My postdoc road was rocky — then the pandemic hit
This should have been a year of big transitions and exciting changes. It’s the final year of my three-year postdoc, and I planned carefully since the start. I took advantage of every opportunity to expand my skills in the lab and the classroom, and I even created some opportunities of my own.
Stepping outside the lab, I designed and taught two short pre-college classes, I founded a monthly writing group to improve science communication skills in departmental trainees, and I attended local scientific meetings to expand my understanding and network. I had projects in motion for publications and future independent work, and I was ready to jump into the next phase of my career as an independent scientist.
Like all researchers, I hit stumbling blocks along the way, and I worked hard to adapt and stay on track. The lab animals for one project took an unexpectedly long time to reach breeding size, so I pivoted to focus on another cell type while they caught up. When a large funding application didn’t succeed, I worked on expanding other projects for future opportunities. I tried to view these challenges as exercises in flexibility and persistence, traits I knew would help me succeed as a principal investigator.
Last fall I had my worst challenge yet when mental health issues I was struggling with hit the breaking point. After years of pushing through graduate school and my time as an early postdoc, I had to accept an immovable truth: I needed to find new ways to do my work, or I could not do it anymore. I was in denial until I found myself in the hospital, and then it was something I could no longer ignore.
In science, we often feel that there is no such thing as good enough — we can always do more work. My mental health crisis forced me to value my time and life outside of work. I poured my efforts into building new habits and managing my illness. As the fall of 2019 came to a close, I was doing better than I had in a long time. With a new set of coping skills, my baseline health improved. In addition to seeking help from doctors and clinicians, I found success using a skills-based approach that taught me how to cope with my feelings in the moment and achieve healthier behaviors. I focused on establishing specific short-term goals and connecting them to realistic timelines. Perhaps most importantly, I accepted that I can’t control every aspect of a research project and that burning myself out trying only would make me less successful.
I felt more on top of my future than ever, and 2020 looked like a bright new year to take the next big step forward. Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly my year looked very different.
I had planned to begin my job search this year, but that became unexpectedly difficult. An application for a nonresearch university job ended with a canceled search, and several others were canceled while I was finalizing my application materials. Planning ahead for faculty applications, I had a specific idea of how to present my research goals as a future principal investigator with projects independent of my postdoctoral lab. My university began a phased-in approach to research in early summer, so I will be able to finish one publication, but I won’t have time to build more data toward that independent research. To finish the publication in progress, I must devote my time to that and will have a weaker proposal for future funding opportunities and job applications.
A year before my contract was set to end in February 2021, I started discussing with my PI how to move into applying for positions as an independent investigator and what funding opportunities would allow me to do research through the summer until I could start at a new position in the 2021 academic year. However, with changes in lab resources and the reduced time post-quarantine to develop new applications, the ideas generated by these planning sessions became unrealistic. Now there will be a gap between my postdoc and the start of the next academic year, leaving me at a disadvantage for the next application cycle and out of the running for funding applications.
In a last unexpected wrinkle, right at the beginning of the COVID-19 quarantine here in the U.S., I found out I was pregnant after years of trying to start my family. As is common, my pregnancy required changes to my mental health management tactics, and it has brought back challenges I previously had controlled. My medications had to be adjusted to stay at safe and effective levels, and the physical and emotional stress of pregnancy makes it difficult to maintain a healthy mental state. The skills and tactics I developed for maintaining a healthy balance do not always succeed. On top of that, because I am a toxicologist, I will need to rely on others to handle the dangerous materials that are essential to my research, and the timing of my due date will cost me the last two months of this postdoc.
I am facing a snarl of problems, and I have no answers. Any one of these difficulties would be a challenge — my mental health issues, the pandemic, my job transition, the pregnancy. Facing them all, I feel overwhelmed as I try to navigate the crosscurrents and start the next phase of my career. My transition to independence is looking more like another leak from the academic pipeline.
I always have kept an open mind about the direction my career takes, but it’s frustrating to feel my options shrink. I am grateful to have a job and a paycheck when so many others have lost theirs, and I am lucky to have a partner in a similar position. But the path forward is murky, and my goals for 2020 seem unreachable. Instead of an exciting move to a new level of academic independence, this stage feels fragile and the obstacles insurmountable.
I focus on what I can do today and take the changes as they arrive. Rather than dwell on what is delayed, I’ve used my time at home to get through more data analysis and to begin writing manuscripts. The more flexible schedule has given me the space to incorporate more mental health skills and strategies into my daily routine, keeping me healthy in a difficult time. As the university opens up, I focus on what I can do day to day and week to week.
Though it may not be what I had planned, I hold on to hope for my next step forward, and I do what I can each day to be as successful as possible in this evolving environment. That hope inspires me to reevaluate why I have chosen to be a researcher and why I have these career goals: my love of science.
Whatever I do next, whether it’s staying on the path of academic research or something else, if I stay focused on that love of science, I know I can achieve the goals that matter most to me.
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Beata Mierzwa is a postdoctoral researcher at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at the University of California, San Diego. She is also an artist with a growing science art brand.