Need a job, almost any job will do
April 1, 2014 1:27 PM   Subscribe

As I near my 3rd and final year of my postdoc grant, it has become time to fish or cut bait. But I'm horrible about making decisions, but yet, don't have time to do it all. Can you help me sort out my future employment plans? Part of this may involve simply assuring me that leaving academia is the way to go. Or not.

I am currently a postdoc in a cognitive science/psychology/neuroscience field. And I like it. I like doing research, I like teaching, I like the flexible scheduling, but I don't like the stress of applying for grants, nor do I particularly think it is something I am good at. Unfortunately, it seems that life at R1 institutions pretty much revolves around getting grants, and the research I do doesn't fit well into more liberal arts universities (MRI machines are expensive to use if there is even one available). Moreover, I look around at my fellow lab mates (caveat, at Harvard so this could be a skewed sample) and I just do not have the drive to spend the time and effort most of them do on their work. I like doing a good job, I pull late hours when I need to, but I value my time with family and friends and I have no interest of working 60-80 hours weeks until I get tenure. So I've been questioning where I go from here. I've looked over previous leaving academia questions, but still feel unsure of what to do.

I've spent a bunch of time with a career counselor here, and we've lined up some ideas of non-academic jobs that I may be good at (including data scientist, science outreach, work in teaching centers at universities (training grad students and faculty how to be better teachers), etc), but I'm not 100% enthused about anything. I actually send out a CV to someone today and now am racked with anxiety that I haven't even tried to look for academic jobs and maybe I'm giving up too easily. But I'm having trouble finding time to do my actual current work and maintain any sort of family life, so I'm also overwhelmed at putting together all the stuff needed to apply for those, especially on top of trying to put together stuff that would make me credible for any of the non-academic jobs.

Sorry, this is rambly, the TLDR is, should I commit to leaving academia given my concerns over my ability to be successful? Should I try to apply to both academia and non-academia jobs and just make up the time somewhere? Or how can I be comfortable with leaving what I've essentially been working towards for a large chunk of my life now?
posted by katers890 to Work & Money (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should apply for both academic and non-academic jobs. Eventually, you'll find yourself applying for more of one than the other. Make a list of what you want and don't want on a sheet of paper!

If you've managed to be this successful on the academic track, what's holding you back from success in a career with higher pay and lower hours? Job hunting is definitely a grind, but you have a wealth of opportunity and connections that you can, should, and will make use of. All you need to do is spend a few minutes each day taking steps in your new direction and you'll find your path. In the meantime, what you need be doing is lining up at interviews, interviews, interviews! Those will really tell you what you want!
posted by oceanjesse at 1:43 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Give yourself permission to leave academia if you don't think you'll be happy there.

I say this as someone a couple years out from a PhD who just just came in second for a tenure track job and has oscillated between depression and elation about not getting that job. Even as the University's decision was uncertain I was torn about the job, I wasn't sure I wanted it, but I don't think I could have turned it down.

After the PhD I took a (STEM) job in government. The work here has been less interesting than the academic work I was doing, but it is so much less stressful. The job security, the forty hour work weeks, the relaxed atmosphere, and there is interesting work in government. I think the odds are good I'm happier here, now and long term, than I would be if I had landed the tenure track job.

Take the advice I'm trying to get myself to take. I thought of the tenure track job as swinging for the fences. It had the potential to be great, fulfilling, remunerative, relatively exciting. But realistically there are so many ways for it to go wrong. I think you really need a calling and a drive, and (like you?) I don't think I have it.

It can be tough to move off that academic path, but really think about what you want, and what you're likely to get out of each path. If on reflection, leaving academia seems right, let yourself make that decision. And if it's too hard to give up, maybe you've got the drive to do it afterall.
posted by pseudonick at 1:52 PM on April 1, 2014

Academia is not unique among fields in that it has a certain track that you're either on or you're off, and "everyone" (not actually everyone, but it can seem like everyone) agrees that the track is objectively better, very prestigious, wow you are really doing great staying on track.

In contrast, if you choose a different path, some people subtly (or not so subtly) act like oh, poor you, you must not have been able to hack it, so you washed out. For those of us who are overachieving people-pleasers (hi!), that is hard to deal with and might cause us to doubt ourselves.

But what you're actually doing by choosing the path that is the best fit for you, even if it's not the most prestigious overall, is making a considered choice about what you enjoy, what your priorities are, and what you want your life to be.

In the short-term, apply to all the jobs you can. Pay close attention in the interviews to the vibe in the building and to who your potential future colleagues are as people. Are they warm, open, kind, the kind of people you could see yourself making friends with if you met at church or at a bar? That matters more than the artificial divide between academic/non-academic.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 2:52 PM on April 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

I didn't apply for professorship jobs. I got as far as picking 2 that would be a really good fit, thinking that "I'm not doing a giant academic job hunt but I should at least apply to this because if there's any college that would want me, this would be it". I looked at the ad, I went to the website, I printed out the list of what needed to go into the application packet, I read about how to write a teaching statement, and how to write an "I would be perfect for this because XYZ" cover letter. But then I sat down and really thought about the fact that I was going to have to write a research proposal - not just "the other postdoc in my lab agrees with me that this would be a cool experiment to do" but this is what I will do, and here's why it's important, an estimate of what I will need and how much it will cost, and let me explain how I would involve students and/or make the college famous and/or continue to bring in grant money, and here are my hypothetical funding sources.

I got as far as drafting an outline, and realized how it sounded like a huge amount of BS to me, and how the idea that I was actually going to do that - spearhead a research program based on an experiment idea that I had basically no emotional investment in - was laughable, if "laughable" also included "torturous". I sat down and contemplated what I did love about research, and realized that despite my giant education, I much preferred to be the person to whom things were delegated (go find a way to measure this complicated system) than the person who sat in an office and made decisions about what was going to get done and how to pay grad students to do it. So I never even did an application - but sitting there thinking about how miserable it made me feel just to attempt to imagine myself doing that, this convinced me that I didn't need to apply to that academic job or any other.

In closing, I'll echo Bentobox Humperdinck's observation: People will attempt to look down on you for not being able to make it as a professor.
In academia, you're surrounded by people who have chosen to work in academia, to whom, in general, being a professor is the absolute best job that they can imagine having; the idea that you don't want their job is incomprehensible. They look back at all the struggle they did to get there, and consider all the statistics of the field, and conclude that only the best of the best of the best become professors like them. The idea that anybody could go into (science outreach, or industry research, or consulting, or whatever) as anything other than a backup career? Unthinkable!! So yes, people will try to look down on you. Don't let them. In fact, once you are not surrounded by people who think of "professor" as the ultimate dream job, people won't be looking down on you at all - they will be saying "holy crap, you do (science outreach)? That is the coolest!!!"
In some sense, by not applying to academic jobs you don't want, you make it easier for you and your therapist - you haven't been rejected from this path, you were the one in charge when you decided that it was unsuitable.
posted by aimedwander at 5:28 PM on April 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Is there a way you could become interested in non-MRI-related research? Would that be more of a self-betrayal than data science or a staff job at a university? Or would you consider gearing yourself towards more of a teaching career? I'm pretty sure there are loads of psychology departments that would be glad to have you teach their undergraduate courses in cognition. (Maybe even OT or SLP departments, for that matter - when I look at the faculty lists at the professional programs I'm interested in, there appears to be more than one psychologist teaching outside of psychology.) Or maybe, if you were interested in child development or aging, developing tools (software; pedagogical or therapeutic approaches) for applied use. I don't know what pay/working conditions are like in publishing/science communication, but there's seemingly no end to public appetite for brains (well, books on brains).
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:35 PM on April 1, 2014

Oh my god aimedwander, you are me. That is totally what happens every time I think about getting together stuff to apply for academic jobs. It's torturous. All the research I do is either suggestions made by others, or things that came up in the last project I was doing. I never have this grand picture to turn into a research proposal for applying for jobs, which is also all of what applying for grants is all about. I have a grant now, and while I did the writing and fleshed out all the ideas and did the actual research gathering, the grand idea was my advisors, not mine at all. And a whole future of that just makes me shudder, especially given how strict the funding climate is now. But then I remember how much I like doing research, and how much I loved teaching, and I feel like maybe I'm selling myself short. But I would be so much happier being a post doc (albeit higher paid post doc) for the rest of my life than actually running a lab.

Cotton dress sock: I do do behavioral work alongside MRI research, and I like it, but I always feel like it is really missing the rest of the picture. And when I've looked into jobs at teaching institutions, the start up work load seems so ridiculous. Prepping 4 courses from scratch while also setting up a lab and everything, goes back to my desire not to spend the early years of my kids' lives working monstrous hours. But I do love teaching.... Gah.
posted by katers890 at 5:42 PM on April 1, 2014

Have you considered teaching at a different level? I can't say the hours will be better or that there won't be other stressors, but if you like teaching and not grant-getting, you might want to teach in a high-school.

If you're unsure, you might try something like Teach For America, which sets people up to teach for a year or two and they either get hooked or learn it isn't for them. A friend of mine did this and discovered that he loved nothing more than teaching.
posted by Mad_Carew at 8:45 PM on April 1, 2014

I do do behavioral work alongside MRI research, and I like it, but I always feel like it is really missing the rest of the picture.

What about collaborations? Could you take on more of the theoretical and behavioral side of the projects, but work closely with colleagues with whom you could collaborate on the brain side? Would that make it feel like the research wasn't missing that critical piece --- or would you still feel unsatisfied to not be doing it yourself?
posted by spbmp at 9:57 PM on April 1, 2014

You've presented nothing that actually suggests you can't hack an academic job, I can't imagine how competitive the atmosphere must be at Harvard! I wouldn't let that determine your self worth or ideas about how academics in other institutions work. I also peeked at your previous questions and you have two young children, they will not be so needy forever and you may be in a vastly different head-space in a few years.

If I were you I'd start chipping away at applications to academic and non-academic positions, yes it will mean less family-time in the short-term but you will need a job one way or another, better it be a job that pays well and is a good fit. You have a lot of options if you actually like both teaching and research and are good at data analysis and statistics, plus frankly having Harvard on your resume/CV will open a lot of doors.

If you can imagine a way to do some research at a lower-tier university/college it sounds like that would remove most of your concerns about applying for academic jobs. FWIW I know someone who was very strongly fMRI/neuroscience (and had postdoc experience) but was able to convince a college where there was no fMRI machine that he would be happy there (he had a lot of teaching experience which was key for the job and he did like/love teaching). It was in an area he wanted to live in, good salary/benefits, and more family-friendly than an R1. He was a little sad to give up doing research (he had a very impressive publication list and had done a very prestigious postdoc so felt the same way about giving it up) but it was the right choice for him and his family.
posted by lafemma at 6:41 AM on April 2, 2014

(check your me-mail)
posted by aimedwander at 7:54 AM on April 2, 2014

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