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Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition, Chapter 9: The Postdoc Has Two Faces

My latest bout of split-personality disorder has been a long time coming.

Anyone who has read this column for any time will recognize the signs: longing to flee combined with guilt about leaving others in a lurch; feeling that the mask I have worked to create and maintain as a proper scientific being is too constricting; knowing there’s something better out there but not knowing what it is; taking one step forward, one back, another forward, doing a little jig, one foot seemingly nailed to the floor.

I may as well have stayed in graduate school.

Yes, it’s time to go. It’s not a matter of where at the moment--I still don’t know--but, rather, of “ Get me out of here!” combined with my longtime habit of trying to maintain a sense of decency and decorum. Inner chaos, outer calm--signs of the times.

I need answers, now. Okay, I’ll give myself 6 months.

There’s only one problem. Okay, there’s more than one problem.

  • I don’t know where to go or what to do next.

  • Papers must be written first.

  • I like earning a decent living.

  • Let’s explore.

    It may not sound like it, but the post-grad–school malaise has started to wear off. I look back at earlier chapters and think, “Who the hell is this woman, and what has she done with the Real Micella? The one with spunk? The one with pizzazz? The one who wasn’t pissing and moaning all the time about how life sucks?”

    Apparently, I’m not the only one to experience a sort of post-doctoral depression. I’ve heard from other reader-scientists--in one case it was a scientist’s spouse--who have also experienced post-Ph.D. funks. One friend’s funk lasted 5 years. (Note to readers looking for jobs: Moving to a place you like is a very good idea. Even if the job doesn’t pay as much as you’d like, with friends you can still be happy. You can also mooch off your friends.)

    So, yeah, this paper-writing thing: I’m procrastinating like a big dog. I always have. This is one habit (of many) I haven’t broken.

    Let’s not lie. Writing can be a huge pain, especially when you’re not interested in what you’re writing about. You may recall that the project I came here for vanished before my arrival. The scuttlebutt is that it won’t be appearing next year either. So I’m stuck doing work--and writing papers about--stuff I’m not much interested in. So, yes, I’d rather be writing my column, or formulating a blog, or doing anything instead of writing these papers.

    This--my lack of interest in the work--makes a fine segue from post-doctoral depression to my newest pathology: pre-postdoc–departure schizophrenia, a.k.a. postdoc Janus disease. I feel like a two-faced wretch in loony-land trying to play nice and pretending to maintain interest in what goes on around me. One of my faces is smiling and trying to be productive while the other runs screaming from the building. (There’s an image: a face running from a building.)

    Problem two: I still have no idea what lies beyond the fog. But there is some goodness here: There’s this yoga class I go to occasionally in my neighborhood. One evening I meet this woman who says something that sounds vaguely nerdy about center of mass; details have been changed to protect the innocent. And I say:

    “Are you a scientist?”

    “Not exactly," she replies, "but I have a background in astrophysical neuron agitation"--or something--"and I work at a consulting/public works firm.”

    My ears perk up. “Really? I’m interested in just such a thing. Do you mind if we chat?”

    Of course we can chat, she says, then she starts giving me names, organizations, and resources faster than I can write them down in my contorted position.

    So, sitting in yoga class, I find a new potential (and human) guide to help me navigate the fog. Although I am a huge fan of the Internets (thank you, Senator Stevens), I am profoundly thrilled by what can happen when you talk to strangers, upside-down-face to upside-down-face, in a place such as a yoga class.

    Unfortunately, this feeds into that other problem. I’m now far more interested in following up on recommendations from my new friend--and going to yoga class--than I am in writing papers.

    Now onto that third problem, the golden handcuffs. It happens to plenty of people in all walks of life. You get a job, and maybe you like the job. But you especially like what the salary buys. You can take vacations, shop, contribute to a retirement plan, shop, save, pay off your student loans, shop, and buy all those things that your friends bought while you were toiling away, broke and broken, in graduate school. You’re not quite happy, but to leave, you realize, you’ll have to downsize. Do I really need all of those shoes, that really nice apartment, the movies, the music, the books, and that really cool 3000-gallon saltwater aquarium? The alternative is a new job, one you ideally won’t hate, that pays enough to support you in the manner to which you have grown accustomed.

    Have you read about those poor millionaires in Silicon Valley? Although I’m nowhere near that rich and pitiful, I have gotten used to having things. I can’t just cut bait and sail around the world; for one thing, if I quit I can’t make the payments on the sailboat.

    But whine and teeth-gnash I will not. I’m stashing that Micella in a closet; a new, slightly duplicitous, scheming, nutty--but perkier--Micella has taken her place. I hope that in 6 months’ time (okay, 6 to 9 months; this will take work), this new Micella herself will be stashed away and replaced with a slightly saner version. ...

    Working on the upgrade,, signing off.

    Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym. What, did you think this column was written by a theoretical aggregation of molecules constituting a structural particle of protoplasm and capable of increase or diminution without change in chemical nature?

    Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700139

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