In high school I started fantasizing about my future life as a professor. This fantasy deepened throughout my charmed apprenticeship, which culminated in a prestigious independent postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton. But my fantasy fizzled last month after it became clear that a two-year search for an assistant professorship at a Research I university was not going to bear fruit. Facing a 1 in 300 chance (or worse) in an applicant pool of near equals, the odds were ever in my disfavor.
I could place my fantasy on life support as a second postdoc or claw my way into a tenure-track position through an adjunct appointment, but in my case these moves would be a step back. I just spent the last five years managing a $1M budget and a two-person lab while also teaching, and published two papers on novel insights into how antidepressants actually work. At age 33, with plans to start a family, and a desire for – gasp! – life/work balance, entering the equivalent of a professional holding pattern offers little appeal or dignity.
So how the hell did I not foresee this outcome? Like so many of my contemporaries, I’ve been a contestant in the Tenure Games since I was a teenage summer research intern, plenty of time to see the writing on the wall. Most PhDs don’t become professors. But I was in denial. At each transition in my academic career I watched people drop off, and the refrain in my head was “I’ll be different.”
For a time that was true until one day it wasn’t.
To be fair to myself and to the scores of other rejected postdocs, the Tenure Games were not of our making. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget doubled from $15B to $30B in the late 90s and early 00s:
People and projects followed in droves, but the capacity to absorb trainees into stable academic careers didn’t increase proportionally, resulting a predictable glut of postdocs that was exacerbated by the Great Recession.
I was loath to admit all of this publicly till now, partly out of insecurity and partly out of academic self-preservation. The latter is no longer a concern. Engaging the online scientific community on Twitter has helped me overcome my insecurity, because it provided concrete evidence for the first time in my training that I wasn’t alone.
If you’re like me, there’s no reason to be ashamed. Almost every single assistant professor I know has admitted that it was dumb luck, idiosyncratic departmental tastes or plain old academic tribalism that landed them their job, because they all had impressive CVs, stellar recommendations and solid proposals.
So what’s next? As the shell shock begins to wear off and more and more thwarted postdocs emerge from their bunkers, I hope we can take comfort and inspiration from each other by sharing our journeys. Younger trainees can benefit from our peer-to-peer mentorship. And practically speaking, we can start to mobilize and brainstorm new ways to do the science we love outside of traditional academic (or even industry) settings.