Dear Postdoc Helper:
Hi. I’m in the second year of a postdoc, and I’m a mess.
The Ph.D. experience nearly killed me, and all I could see was how important it was to cross that finish line, to be able to take some photos in those (borrowed) fancy robes and to put “Doctor” in front of my name. I knew I was supposed to be exploring career paths and networking while in grad school, but I just did not have it in me at the time. I was super relieved when I got offered a postdoc position, but now? I’m just lost, depressed, confused, overworked, underpaid (broke, actually), lonely, and I truly don’t know where to start to make it any better. I just know I need help.
Signed: Dr. Right Royal Mess (Ph.D., not M.D., alas).
Dear Dr. Mess:
If these were pre-pandemic times, I would reach right across the desk and squeeze your hands tight, then hand you a tissue box and sit with you while you cried whatever version of tears you have left in you to cry today.
Alas, I can only offer you virtual squeezes and pretend tissues to accompany my very genuine sympathies.
Hon, I am so sorry. I know that this isn’t the life you ever imagined for yourself, nor is it the life you in any way deserve, even as punishment for the sin of wanting to study and deeply understand your teeny, tiny corner of this great big world we’re living in. You’re amazing for making it through the Ph.D. journey and into a postdoc. However, I understand that being amazing doesn’t matter much when you feel so very far away from amazingness. So, in typical academic fashion, let’s just bracket that for now.
Instead, let’s start at the end of what you said: you are lonely, you don’t know where to start and you just know you need help.
I want you to acknowledge that, by writing to me, The Postdoc Helper, you are already starting to solve these problems! That’s not because I am chock-full of great advice (though I am), or because I know lots about postdocs (though I do). It’s because your impulse to reach out and talk to another human being is what will help you the most right now, and it’s also what will help you most in the future.
I will also add that, if this is all the time you have—perhaps you have a litter of mouse babies getting born or chemical reactions to measure or human subjects waiting for you in Zoomlandia—just know that that’s really all my advice. Talk to people, mostly other postdocs. Keep talking to them, and you’ll find your way.
However, if you have a few more minutes to keep reading, I’ll break it down for you in a bit more detail.
If you haven’t already realized it, one of the distinctly wonderful, horrible things about academe is that, the more you know, the more you’re told that you need to learn more. It’s likely that your many years of intellectual pursuits have, in fact, helped you experience that you can never know even a fraction of what you strive to understand. That’s the wonderful part. However, you can forget—or be hounded into denying—that you know anything meaningful about yourself. That’s the horrible part. Sometimes the culture of “the life of the mind” discourages acknowledgment that those minds belong to people—people like you and me.
But you do know things—lots of things, important things—and not only about what you study. For example, I’m confident that you know lots about yourself from your experiences in the pandemic. Among many other lessons, we all saw that human interaction and engagement is tremendously important for everyone’s well-being. However, the specifics of what that meant for you were and are very individualized. I assume that you were deep in the throes of dissertation writing during the height of the pandemic. I wonder, what did you do to help yourself through what is a notoriously lonely experience, even in the best of times? Whom did you reach out to and when? How did you do that? Did you have roommates or family members who kept you sane? Or maybe they pushed the limits of your sanity. When did you connect with an individual or group of people, whether virtually or in person, in ways that felt good and that supported and helped you?
Let me suggest that perhaps you can use your pandemic experiences wisely here, kind of like creating multiple publications and posters from the same data set. Connecting with other people helped get you through back then; maybe what you learned can also help you now.
In addition, you know things about yourself—you’re “lost, depressed, confused, overworked, underpaid (broke, actually), lonely”—that are not so individualized or unique. If you talk to other postdocs, you likely know that these characteristics of your life have lots to do with the situation that you are in, rather than your own individual failings and shortcomings. I would suggest that, if you don’t know, you might opt to listen to a recording of one or more of the National Institutes of Health’s four recent listening sessions conducted by the Advisory to the Director Working Group on Re-envisioning NIH-Supported Postdoctoral Training. The hundreds of people who attended those sessions and shared their thoughts and experiences make it pretty clear that you’re not alone—and for good reason. We have a lot of large-scale changes to make in order for postdocs’ lives to improve, and I hope that the NIH takes action on the wisdom that has been shared with them.
For example, did you know that the base salary for most new postdocs, just raised last month by the NIH, is a whopping $573 more per year than the average starting salary for 2021 college graduates? Ouch! And did you know that this base rate is required only for researchers on NIH-sponsored projects, not all postdocs? Many institutions will use it as a benchmark for pay, but especially in liberal arts fields, many postdocs are paid less than this. I’ve talked with lots of people who were earning more before they pursued their Ph.D. than they are earning now as a postdoc, not to mention the fact that they are now carrying more debt, have fewer working years ahead of them and are unclear about their career path. In addition, many institutions have separate employment categories for postdocs that prevent them from accessing the same benefits—health insurance, paid leave and/or retirement—as other employees.
Finally, international postdocs, who make up 60 to 70 percent of the entire postdoc population, have the additional huge expenses and stressors of immigration-related matters; navigating new cultures, laws, expectations and sometimes languages; being separated from family members for long stretches of time; and often trying to mask the fact that they are working so hard while making so little money.
It’s a wonder anyone is pursuing a postdoc, isn’t it? But you’re a postdoc, so you probably also know that, in the natural sciences, you have to do this if you want to have any chance, no matter how small, for a tenure-track position.
And, because you’re a postdoc, you also know that the post-Ph.D. moment is, for nearly everyone, a vulnerable limbo land of simultaneously melting icebergs and burning forests, where you’re looking for anything to grab hold of to steady yourself and get your bearings. As you noted in your message, a postdoctoral fellowship can be the closest place to jump to in hopes of finding your footing. Let me assure you there is no shame in jumping; just look for helping hands once you get there so you don’t drown in icy waters or burn in a raging inferno.
Finally, I want to address what you said about knowing you were supposed to be networking and exploring careers during your Ph.D. In addition to postdocs, I’ve also worked with lots of late-stage Ph.D. students and often told them, “You really can’t finish a Ph.D. and simultaneously do the kind of career and professional development needed to end up in a great place when you graduate. But I know you’re going to try anyway, so I’m here to help you as much as I can.” Out of necessity and faith in their own ability to pull things off, they did often try, and I observed the toll it took on them. Anyway, I just want to commend you for not attempting to do the impossible when you were finishing your Ph.D., even though it’s easy to feel you should have tried.
Now that you are in a postdoc position, though, and still completely unclear about your career path, I again want to underscore the importance of talking to people, especially other postdocs. This is precisely how you’ll find your people, your network, your confidants, your mentors and your future jobs. Is there a postdoc organization or office at your institution? Maybe a National Postdoctoral Association chapter or postdoc union? Are there career advisers? Professional development courses? Résumé workshops? Alumni panels?
Whatever might be available, look for the people first and foremost. Attend with a friend, register for a colleague, follow up with a staff member, email an alum, fill in the blanks of your mentoring map, have a wine-and-cheese party to assess your skills, interests and values together—whatever is easy, accessible and fun. Above all, don’t look for information, look for people. The good ones are there—you just have to find them and talk to them.