I'm a first year postdoc in the EU. In every research or industry appointment that I had before the postdoc (my Ph.D., two research internships, working in a company), I was very motivated to go above and beyond so that whoever was my boss at the time notices my efforts and builds a great opinion of me. I always had this thought when given a task that I have to complete it in such a way that my boss thinks "Wow, he's really good!". Whenever my Ph.D. advisor would be "wowed" it brought me satisfaction. I believe that this mindset brought me some excellent reference letters through the years.

I started a postdoc a couple of months ago and one thing that surprised me is that this mindset was completely gone. I noticed that I'm tired of going above and beyond just so that my PI notices me. In my head I started to think: Shouldn't the Ph.D. be enough proof that I have the ability? Shouldn't the fact that I have great accomplishments from my Ph.D. be already enough for my new PI to appreciate me? This might still be the aftermath of a huge burnout that I had after my Ph.D. After that I took one year almost completely off before I started a postdoc. In the end I felt ready and rested. But maybe going through burnout and therapy numbed my mindset of going "above and beyond" for good.

Is it normal that such a mindset disappears at the postdoc stage? Can it be a good thing? And more importantly: Is it even possible to succeed in a postdoc without this mindset? Only showing 70% of what I know is my full ability? Doing what my PI wants and nothing more? Being in the office 9-5 and not working during weekends? And what about beyond the postdoc? I want to stay in academia. Is it even possible to keep your head above water when you only do the minimum required of you and never "wow" anyone?

1 Answer 1


Take a break, then reorient yourself towards your own academic objectives

It sounds like you are suffering from burnout, which is perhaps not surprising, since I think you have been focussing on the wrong objectives. Academia is certainly an industry that requires people who are motivated to go "above and beyond", but that motivation is most fruitful when it is oriented towards improving your own learning and productivity for your own sake, rather than to impress a supervisor or some other authority figure. Supervisors and other colleagues come and go, but your knowledge of your field and your capability to turn that knowledge into useful output is the thing that will remain and determine the trajectory of your career ---not to mention your personal satisfaction--- in the long-term.

I recognise myself in your description of your go-getter attitude in your doctoral program and internships. When I was going through my undergraduate degrees, my postgrad/PhD program, and then my early-career work as an academic, I was also someone who was accustomed to going "above and beyond" with various objectives that would advance me beyond the usual learning schedule. In my university program, this manifested in overloading courses to learn more quickly, and in my research work, it manifested in taking on a broad range of projects in disparate fields and researching them heavily to become a "mini expert" in various areas of academic work. However, unlike you, I was never concerned about getting pats on the back from supervisors, or even whether or not they noticed my additional work. The goal of the additional work was to help me learn more broadly and deeply than other students/academics at my level, with the long-term goal of being as knowledgeable and skilled as possible to create cool stuff.

With great respect, I think you may be labouring under a destructive dichotomy that comes from an orientation to "second handedness". You work like crazy for years to impress others (rather than to achieve something for yourself) and then when this doesn't bring you satisfaction you conclude that the appropriate response is to rest on your laurels and "tread water" to ride out the remainder of your career. That dichotomy only makes sense if you are oriented primarily to impressing others and have not intrinsic personal goals for your own work. You might find some useful insight in Rand (1963) in the discussion of "second handers":

They have no concern for facts, ideas, work. They’re concerned only with people. They don’t ask: “Is this true?” They ask: “Is this what others think is true?” Not to judge, but to repeat. Not to do, but to give the impression of doing. Not creation, but show. Not ability, but friendship. Not merit, but pull. What would happen to the world without those who do, think, work, produce? Those are the egoists. You don’t think through another’s brain and you don’t work through another’s hands. ... Second-handers have no sense of reality. Their reality is not within them, but somewhere in that space which divides one human body from another. Not an entity, but a relation—anchored to nothing. That’s the emptiness I couldn’t understand in people.

As to practical advice, I think the first thing you should do is take a break and rest. Be proud of yourself for the work you have already done and the things you have already achieved. Allow yourself time to refresh and feel rested. Once you have done this, have a think about the things you would like to produce and achieve over your academic career (focussing on first-hand accomplishments, not second-hand markers of success) and then reorient yourself towards the learning and work you need to do to achieve what you want. Try to adopt a "first-handed" approach to setting goals and work in your life, and adopt a sensible approach to dealing with the opinions and evaluations of others. (On this point I recommend the suggestion of Kipling, to "trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too".)

  • 1
    Thank you for this answer, it resonates with me a lot. Your advice seems like something that could help me. In fact, I still have a lot of motivation to do things that directly benefit me, and not at all my PI. For example, I wanted to learn a particular subject in the next 1 year that will probably never serve my PI or his group. I have no problem motivating myself to start every workday with 1h of studying it. The tough thing to balance will be to know how much I can focus on myself and how much do I need to focus on serving my PI's interests in the postdoc position...
    – postdoc
    Commented Jun 15 at 13:29
  • 1
    I recommend you pursue that subject of interest to you, even if it is not a service to your PI or group. Try to develop it enough to allow you to publish something in that area, so that it still manifests in a useful output for your own benefit.
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 15 at 23:08

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .