I had this interaction on Twitter and am going to write my internal reaction to it- for a short conversation, there’s a lot here:

New Twitter follower! (always exciting!).
New Twitter follower! (always exciting!).

Stay small.

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is my tendency to stay small. Not be bold and out and daring and dare I say it, extroverted (I’ll never join the dark side!). And this interaction with Summer demonstrates that conflict in my head. I’m self-deprecating in a lot of contexts (nearly all contexts), but almost never talk myself up or market myself. And it’s pretty clear that I’m excited to have a new reader and also really uncomfortable that I have a new reader. I want to stay in my own little (probably delusional) world. At the same time, I’m working on pushing my comfort zone as I write about so often here.


As Summer points out, postdocing exacerbates things. She’s not the only one to think that. This was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week talking about the recent era of stress, depression, anxiety, etc. that Americans seem prone to these days. There are definitely proximate causes to this; the recession particularly comes to mind- and the huge gap in income inequality that’s arisen the last few years. However, I do think the current climate in academia, especially those who are in a transition state- postdocs- have it particularly bad in terms of anxiety just now (no, we don’t work in mines and we’re not slaves, and yes we could all be a lot worse off). However, there is something hard about being a postdoc in 2013 that lends itself to mental torture (anxiety and depression, particularly).

Let me state at the outset of this that I think competition in science is a good thing- ideas competing works. However, I think in the present time, the competition is too intense- for faculty positions, industry jobs, grants. When grants come back with excellent scores and are not funded, it’s a sign that the competition is too intense. While I’d love to see a bump in funding for research, I don’t think that will happen, nor does it solve some of the structural problems of how science is done in the US (possibly the world- I can only speak to where I know).

Scientists at all levels feel the tension as funding cuts occur, pressure to publish increases, biology- and science- get bigger making many of us who do ‘small science’ feel obsolete even if big biology can’t address specific questions that we can (not to mention that small science is still needed to confirm the broad conclusions of big science). Current postdocs are caught in the middle of all of this. Pressure to publish is a immense (quite possibly the reason for the uptick in publications that don’t hold up well, or are simply wrong).

I think most of us got into science when we were young- very young….something about the world fascinated us or we had encouraging parents or maybe it’s partly genetic- I don’t think it’s an accident that many of us aren’t good with the socials because we focus so much our areas of interest- we’re nerds; even prominent scientists/science communicators have their awkwardness about them (I’m looking at you Neil deGrasse Tyson). And now that we’ve pursued the path to professional scientist, we can’t see the next step and seeing the scientific enterprise up close has made some of us pretty disillusioned. We also grew up with the message that ‘learning science and math will lead to success! That’s where all the jobs are!’….only now, not so much. A lot of smart people have written about why this is and problems of the wrong incentives in the system .

The view of science that we had (SCIENCE IS AWESOME!!! and always will be) is running up against the reality that science is expensive, there are few jobs and little money in going into a science career unless you happen to make the next big discovery or are otherwise super-human.


We all work long hours- no scientist I know is familiar with the 40 hour work week- that doesn’t exist in science as far as I can tell (even those with families!). 50 hours or more…be in lab as much as possible doing experiments that of course will all work on the first try (ha!) because they might satisfy some curiosity we have- and scientists are curious- but more and more, it’s really not clear why we do what we do; will it lead to a satisfying career/life? Many women in science say no, it isn’t and so there’s a gender imbalance, particularly at the faculty level, because women choose to have a life beyond the lab (there should be no question that women can do science & math- they can, and do). More men I know are increasingly feeling the same way (I’ll raise my hand here). Going into science is a stupid, stupid idea (and to think we’re considered ‘smart’). We want to contribute to the world and make it a better, more knowledgable place- most of us would do this even if we didn’t get paid (we’re passionate).

This is where I’ll insert that scientists and many other creative types are often introverted. Introverts often aren’t nearly as motivated by money- in the case of scientists, we just need to know answers to things.

Sticking to it.

It’s hard to encourage younger scientists to stay in the field- why teach a young person science…we don’t need more scientists. My own answer is that I want to teach people to be scientifically literate and critically think about the world, but not encourage them to go into science. And it is worse now that it was before. PIs who say it’s always been hard are right. It has. But it’s worse now. More postdocs, fewer faculty jobs, fewer industry jobs, less funding. None of us are perfect and we haven’t been trained to do much else but solve scientific problems (OK, that’s pretty cool, but still a hard sales pitch to anyone in any other field I think).

It is hard to work those long hours, and for me, who’s single, delaying getting a life…again and again because I feel like I have a brain disease that makes me insatiably want to stay at the bench trying to get that one thing to work. To even have a shot, we work long hours for low pay- and try to be smart about what we work on and when, but there are no guarantees- we’re all forging new territory. On his Star Talk Radio show, Neil Tyson paraphrased ‘Academia is loving something more than you love sex’. There might be something to that. There is only so much time we can work though (at a minimum, we need to eat and sleep).

It’s been hard to force myself out of the lab to do things that are fun- or have nothing to do with work at all. Hobbies! Being well rounded helps. And I’m just now rounding things out after learning the hard way that burn out is a very real thing.


To sum up, it’s no wonder that postdocs are depressed and anxious these days. A temporary job that is on soft money makes it hard to put down roots. Increasingly, it seems that no matter how much we do, it’s not enough. The ‘War Games’ conclusion comes to mind here- ‘The only way to win is not to play’. I think a lot of postdocs feel this way- that no matter what we do, how hard we work, how stellar we are, we won’t be among the 3 tenure track faculty that will be hired in 2013.

Now maybe it’s not as grim as all that, but it appears that way. All my friends who aren’t scientists are married, seem to have good lives and actually have time for their significant other. I know some scientists who have that too- though like the theme in most spy shows, work-life balance is a constant issue. Scientists have to fight hard against the pressure to work all the time in a way that my non-scientists friends seem to not have to do (or not have to do as often).

I think I’m done. Going to go meditate and get to bed. I can at least do oen good thing for myself tonight.

Ever on and on.


Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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