The offended postdoc

The typical science career of people at my stage in the career goes like this.

They did a PhD with a well-known supervisor. They were clever and lucky and published a few good papers that got cited. They got praised. Excitedly, they applied for postdoc jobs and landed a good position at a famous institute. There, the wind was stiffer, but they continued to do well. After the first postdoc was over, they applied for a second one, since this is what you do, and again, they got a really good senior postdoc position for which 200 people were competing.

They hesitated with accepting, but the new instititue seemed very enthusiastic and welcoming. And it was against 200 other people! So they went there and continued working, again, they received praise and were doing well.

And then?

Then they apply for young faculty jobs and suddenly realize that this is the point when the selection occurs. 450 good people, that have come as far as you, are applying for the same not particularly attractive faculty job somewhere in Iowa.

It happens at the time when you actually have become a true expert in your field and laugh about the stupid ideas of old professors you once admired, when you actually feel you can start to make a real contribution.

This is where you suddenly feel really unwelcome in science. By now, people would really prefer it if you left. At this point, you know enough to argue with famous professors and get on their nerves. You start to confuse their students with having ideas that conflict with the ideas of their supervisor.

And you stop laughing about the old professors pretty soon. They have a job, and you don’t. You haven’t earned yourself a place in their midst, just because you pointed out a few of their mistakes!

It is like God’s grace in calvinism: In the end,  however good a scientist you are, a miracle has to occur to promote you to a permanent position. You can only do your best, and hope.

Sometimes, when I look at the faces of people at the same point in the career as me, I see one main emotion: they are offended. Deeply offended and wounded. How can it be that in this science, where argument wins, where rationality trumps, you cannot earn yourself a position?

But the fact is, you can’t.  Life is unfair. You might as well have been born in a slum in India. It is irrational to get annoyed about not being able to force the Universe to give you a permanent position. It is possible to do something with passion for 10 years and then move on to do something else. Life ends, career end, and it does not matter that much if it is now or in 20 or 30 years. What matter is that you have been a good and passionate scientist up to now. This is something to be proud of in any case.

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