As I type this entry I realize it very well may ruin whatever is left of my career as a scientist, but (1) I am not sure there is anything left; (2) other early career scientists need to know they are not alone; and (3) maybe it is for the best. I promised candidness and honesty about the experiences and struggles of an early career scientist, so here is my story…so far:
It has been a little over 5 years since I finished my PhD. I have since moved 6 times, had 5 temporary positions, worked hard to develop early career initiatives and organize panels at annual meetings that focused on the needs of early career scientists, and attempted to persevere through some, what I consider, extremely challenging circumstances. I explored several different options with respect to career opportunities – internship with a major oil company, 2 prestigious research scientist fellowships, a semester as an adjunct faculty member, and most recently science policy. I have applied for 150-200 jobs that I thought I may be qualified for or looked moderately interesting (I did not limit myself to academics, at least not in the beginning). In total I received a whopping 5 interviews and one offer, which after much consideration I decided was not a good fit for me. I now find myself 2 months away from being unemployed, which will also likely leave me somewhat homeless since I am not sure where I will go or what I will be doing, if anything.
I thought I had done everything right: (1) I chose an amazing PhD advisor; (2) my dissertation was innovative and in an “new, exciting field”, which was also quite different than my advisor’s background; and (3) involved myself in outreach activities that were (and still are) very important to me; and (4) attended workshops and conferences to attempt to start new collaborations and make connections (apparently, I like to number things).
Now, as I write this, I feel like a complete failure. I have worked tirelessly to follow the dreams of a little girl – I have wanted to study earthquakes in a way that would be beneficial to society since my first earthquake when I was 7 years old. Now I am 2 months away from unemployment and feeling completely alienated by a field I have dedicated the last 12 years of my life. The dreams of a young girl are crushed.
Moreover, I have been told (to my face by multiple people) the reason I could not find a position in academics was because I put too much effort into outreach, which, forgive me, I thought was very important even if it was not science proper. There are potential other reasons, like I did not receive my degree from the “right” university (see articles below). The landscape of academics has changed a lot since many of our advisors finished their degrees. Fewer and fewer PhDs find jobs in academics, yet that is the only thing graduate students are trained to do. I thought it was important, along with my science, to be sure the next generation of scientists were more knowledgeable about the opportunities outside academics, how to find a work-life balance (something we all seem to struggle with), and learn about the different types of academic jobs, not just R-1s, from a variety of scientists and faculty members.
Throughout the last 5+ years since I finished my PhD, I put myself “out there” in ways that made me increasingly more uncomfortable. See, I struggle from severe social anxiety, which often results in varying levels of depression. I am not just saying this for sympathy or anything else; I took the time about 2 years ago (and lots of money) to get formally diagnosed to do what was best for my mental health. For those that may know me, or think they know me, this may come as a surprise. I often appear quite social and friendly, but what is not seen is the sweat that forms in all the wrong places, my heart racing in ways that it feels like it is going to explode out of my chest, the shortness of breath, the trembling of my hands. While I have worked really hard to get my anxiety (and associated depression) under control and manageable, it is not always easy.
With that said, I am not looking for sympathy. I have always known that I was not the only graduate student or early career scientist that struggled with some variation of mental health issues. Some of us doing it openly, others not so much. But much more likely we suffer in silence. We slowly cut ties with people we love and who love us. We isolate ourselves, which is incredibly easy particularly as a postdoc. Sometimes it is much too expensive to seek help or, for some reason, we feel ashamed in doing so. I could come up with a lot of excuses for not seeking help, and there is increasingly more literature about mental health problems within academics.
This issue has become even more personal in the last year, and not just because I increasingly feel as though I am barely holding on to whatever is left of my sanity. In the last year, I have lost one of my closest friends (and fellow early career scientist) to suicide, and a close colleague watch as one of his fellow graduate students had a mental breakdown and had to be institutionalized.
Now I am taking steps to be sure that mental health issues among young and old scientists alike begin to be part of a dialogue within the scientific community. At the 2016 American Geophysical Union annual meeting, I gave a talk (to all of about 15 people) about the work I started in the early career community with the help of IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology), and ended my presentation with a call for more focus on mental health issues and developing more resources for postdocs who seem to suffer the most (this is just a guess…so please don’t quote me on that). While I am unsure of the exact direction that IRIS will be moving with respect to early career initiatives, I, personally, want to concentrate on these issues. Which brings me to why I started this site. I have also attempted to start a podcast to talk openly to early career scientists about their successes and struggles. Admittedly, I have let the podcast fall by the wayside, in large part because of the personal inertia (or anxiety) it takes for me to overcome to put myself (particularly my voice) out there. I hope to start this again soon, and if there is anyone out there that would like to talk to me on the podcast…about pretty much anything, please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, I have created a slack account to discuss any and all things related to scientific career struggles and successes: https://ecisuncensored.slack.com/. If for some reason you can’t join, please email me or PM for an invite, and feel free to invite your friends to join the discussion.