Welcome to My Life as a Postdoc: Overeducated and Underemployed

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog.

I know a lot of really dumb PhDs.

I’m not being mean.  I include myself in this group of book-smart, determined idiots.  Many of us are creative, versatile, lifelong learners who embrace challenge and handle failure with aplomb. And a select few, with the right combination of grit, luck, and guidance, do make careers for themselves as tenure-track faculty. But the vast majority do not.  For all our knowledge, we can be dumb as doorknobs when it comes to navigating careers outside of academia.  Perhaps because we are trained to be so specialized, we lose sight of the big picture. Once we take a postdoc position, many of us languish at the bench relegated to the dreaded “perma-doc” realm without a clue about what to do next.  Yet, when we think about leaving academia, many of us become paralyzed at the thought of abandoning our native land.

Suffering is an inherent part of academic culture.  In graduate school, my friends and I would brag about working in the lab through weekends and holidays, getting by on a handful of hours of sleep a night, and using a toxic cocktail of Red Bull and coffee to push us through full course loads and lofty scientific aspirations (I didn’t sprout wings, but I did almost conjure up an ulcer). We wore our wrinkled clothes and dark under-eye circles as badges of honor. We thrived on the pressure, and if we didn’t, surely something was wrong with us.

I look back on those days with a mixture of fondness and incredulity. I felt at home surrounded by overachievers who, unlike my family and nonacademic friends, understood the addictiveness of unraveling the mysteries of the universe (or trying to, anyhow), until one day, I felt nothing but uneasiness.  The ecstasy of the hunt for truths was displaced by worry about grants, about publishing in journals with high enough impact factors, about continually generating data. Moreover, somehow despite the crazy hours I managed to find the time to get married and even have a child.  Then, for the first time I admitted to myself that I wanted something that academia couldn’t provide: more.  I wanted more time with my family, more flexibility, more fulfillment.

Now, I was left with new mysteries to unravel:  How could I possibly function on the outside? What transferable skills could I possibly have? The research enterprise requires us to spend much of our time focusing on what we don’t know and how to get inside the black box.  Is that why, as PhDs, we can’t fathom switching careers?  Do we become too fixated on discerning what we don’t know and how what we do know could possibly be applicable to “real jobs”?  I’m not sure where this academic Stockholm Syndrome came from, but it’s time for some of us to snap out of it.

Leaving academia does not equate failure.  I know that the decision to leave does not mean that I fell short as an academic.  Prior to this, I had to navigate a sea of well-intentioned colleagues who urged me to apply for tenure-track positions. I believe that my decision to leave reflects my own evolution and maturation as a PhD who believes her time and efforts are better suited for a more well-rounded life, and perhaps more importantly, who now has the courage to voice that opinion.

The next step is still murky. As I write this, I am currently contacting people for informational interviews about writing, editing, and publishing careers in the sciences and gathering together application materials for a master’s program in genetic counseling.  On my best days, I look at this approach as covering my bases, but on my worst, I am so confused about the trajectory of my life that I want to curl into a fetal position and binge-watch Netflix until I forget that I might have wasted the last 13 years of my life doing bench science.  Well, maybe “wasted” is too strong a word …Mishandled? Perhaps. But the situation is not beyond correction.

What I do know is that realizing that academia isn’t for me is sufficient reason to take action.  It should be reason enough for you to take action, too. Over the next few months, I plan to use this forum of the BEST Program blog to explore careers outside of academia and the skills necessary to get them.  Because we DO have the skills: As PhDs, we have learned how to logically attack problems to get answers; how to use failure to change tack and persevere; how to communicate effectively; and most importantly, how to find the tools to improve our lives and move on to fulfilling careers.  Let’s stop being the smartest idiots we know.