Be aware of the post PhD blues

by Reuben Shamir

illustration by Yossi Ben Harush

Equipped with unexplained perennial optimism I have pursued my PhD and two postdoctoral fellowships with the goal of landing a tenure track position in a leading university. Such an opportunity never came up and broken mentally and financially, I took a job in the industry, feeling a failure and well behind.
In Hebrew, crisis (MA’SHBER) also means a place to give-birth. And indeed, this crisis gave birth to new ideas and positive thoughts that totally recovered my self-acceptance and even improved my old-self.

Apparently, post PhD/post-doc blues depressed-feeling is common. I am writing this post for my fellow young researchers, before or after the crash, to flag on the iceberg ahead of you and share with my experience. Should that will help one reader it worths my public embarrassment. The readers that hold a faculty position and care about their students can find some helpful references and better prepare their students for the post PhD life.

We are scientists, so let’s start with some data. A recent review suggests that 80% of the postdoctoral fellows aim at landing a tenure track position. However, only 10% of the postdocs actually gets such an offer. That is, 70% of the postdoctoral fellows crashes on the icebergs surrounding the seemingly academic heaven.

Can you imagine a similar career-track applied for another profession? Let’s say you want to be a bus driver. You go to the bus company and they tell you “sure, but first you need to be bus driver assistant for five years under a very low income, then relocate with your family such that also your partner can not work (if you live outside the US) and continue to work on a very low income for another two to five years. Once completed, we will pick up the best driver out of the ten assistants that are starting this year! It is ridiculous. Yet, it is the situation in the academic job market. Dr. Karen Kelsky beautifully describes the awful academic job market situation in her book and blog “The Professor is In”. She also provides plenty of insights and guidance for PhD students and postdoctoral fellows, which I found helpful and wholeheartedly recommend it.

During life, I have developed the ability to ignore the numbers, and I sense similar optimism in most Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows. After all, we won many battles:  we knocked out 200 million fellow sperms in the race for the egg, we did very well at elementary and high school and passed many others in the competition to the prestige schools of engineering or medicine at college. We also were accepted to the graduate school and published papers in top journal and conferences that accepts only top 20% or such. Statistics do not apply to us, right? Well, it does.

That said, if a genie would have offered me to go back in time and change my decisions, I would not change a thing. The Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellowships enriched me in a way that no other job could offer. I enjoyed every moment of it. It is just the expectation of what comes afterward that were not well aligned with the reality. But if I had met such a genie, I would ask her to share with me what I have learned along the way. Here are the key observations. A Ph.D. (even a great one!) does not secure a stable work in the academy. It does not imply a higher salary; I have friends from college that earn more than I do with a BSc degree.

Over time, the research and the personal scientific profile may become part of one’s identity. Current academic culture nurture and encourage it. However, after 7-10 years, when the academic environment faded out a major part of my identity was torn off and I felt I was banned from fulfilling my destiny. This is a common experience as many blog posts confirm.

I got used to the flexible work-from-home environment where one is measured solely by productiveness and creativity. It was a shock to me that my employer actually expects me to be in the office between 9 am to 5 pm or that someone really counts the number of days I am out of the office. Apparently, most of the western world workers live like that. Yet, it can be very hard to adjust to this lifestyle after many years in the academic environment.

Post Ph.D. blues may appear in various forms but are common and real. In some cases, it may require a professional help and should not be neglected. As for myself, I recovered with time. I took a step back to revise my values and goals. I learned to recognize and deeply appreciate the precious people and positive things in my life. I picked up some new hobbies: basketball, writing, philosophy, and meditation that helped to put everything in perspective. Slowly, the optimism got back to me and new goals established.

Is it possible to prevent the post-PhD crisis? I am not 100% sure, but I have some thoughts on the subject. First, be sure that you want to do the Ph.D. or postdoctoral fellowship. The salary will be low during the studies, the work is hard and, generally speaking, will not result in improvement of your economic situation. So you need a good reason to do it. Be aware of the poor situation in the academic market and realize that these numbers apply to you as well. Be aware that your identity is affected by the academic environment. Therefore, I suggest keeping some hobbies and other routines such that your identity is tied with additional elements that are significant to you. Work hard to achieve your goals, but please – make plan B.

Suggested references:

  • The Professor is In, by Karen Kelsky, August 4, 2015
  • The Postdoc Crisis, by Muhammed Z. Ahmed, in The Scientist, January 4, 2016
  • The case of the disappearing postdocs, by Beryl Lieff Benderly, in Science (website), December 9, 2015
  • The postdoc experience: hopes and fears, by Holly Else, in Times Higher Education, July 2, 2015
  • The Stressed-Out Postdoc, by Carrie Arnold, in Science (website), Jul. 28, 2014

And of-course simple Google search for “post PhD depression” and “postdoc depression” reveals dozens of blogs that share with personal experiences on the topic.

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