This is my account of when a post-doctoral position goes wrong. I am sharing my experiences unedited, and my tips for how I made it through the other side.
Another supervision meeting is over. I am sitting at my desk trying, and failing, to hold back the tears again. Their words are still rattling around my head: “this isn’t good enough”, “your work is below standard”, “it’s all wrong”, “why did you do that?”, “why did you think that was a good idea?”, “it is like having a research assistant instead of a post-doc”, “what were you thinking?”. I had had months of meetings where I was made to eat breadless shit sandwiches. It was months of criticism, with only one bit of positive feedback to break up the negativity: “this is written quitewell”. I try to recall this crumb of praise after particularly difficult meetings. But it is getting harder to put my feelings to one side and get back on with my work. I am frozen. What is the point of doing anything when it is just going to be pulled to pieces? I have been working in academia for a number of years, completed my PhD and several post-doctoral positions at multiple institutions; but I have never felt this beaten before. My partner and family have noticed a difference in me. I don’t laugh or smile as often, I am more tearful, and I find making even the most basic decisions an impossible task. When you are told you are wrong so often, it becomes hard to trust your own mind.
Reading this back, I worry that it all sounds a bit on the dramatic side. I worry that you will dismiss this as the ramblings of a ‘snowflake’ – that I am someone who just can’t take criticism. I worry that you will side with my supervisor and think that maybe I am just shit at my job. Now that several months have passed, I am able to say that what I experienced was not ok and that I am good at what I do.
The lightbulb moment came on my birthday. I had taken some annual leave to celebrate the occasion. While eating birthday cake I received a text to say that an order I had processed at work had arrived, but the item wasn’t as it was expected. The panic set in. My heart started beating fast, I felt hot and clammy, and I thought I was going to throw up. But when I looked down at the slice of cake I had a sobering and crystal-clear thought: “why the fuck am I doing this to myself?”. It was my birthday. My loved ones had made the effort to celebrate it with me, and I was paralysed with fear over an incorrect order that wasn’t even my fault. I felt ridiculous. I needed to get out of there. But most importantly, I needed to take back control.
I wanted to hand in my notice there and then but living costs money. I have a partner and all our living expenses get split down the middle. Leaving my job would affect them and I felt they deserved to be part of the decision-making process. Tip 1: do not suffer in silence – talk to your friends and family. We sat down and worked out our finances. Despite my partners reassurances that we will make it work, it just wouldn’t be possible to live off of one income. So that leads me to tip 2: don’t be afraid to explore your options. I immediately signed up for job alerts and emailed some people that I used to work with. Senior researchers especially can often have random pots of money, like consultancy money or personal research budgets, that could be used for small pieces of work. I was lucky enough to secure some casual work contracts that could cover my living expenses while I looked for another job.
I was also terrified of how it would make me look. What impact would leaving my job have on my reputation? Would I be black-balled within the academic community? I was so scared that my years of scrimping, studying, and awkward networking would all be for nothing. Who would want to work with someone who leaves a project part way through? And here is tip 3: talk to people working in your discipline that you trust – they can provide informed support and advice. I spoke to a post-doc friend, and my previous supervisor. It was such a relief to have someone hear me and acknowledge that it was not ok. They all confirmed that I had nothing to worry about, but that it might make things easier if I time my leaving to coincided with a natural pause or stopping point within the project.
I knew I wanted to leave my job but I didn’t know what my notice period was or how to do it. Tip 4: speak to HR – you can talk everything through with them and it will be kept confidential. I drafted my letter of resignation several times and saved it to my drafts. I knew that for my own wellbeing I needed to leave that job but when it came down to it I struggled to press the ‘send’ button. Was I doing the right thing? Would I regret it? But then that memory of my birthday came back to me and I knew I had to leave. I pressed send… outbox (1)… outbox (0)… sent (1). It was done. And breathe. Relief was the first thing I felt. The way I was feeling right there in that moment told me I had done the right thing.
The response to my email was short and polite. I was dreading the first time I would see my supervisor face to face. I had decided I would let them do most of the talking. Tip 5: don’t lie just to make things less awkward. During this first encounter there were several awkward pauses where they were expecting me to thank them for the opportunity and say how much I had enjoyed my time there. Although I am pretty convinced saying any of these things would have made the situation easier for everyone, I couldn’t do it. I was going to be professional throughout my notice period (this is tip 6), but it would be disingenuous to pretend everything was wonderful. Instead, I thanked them for taking the time to talk with me and promised I would put together an in-depth handover before I left.
It felt amazing to be away from such a toxic environment. Without the constant fear and feeling of incompetence hanging over me I was starting to feel like myself again. At the time, it felt like I was choosing between progressing my career and saving my sanity. I was saying goodbye to the Nature paper, but, despite what your university and peers might tell you, that is not what is most important in life. I chose to put myself and my mental health first, and it felt great. On reflection, I now know that it wasn’t that I was choosing to abandon my career – I was just choosing to take a different path.
The purgatory of post-doc life is not easy. I bought into the lie that I needed that job more than they needed me. I had failed to acknowledge my worth. I have skills and experience and there are other people who will enjoy working with me and appreciate me. It took some time, but I have finally started to get my confidence back… And one day I will get that Nature paper.