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I am currently doing a postdoc in mathematics in Europe (staying vague for anonymity...). For various reasons I am seriously considering leaving academia at the end of my current postdoc, which ends in a few months. I have some teaching/supervision left to do, but very little. My postdoc is a more research-focused postdoc, but not within any specific project, I am free to work on whatever projects interest me.

For the last few months I have been feeling extremely unmotivated to do anything related to my research. No one seems to care whether I'm doing something or not and it will most likely not have any impact whatsoever on my future career outside of academia anyway. The coronavirus situation with the requirements to work from home obviously didn't improve the situation, as I lost the peer pressure of having office mates so I don't even feel the need to pretend that I'm working anymore. Yet I am of course still being paid, but it makes me feel quite bad to be paid for doing essentially nothing.

I guess I am looking for advice for how to feel better, either by regaining some motivation, or simply by hearing that it is ok to not do research (or any other kind of related work) if I don't feel like it. I'm not sure if it's a form of the impostor syndrome, but I definitely feel like a fraud for not working and still getting a salary...

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    The current situation is a tough one, mentally, for just about everyone as far as I can tell, even those of us who are working on site. I would start small, some little thing that you find kind of cool, but would not have pursued under 'normal' times - just play with it and see where it goes. – Jon Custer Jun 8 at 18:11
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    @JonCuster, I actually think the opposite is the case. Sure, for many people the current situation is new and demanding mentally. But for many many other people, this lockdown is a true blessing and a fruitful ground to increased productivity and a much more relaxed life-style, without unnecessary travel to conferences, office, etc. – Dilworth Jun 8 at 18:47
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    @Dilworth - clearly your view is different from mine. On the large project my team is a part of, I don't believe that any of the 100+ folks working on are feeling either more productive or more relaxed. – Jon Custer Jun 8 at 21:41
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    @JonCuster - clearly your view is different from mine. The constant, daily interruptions have almost ceased and has allowed me to be more productive in a day and, therefore, more relaxed since I am no longer staying much later at work to finish all of my tasks. – LordStryker Jun 8 at 22:56
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    @LordStryker - some of the difference could be individual vs group activities. The lack of hallway interactions is getting to be a problem. – Jon Custer Jun 8 at 23:23
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Research is a very non-linear process, where long stretches of work may produce not much of value (even though you have learned a lot!). If you're planning on leaving academia this presents a problem, because you might not actually produce anything before you leave, and it's understandably difficult to motivate yourself to work on something you plan on dropping midway through. Therefore, I would advise you to focus on projects that are likely to pay off before you leave. Of course without specifics it's hard to come up with examples, but I'll take a crack anyway.

  • Find a colleague who can benefit from your expertise and help them out.
  • Reach out and see if you can give some talks about the research you've already completed.
  • Volunteer and take over some teaching from a colleague.
  • Expand your (digital) office hours.

Lastly, you've probably spent a good amount of free time doing research anyway, so I wouldn't feel too bad about taking the occasional workday off to do something other than work. (Perhaps figure out what you're going to be doing next.)

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    Besides this excellent answer by Peter, I would suggest to take a holiday of one or two weeks (even if it is at home or somewhere accessible nearby): it sounds like you need one, and some time off from work will allow you to rest and think about other things. After the holiday you will feel much better and either go back to work with renewed energy, or you will have had time to think and consider your options in a stress-free environment. No need to feel guilty: everybody needs a break sometimes. You say you are not productive anyway, so stop trying for a while: it will make you feel better. – Louic Jun 9 at 8:34
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Remember this: you are not merely 'working from home' - you are sent home from your place of work, trying to cope with a pandemic. If you manage to actually work 40 hours a week during this period, that is of course great, but it is not your main concern. Your main concern is staying healthy.

One thing I have had several former colleagues transitioning to industry do, was to pick up a small research project which would require them to learn or improve a skill, which could be useful in their future career. In my field, the go-to skill these days is machine learning, and people have had no difficulties to come up with a research project which would require them to use that extensively. Maybe something similar could be a solution in your case.

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It is not ok to not be working and still be getting a salary, unless explicitly agreed with your employer. A lot of academia is built on immense amounts of trust, largely unheard of in industry, and relies on the fact that most academics are self-driven, so that it would cost more resources to police them than would be saved. This is the general answer, and it applies equally outside of global lockdowns.

But these are tough times, and there are plenty of people who are finding that they were relying on a stimulating environment to be productive. A good line manager should try to help you through these times. Thus, you should talk to your line manager frankly, and explain your difficulties of being productive, and try to find solutions. It might be that your line manager says that they recognise that many people will currently be less productive, and that they have taken the decision to not put people under pressure for now.

If you cannot resolve your difficulties and continue to not work properly, and your line manager does not explicitly tell you that they are happy to pay you while this continues, then the ethical thing to do would be to ask for unpaid leave, or to be put on a furlough scheme if your country offers something like that. In that respect, you would be no different from a cashier whose shop is closed if you rely on coming into the office or on other routines that are currently impossible in order to be productive.

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  • Indeed, academia is built on trust and passion for knowledge. Hence, academic positions like Postdocs are not "work" in the normal sense. Research is a creative endeavor, and cannot be forced on a person just because they are paid. – Dilworth Jun 16 at 23:47
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A Postdoc position is a starting path to an academic life. Since you say that you are not planning to continue in academia there is nothing indeed that compels you to work hard, or work at all, during your postdoc, and certainly not under the current epidemic situation. So basically, I would simply sit at home, relax and enjoy (possibly try out a Netflix binge).

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  • Hm. Interesting perspective. – user111388 Jun 8 at 20:18
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    Hmm, I think the ethics of this are rather questionable. You are still paid to do research, even if the gain for yourself is minimal at this point. – xLeitix Jun 8 at 22:08
  • @xLeitix, perhaps. But the question is certainly not about ethics, and thus the ethics of preaching to the OP about "what is ethical" (based on our own subjective values/ethics) is rather questionable by itself, let alone is not relevant to the question. – Dilworth Jun 11 at 12:06
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Ethically speaking, you should quit. It's fine to find that non-academic job you want first.

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