Like a deer in the headlights

I often think about what kind of qualities a scientist should have. I think a scientist should be curious, adventurous (science-wise, not necessarily bungee-jump-wise) and inventive. But lately, it also seems like an important part is to be resilient to stress about having an insecure job. As I said before, whether or not I will have the position I want in the homecountry depends on whether I get a grant (any grant) before next year when we are moving back. This type of insecurity, that I know almost every scientist faces, does not make me work better. To be honest, it stresses me to the point that when I have to write a grant, I can’t because I keep thinking: ‘this has to be awesome, or else’. I think some people excel under pressure, but I’m currently not one of those.
You have to understand that I was raised in a country that has a lot of social security. Everybody has healthcare – and with that I mean real healthcare, not the one where you have to co-pay 20%, leaving you bankrupt after an expensive procedure – and it’s a lot harder for employers to fire people with a contract than in the US. Deep down, I did not envision being older than 30, not knowing where I would work next year or whether I would be able to afford a house.
You also have to understand that wanting to get a grant funded to secure a position seems to be my type of nesting. Being pregnant has amplified these feelings enormously, because I seem to want to imagine what life will look like when this prospective baby is born, and moving countries when he or she is only 5 or 6 months does not really help in this process.
It would help if Dr. BrownEyes would have be a millionaire, or at least have a job that we would know he could keep and that would bring in money, but he doesn’t, because he’s also a scientist. This is great, and his enthusiasm for science is one of the things I like about him, but it doesn’t help in my anxiety about getting a job.
So does this make me a bad scientist? It did for a while, because I really felt like a deer in the headlights trying to write grants and papers, but now that I know that I can at least get bread on the table doing another post-doc that gives me some room to breathe, and to be good and creative while writing grants again. But why aren’t there more scientist-jobs for people who don’t love insecurity about grants and their future (and the future of those in their labs)??


Filed under finding a job, imposter syndrome, postdoc, pregnancy, work-life balance, working mom

12 responses to “Like a deer in the headlights

  1. Namnezia

    Exactly, I think many would jump on these types of jobs. I guess that's one advantage engineers have—it's science-y, but also stable.

  2. Academic Engineers have no particular advantage. They have all the same pressures that the sciences faculty have, except there's less available funding.

    But, we have a much wider wealth of non-academic positions. I've been fortunate enough to find a non-academic position at an academic medical center where I'm allowed to seek funding and publish. But my position is absolutely unique in the world, near as I can determine.

    And non-academic jobs are not some magic bastion of security. There's no such thing as tenure. It's annual review. And if you're not producing, you're fired.

  3. Anonymous


    I have a very similar path as yours. I did a 3 year postdoc in the US and came back to a small european country after securing a grant for a non-permanent position.

    At some point, I decided that it was not worth being anxious about my future and about getting a permanent position. I decided that I would follow my dream of doing research in an academic environment. In two years, I might be out of money and I might be forced to leave academia but I would have lived my dream until then. The strengths and skills that I have acquired during my research career can be transferred to a company. Having spent a few years in the US is also very well considered by companies. Therefore, I think that my profile can be attractive for a company and I dare thinking that they are even looking for people like you and me.

    I would advise you to enjoy doing your research now, to enjoy living in the States for a few more months, to enjoy your pregnancy and to be confident about your future, in academia or not.

    Good luck

  4. I guess you're right that there are very few jobs where people know they can stay forever, but sometimes it does seem like the grass is greener somewhere else.

  5. Thanks for your comment. On most days I'm very well able to follow your advice and just enjoy what I'm doing now. But 1,5 weeks of having my parents AND in-laws ask things like: “do you guys still not know if you'll have a job next year?” “what are you guys going to do about housing?” “how are you guys going to schedule your move?” increased my panic-level a bit I guess…

  6. Totally. I get that. Also hanging over my head is the possibility that my department's budget gets cut, and they decide that my unique position isn't something they want to invest in anymore. Gone for no fault of my own.

  7. First step is to avoid the in-laws/parents! Heh heh. My non-academic parents just don't get it and have learned not to ask. My academic in-laws discuss how my husband should just find a post so we can settle down (no mention of my career at all).

    But yes, I feel your pain. I've decided that 'learning to cope with uncertainty' is just another skill I need to develop to be a better academic researcher. But it's a process! I also think it's good for kids to be exposed to more environments (as long as they feel secure). I moved a lot more as a kid than my spouse, and as a result am a bit more flexible about many things in life. I had to put my 6-year-old in 3 different camps this summer (was supposed to be 2, then a fellowship deadline came up) and she's surprisingly ok with it – learning to see the positive and making new friends. I hope this is a skill she continues to have as she gets older!

  8. I so much agree with Anonym6:15. Academia and job security sadly doesn't go together and securing a grant or a fellowship depends on so many factors, which have nothing to do with “how good you are”. But it's a great life to live with a lot of flexibility, freedom and opportunities (can all depend on the lab of course) – so the best thing to do is to enjoy it and to try your best.
    If it doesn't work out anymore at some point there will be other opportunities – and usually people who got a PhD and did a Post-Doc abroad are smart enough to figure out what would be a good alternative direction for them.
    And: yeah – parents (in-law), friends (esp. those with permanent positions), strangers in the subway,…. better just nod and smile 🙂 .

  9. Anonymous

    Nobody loves job insecurity…

  10. You could also look into non-tenure track research faculty positions. They pay well and depending on the lab you join can be very secure. There's also biotech and the academic service industry ex: running a core lab. There are actually a lot of “alternative” options with a high degree of job security, but for that security you give up a lot of freedom as far as research direction and interest go.

  11. I just discovered your blog and like it a lot 🙂 You are a few years ahead of me in your career, so I'm definitely going to follow your blog to see how your return to the home-country will turn out and see what I can learn from you. Especially since we share the same home-country! Wishing you all the best of luck!

    And indeed, ignore the parents & especially the in-laws… I'm leaving for the UK for a 2-year post-doc soon and even that causes a lot of drama unfortunately, because hows the boyfriend gonna survive without me?!

  12. Pingback: Being self-employed in academia | InBabyAttachMode

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