My Postdoc Story: World Traveler

My Postdoc StoryWhile nearly all of us face challenges during our postdoctoral years, we often feel alone in our struggles. In this series, we hope to share encouraging and uplifting stories of how other scientists were able to turn their situation around and move forward, despite a non-ideal situation. Like snowflakes, fingerprints, and nightmares, every postdoctoral experience is unique, so today we share the Postdoc Story of another successful scientist.

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I. The Story

In grad school I was a physicist-turned-psychologist. As a postdoc I studied behavioural (in the first postdoc), and computational and clinical neuroscience (in the second). Now, I’m selling everything I own and travelling around the world. After completing my degree, I was motivated to do a postdoc because all I had ever wanted to do was be an academic, and this was the next step in the process. In selecting my postdoctoral labs, I based my decision on the work of the PI, the reputation of the university and where I would be interested in living for the next few years.

Going into my second postdoc I wanted to consolidate the behavioural work that I’d undertaken in the first one and broaden my knowledge to computational work, with the goal of applying to a faculty position afterwards. On the road to pursuing my goals, I didn’t expect to have to deal with a slew of personal and professional issues leading to acute anxiety and depression.

II. The Situation

I enjoyed my first postdoc and was fairly productive, but the second was a different story. I moved to a new continent to start what I thought what was going to be a productive couple of years in computational neuroscience, but things started going wrong almost immediately. Within a week of arriving, my grandmother died unexpectedly – we were very close. I had just left all my friends behind and was living completely on my own for the first time in a small town in a country where I knew barely anyone, so I had no support network. This particular town also had a slightly insular and very transient nature so it was not only hard to make friends but also hard to keep them. To cap it all the project I had thought I was going to do when I arrived was put on hold when the grad student I was meant to be learning from became very ill and was off work for 18 months. I was left without a project, without a social group and with a growing sense of hopelessness.

III. The Emotions

At first, when my grandmother died, I was emotionally floored. I ended up flying back home for the memorial service, which made it even stranger and harder to settle when I returned to my lonely apartment. Fairly soon after this my project partner became ill, and I aimlessly span my wheels for a while, eventually ending up doing clinical research I had no real passion for. Over the next year or so I went through cycles of working hard on the project and doing absolutely nothing, feeling stupid, guilty and lazy as I did so. Along the way I broke up with my long-distance girlfriend and turned 30, two more life events that were fairly major, all the while watching my other friends settle down and consolidate their careers. Helplessness and lack of passion slowly turned into severe depression.

IV. The Solution

There were many stopgap solutions I tried before deciding that things had to change more comprehensively. I’ve always been interested in the arts and I spent a lot of time performing in and running local theatre productions; I even helped to found a company. During a good period I managed to be awarded a fellowship, extending my contract for at least another year – but it was more on the clinical side of things that I wasn’t that interested in. All in all though the main problem was that I didn’t enjoy my work. Once I realised this, it was difficult to decide what to do. I was depressed and I tried counseling and medication but neither were very effective, and he drugs made things worse for a time; I suspect that if I’d worked out what was happening and sought help earlier I’d have had more luck. My PI had already spoken to me about my lack of productivity, which helped me to focus for a while, but in the end it was one of the Masters students deciding that research wasn’t for her that was the trigger. Conversations with some of the few good friends I had managed to make also really helped. My funding was coming to an end in a few months, I had nothing lined up to do afterwards and I really wasn’t sure whether I was interested in my field at all any more – so I decided to go travelling. I’ve sold almost everything I own and bought a round-the-world ticket. I leave this town in four days, and hopefully somewhere along the way I can rediscover my love of exploring and perhaps find out what it is I really love.

V. The Lesson

I think the best possible piece of advice I could give is: know why you are doing this, and seriously question whether you should be if you don’t. I thought I liked my field and wanted to understand the answers to the questions, but I’m now at the point where they’re almost completely uninteresting to me. Finding the answer to that research question that bugs you should be something that motivates you to work hard and do excellent science, but if you’re not passionate about the topic then you’re on a hiding to nothing at best. And if that’s the underlying problem: don’t try to paper over the cracks with other activities, seek help sooner rather than later, and don’t be afraid of making a major change. Now if you’ll excuse me I have some packing to do…

Have you ever sought professional help to treat depression during graduate school or your postdoc?

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2 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Christopher Dieni

    wrote on November 29, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    There are, admittedly, quite a few times I've fantasized about doing just that! However, I'm a pet owner and lover, and I couldn't just hand her off to someone else while I go galavanting about the globe. Enjoy yourself, though! Bon voyage!

  2. Christopher Dieni

    wrote on November 29, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    There are, admittedly, quite a few times I've fantasized about doing just that! However, I'm a pet owner and lover, and I couldn't just hand her off to someone else while I go galavanting about the globe. Enjoy yourself, though! Bon voyage!

  3. phosphofan

    wrote on November 29, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    The number is higher than I expected, but I guess I typically associate "seeking professional help" for depression to mean "taking drugs" and that's not necessarily the case here.

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