I F*ed Up

By Anonymous, part of The Summer Series of guest posts


I have no advice. If you want to keep reading, you’re going to read how I’ve fucked up trying to make the transition from PhD to postdoc.

I don’t have enough publications. Every presentation I see about “successful” postdocs and grant applications, they have an extraordinary number of publications (how the fuck do they do it?). I had several from the PhD (during the PhD – not a fuck-up!). But then in the 1.5 years since PhD conferral, there has not been much. I’ve worked hard, trying to learn and lead and do complex analyses. It has taken up so much of my time. Those papers are still not out.

I work constantly. My housemates threatened to take me to hospital because I was sick for months, was not getting better, and consistently working. I work so hard that sometimes the idea of looking at a computer monitor repulses me, and I feel like I’m going to burst under all the pressure. Like a normal person, I work better with balance.

I “invested” in my career. So far I have spent more money on attending international conferences and visiting labs, than I have actually earned as a postdoc. But often, no one comes by the poster, or I’m in the last session on the last day. Spending $3000 of your own money to go to a conference where 2 people see your work is bad once. Several times however, is frustrating, crushing, and deprives me of thousands of dollars to spend on excellent clothes or exorbitant rent. [Ok, there is still no advice, but a plea here: AMERICANS, seek out the people in the conference program who have travelled across oceans to be there. Stop sticking to your cliques and seek out research]. But I have paid a lot of money to meet others and hear about their research.

I try to help develop other ECRs. Moving a group instead of an individual slows you down. I love seeing these people succeed. In contrast to common career advice, I’m not competitive with my peers, but supportive. It is important to me to develop a rich cohort of ECRs, in addition to my own career.

I don’t have widely-wanted research skills. I can’t use MATLAB well, or R, or do fMRI analyses, or EEG, or qualitative analyses. And in New Zealand*, I’m far away from the relevant research networks. In many ways, I am un-hireable. I don’t fit into a research niche.

Instead of applying for a postdoc position, I applied for postdoc grants. Despite the hundreds of hours put in, I was unsuccessful with most grants.

I dealt with some colleagues poorly. I experienced bullying from a PhD student, who has a history of bullying women she perceives as “competition” [This is an anomaly. Most women in research are smart, supportive, and genuine. Let’s not tarnish all women with the same dirty brush]. I did not know how to deal with this, with the strange difference in our status. So I avoided going to our joint lab, and this, in turn, affected my productivity.

I work on too many things. I am running a lot of projects with many different groups. I am currently trying to write 7-ish papers (1st or 2nd author on all but 2). I’m also doing the analyses for many future papers. I’m the head of a committee, and on several other committees, which takes up a lot of time. My days are so full of fucking meetings that I never had time to do all these things I’m supposedly working on. I have a lot of teaching. So much travel. Supervising. I need to apply for grants. Skype.

I swear a lot.

There are a whole host of other fuck-ups.


I had initially sent Hanne the above, with a “nice” summary paragraph. And this was her response:

Oh wow! Harry Potter**, that’s so full on! I had no idea the last two years had been such a “disaster” – I always thought you had everything under control because, well, you are (obviously!) super competent, and work hard, and do fascinating important research. Ugh, life (academia) is not fair!

Let me clarify. I have not had any real disasters. I’ve been called an up-and-coming superstar. I’m sure people who know me would expect a post on my pathway to the successes I’ve had.

I love academia, and I produce innovative and interesting work. But I believe the path to innovative, solid, and important research doesn’t have to be rushed. I don’t fit into a research niche because I’m trying to be innovative. Developing new ideas and research takes time, so churning out papers is a process that resembles a Wallace & Gromit machine***. I have great research networks, and a lot of support from people around the world. I have my own grant money, and shared grant money. I have a strong vision for my research career. I feel confident in myself and my own abilities, so I’m happy to help develop others’ careers in addition to mine. And I’m doing all of these things. I have been trusted by many people to lead research, lead collaborations, and I’ve been given time to get going.

There are consequences of all these amazing things. You work insanely hard and there is a constant battle for work-life balance. People get jealous and treat you like shit.

We hear a summary of people’s successes, but we don’t often see the multitude of experiences they must deal with on the way to those successes. I’m not a superhuman, but a person figuring out their academic career. I fucked up. But I didn’t completely fuck up****.


*Not a hobbit
**Not Harry Potter
***Hi there dad joke!
****Still no advice.

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2 thoughts on “I F*ed Up

  1. Pingback: Summer Series | My Scholarly Goop

  2. Pingback: Summer Series Summary | My Scholarly Goop

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