 3: Flee! Cut my losses and shove off for a new job somewhere else. As I said, option 3 has two suboptions.

Option 3a: A new, different research position.

Option 3b Walk away from research to pursue a "nontraditional" science career.

This option--or these options, if you like--have one huge disadvantage, which is also, you might say, an advantage: I'd be jumping off a cliff into the unknown. I'd be starting over again (more so, obviously, for 3b than for 3a). 3a probably means leaving for a new place just after I've settled in here--and I don't know what the possibilities are. Is there a project out there that would engage my passions more than this one does? Or would I be setting myself up for more disappointment?

Leaving research seems even scarier. I've been indoctrinated with researchers' mind, culture, and philosophy for so long, I have this irrational fear that I might not be capable/worthy of some other job that I might try to do. There is of course the other fear of what people will think, the "why is she doing X when she went to school for Y?" fear--and the fear of disappointing all the people whom you worked with during graduate school even if they may not have your best interests at heart.

There are so many options--and so few obvious ones--that there's no way of knowing where I'd end up. It's scary and exciting for exactly the same reason: The possibilities are endless.

If you couldn't tell already, let me make this really clear: I'm terrified of doing the wrong thing and find myself immobilized, unable to make truly life-changing decisions because I don't feel financially or emotionally ready to negotiate the change or the consequences of the change. So: What to do?

OK, I lied: There is one other option--call it Option 4--and if I had to choose now, I probably would choose it, if only because it doesn't really require me to make a choice: Explore some new opportunities without burning any bridges. I could find a few organizations with missions that are in line with my interests, do some informational interviews, maybe see whether they have a side project I could work on in my spare time to find out what the work is like. Challenge 1: No money, no tangible benefits, other than (possibly, in some cases) that fuzzy do-gooder feeling. Challenge 2: Exactly who are these people? Will they even take me seriously? Challenge 3: Extra time commitment beyond my paying work; but then, I don't really need to watch TV.

Advantage 1: Build a new network. Advantage 2: No bridges burned. Advantage 3: Learn about new areas of science-related work. Advantage 4: No commitments, at least in the short term, which sounds like the perfect thing for a commitment-phobe like me.

Sometimes I worry that I've been sold a line by the career counseling books and people peddling "passion." Is there really such a thing as the perfect job? Is there really one thing, or two or three, that I was truly meant to do? Is it too much to expect to find something that will propel me beyond mild, uneasy contentment into something resembling true satisfaction and happiness?

It's time for a poll, dear readers: What do you think Micella should do? Stay? Go? Switch/flee? Tell her why at

Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym.

General comments or suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700042

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers