A Degree of Stress

A Degree of StressA number of factors influence the stress levels we feel in lab including our project, boss, funding, spouse, kids, weight… the list goes on.  In research, there are predictable periods of elevated stress, such as the Ph.D. qualifying exam and defense, which undoubtedly shaved years off the end of our lives.  But are there global trends to the stress patterns we can anticipate through the early part of our career in research?

All scansI recently discussed this issue with a few friends who currently hold, or recently left,  postdoctoral positions.  Our individual perspectives were shaped by distinct life and research experiences.  Between the six of us there were:

  • four countries represented (France, Israel, Canada, US)
  • four postdocs
  • four spouses
  • three children
  • one bald guy

So when I asked each friend to draw a graph of their relative stress levels throughout their research careers, I expected answers as diverse as the individuals.  Each person created their graph privately and at the end, we shared them.  The y-axis ranges from “0 stress” to “I’m done with science.”

As the graphs were handed in, a very interesting trend began to emerge.


As it turns out, regardless of the differences in research and life experiences, almost everyone felt significantly more stress as a postdoc then at any time prior.  I must admit this came as a bit of a surprise.  Graduate school is stressful for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the possibility that the project fails and we spend the next four decades roaming the halls as the creepy 34th year student…

At first glance, the postdoc seems to lack many of the obligatory distractions of grad school, such as classes, committee meetings or three-hour lunches… Additionally, the increased technical and intellectual competency gained in grad school should make the job easier. So it seems the postdoctoral position offers a unique time in our careers to focus exclusively on research with almost no distractions.  That sounds great!

Take a look at the sketches.  If the “postdocs are great” why was everyone dangerously close to the “I quit” threshold at some point during their postdoc?  It undoubtedly is a combination of internal (putting pressure on ourselves, trying to find first real job) and external (funding, PI) forces.

Before providing our thoughts, what do you think?

How would you rank your experiences with stress in lab?  Why did we consistently rank our postdocs as more stressful than any other time at the bench?  Can we identify and reduce these causative factors?

8 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. 13columns

    wrote on August 14, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    at least in grad school they want to push you out eventually. i know some pretty old postdocs… i feel way more pressure as a postdoc to publish and be productive immediately. i'm also on a fellowship that has funding for about another year and then it's not clear if there will be money to support me off of other grants. so there's a lot of pressure to find a job, which of course is tied to publishing… i'd bet that's a major driver of the increasing stress seem in most of the graphs.

  2. AX69

    wrote on August 15, 2009 at 4:29 am

    That's weird, one of these graphs really looks like what my stress level would be like!!! The post doc is definitely more pressure, especially nowadays when postdocs get longer and longer and it's harder and harder to publish. As you get older there's definitely more pressure to find a real job. During graduate school, even when it doesn't work great, you kind of feel like you have time to get data and good papers. During your postdoc, that's it, those publications better start piling up or you'll never be able to find anything good after that. Science is so competitive… too competive.

  3. joanneg

    wrote on August 16, 2009 at 12:41 am

    I agree with AX69. During the grad school process, there's more time, more understanding that it's going to take a while to get the good results and papers. When you hit the postdoc the pressure is on to publish, and publish yesterday! Add to that the fact that I found myself suddenly in a field that I had no interest in (my own fault for going on that tangent) and the fact that I was at an age where I wanted to be accomplishing things in my personal life which cost money (of which a postdoc has none) and I also found myself at the "I quit" stage. Turns out that sometimes we just get caught up in the system as we feel like we have no other choice. We forget why we got into science in the first place. There are plenty of choices though and it's not absolutely necessary to do a postdoc….

  4. Why is a postdoc so stressful | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on August 17, 2009 at 12:51 am

    […] we’re following-up on Friday’s post (A degree of stress), in which we observed a trend towards elevated levels of stress during our postdocs.  Although […]

  5. [email protected]

    wrote on August 17, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Okay, so I read the whole thing even though I am a grad student. And it looks like I am due for a spike really soon!

  6. PlayLady

    wrote on September 10, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    I, too, read beyond the Stop Reading point as a grad student. Looks like I'll have to revisit the "How to Make an Old Fashioned" protocol to get me through the next phase in my life! Is it wrong if I double the recipe???

  7. Science Career Development Resources | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on December 2, 2010 at 9:59 pm

    […] A Degree of Stress – an interesting trend emerges when a group of seasoned postdocs graph their stress levels through graduate school and their postdocs […]

  8. William Penrose

    wrote on June 4, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    My experience was much like the third graph. For one thing, I’d changed fields from enzymology to molecular biology (this was 1970) and I was working for a smart, ambitious, tenure-track boss. He was easy to get along with, more of a leader by example, but the field itself was so highly competitive at the time, I came close to a nervous breakdown. When I took a job at last, I couldn’t believe that I’d stood the pressure all those years, and I was overjoyed that I hadn’t chosen to stay in academia.

Leave a comment

will not be published