Here is yet another article about the negative effect that having to do 2-3 postdocs before being able to apply for tenure-track positions has on people’s life, which has been widely shared and discussed on my facebook.
I left academia after 2 postdocs only 3 months ago, but already now I feel a greater clarity is coming over me regarding the topic. People are forever questioning themselves whether the postdoc lifestyle is still worth it for them or whether they should leave. I have asked myself the same question for 6 years almost every day.
Now I think the situation is much, much simpler than I thought.
In truth, there are only two reasons why you should not quit your postdoc tomorrow and find another job:
(i) You like living abroad and having to change country every 2-3 years. You think this lifestyle has clear advantages to living in one place.
(ii) Your big life goal is to become a professor. If you think about what being a professor is like in real life, which you can easily observe around you, you start smiling. No other job has this appeal for you. Plus you believe this goal is reachable for you.
For most people I know, neither (i) nor (ii) is the case. They don’t really like the postdoc lifestyle and they don’t really want to be professor or they know well that it is unlikely that they will manage to reach this goal.
Invalid reasons to stay in science:
(i) Thinking that jobs outside of science are less interesting, motivating and satisfying. The world is much bigger than academia, and there are so many different jobs and so many different ways of being motivated and satisfied.
(ii) Feeling committment to your PhD advisor and collaborators and ongoing projects. This feeling will never just go away; you have to act despite of it.
(iii) You started as a confused PhD many years ago. Now you know how everything works, you have acquired some status, you are praised. How can you throw this away?
The truth is there are other jobs where you will be successful and gain back status quickly. You will likely be one of the smarter persons in your next job, and people will notice.
(iv) You see that there are people less smart and less dedicated than you who are staying or even getting good positions for whatever reasons and this seems unfair to you. How can you give up the fight? This way of arguing means that you think academia is the only place where you can make worthwhile contributions and where success is possible. What if you can have a much greater impact on people outside of academia?
(v) You look down on people outside of academia. You would find it horribly depressing to leave that elevated position and go mingle with the lowly normal people. I have felt this way, and I am not proud of it.
Weirdly, people in other jobs do not see themselves as placed in the bottom. They do not think about academia as the greatest human endeavour possible. Many academics are extremely proud of their jobs. But to society, many other jobs are at least as important and influential: inventors, writers, journalists, teachers, architects, doctors, engineers, physiotherapists…
(vi) You love your topic of research or resarch itself. I wish this was a valid enough reason to stay, but it isn’t. You have to love yourself and your future happiness too. And just loving what you do does not make up for not having a secure position and not having a stable lifestyle in the long run. Many people are not particularly good in looking out for themselves and caring about themselves as they would care about a friend, and not having this ability is particularly dangerous in a job that is borderline exploitative, like academia.
Nothing changes the fact that is really painful to leave a job that you deeply care about, and it is really tempting wanting to postpone the difficult decision and difficult transition period into the future. I have done it for long and exactly this postponing, that I knew on some level was happening, made me feel depressed, hopeless, and very trapped. I wish I had left earlier.
In the end, I managed to leave only because I half-consciously, half-subconsciously manoevered myself in a position where I had no other choice. I now manage to keep up this decision and not be lured back into science because of several reasons. The most important one is perhaps this:
Being in science favoured some parts I have inside of me, made them grow and flourish. But I have always been aware that there are other parts of me that are hungry for growth and attention, and they have often visited me in my dreams and complained about being mistreated. In my case, this included a part that wants to care for others, a part that would have liked to study literature or psychology, a part that is interested in people and in many things outside of science. I am trying to seem my leaving science as a chance to make this other parts wake up and grow.
And I think this is really the advantage of any big change in life, however painful they might be: it will give room to parts of yourself that you maybe forgot you had, and it will make you a rounder person. Also, it is fantastic to see the options in my life opening up again, even if the loss of status and of investment is sometimes painful. Science is necessarily a very narrow endeavour, where you work hard on a very tiny part of human knowledge, and to be totally honest, I was getting bored, although it took me years to admit it. It is so tempting to plunge into the project instead of thinking about this decision carefully.
I feel sorry for all my friends who will have to leave science too and still do not admit it to themselves, because this kind of denial of the obvious is really bad for one’s health and happiness.