Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Seven Stages of Grief for an Academic Career

Bioluminessa where have you been, you might ask.  The last two years have been a wild ride.

Here is a synopsis:

The good: Discovering a love for teaching and learning about pedagogy research that emphasizes student engagement and inquiry.

The bad: Writing many grants applying for research funding and not yet being successful.

The ugly: Broken ankle while sampling tidepools.

            I am now halfway through my 35th year and I have to admit I’m not where I thought I would be.  When I graduated with my PhD at the age of 29 I was very naïve and a little bit smug.  I had secured my first postdoc and imagined that within 5 years I would be starting out in a tenured faculty position.  I knew that it would be difficult and competitive, but I thought all I would have to do is stick it out and work hard.  But life doesn’t always work the way you think and there were two things I didn’t anticipate.  The first is just how constricted the funding situation has become and the second is how my priorities have changed as I have gotten older.  After my first postdoc fellowship ended, I moved to the city where my husband wants to live and has a job to look for a second postdoc or faculty position.  I emailed many PIs with interests in my area none of whom had funding for a postdoc.  I started writing grants with a PI with research interests similar to mine and also accepted some adjunct lecturer positions teaching at couple of different universities.
I have come to realize that for a variety of reasons I am unlikely to achieve my lifelong goal of becoming a tenured track professor.  I am letting go of some of the constant anxiety of constantly worrying about the treadmill of the next paper, the next grant, the next position and trying out new hobbies and interests.  To get to this place I went through a lot of heartache and depression that closely followed the 7 stages of grief.

1. Shock and Denial – I know that I can make it.  I just have to keep putting myself out there, keep applying for grants and jobs, keep e-mailing potential advisors.  I know I will get the next grant and produce amazing work.

2. Pain and Guilt – I’m just not good enough.  I’m not worth anything if I can’t make this work.  I’m trained to be a science researcher and if I can’t make it in this field I have nothing else to offer the world.  If I don’t have an academic career then I am a failure who is wasting my PhD and my years of training and education are useless.

3. Anger and Bargaining – The system is set up against me.  I was tricked and I’ve been participating in a Ponzi scheme all along.  Our government and academic institutions say that they want to recruit young people into science but don’t support the large number of passionate and well-trained existing scientists who would like to work.  The republican congress is ruining the country doesn’t seem to want to spend money on the things that matter anymore.  Bargaining - if I feel constant anxiety and work every second to the detriment of my sanity and health I will get an NSF grant.

4. Depression – Why bother to get out of bed.  I don’t have to go to the lab; I’m not being paid. What is the point if I’m never going to have a job anyway.

5.  The Upward Turn – I realize that I find teaching surprisingly fulfilling and rewarding.  I participated in workshops focused on scientific teaching and found an approach to thinking about teaching that I find intellectually interesting.

6. Reconstructing and Working Through – I am reengaging with life and taking advantage of the opportunities that I have.  I do my best to apply scientific teaching strategies to my classroom, I have become more engaged in the community at the universities where I teach.  I am also spending more time in the lab.  Instead of being bitter and anxious that I don’t have funding I am realizing that I am lucky that I have a relationship with a PI who is willing to give me a fair bit of freedom to work and explore.  I am engaging more with the students in the lab and enjoying my role as a research mentor.

7. Acceptance and Hope – I am beginning to reach this stage.  I am realizing that I don’t deserve to be handed a grant or a job on a silver platter anymore then anyone else.  I have always been an overachiever and in the past I have attained many things that I tried for with just enough effort.  If I’m not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve a research position, such as being willing to move anywhere in the country or work insane hours, ultimately that is my choice to make. I’m still in a tenuous position with no full-time position.  I know that adjunct lecturing has the potential to be a sticky floor with uncertain long-term prospects.  I’m not sure where I’m going to end up, but I’m willing to enjoy the ride and push myself to be the best person that I can be.

Have you had similar experiences in academia?  I would love to hear about your path.


  1. I am in the latter stages of grief now. As a superpostdoc/Instructor/Research Assistant Professor, I have a severe disadvantage at competing for NIH support and little chance at tenure trqck success. However, I have the luxury of support from other investigators that allows me slight autonomy, access to excellent research resources, a viable avenue for publications, and a steady paycheck. I try to focus on what I have rather than what I have not.

  2. I'm currently ricocheting back and forth through steps 2-5. Blogging helps at least. My post doc will be over in July, and I'm going to start adjuncting and some side editing after that, but I know I'm going to have to figure something else out eventually for my own sanity. Your positive attitude is inspiring though.