Being an Online Academic, the Job Search, and False Starts

One of the wonderful things about Twitter is hearing about jobs, funding calls, conferences, and potential future collaborators. But, one of the most daunting things about Twitter is being followed by those potential employers, the people who review your conference abstracts, the people who review your grant applications, and people whose work or career you respect and would like to emulate. The thought of this sends me into a sort of stage fright for tweeting and blogging.

As part of my intention for this blog is to discuss the challenges of the postdoctoral journey, I feel that I have to document this internal conflict. But the very process of blogging this fear entails confronting the fear head on. I have to publically admit that I am worried about how future employers might see me online, whilst at the same time realizing that they could read this post too, and wondering what they would make of it. It gets very circular and almost paralyzing. That’s why I decided just to get the words out there.

One of the decisions I made up front when I ventured out into social media was not to blog about my research. I didn’t have a role model in my lab group or department for doing this, and it felt far too risky to take it into my own hands. But now I worry that I have created an ‘online identity’ that is too much of the peripheral and the personal, and not enough about the core research work that a future employer is probably interested in. I don’t think that I have taken enough ownership of my research area online, but I probably haven’t done this enough in other ways either.

The lack of a strong ownership of my research is probably a symptom of a larger problem that has left me exploring many varied options for the next step on my (as yet, undefined) career path. It is difficult to be honest online about these larger difficulties that have hindered my postdoc journey, because I worry that it is too personal for a semi-professional blog and that it might come across as making excuses to potential employers. But these reasons probably form my core motivation for reaching out online and questioning my ambitions and future career. Although I have continued to add lines to my CV and I have found passion in some areas of my work (particularly teaching), I wouldn’t describe my first experience of being a postdoc as entirely successful.

When I think of how my postdoc has turned out, I am sometimes reminded of a tragic helicopter crash that happened in London earlier this year. That sounds over dramatic. What I mean is that, in this particular crash, it seemed like a number of things all happened to go wrong at the same time resulting in a ‘perfect storm’. On that day in January, it was extremely foggy, but experts have later suggested that the pilot might have perceived that he could see better than he actually could. In a further series of unfortunate events, the pilot was unable to land, so had to turn back, but ended up taking a different direction. This ended when he crashed into a crane that was not lit because it was daylight and the regulations didn’t require it to be lit in daylight fog. If any one of these things had been different, perhaps the crash would not have happened, but perhaps just one change would not have been enough. It is debated whether lights could have helped the pilot see the crane in time, and the flying conditions were already so difficult that perhaps taking another direction would have resulted in a different crash site.

My own perfect storm is, of course, nowhere near as disastrous as a helicopter crash, and isn’t the result of many things happening exactly at the same time. Instead, it is a combination of many of the usual postdoc struggles with other more specific circumstances that have changed the course of my postdoc in ways I didn’t anticipate. I guess that not many postdocs turn out exactly as planned, but in my case I think that might be even more true than usual. The first and biggest thing that went wrong was something that changed my whole experience in unquantifiable ways and got my postdoc off to the worst possible start. Around six months before I was due to start work, my intended supervisor was diagnosed with cancer and given a year to live. He fought long and hard, and out-lived expectations, but did not survive my whole postdoc. We were only able to work together for a few months before he took permanent sick leave (though, I had worked with him previously for six months as a visiting PhD student). There is not much I can say about this, except that I still feel very lucky to have met him and worked with him at all.

Without my original supervisor around, there wasn’t really a lab group anymore. Just me and one PhD student; both working on barely related projects and transplanted into different groups with different supervisors. We are the orphans of our department and I often feel like the problem-child of my new, already bursting at the seams, lab group. My new group and supervisor have been incredibly welcoming and supportive, but it just isn’t a very good fit for my research interests. So it has been difficult to be inspired about my research while feeling like a lab group of one. Collaborators and conferences have helped, but they can’t replace the (near) daily interaction that I miss and that I have realized I need to keep the research momentum going.

It is difficult to say whether things could have gone differently. There are so many other peripheral reasons that have contributed to my dissatisfaction during my first postdoc. The original plan was for my boyfriend and I to move here together, but after many months of unsuccessful job hunting, he had to move back home. A long distance relationship was not part of the plan. I also hadn’t factored in how difficult it would be to get involved in the intricacies of my department and institution without speaking Dutch. Even if my boyfriend had been able to live here as planned, I don’t think it would be a place I could imagine staying for longer. It’s just not a good fit for me here in so many ways.

It would probably be easy to regret moving here, but I don’t at all. Experiencing the kind of things that have made this postdoc unsuccessful has been important in allowing me to discover what is important to me for my next job. A network of people to bounce ideas off is somewhere near the top of the list; either by joining a department where people share my interests, or by having the freedom and passion to create or join this network online. Finding a place (country, city, institution, research area) that feels less temporary is important too.

The overall difficulty is that my experiences and outputs look very different from an ideal postdoc now and, as Tseen Khoo discusses in part 1 of her latest post on The Researcher Whisperer, “academia doesn’t deal well with messy career trajectories”. As I heard from a recent workshop on academic career progression, the pressurized academic system works against late bloomers, false starts, and changes of direction. So, what are we to do? Well, in the second part, Tseen shares some advice on how to frame these difficulties in job and grant applications. But I have also decided to take a very different approach to my job hunt. Instead of looking further down the line at where each job might possibly take my career, I am looking for a job (and location) that will be fulfilling and satisfying in itself. Somewhere that feels like home and that allows me to stop feeling like I am trying to balance on the racing treadmill of the academic career path. The job might be an academic one, or it might not, as long as it allows me to make use of my skills and talents and keep learning new things. Career paths just don’t look like the perfect linear progression assumed by grant applications, so I am not going to dwell on the shape or destination of my career path anymore. My ‘online identity’ might look messy and imperfect, but it is mine and it is real.

  • Annelies

    Thanks for sharing this honest and candid story with us Katie! I am certain that the majority of postdocs will recognize something in your experiences!

    • KatieWheat

      Thanks Annelies! It feels good to get it out there, so I hope someone finds it helpful

  • Holtby

    I lost my PhD supervisor in very similar circumstances and it took a few years, a lot of battling and a transfer to another institution to get things back on track. It can be a big set back and is a risk of having so much reliant on that 1:1 relationship.

    • KatieWheat

      Thanks for commenting. I think you’re right that the 1:1 supervisor relationship creates a risk when this relationship ends, for whatever reason. There are usually systems in place to deal with it, but the impact on the individual researcher can take a long time to recover from. Hopefully you’re own journey is going more positively now and hopefully these things make us more resilient in the future.

  • Jackie K

    Yes – I think we all have our various elements that could make up the ‘perfect storm’; this first postdoc has certainly been (and continues to be) quite a learning experience in more ways than I could have expected – some positive, some perhaps less so. I think it is positive though that although it’s been difficult you have come to a place where you can more clearly articulate your priorities. I hope that’s where I end up too!

    • KatieWheat

      Thanks Jackie! Perhaps the postdoc (not the PhD) is the real test after all, and this time without the usual safety nets that come with being a PhD student. Good luck for your own journey. I hope you are able to find the positives in the disasters too!

      • Jackie K

        Thanks! No massive disasters, just more of an awareness of what my strengths may or may not be (and thus what the best career path might be), some of which have come as a bit of a shock, and some of which I suspect I was protected from to an extent during the PhD. Doing a postdoc in a different discipline has also perhaps had something to do with it – in a sense I’ve kind of felt a bit deskilled, as I’m having to learn things that someone with a PhD in this area might have taken for granted. But, it’s all good experience ultimately. I just have to not let imposter syndrome rear its ugly head too often!

        I think you’re right though, I never thought I’d say this but the PhD was a luxury compared to the first postdoc! The pressure to perform to a much tighter deadline than in the PhD is very real, and I think is possibly one of the main things I really wish I’d been more prepared for prior to starting.

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