Post Provided by Stacy De Ruiter
There’s an Impostor Behind this Post
The premise of this post is that it might provide some useful advice on how to achieve a tenable work-life balance and find a satisfying, successful career in science.
I’m writing this post, but there is no way that I would hold myself up as an example of success. I have a job that’s a great fit for me, but there was probably no-one else who wanted it, and there are so many others with more prestigious and high-profile jobs. I sometimes manage to divide my time well between my family and my work goals, but I actually feel like I am shortchanging both of them, basically all the time. And how long ago was the last time I got enough sleep, enough exercise, enough personal time? I often feel like someday very soon everyone is going to realise that I really don’t have it all together.
But here’s the thing: almost all the successful, self-aware people I know feel this way, at least some of the time. Impostor syndrome seems to be incredibly common, and I think at least partly it grows out of a genuine awareness of the privilege and luck that helped pave the way to your achievements. Impostor syndrome that interferes with your mental health or limits your potential is clearly unhealthy, and the part where you refuse to believe in your own competence must go immediately. But if it can peacefully coexist with confidence in your own abilities and healthy ambition, it might even be a good thing (or at least, an honest thing).
The Importance of Luck
So, if I’m an impostor, I guess I’m a really lucky one who landed a tenure-track job in the same area as my partner, after well over a decade of PhD work and three(ish) postdoc positions, two of them including significant periods when I was literally living an ocean away from my partner. I don’t want to over-emphasise the role that luck played in getting me where I am, because that would just be depressing. It would also be misleading, because I think you do need to have some hard-earned combination of research, writing, teaching, and soft skills to be in the running to get an academic position.
The catch is just that the number of qualified candidates outnumbers the available positions by such a large margin that being good enough is not enough anymore. And the stories of those of us who have eventually succeeded in getting that potentially-permanent academic job just don’t tell enough of the story of what the process is really like. “Advice” about how to succeed in the academic job market bears a demoralising resemblance to advice about how to win the lottery: a clashing collection of the painfully obvious (publish a lot of papers, get grants, and know how to sell yourself, kin of: play numbers other than 1-31, team up with others to buy lots of tickets) and the probably misguided (here’s something unusual I did or said – maybe it’ll work for others too? kin of: More winning lottery tickets are sold on Friday evenings, so why not buy yours then?).
It’s Not a Pipeline
The whole lottery analogy is not entirely inappropriate. One that probably is? The one that imagines the journey from graduate school to a permanent position in academia as a ‘pipeline’.
This metaphor comes up most often in discussions of the leakiness of the pipeline – a reference to the fact that women, people of colour, people who identify as LGBTQ+ and other under-represented groups get increasingly under-represented at more senior levels of academia. There are a number of problems with this metaphor, and I wholeheartedly agree that equating a decision to pursue something other than an academic STEM career shouldn’t be equated with ‘going down the drain’. There’s also no need to continue to perpetuate the myth that there’s a shortage of STEM PhDs.
But the elephant in the room is that if there is a pipeline, academia is not the destination. What self-respecting pipeline would let up to 99.55% of its cargo leak out and deliver less than one half of one percent of it? (Those numbers are from a UK report, now nearly a decade old, but I don’t have any sense that things have gotten a lot better in higher ed.) Also, Captain Obvious might pause here to mention that the alternatives to becoming a professor (non-university research, other careers, and other academic jobs) don’t really sound all that awful. It’s really just those of us inside the academy who keep insinuating that academia is the only place to be, the best place to be – and chances are we’re just focusing on what we know and feel comfortable with.
Your Life is Now
So, an education in STEM may lead somewhere other than an academic career. Does that meant it’s crazy to try to pursue one? I don’t think so, but I think it does give a little perspective about how to do it.
Sometime near the end of my PhD, I realised with dismay that my to-do list was never, ever going to be done. Ever again. There were just so many possibilities – in fact even so many things I should do – that I was never going to finish them all before new tasks piled on. I would never finish; I would just have to prioritise and do what I could.
In science, especially academic science, and especially in certain fields where I have experience (animal behaviour and oceanography) there’s an unspoken expectation that you don’t deserve to stick around unless your work is your one passion. And that passion should be demonstrated by the self-sacrificial extremes that you’re willing to go to in pursuit of success. Unpaid internships and volunteer field experience! Long hours all the time! Enjoying every minute of it all the time! It feels wrong even to say that maybe it’s OK not to love the job in this way.
But really: I don’t think you have to love the job quite like this. You should allow yourself the time to eat, sleep, exercise, and see your family and friends, and expect your colleagues to do the same. The combination of a never-ending to-do list and a bunch of passionate, driven over-achievers has obvious potential to result in burnout. It can also create a culture of unhealthy expectations, and it takes attention to avoid that. Personally, I’ve felt this pressure acutely – especially since I’ve had kids (an amazing experience that for me, like many of us, didn’t go according to plan – for me it was a couple of miscarriages). It’s so hard to step back, whether or not you tell colleagues why, and we keep on glorifying those who don’t. I salute them, but I also want to salute everyone who does take that step back. I refuse to believe that academic jobs should only go to people who will work so long and hard that the rest of their life is set aside. Most of us won’t even do our best work on that kind of schedule anyway!
There’s also a pervasive temptation to work too hard ‘only until’. Until you get into a PhD program, until you finish it, until you get a postdoc, get another postdoc, get a job offer, get a permanent job, get tenure. That is nonsense. The road to tenure (if the road really goes there at all) is long, and a lot of your life will go by while you are travelling it. Your life is now, and you shouldn’t have to delay it ‘until’.
That’s really hard to do when you aren’t already ‘there’. The responsibility for creating expectations gets stronger the higher up the ladder we climb. I’m so grateful that essentially all of my employers and mentors have been not just brilliant scientists, but exemplary human beings who prioritise the development and well-being of their students, employees and colleagues. It’s something I think about almost every day when I’m lost in the never-ending to-do list and have to decide what gets attention next.
Work-Life Balance is a Skill to Learn
On the topic of my busy days, I didn’t mean for this post to descend into preachiness. I feel compelled to admit my current career strategy is much too haphazard to claim any kind of pulpit. Right now I’m curled up with my laptop on a Friday evening, having already missed two or three deadlines for this post. Somehow, the cognitive dissonance of staying up late to work on a post about work-life balance was just too much and it had to wait until now. It can be so hard to find time for anything extra like this. Essentially every waking moment is absorbed by either work or kids, with all the slack and downtime sucked out.
It’s a new phase of learning for me – trying to find presence and poise amid constant conflicting responsibilities. I’m sure it won’t be long before it all changes again; I still remember learning focus and intensity and tenacity as an undergraduate, adventurousness as a grad student weaving together threads from so many different fields, independence and collaboration as a postdoc, efficiency as a new faculty member (OK, I have 18 minutes to do this), and efficiency on demand as a new mom/faculty member (OK, I have maybe 30 minutes to do this, and it has to be right now because now is when the kids are asleep…).
Anyway, currently I am enjoying a quiet evening with dogs keeping me company on the couch, the calm before the storm of two days of solo parenting, grateful for a small chance to be quiet and pay attention for a few moments of this one wild and precious life.