Jobs. This is a post about the new academic job application season. Is it even worth bothering? I don’t even know any more. Every job application expects an active research program when that is very hard to get started and do these days and it may even get worse. So why should I bother? I still don’t think I’m the best candidate, but I’m working on it. This blog is about my journey to get my brain tuned into a active, thinking, creative, world-interacting machine (coming from a place of anxiety, depression, and all the life-stalling thought patterns that arise because of those things. Or as I’ve called it before, this is a blog about how not to be a postdoc and I hope I can help others as well as myself through my writing). 


What are the features of my ideal career? What areas does it involve? Here’s my list of features, in no particular order:

  • Education– particularly around science as well as figuring out how people effectively learn
  • Improving mental health/preventing problems before they arise– whether minor tweaks to life or major interventions. While you can live with depression, I don’t recommend it- you always risk being a shell of the person you are.
  • Science– This seems like an obvious one. I do love science and what it can do to transform the future, solve problems and generally stimulate the mind and spur someone on to learning new things. What question do I have that you’re passionate about? What does it take to answer them? I seem to gravitate towards environmental/sustainability/resiliency issues, so maybe there’s something there; after all, a lot of those things are plant dependent.
  • Quiet– I’m an introvert, without question and would need an environment where I could think, read, process, and then spit something out when I’m ready. I’ve always been deliberate about things I do- painfully so in many cases- but I hope in some ways that’s a good trait that is advantageous in some jobs somewhere. I do like people; I just need my alone time to recharge so I can be fully present when I do socialize. I can literally ‘break’ and freeze when over-stimulated (thank goodness for the internet- it’s a game changer for us introverts to be heard).
  • Entrepreneur- This is a new one for me and I’m not sure what it means to me yet, but I do feel like someone who wants to build things and put them into the world to help other people. What is it I’ll be creating? My science? Some fancy software app? A piece of art? In many ways, I’m not even equipped to carry these things out, but I am willing to learn. The first thing is getting an idea for something that doesn’t exist now that I wish did because it solves a problem the world needs solved. Resilient/sustainable coffee farms are one thing on my list because I work on plants and I love my morning coffee. And of course, I do like to write, but I’m not convinced that that’s a real job (for me just now, anyway).
  • Reforming the (science funding) system– I’ll almost surely be science adjacent in my work. The current system is failing in many ways it seems to me. Or a bubble is bursting and in the US, there might be a whole generation of lost scientists who would do great work that won’t because they look at the mess of the science enterprise and say ‘F#$k no’. It’s bleak out there. Any shred of good news comes from new discoveries and breakthroughs that still get made. It’s never good news about careers in STEM or good funding news. How do we prepare current postdocs and Ph.D.’s to go on to have good careers? Both training and cultural changes will be necessary. And more money isn’t the exact solution; competitive funding works well, though my feeling is that it’s too competitive now; so much great science gets left unfunded. So funding would help with that. But the closed, isolationist (both from society & other disciplines), single-track career culture that exists now has to change. Anything a STEM trained person goes on to do ultimately is a boon to the science enterprise and should be treated that way.
  • A personal life- I don’t have much of a life outside my work. I want one. So any job I have will have to have room for me to carve out a life to meet new people (maybe even a significant other), spend time with friends, possibly travel & learn new things not related to my work that I just want to learn. I know that no employer actually cares that their employees have this in their life, but I imagine it does make for happier employees.

How do I achieve those things in my life, in my career? And does obtaining an academic job make any of these features more or less likely?

One step at a time. Breaking things down into smaller steps.

Here, I’m assuming I get my dream job at JKL University and what I envision that looking like- I am completely aware of how unlikely it is to actually happen. But this is my space, so I’m going to dream out loud a bit.

I will be putting together at least a few applications for academic jobs this time around. And I think I would still love working at a small liberal arts university. My ambitions beyond research and teaching (yes, even at liberal arts schools, they’re in that order no matter what they say) would be to work with as many of that school’s learning center and other faculty to develop excellent learning environments that work for both students and professors. I feel like that’s where entrepreneurship comes in. Building something beyond the department. Perhaps this goes on already, though I don’t observe a lot of it at the universities I have visited. The other big challenge is integrating my research program and my teaching into one as much as possible. I’m not sure exactly how that’s achieved, but it is a synergistic interaction; both research and teaching get better. As would my own- and hopefully the student’s communication skills, since writing/talking about work in language everyone can understand would be necessary.

I know a lot of campuses have focused more on mental health lately. That is a good thing. As a professor, I am uncertain as to what my role in that framework is; perhaps just referrals to counseling or actively listening and paying attention, though any student asking me about anxiety, depression or impostor syndrome would get an email containing some resources/voices that have helped me get out from under those particular clouds. The thing about getting help is that you have to find the exact voices that work for you- that resonate and they may not be the same ones that worked for me. Medication can help in some cases, but isn’t the only thing. Exercise is greatly therapeutic too. A social support network is key. Developing one of those can be difficult, but it’s worth the effort; and that will ultimately help with almost everything else in life; and ideally having a diverse social circle.

I’ve noticed that successful entertainers often come in clusters. Each individual does distinct things, but a group comes up together and they keep helping each other, cheering each other on. Their sensibilities are similar enough that you’ll like a whole raft of them. It doesn’t have to be a strong tie either, it can be a weak tie and it still works. But that social network is always important. If I can successfully conflate my work and personal life in that way, I think I’d be happy with that; loving what I do and being around people I like who do similarish (yes, I made up a word) type things as I do. I don’t know if it’s too late, but I am trying to develop a stronger network of people to enable my work and my life generally. I think scientists and entertainers share a lot of DNA as both are creative endeavors and so I think there’s a lot that can be learned from each other.

Finally, at JKL U., I’d likely have my own office. I could shut the door and work for a few hours and schedule times my door would be open for visitors.

Something else?

 I get hung up on this still. What else to do if not academia? What’s my dream outside of the academy? What else is out there? I don’t even know. My academic labs haven’t prepared me to even consider looking for things that aren’t Tenure track. The river of academic culture all sweeps downstream towards that one goal. And anything else is considered failure- even if individual PIs in academia don’t think that, that is the overwhelming culture. On one level, to work in an academic lab, it takes that level of focus/ambition. However, these days, students and postdocs are ill served by that system as almost none of us will end up in faculty positions. Again, competition is a good thing, though I think there’s something that can be said that it’s too fierce; and you’ll lose people who are great, but just aren’t comfortable staying in that environment.

However, making the leap out of the academic bubble is difficult; maybe it’s not a bubble and is more like a glass wall?

On top of the academic jobs apply for- with my newly minted Ian2.9 brain that is healthier, more upbeat, more interconnected, more whole, I want to explore other things that might meet my ideal career characteristics.

Jobs aren’t easy to apply for these days. It requires a multi-media, fully integrated package that really wow’s a key decision maker/committee of decision makers. Time to continue the work of finding my ideal life. With coffee.

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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