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I will try to make this short.

  1. My Ph.D. was in life sciences. I was a part of an "International Ph.D program in life sciences" in Germany. The Ph.D was a nightmare of its own. I had to start the project from zero, there was a strict time limit of 3.5 years to finish. The worst part, after some time I realized that the PI either did not write recommendation letters or wrote bad recommendations for his own people (both Ph.D students and postdocs). At the end, I got my Ph.D, but without publications and, obviously, without recommendations.

  2. I managed to find a "postdoc" position in "no-name" university in Canada, however, it was not a normal "postdoc" as one might expect. At that time, the lab was a mess: high turnover, overworked and demotivated people. Few people had to put extra effort and time to keep that place together. The remuneration was extremely poor. Moreover, foreigners were paid less than Canadians for the same position and, essentially, same job. I barely lasted for 3 years and had to quit and walk away from all results, because my mental and physical health started to collapse. I authored one "book-chapter" as the first author. My name is on some 7 or 8 papers but in the middle, as 5th or 6th author. So these are obviously useless. I cannot expect any recommendation from that place either.

  3. I tried to get another job in a university environment or in bio/tech. I managed to land a half-decent job as a project manager in another small university in Canada. Conditions are much better than before, but my salary is paid by "grant funding" and it is one-year contracts that have to be renewed.

I am in my mid-30. Sometimes I feel that I cannot do this anymore. I cannot make any long-term plans and always feel insecure. I simply tired of this life. I need at least a semblance of stability in my life.

Lately, I looked at some ads for university jobs in Middle East and in Asia. I would take a lower pay, only to have some job stability.

My problem is that everywhere one needs (a) papers and (b) 3 or 4 recommendation letters. I do not see a way to circumvent these requirements.
My problem is that my Ph.D + "postdoc" took good 7 years of my life and it is very difficult for me to accept that all this experience (and suffering) is completely useless.

I understand that I should stop looking at anything academic, but it is very difficult to let go. Any career advice will be appreciated!

P.S. To be clear, I am not trying to complain, I have been desperately seeking any legitimate career advice/mentorship for a very long time. The problem there is none for "life scientists", neither here nor on Reddit! Even in my current position, which technically calls for solid experience in molecular biology, I utilize ~1% of my knowledge/experience in molecular biology. The moment I move out of "life science" arena, I am basically on par with a fresh "college graduate" with regard to skills/experience.

On the other hand, I have been hanging on 1-year contracts last 8 years of my life. I cannot do this forever. Basically, I need to re-invent myself somehow, but I do not know how to do this job-wise, finance-wise etc.

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  • 1
    Are you a good bench scientist? Good manager? Good writer? It's time to figure out which skills you have and how to use them.
    – user133933
    Mar 27, 2021 at 19:45
  • 1
    I think you have some skills. Flexibility seems to be your superpower. But you should probably deal explicitly with your mental health with a professional. And, flexibility is a great superpower. Maybe you can exploit that.
    – Buffy
    Mar 27, 2021 at 19:48
  • I agree strongly with @Buffy about doing yourself a favor, whether you see it a favor or not at the moment, to ensure your mental health. Sounds brutal, but you’ve been through a brutal times. A new perspective might open unexpected paths to you. Mar 28, 2021 at 0:54
  • 3
    A request for career advice seems pertinent. Mar 28, 2021 at 1:13
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    Most of the PhD students and postdocs you've known/met over the years will have now left academia - that's just how the numbers work. Where did these people go? Who do they work for? What are they doing? Find out - Linkedin and other social media sites can help you here. I suspect you'll discover that there are plenty of interesting opportunities for 'people like you', if you look in the right places.
    – avid
    Mar 28, 2021 at 9:03

4 Answers 4

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I would suggest that you are framing the problem in a bit of a negative way. Your options (as you put them) are either "suffering" (continuing to look for a university job) or "giving up" (looking for non-university jobs). It's no wonder you don't like either of those options!

My recommendation is to understand these options a bit better. Presumably, you already understand your university options well, and they are not great. But, I suspect you have only a vague (and negative) idea of what non-university positions are like. Try to concretize this a bit more: what jobs do you think would be a good match? How much would you get paid? Where would you live? Where could you be in twenty years? To what extent would your current skills and knowledge be useful? These questions should take weeks or months to answer; don't just do a google search and frown at the results.

I suspect you will find that there is intellectual life outside of universities; rather than invalidating your previous efforts, taking a permanent position somewhere else could be a logical next step in your career trajectory. But even if you end up confirming your suspicion that no (achievable) job in the world would be more satisfying than what you are doing now, at least you will have a concrete sense of the trade-offs involved.

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    Unfortunately, I see many problems/questions to which I have no answers. What is worst, there is no counsel! "Academic" jobs in Western world are not available for me. Outside of West, there are no money in "academia" (ex. Middle East). "Biotech" jobs are few and far in between in Canada, mostly in Vancouver and Toronto. However, compensation is not on par with cost of living, esp. for a single person. The moment I step out of "life sciences" arena (however broad this definition is) I flush my experience and skills down the tubes.
    – user136555
    Mar 28, 2021 at 3:44
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    Did you try China?
    – user135405
    Mar 28, 2021 at 8:09
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I am a Mathematician now working in Computer Security. Towards the end of my PhD, I gave a lot of thought to the problem you are suffering from right now, even though I enjoyed my PhD (for the most part ;-)). My conclusion was the following, and I think it still applies in your case; To stay in academia, you need to satisfy the following criteria:

  1. You have to fairly evaluate your potential as a researcher, which includes your scientific intuition, the ability to execute on it, and your (social) network. Now deduce from this the potential position you can hope to ultimately land. You need to be ok with having that position for the rest of your life.
  2. You have to be willing and able to go through the process of getting to that position, which I anticipated would include unpleasant post-doc experiences like the one you already mentioned.
  3. Now comes the big one. In fact, you need to not only be "ok" with the position in (1), you need to be so incredibly dead-set on having that position that you are not deterred by the fact that (2) is not even the worst that can happen. You need to be so dead-set on it that you do not fear the possibility to end up in your mid-40s with absolutely no job experience and in a dead end that does not lead to new academic prowess.

The alternative is to get a job in the industry. If you do this, I want to give you one piece of advice: Do not look for a job that requires a lot of the specific subject matter expertise that you acquired as a researcher. Do not look for a job that is "like academia". In short, do not fall prey to a sunk cost fallacy. Instead, look for the job you would have wanted fresh out of college. You have proven that you can learn a difficult thing, you can learn a new difficult thing.

Now, chase that job. Industry jobs have a much higher density than academic jobs, so laying out a career path to your dream industry job is much easier. It might be necessary to first work less perfect jobs, to acquire new skills, or simply because you do not have the experience yet. Nevertheless, there is a much lower chance of just falling off the edge and not having any prospect job at all.

In any case, I sincerely wish you the best of luck.

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  • Could you elaborate on the negative aspects of looking for a job that requires specific subject matter expertise? Do you consider this a bad idea because of the scarcity of such jobs or because it is a bad sign about the actual job offered? Mar 28, 2021 at 17:54
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    Since I chose differently myself, I can not really say anything with certainty. However, I have witnessed a handful of fellow mathematicians trying to find a job that has "lots of math" and ending up disappointed by how little math it actually had, while simultaneously suffering quite a bit from the downsides of those jobs. My personal impression was always that they had chosen to look past those downsides because they were clinging too much to what they had grown accustomed to. Mar 29, 2021 at 19:26
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This is a very common problem for academics (in most disciplines only a tiny fraction of PhDs go on to a TT position in a research role). However, when you are inside the academy, it will seem like a rare problem, because by definition, no one else around you has left!

The Professor is In addresses this in her fantastic book, in the chapter entitled Leaving the Cult. There is a much shorter feature on her blog here covering the same content.

The short version is that you do not have "nothing" to show for a PhD plus postdoc. However, most academics have a very poor sense of which of our skills are marketable and to whom, in part because many of the rare and valuable skills we have are taken completely for granted inside the cult. Some examples:

  • You are likely in the top 1-5% of all workers in your ability to quickly learn new complex topics.
  • You can read and assess scientific studies better than virtually any worker. Even in areas outside your discipline, you will not have difficulty interpreting things like whether a study design has established causality, whether an effect size is large enough to matter, whether there are other risks that the study did not account for, etc. Investment firms and management consultancies, for example, may value this kind of skill greatly and employ some workers based on it alone.
  • You are likely in the top few percent of workers by ability to autonomously plan and execute complex, vaguely defined tasks. Beyond this, you have concrete experience doing this for years, on some of the hardest problems imaginable. Employers love workers who can do this, no matter the area you work in.
  • Your statistical, mathematical and experimental skills are likely to be strong.
  • Your computer skills are likely to be strong. Even if you don't program well, as a scientist you probably program better than ~85% of workers.
  • Your professionalism and communication skills are likely to be strong.
  • Crucially, you know how to write grants, and have demonstrated the ability to secure short term funding from governmental programs. There are startups and consultancies that will pay you just to do this.

All of these skills are actually in great demand, some across all industries, some in more niche areas.

In my experience, "failed academics" tend to have a lot of difficulty at first figuring out a match for their skills and how to sell that skill set outside academia; a moderate amount of difficulty landing the first job (but realistically, far less than landing a faculty position!); and almost no trouble quickly adapting to and advancing within industry once they land a position. You're at the hardest part, deciding to leave the cult. It's only going to get easier from here!

Something I did not do when I left, but which some of my colleagues did do, was book a consultation with someone like The Professor is In. These people specialize in helping academics understand how to market their skill set inside and outside the academy. It's best if you can find one who knows your own area well, but even someone outside your area will be able to see far better than you how to make a good living with your training.

Good luck!

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    Also worthwhile to figure out if, with your skills, you’re a theory-builder (Hilbert) or a problem-solver (Erdös). Mar 28, 2021 at 16:28
0

This doesn't address your question directly, but I think it merits an answer.

MITACS offers internships to postdocs in Canada. Reach out and learn about their programs. It's a fantastic platform to learn about the industry and transition if you so desire.

These internships can start from a 4 month (paid) project to a couple of years from what I've seen. I know many people who have transitioned to industry after one of these.

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