Dream on.

I was having a conversation with @Doctor_PMS (Great twitter handle, great tweets and a great profile picture— and that’s pretty much all I know about her) on twitter last night about a tweet I put out saying that I choose life over a tenure track position. While I was partly joking, I really am leaning against going down the tenure track— playing the Tenure Track Games or Tenure Track Wars, insert other movie parody title here.

She was saying how she felt like giving up on going for a tenure track job would basically be giving up on her dream. Of course, everyone has their own path. And I’ve made peace with the fact that I don’t think I want that tenure track job any more (am I open to it if I think I have a shot at one— yes, I think so). She asked if this was just a temporary feeling that could go away, which is a good question and one reason I’ve kept going and not jumped off sooner, but the feeling hasn’t gone away. But where do I go from here? What’s next? I still don’t have a good answer. One of my favorite bloggers @sarahkpeck has this picture on her blog, itstartswith.com :

SwimOutToYourShip That tenure track job was the obvious ship to swim out to. Or it’s one that’s moored to the pier and is right there to jump on if it weren’t for the captain of the ship denying me permission to board (probably with good reason). It’s what I have been working towards for a long time and letting that go is hard. Very hard. Like I’m a complete failure. I’ve been listening back to the Brenè Brown’s interview on On Being that was re-run this weekend. One idea she brings up is the idea of shame vs. guilt. It’s the difference between ‘I am bad’ and ‘I did something bad’. I know I’ve written a lot about her work before, but I find it really hits me in my core; to the point where I tear up about something nearly every time I go back to it. So I’m trying to strongly distinguish between wrapping my complete self-worth up in my work (what I’ve basically done my whole scientific career) to just feeling like I have value no matter what I do. And jumping from the tenure track path would certainly help me prove that.

@Doctor_PMS also asked me if I was scared of the tenure track. And yes, but nervous in the sense that it would be new and different and an adjustment; all things I think I could get past. But my number one fear is that if I were to keep pursuing the tenure track job— or get one— that I wouldn’t be able to have a life outside of work. I know that there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary; PIs have lives. Many have kids, hobbies, spend time on Twitter, etc. But I need time to date someone, spend time getting to know my significant other, stuff like that. If I’m putting in 80 hours/week (more?) as a pre-tenured professor, I just don’t see that happening. And that really does scare me to the bone about a tenure-track position.

So if I’m not going to board the tenure track ship, where’s my ship that I do want to swim out to? I don’t have a good idea. @eperlste is taking the start-up path which I admire a lot but don’t think I’m in the position to do that. He’s the guy who crowd sourced a meth-lab for science! Wow. And small scale plant science…I’m not sure how that would work. I am trying some new things though, which I’m not sure where they’ll go. I do need to engage more and not stay in my own little brain bubble that I occupy a lot of the time (hazards of introversion?).

I am rooting for @Doctor_PMS to get herself a tenure track job. I will celebrate if I hear she gets one. My heart, may brain want something different for me though. I’m not very satisified with the bench work that I do; despite trying to spice it up and make it exciting with the things I’ve been working on and learning to do. I like to write (why I started a blog). I like education still even though there doesn’t seem to be money in it. I like technology/computers even though I don’t know how to code really— but am trying to learn some of it. I want to help improve the mental health of people in the world— especially scientists. We don’t do our best work in a cloud of perfectionism, despression and anxiety. Is there a career in those series of interests? Those things that seem to drive me? I don’t know. I hope so. I have to make it so.

Going back to Brene Brown, in the ‘On Being’ interview she says that hope comes out of adversity. I don’t know if I’ve faced real adversity in my life yet or not (certainly not in a lot of ways— always had shelter, food, water). It’s one reason I think I’ve become a Whovian— The Doctor faces adversity all the time and never gives up hope even when it seems like there’s no way out (it helps that he’s the smartest being in the universe I suppose— and yes, I also know it’s a TV show and writers can hand wave and get The Doctor and friends out of anything— but I still get engaged and emotional about a lot of the episodes). Or to use another movie analogy I think I’ve used before. Academia is somewhat like Shawshank prison and the Andy Dufresne character represents hope to those who want to get out but some are held back with reason— like Red being afraid of being ‘institutionalized’ and not able to function on the outside. Where’s my Zihuatanejo?

For any of us postdocs who have been seeking the tenure track and don’t see a way that it could possibly work I have some hopeful words to part with. I told @Doctor_PMS about Conan O’Brien’s 2011 Dartmouth commencement address (that I’m sure I’ve talked about before in this space too) where he talks about going for his dream job of hosting ‘The Tonight Show’— which he did—until NBC basically took it away from him. He’s landed on his feet though and has had what I think is a good career over on TBS doing some very funny things in his format. He talks about how it’s OK to adjust your dreams when life happens to you. Because it will— and for many postdocs I think it’s coming up on the now (I hope) widely known fact that 80% of us will not end up in tenure track jobs. And I have no interest in becoming a permanent adjunct faculty person. Try something new. Tenure or bust is fine if that’s really what you want, but I’ve come to think that that singular focus did more harm than good for me personally.

2013 has been a year of me trying a lot of new things. To most, I think most of what I’ve done will seem tame and my comfort zone exceedingly small. I hope I’ve laid some decent groundwork to leap into 2014 and try even more new things. And my hope for every postdoc is that you try something different and new in the next year if only to glimpse what else might be possible.

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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