postdoc at 40, no options

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postdoc at 40, no options

Postby Martin B. » Thu May 05, 2016 2:50 pm

Perhaps my initial mistake was not to have a plan. I liked science a lot and I figured that if I enrolled in a program that covered the material I liked, everything else would sort itself out in time and I'd find my calling soon enough. My friends and family always said that I was so smart that I'd do well at anything no matter what. Eventually all of this led inevitably to a degree in biochemistry and later a PhD. My PhD experience almost drained me of every bit of energy and every last shred of self esteem. But the exhilaration of being finally done made me giddy and I forgot the only valuable lesson of my PhD. Or perhaps it made me believe that the worst part was over, so I went for a postdoc, still perhaps imagining that a career in academia is possible for a mediocre joe. I've been a postdoc for almost four years now and I'm still as far from a publication as I was four weeks into it. I have the best PI in the world though, this guy is bright, positive, funny, and a pleasure to be around in general. Everyone in the lab is great actually. But I've let everybody down with my inability to get data at the bench and my utter and complete lack of productivity. I've come to HATE the bench, and I only have myself to blame for this poor choice. Now I'm almost 40, there's no way I'm succeeding in academia, but I'm not qualified to do anything else. I recently got a grant from my home country that I'll be certainly unable to execute, so the only ethical thing to do now is to return the money, quit the lab, and move back with my parents. I thought at one point that writing and/or editing might be better suited for me, and I applied for a few positions. But you can't even get a response back if all you have is "regular" lab experience and no real writing experience other than papers and grants. They encourage you to take internships, but that's not an option given my visa status. I'm now convinced that nearly two decades of specialization in science only equip you for one of two things: either great success in your niche, or catastrophic failure. I need to learn to deal with the latter.
Martin B.
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Re: postdoc at 40, no options

Postby SRD » Thu May 05, 2016 4:08 pm

40 is the new 20. I'm also a postdoc and also almost 40. I have been looking for a regular job for the past 5 years and today I got my first offer for a regular industry job. And maybe I'll end up with few more (who knows, I did a bunch of interviews). Don't give up, have a positive attitude, work on your CV and skills, and most importantly your network.


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Re: postdoc at 40, no options

Postby M.W.S. » Sat May 07, 2016 6:45 pm

I was a postdoc through my mid-30's and exactly one year ago accepted my first position in industry. My personal experience was that you must maintain a positive attitude even in the face of high stress and worry because a potential employer doesn't really care that you are stressed and it won't help you be more productive or successful in your job search and career. The second thing I learned from my job search is that my network was the most instrumental part of my job search. Three out of four of my interviews (including my interview with my current employer) were a direct result of networking. I'm not sure I would have my current position without the assistance of one particular person in my network!

Good luck and keep your spirits up!
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Re: postdoc at 40, no options

Postby Ana » Mon May 09, 2016 8:26 am

HI Martin,

The way you describe yourself sounds so negative! Just through your text it would seem that you are somehow depressed. I don’t believe a positive attitude will make suddenly everything work out better for you (I don’t believe in law of attraction or similar concepts) but i don know that when one sees everything so negative we miss out opportunities and tend to remain inactive, both playing against us.

We don’t know you and it seems you are for real in a complex situation that is making you depressed. You say you have a great PI, what does he tell you about your career? what are the options he sees for you?

And maybe more importantly: what is you exact question? what are you hoping we can tell you when deciding to post? do you want career ideas or advice or just to share your story? in other words, are you looking for hope, for a plan or for colleagues to complain about how easy is to get trapped in academia? you can probably find all of this but even knowing what you came for will help us guide our answers to you.
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Re: postdoc at 40, no options

Postby Martin B. » Fri May 13, 2016 10:33 am

Thanks for your responses. Ana is probably right, in that there wasn't a clear-cut question in my admittedly whiny post. She's also right in that I am depressed (and I've sought help for that).

My PI has been helpful but, as many PIs of his generation, he sees only academia as an option for people (and he seems to believe I'm particularly well-suited for that) so his suggestion was just to keep going, no matter how long it took.

After my original post, I quit my postdoc in the US and decided to take that grant in my home country. This feels good in that it's a kind of fresh start and I have the opportunity to do things right this time. It also feels terrifying in that once that grant expires, job opportunities for the natural sciences in the third world are close to zero. Things ended amicably with my PI (I fully disclosed my mental troubles to him) and we'll probably get a short communication out of my work.

So here's a question, reformulated a bit. Do you think it was it a good idea to leave a postdoc in the US, especially after so much time and with so little to show for it? Also, M.W.S. emphasized the role of networking. I am really bad at that. What resources do you recommend for me to get better at networking?

Thanks again.
Martin B.
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Re: postdoc at 40, no options

Postby Dave Jensen » Fri May 13, 2016 11:44 am

Martin said, "So here's a question, reformulated a bit. Do you think it was it a good idea to leave a postdoc in the US, especially after so much time and with so little to show for it? Also, M.W.S. emphasized the role of networking. I am really bad at that. What resources do you recommend for me to get better at networking?"

Martin, I'm not going to comment on something that's already happened. What is the value of dissecting a move that you've already made? Just make the best of it, that's all you can do -- just move forward.

Networking is the #1 factor that separates people in how well they do in the world of work. Not their brand of science, or what school they went to.

Check out the most recent (and earlier editions) of Tooling Up, our column on the same website. Good luck!

"One of the most powerful networking practices is to provide immediate value to a new connection. This means the moment you identify a way to help someone, take action." - Lewis Howes
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Re: postdoc at 40, no options

Postby M.W.S. » Sat May 14, 2016 2:35 pm

I am not a particularly outgoing person or great networker, but I can tell you what I did in terms of networking my last ~12 months in academia (and should have been doing since day 1). I knew I wanted to leave academia so at conferences I actively sought opportunities to talk to ANYONE from industry (whether they started yesterday or 40 years ago). Typically they only had 30-60 seconds to talk to me so I just thanked them for an interesting talk and asked them a single question. Then I inevitably connected on LinkedIn and followed up with an additional question.

The other thing I did was find high up people at companies in my field of interest and sent them a "cold call" message via LinkedIn. Some ignored me, and that was fine I took no offense. However, the vast majority were willing to message me via LinkedIn to answer questions or even get on the phone with me for 30 minutes. One even gave me an opportunity to visit in person when I happened to be in town for a conference. It was extremely helpful in building my confidence that I could find my way to industry. Finally, the ones that were willing to talk or email me, I asked to give me a quick resume review. This served two purposes: 1) I got feedback from the decision makers on my resume and 2) they had my resume in hand so if an opening came up maybe they would think about me.

Those are some things I tried that seemed to be very helpful.

Best of luck!
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