A postdoc is a temporary position after you graduate with your Ph.D. They are meant to be an additional learning opportunity, a chance to develop, expand, and broaden your research. Traditionally, they have been in place as a launch pad to academia, a next step before you become a professor.
After about half a year into your postdoc, people always ask you, what’s next? How’s the job search going? This chronic asking gets tiresome. I chose the postdoc I am in because I love it, but others can’t wait to see you get out of it. Being in a postdoc is like purgatory. People can’t seem to become comfortable with the fact that they can’t place you in a box: either out of work (or science) or with a coveted permanent position.
Coveted permanent positions are hard to come by. Especially those where you will be happy. Or at least for me, where I will be happy. I also got the impression that happiness is also not something that a lot of academics should care about. They prioritize work so heavily and equate work with happiness. Therefore, get any job and you’ll be happy.
I once even told another professor that I had to worry about my husband and I finding a job in the same place. He said “You can always get a divorce.” And he meant it. But my dilemma is that my postdoc is giving me immense happiness. In fact, it’s the best job I’ve ever had.
But I was still worried about not having a permanent job lined up. This was bothering me so much that it was a major topic of conversation with my therapist. I have a long postdoc of five years (most are 1-2 years). Everyone wanted me out of this postdoc and I became so worried I wouldn’t find a job. My therapist asked what my biggest problem in life was and I answered thatI didn’t have a permanent job. She asked me if we were financially okay with just my husband’s job, and we would be, but we would have to cut some corners. Overall though, we would be fine.
She responded, “Is that it?” I was taken aback. To me, and everyone else, this was a huge problem, but to her it was no big deal. How did she not understand? In several years, I wouldn’t have a paycheck (and my dignity).
She went on to explain that no job was permanent (except in academia, tenured professor pretty much is, but these weren’t the positions I was seeking). She explained you can always get laid off or fired. The former is especially common in the type of work I was really interested in, which was non-profit. Positions constantly get shuffled around or cut due to funding. I never thought of it in this way.
She was also concerned about the fact that the only thing that was keeping me happy was other people’s perceptions of me. I was incredibly happy in my job and in Raleigh, so I didn’t want to leave. I did apply for other jobs, but I also kept on evaluating them with the position I already had. I didn’t end up getting them, but in some ways, I honestly think this may have worked out for the best. I have learned so much in this long postdoc and have been given so many experiences I would have never been able to pursue otherwise.
People also underestimate the importance of happiness. I am not an innately happy person, which comes as a surprise to many people. My mother suffered from chronic depression and I have to take medication, and make strong lifestyle choices such as exercise, reading books, listening to podcasts, and meditating to work on it every single day. I suffer very much from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I grew up in Buffalo, NY and struggled with depression for many years. I honestly cannot just live anywhere.
I also have chronic health problems such as Hashimoto’s (a thyroid autoimmune disorder) and fatigue that truly affects me and my productivity. At my worst, it is hard for me to just show up at work due to fatigue. However, I’ve finally found doctors here in Raleigh that have helped me. I got rid of chronic migraines through a mercury detox program. Quite honestly, I am reluctant to move again and start the whole process over. In Raleigh alone, I’ve seen seven doctors in five years, with the last one being able to help me the most.
I also love my house, which I know sounds strange, but when you think of it, this is where we spend most of our time after work. I really, really love it. It is close to a trail that I walk on with my dogs, it allows a lot of sunshine in, and I finally decorated it with colors that make me happy. I really, really don’t want to move because I don’t want to give these things up and moving is physically and mentally exhausting.
I’ve made a decision to stay in Raleigh, which I know a lot of people see as stupid. There are few jobs available in my career and I should go where the jobs are, but I just can’t. I don’t believe you have to sacrifice everything for your scientific career. I believe that things will work out for me. I am not just waiting for them to work or relying on something to pop up, but I am actively pursing creative and financial endeavors (including this blog). You don’t have to take the regular path in science and do what you are told or expected to do. I listen to many podcasts on marketing and business and there are more opportunities out there for you.
So I am on a journey, and I don’t know where I am going yet. My funding runs out in September and my husband has a good job so I am extremely lucky in that I won’t be homeless and we can live with his income. I still have plenty of projects to wrap up with my postdoc, but I might not have a salary. But I may end up being really happy.
Stephanie Schuttler is a wildlife biologist with 17 years of experience in mammal ecology and conservation, education, and outreach. Read her inspirational story, “My Unexpected Journey Into Science” to find out how she went from the daughter of a jeweler to a Ph.D. in wildlife biology. Feel free to contact Stephanie here.