The last Last Dance

A faculty job application trilogy! Have you also been reading Katie’s recent blog posts on the costs of applying for a faculty job? One is about the workload of applying, the second one about the financial cost, and the last and maybe most moving one is about the emotional cost. I was eagerly waiting every week for another episode. Almost as good as Netflix’s recent series “The Last Dance” about Michael Jordan leading his team to become the NBA champions. A parallel I immediately saw is Katie writing her posts after she successfully got the job and Netflix committing to a series after Michael won six championships.

But who remembers Bill Cartwright? There is no Netflix series about Bill. As there is also no blog post about all the postdocs who applied but did not get that faculty job yet.

For those of us who went through the application obstacle course this year and didn’t get the job offer … now what? We rode the same rollercoaster of workload, financial costs, and emotions and are left bereft.

We are even more aware of the uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At many universities in the United States for example, there is now an acute hiring freeze for faculty. Jobs were cancelled mid-search. Job offers were rescinded. Australia announced two days ago that they are freezing faculty hires at all their universities! That means that, whenever faculty jobs will be offered again, more postdocs will be applying and our chances of landing a faculty job will even be lower.

While the number of faculty positions remains relatively stable, we are constantly graduating more Ph.D. students. As Alex Danco calls it in his recent blog post, postdoctoral researchers fill the elastic middle before the bottleneck of becoming faculty. Similar to an airplane that is circling above the airport and never landing. At some point it will fly away to land at a different airport or run out of gas. Postdocs are the ones carrying out most of the research – as long as they do not run out of gas. Our pilots are 30 year olds with young families, no money and horrible career prospects in academia. After several unsuccessful rounds of applying, not getting the job, and enormous emotional cost, how do you pick yourself up and keep circling? Getting a faculty job is a beginning and not the end goal. It will require a lot of activation energy (for negotiations about your starting package, a 5-year plan, strategies to get tenure, responsibilities for your new group members, and much more!). If you are among those people who think that they will still land a faculty job but haven’t been successful yet, and I think it is very likely that you are, how do you keep up the motivation to try again next year?

Most postdocs have been at this place before. Some leave for industry. Some start their own businesses. Some really want to stay in academia. So how does one persist and stop feeling like a dramatic failure? It is the beauty of science! I argue that it might be a blessing not to get a faculty job yet! I have found that reminding myself of the points I really like about science is a great strategy. Write down the reasons why you really like doing research during times when you feel more uplifted! Take out these notes later when you feel down.

One colleague told me that she recently started a folder where she is saving every piece of praise that made her happy. This can be an email with very positive feedback from a collaborator who you respect, recommendation letters from your supervisors, or positive feedback from an outreach activity. When you feel like a failure you can get back to these treasures and tell yourself that these smart, awesome people believe in you, and if they think you can make it, who are you to doubt them???

Postdoctoral positions are often the most rewarding, creative, and productive time of your career. You don’t have any of the limitations and constraints of a graduate student: you are already experienced and knowledgeable in research and you don’t have the same annoying and time-consuming non-research requirements (qualifying exams, classes, etc.). At the same time, you don’t have any of the non-research responsibilities (committees, committees, committees) of a faculty member. Starting another postdoc position is a fresh start but with a lot of experience! Run that experiment/project you have been thinking about as if it were your last one. You have nothing to lose now.

And honestly, sometimes it is even OK to feel empty and unmotivated. For me it has worked well to plan activities in advance for times when I would start spiraling down, such as painting the walls of our apartment new, cooking new dishes, gardening, or looking at birds.

Why not some citrus?

When I reached out to my peers, somebody also told me that they simply don’t apply anymore for faculty jobs because they hate rejections. Save the energy to do great research. Stay a postdoc as long as possible! Don’t waste time, energy and emotions on applications. Use it for doing more research.

Organizing a small retreat (now even via videoconferencing) can also be super uplifting. It opens your eyes on how awesome research can be and it might inspire you to do more research.

I personally also learned how to deal with imposter syndrome during my time as a postdoc. My peers convinced me that I am legitimate – that I deserved to do research at world-leading universities and with people who I felt were much more excellent and awesome than myself. I did not experience that support of peers during graduate school. I think this is because I built my own support group when I became a postdoc. This takes a little bit of effort and you expose yourself, but it is totally worth it. Talk regularly to people who make you feel strong about your research and provide positive feedback to peers when you think they deserve it. Find your support group and talk openly when you struggle. At the same time, have the courage to avoid toxic people.

And even more personal — I do not think that ‘having a family’ has always helped me when I felt like a failure. I have seen people write on social media that their families made them feel better when they were recovering from rejections. If that is true for you, I’m really happy for you and hope you lean on your family. For me, there have been times when having a family has dragged me down even further because trying to be a good partner and/or mother while being exhausted can drain your last residual energy. I had to learn to take some time for myself. Practice mindfulness. Taking time just for you is totally OK. Even as a parent. And if you are stuck at home together because of a pandemic, just dance. Dance a lot and dance wildly. Even if it is your last dance.

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