I'll be the best-educated person under the 9th Street Bridge.
July 20, 2011 9:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm an unemployed PhD! Wheeeee!!!! What can I do to ensure that I won't be homeless next month?

I successfully defended my thesis in June. I got a late start on my job search due to some messy personal difficulties; namely, the complete implosion of my marriage the week before what turned out to be my final committee meeting. Most of the spring was taken up with trying to not have a nervous breakdown while writing my dissertation and adjusting to no longer being married, and to trying to pay my rent and utilities on half my accustomed household income.

I am in a biomedical research field, and the standard 'next step' is a postdoctoral research position. Usually, one goes to a different university to do this, but I'm in a smallish city and there's only one game in town. I can't move right now: my credit is already overextended from having supported my ex through a lengthy period of unemployment, and I just don't have the money to go to a different city. Hell, I don't have the money to stay where I am right now; I've been scraping along by selling my possessions. My advisor had funding to keep me on through the end of August, but there won't be any money for me after that point. Needless to say, I've been applying for postdoc jobs like crazy.

I haven't had much luck with postdoc interviews, though. I think a lot of it is that it's a little odd that I am staying in the same city; my CV is quite strong, with multiple publications in decent journals, my technical skillset is solid, and I give a good job talk. But I've only gotten two interviews out of the five postdoc positions I am remotely qualified for, and I haven't heard back from either PI. (It has been weeks.) My current best hope is a nomination for an in-house training grant -- the PI wants me in the lab, but the money isn't there yet. Depending on how many other people are applying for the same money, I guess there is a 50-90% shot that I will NOT be employed come September.

At this point, I am seriously panicking. I want to be able to pay my rent and have food and stuff. My grad student stipend doesn't quite cover my financial obligations incurred, (stupidly all in my own name), when I was married and was able to afford it. If I can't find work as a post-doc, I will not be able to continue in the career path that I enjoy and that I spent 4 years of college and 6 years of grad school training for, so it would be a really bad move for me to try to find work doing teaching or tutoring. And I don't know what else I can do. I am currently paralyzed with absolute terror and feel like a horrible failure who has wasted her life. I don't have any family here or anyone else who could really help me, and I've never felt more absolutely powerless about my situation in life before. If anyone has any advice about anything I can do to get myself out of this mess, please chime in.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (36 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Stop only applying for jobs in the city. You know how you get money to move? You get a job in another city. What you're doing now isn't working. Give yourself more options. If you can't do the move after you get the job (and you may be able to get assistance moving, depending on the funding of where you go), you can turn it down then, but don't shoot yourself in the foot before you even start.
posted by brainmouse at 9:38 AM on July 20, 2011 [9 favorites]

so it would be a really bad move for me to try to find work doing teaching or tutoring.

In desperate times, you should take what you can get. If that's teaching for a while and doing so puts food on the table and a roof over your head, then do so.

Try putting yourself into the pool in other positions too. You can always come back to your career track, but it sounds like you have more immediate things to take care of.

Also, apply for government assistance.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:44 AM on July 20, 2011

. If I can't find work as a post-doc, I will not be able to continue in the career path that I enjoy and that I spent 4 years of college and 6 years of grad school training for, so it would be a really bad move for me to try to find work doing teaching or tutoring.

How true is this? Assuming your family or even the family of your ex (do they know you supported him? Do they respect and admire your support and not agree with his choice to end things?) won't or cant support you, it is your responsibility to gain income, and in this economy perhaps employers would understand if hardship required you to take other work while trying to find a postdoc.

You are not a horrible person. You invested in hope and another person and that person betrayed you. I am facing similar issues and it has destroyed my trust
hope, empathy other gentle feelings, but I hope they will come back some day, and I hope the same for you.
posted by By The Grace of God at 9:44 AM on July 20, 2011

I can't move right now: my credit is already overextended from having supported my ex through a lengthy period of unemployment, and I just don't have the money to go to a different city.

Sounds like this "I can't" is your biggest problem. But you can. You know applying for jobs in this city is the wrong thing to do. Apply for jobs in another city. My current postdoctoral position came with some relocation assistance. After you get the job you will be able to figure out how to make it work. If you can't, you can come back here and ask again.
posted by grouse at 9:44 AM on July 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

in this economy perhaps employers would understand if hardship required you to take other work while trying to find a postdoc.

Even in this economy, there are plenty of biomedical postdoc positions. But in any economy, you are expected to move for a postdoc. Having a gap in your resume will not disqualify you, but it will make it harder to find a job, and reduce the time period in which you are eligible for certain government fellowships for postdocs. It's really not the best idea.

Apply for jobs in other cities today, and you will figure out how to make it happen later if need be. You're going to be OK.
posted by grouse at 9:55 AM on July 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Given the short timeframe before you run out of money, you should be spending quite a bit of time in your university's career services office Also, usually there is a student jobs office - try applying for admin jobs, pa jobs, dean jobs, look at waitressing jobs, hell apply to starbucks! All the retail and service jobs will hired within a week rather than take weeks or months to do interviews and extensive reference checks. Do what you need to do to pay next months rent.

Once you've got the rent sorted, apply outside your city. And consider applying to pharma companies as well.
posted by zia at 9:58 AM on July 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

I am currently paralyzed with absolute terror and feel like a horrible failure who has wasted her life.

Take a deep breath! You are not screwed, nor are you a horrible failure. The correct thing to do here is, as others have said, to apply for positions in other cities. You need to cast your net wider.

Also, you sound like you have a really good relationship with your PI. This is a huge resource. They can almost certainly put you in contact with people -- collaborators, friends from grad school, etc. Get them involved; your PI almost certainly wants you to succeed.

Finally, if in the absolute worst case (which is very unlikely) that you don't figure out an academic job by September, don't stress too much about that either. A "gap" of even a few months is hardly noticeable on a CV and I have known several people who had even more extensive time away from the academy between grad school and postdoctoral work, with apparently no impact on their careers.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:06 AM on July 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

There's a lot of employment for Ph.D.'s in scientific consultancy fields in the DC Metro region. Feel free to hit the email in my profile if you want more info.
posted by stevis23 at 10:07 AM on July 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Sign up with a temp agency. Ten temp agencies. That'll get you some money.
posted by tel3path at 10:07 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

You shouldn't let overextending on credit stop you.

It is better to have bad credit in a new city with a new job, than good credit in your old city with no job.
posted by oddman at 10:14 AM on July 20, 2011

Nthing talk to your PI about this. S/he is invested in you and your success and also is aware of the larger field. Let them put out feelers for you and help you find something. You can figure out the moving stuff when/if the time comes, but give yourself a chance to find something that is a good fit beyond just geographically.
posted by goggie at 10:20 AM on July 20, 2011

Is there something preventing you from moving to cheaper housing (probably with roommates) and cancelling all unnecessary expenses like cable, phone data plans, etc? There are plenty of previous AskMe questions about how to live cheaply.
posted by anotherkate at 10:21 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, CONGRATULATIONS ON THE SUCCESSFUL DEFENSE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
posted by oddman at 10:23 AM on July 20, 2011 [13 favorites]

I am not a PhD. I am in research. I am not in your research area.

You are correct that is best your post doc position is not at the university you received your degree from. I agree with the comments to seek employment outside of your city. It may be possible to get moving expenses as apart of your new position - because moving is often required to a new city for the post doc position.

I also agree with the comments that using credit to fund the move isn't a horrible thing, as you are moving for a new job. This is coming from someone who has never had credit card debt...ever. If you elect this route - make it a priority to pay off the debt quickly.

PI funding often comes from Washington. Given the current situation in DC, you may not hear about post doc position until a budget is passed.

Congratulations on your PhD.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 10:27 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Usually, one goes to a different university to do this, but I'm in a smallish city and there's only one game in town. I can't move right now: my credit is already overextended from having supported my ex through a lengthy period of unemployment, and I just don't have the money to go to a different city.

This is a very bizarre take on your situation. Postdocs are hard to come by, as-is, so you are not doing yourself any favors by geographically limiting your search. Get on every listserv. Look at job wikis. Apply to everything you can remotely see yourself doing. Remember that you can decline a postdoc once the offer has been made so nothing is set in stone.

I am a postdoc too. My last postdoc ran out of funding in December. My PI and I tried, desperately, to raise more money but we got rejected from every grant. Then I spent five months living off my savings and landed a new (fancy) position after I had lost all hope.

You don't need a lot of money to move. Sell all your belongings, buy a plane ticket, take your personal items, and go. Then once you get a paycheck at your new postdoc, buy new stuff for an apartment. If you're worried that bad credit will make it difficult to rent an apartment, get into a shared living situation (with grad students in your new dept, for example) and also save money for a little while.

In the meantime, look for a part time tutoring gig locally. There is no shame in that. My girlfriend, who got a PhD from an ivy league school, then spent a year tutoring and teaching at a local college, is now on her way to a fancy fellowship at another Ivy. She tutored rich kids for $100 a session (3-4 times a week). She made enough to pay her rent and more from just the tutoring (and used her other income to pay off loans).

Good luck.
posted by babby╩╝); Drop table users; -- at 10:31 AM on July 20, 2011

The timetables for academic job searches and hiring are really long. If you do something else and take a postdoc in six months or a year, it won't necessarily tank your career. Keep polishing up papers and getting whatever else you can out the door even if technically your main job to put food on the table is tutoring, adjunct teaching at community college, whatever. You could gloss over that and no one is going to hold it against you at all as long as you show you were actively engaged with your job search and still following up on your research after getting your PhD.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:36 AM on July 20, 2011

Congratulations on your PhD! That's quite an accomplishment, and it sounds like you had more than your share of adversity.

Consider investigating your postdoc options at NIH. NIH authorizes covering moving expenses up to $3000K for fellows (cf http://oma.od.nih.gov/manualchapters/management/1500/10.html). NIH's Office of Intramural Training and Education has a list of postdoc openings here (may be incomplete):
and the people in the OITE office may be able to give you additional advice.

If you can tough it out till fall, you may start seeing more postdoc postings as newly hired faculty start setting up their labs.

BTW, the statement above that "given the current situation in DC, you may not hear about post doc position until a budget is passed" is nonsense. FY2011 has been passed and the Institutes have made their grant awards. It was a rough budget year, slow and meager, so there's not a whole lotta money around (and prospects for FY2012 aren't much better), but it's not a waiting game in any sense.
posted by Westringia F. at 10:52 AM on July 20, 2011

First, calm down. Stressing out about this isn't helping your situation and isn't helping you make decisions wisely.

1. If you really want to stay in Your Town, focus on getting a Postdoc at Your University. As it stands you've already applied for everything possible, it seems, so stressing out about getting them isn't going to help you at all. You'll know if you got them when you'll know.
2. However, as you say, it isn't very typical for people to stay at their original university, so you may have to tough it out a bit and save up some money so that you'll have a bit of a cushion for your next move.

If I were you, I'd stay local and get whatever job you can get to save up some money quickly. Go get a job at Starbucks or the library or whatever in order to get some more money in your pocket. This will help you as you prepare for your next step.

Also don't underestimate going into some sort of temporary research position before the next round of postdocs opens up. Goverment research positions, for example, may pay for a move for you.
posted by k8t at 10:53 AM on July 20, 2011

Apply for jobs in other cities. You are vastly overestimating the pecuniary costs of moving, as well as the long-term pecuniary costs of taking a sub-optimal position so you can stay in your preferred city. Spending a year unemployed is going to cost you a ton in terms of future earnings.
posted by deadweightloss at 11:07 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, just because they aren't advertising, doesn't mean you can't apply for a post-doc position in a lab you are interested in. I got my current post doc in a biomedical field after emailing my PI and telling him I would like work for him. Even better, if you are interested in a certain lab, get your PI to email that person as well. A lot of people don't advertise for post docs but are interested in good candidates.
posted by nasayre at 11:10 AM on July 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

I am currently paralyzed with absolute terror and feel like a horrible failure who has wasted her life.

Deep breath. Apply for all the postdocs you can in all the cities you want to be in. Find a postdoc that will pay your moving expenses. Even if you can't get your moving expenses paid, the time you spend unemployed will cost vastly more in opportunity costs than the cost of moving to another city. If you spend one month without a job, that will be much more money lost than the one-time expense of moving.

talk to your advisor. Talk to the PIs you applied to but couldn't offer you something for references to other PIs looking for postdocs, and apply to them.
posted by deanc at 11:13 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

From what people who actually go to grad school here tell me, grad schools don't like it if you stay at the same school for any 2 academic degrees in a row (unless you have a rare subject that is only offered there). So your odds of getting the postdoc here in the first place are probably pretty low because of that. They want fresh blood and you're old blood, so unless you're spectacular you may be considered undesirable BECAUSE of that. So you probably will have to suck it up and move at some point.

But in the meantime, this is when you start doing temp jobs and Starbucks jobs if you can get them. I hear those are also hard to get these days, but the process of hiring for that goes faster than academia.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:18 AM on July 20, 2011

Talk to your PI, your defense committee, your departmental secretary, anyone you've collaborated with in the past from any university, and the folks with the postdoc positions you applied for already. I have seen a lot of students get some temporary get-through-the-next-few-months mini-postdoc position, and I've seen a LOT of students get postdoc positions when the PI hadn't advertised. Use that network.

Many jobs come with a small stipend for moving. Don't limit your search until you get an offer! You don't know what the offer will be until it comes in.

Teaching/tutoring would be a bad move for what you want--if you did nothing but that for the next 5 years. Apply for those positions too, and if you get one you can talk to your PI about doing some research on the side to keep your hand in the game.

You'll be fine.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:37 AM on July 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

YES: what nasayre said. Academic postdocs operate strongly by word of mouth. Your advisor should be bringing you into his/her network of colleagues (some advisors are better at this than others), so don't be shy to ask for concrete help finding a postdoc. You should also approach other PIs who know your work well (ones you've co-authored with, or ones on your ctte), tell them you're looking for a postdoc doing such-and-such-research, and ask them whether they have colleagues they'd recommend you contact. (If they do, you can ask them if they'd be willing to "introduce" you in email, and you can mention when you contact the possible employers that Dr Collaborator suggested that Dr Potential-Employer's lab would be a good match.)

And ping the PIs you haven't heard from & re-express your enthusiasm -- not hearing anything might not be bad news. If they do respond with a rejection, you can also ask them if they have any colleagues who are looking for postdocs.

Also, it's a bit late for this, but since you have funding through August: are there any summer conferences in your field that are still accepting abstracts where you can present and network?
posted by Westringia F. at 11:41 AM on July 20, 2011

Oh, and I'll add that my current position could look, from the POV of someone looking for a traditional postdoc, like a step off-track. (It's not a postdoc, it's more of an after-doc.) But, the person who did it before me did research at the same time and is now tenure track, basically starting up a department from scratch at a decent school. So don't discount anything.

(And feel free to message me--I'm in a closely-enough related field that I might at least be a nice person to talk to, my work gets me in touch with everyone and their brother, and as I, too, live in a place that could be described as a one-game small city, it's not impossible that you live 5 minutes from me.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:51 AM on July 20, 2011

You will feel less stressed if you are getting regular exercise and eating well. I agree with the idea of selling everything you can so that you can be more mobile. You are most likely going to need to move. If you need a friend who's been in a similar position feel free to memail me.
posted by mareli at 11:53 AM on July 20, 2011

My next postdoc includes moving expenses. Yours could, too. (Also sell everything you can; both for the cash and because moving is cheaper with less stuff).
posted by nat at 1:04 PM on July 20, 2011

Nthing that your PI should be helping you on this and also that you should not rule out moving. It is a lot harder to get 'real' jobs to look at you when you are from a different city; it is not even a factor when you are applying for postdocs, since as you have seen, everyone expects you to leave your original institution.

I agree that you can get a postdoc in a lab that's not advertising. My thesis advisor hired people that way all the time. He often couldn't be bothered to do the work of advertising a position. Call people on the phone. Or at least email them.

Also, if you end up just working some side jobs to make the rent while you stay in your now city, talk to your PI about staying on in your lab as an unfunded researcher. There's plenty of cheap research you can do (even if it's not exactly what you want to do) and he/she probably won't say no to free labor. Even if it's only a day or two a week and it sucks for you time-wise, it will keep you 'in science' while you are finding your next position.

And I really can't stress enough how much your PI should be helping you on this. Your success will only reflect well on him/her. If they are no help, go up the ladder or sideways and tell your profs you need help. Somebody knows someone. At the end of the day, get as many options as you can, so that you can pick from them.

Good luck -- it is hard and we all appreciate that you are working hard to work hard!
posted by Tandem Affinity at 1:21 PM on July 20, 2011

I also agree with the advice that most postdocs will include moving expenses, plus you'll be getting paid so charges to your credit card while moving will get paid off once you get your first paycheck.

I also agree with folks who say that tutoring or teaching for awhile will not doom your career. I know someone who adjuncted for a year before landing a dream postdoc at a fancy school.

Also, you might consider something like copyediting as a financial stopgap. I have been editing articles for scientists for whom English is not their first language. It uses skills you already have and pays pretty well. If you have language skill, translators with technical knowledge are also in demand. Feel free to Memail me for more info.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:43 PM on July 20, 2011

Since my last comment was deleted (because I didn't explain why), I'll flesh it out a bit more.

PI funding often comes from Washington. Given the current situation in DC, you may not hear about post doc position until a budget is passed.

Congratulations on your PhD.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 10:27 AM

This comment is FALSE.

Funding from sources such as NSF/NIH for currently active grants was allocated a long time ago. So any postdoc position that OP would be applying to is already funded. Funding for future fellowships (such as NSF/NIH postdoctoral fellowship programs), and NSF/NIH calls for the near future remain unchanged.

So don't let BuffaloChickenWing's comment cause you anxiety.
posted by babby╩╝); Drop table users; -- at 2:30 PM on July 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Congratulations on your PhD, especially amidst adversity. You should be proud.

But not so proud that you can't take whatever tutoring, waitressing, dogwalking job that comes your way between now and August. To this day, the jobs between my "real jobs" were the most interesting and enjoyable. Some of them even introduced me to people who got me to the next "real" job. So throw yourself out there. And spend every spare moment researching the many fine suggestions provided above. Keep yourself too busy to worry, and -poof- things will work out. Probably better than you could plan.

"I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it." - Thomas Jefferson. (Worrying does not equal work. Walking dogs until you meet the dachshund owner by the CSO of a Fortune 500 biotech firm just might.)
posted by keasby at 3:49 PM on July 20, 2011

Congrats from me too on finishing, and goddamn, making it through during a hellaciously difficult personal time. You may feel wrung out (who wouldn't??) but you know what? You made it this far because you're *strong* and you'll make it through the next challenge too.

Just because you're strong doesn't mean you can't freak out and cry for three hours a night if you need to. I give you permission if that's what you need to make it through. I only wanted to remind you that a little ways down the line from now things will have resolved and you will be OK.

Lots of good advice here about working the academic network and I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that you should be pursuing work in labs where you want to work, even in other cities. Also, I wanted to say this: even if they don't give you relocation money, go anyway! Can you borrow money from someone? Family, friends, friends of family?

I'll bet there are people in your life who are proud of your accomplishment and sympathetic about the events in your personal life--folks who know you're at a turning point and also a tough spot, and will be happy to spot you some money for 6 months or a year until you're back on your feet financially.

You just went through the fire learning that you needed to be independent, both personally and professionally, but don't be afraid to ask for help.
posted by Sublimity at 4:56 PM on July 20, 2011

I would be happy to clarify. It is a shame one mentions DC and it is assumed there is a political agenda.

Funding organizations such as:


..and others receive their budgets from Congress. Once their budget is known the funding organizations know how much money they have to disseminate. As I have said - I am not researching in your field. YMMV.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 5:59 PM on July 20, 2011

BuffaloChickenWing, I don't see anyone else bringing up a political agenda. babby drop table users only seems to be pointing out that your statement is incorrect. It is incorrect. For NIH at least, which funds the lion's share of postdoctoral salaries in biomedical research, there is plenty of money for the current fiscal year that is still unspent. There is absolutely no reason to wait until a budget for the next fiscal year is passed.

While I'm back here, I should echo anotherkate's suggestion that you move into a cheaper living situation. You don't need a place large enough for two to yourself, especially since it seems you can't afford it. See if you can find a temporary sublet. This will help you reduce your possessions and make it easier to get out of town when the time comes.
posted by grouse at 8:27 PM on July 20, 2011

BuffaloChickenWing: while your bit about NSF/NIH/DARPA funding being related to the federal budget isn't inaccurate, your assertion that "given the current situation in DC, you may not hear about post doc position until a budget is passed" is still totally wrong.

Babby, I and others were not objecting to some "political agenda." We were objecting because the federal budget for FY2011 was passed in mid-April and funding priorities have already been set for NIH grants scored and under consideration for funding in FY2011 (ie, before 1 Oct 2011). For proposals under consideration for funding starting in FY2012, awards will likely not be made until early 2012 at best (January if it's a really good year, March most likely, and April/May if it's ridiculously contentious like FY2011) -- but this a completely typical feature of the funding cycle that all federally-funded PIs are aware of and accustomed to, and is always true this time of year ("current situation" or otherwise).

Federal funding is byzantine, but to put it simply: PI's are not waiting for a bugdet right now; they either have a scored grant that makes the payline for FY2011 or not. Please don't let BuffaloChickenWing scare you or lull you into waiting! There's no reason to wait all the way till FY2012 grants are awarded (not that you could do so anyway). I know for a fact that despite this year's painful paylines, there are PIs with money now (and the late passage of the FY2011 budget may even work to your advantage, since it will have set their hiring behind a little) -- you just need to find yourself an awesome match!

FWIW, I am a PhD doing federally-funded biomedical research.
posted by Westringia F. at 9:42 PM on July 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also, depending on your particular area of interest, I may be able to offer more specific suggestions; feel free to memail me if you like :)
posted by Westringia F. at 8:14 AM on July 21, 2011

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