Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The plight of the postdocs: Academia and mental health

This is the story of a friend of a friend, a man by name Francis who took his life at age 34. Francis had been struggling with manic depression through most of his years as a postdoc in theoretical physics.

It is not a secret that short-term contracts and frequent moves are the norm in this area of research, but rarely do we spell out the toll it takes one our mental health. In fact, most of my tenured colleagues who profit from cheap and replaceable postdocs praise the virtue of the nomadic lifestyle which, so we are told, is supposed to broaden our horizon. But the truth is that moving is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition to build your network. It isn’t about broadening your horizon, it’s to make the contacts for which you are later being bought in. It’s not optional, it’s a misery you are expected to pretend enjoying.

I didn’t know Francis personally, and I would never have heard of him if it wasn’t for the acknowledgements in Oliver Roston’s recent paper:

“This paper is dedicated to the memory of my friend, Francis Dolan, who died, tragically, in 2011. It is gratifying that I have been able to honour him with work which substantially overlaps with his research interests and also that some of the inspiration came from a long dialogue with his mentor and collaborator, Hugh Osborn. In addition, I am indebted to Hugh for numerous perceptive comments on various drafts of the manuscript and for bringing to my attention gaps in my knowledge and holes in my logic. Following the appearance of the first version on the arXiv, I would like to thank Yu Nakayama for insightful correspondence.

I am firmly of the conviction that the psychological brutality of the post-doctoral system played a strong underlying role in Francis’ death. I would like to take this opportunity, should anyone be listening, to urge those within academia in roles of leadership to do far more to protect members of the community suffering from mental health problems, particularly during the most vulnerable stages of their careers.”
As a postdoc, Francis lived separated from his partner, and had trouble integrating in a new group. Due to difficulties with the health insurance after an international move, he couldn’t continue his therapy. And even though highly gifted, he must have known that no matter how hard he worked, a secure position in the area of research he loved was a matter of luck.

I found myself in a very similar situation after I moved to the US for my first postdoc. I didn’t fully realize just how good the German health insurance system is until I suddenly was on a scholarship without any insurance at all. When I read the fineprint, it became pretty clear that I wouldn’t be able to afford an insurance that covered psychotherapy or medical treatment for mental disorders, certainly not when I disclosed a history of chronic depression and various cycles of previous therapy.

With my move, I had left behind literally everybody I knew, including my boyfriend who I had intended to marry. For several months, the only piece of furniture in my apartment was a mattress because thinking any further was too much. I lost 30 pounds in six months, and sometimes went weeks without talking to a human being, other than myself.

The main reason I’m still here is that I’m by nature a loner. When I wasn’t working, I was hiking in the canyons, and that was pretty much all I did for the better part of the first year. Then, when I had just found some sort of equilibrium, I had to move again to take on another position. And then another. And another. It still seems a miracle that somewhere along the line I managed to not only marry the boyfriend I had left behind, but to also produce two wonderful children.

Yes, I was lucky. But Francis wasn’t. And just statistically some of you are in that dark place right now. If so, then you, as I, have heard them talk about people who “managed to get diagnosed” as if depression was a theater performance in which successful actors win a certificate to henceforth stay in bed. You, as I, know damned well that the last thing you want is that anybody who you may have to ask for a letter sees anything but the “hard working” and “very promising” researcher who is “recommended without hesitation.” There isn’t much advice I can give, except that you don’t forget it’s in the nature of the disease to underestimate one’s chances of recovery, and that mental health is worth more than the next paper. Please ask for help if you need it.

Like Oliver, I believe that the conditions under which postdoctoral researchers must presently sell their skills are not conductive to mental health. Postdocs see friends the same age in other professions having families, working independently, getting permanent contracts, pension plans, and houses with tricycles in the yard. Postdoctoral research collects some of the most intelligent and creative people on the planet, but in the present circumstances many are unable to follow their own interests, and get little appreciation for their work, if they get feedback at all. There are lots of reasons why being a postdoc sucks, and most of them we can do little about, like those supervisors who’d rather die then say you did a good job, only once. But what we can do is improve employment conditions and lower the pressure to constantly move.

Even in the richest countries on the planet, like Germany and Sweden, it is very common to park postdocs on scholarships without benefits. These scholarships are tax-free and come, for the employer, at low cost. Since the tax evasion is regulated by law, the scholarships can typically last only one or two years. It’s not that one couldn’t hire postdocs on longer, regular contracts with social and health benefits, it’s just that in current thinking quantity counts more than quality: More postdocs produce more papers, which looks better in the statistic. That’s practiced, among many others, at my own workplace.

There are some fields of research which lend themselves to short projects and in these fields one or two year gigs work just fine. In other fields that isn’t so. What you get from people on short-term contracts is short-term thinking. It isn’t only that this situation is stressful for postdocs, it isn’t good for science either. You might be saving money with these scholarships, but there is always a price to pay.

We will probably never know exactly what Francis went through. But for me just the possibility that the isolation and financial insecurity, which are all too often part of postdoc life, may have contributed to his suffering is sufficient reason to draw attention to this.

The last time I met Francis’ friend Oliver, he was a postdoc too. He now has two children, a beautiful garden, and has left academia for a saner profession. Oliver sends the following message to our readers:
“I think maybe the best thing I can think of is advising never to be ashamed of depression and to make sure you keep talking to your friends and that you get medical help. As for academia, one thing I have discovered is that it is possible to do research as a hobby. It isn't always easy to find the time (and motivation!) but leaving academia needn't be the end of one's research career. So for people wondering whether academia will ultimately take too high a toll on their (mental) health, the decision to leave academia needn't necessarily equate with the decision to stop doing research; it's just that a different balance in one's life has to be found!”

[If you speak German or trust Google translate, the FAZ blogs also wrote about this.]


Unknown said...

I suggest reading "My Life as a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance", book by Emanuel Derman. He presents also the advantages of being a postdoc: you can do whatever you want with no fixed timetable; you just have to produce something good every year.

xav1977 said...

Sad post...

I'm not shame to say I have chronic depression. I started my PhD a year ago, but some months ago a sleeping issue inside my head switched ON and now I have a "leave of Absence" until January 2016.

Everyone though is due the stress of the PhD or because is difficult.... but I only know the reason... and the reason scares me every day more and more. I thought in 1000 ways to die or commit suicide, but always I find the effort to continue and fight a day more.

I'm really sorry for Francis and I hope not finish like him.

Uncle Al said...

Depression is rational response to living in a toxic society. Sedition not sedation! After sputnik, the panicked US 1958 National Defense Education Act dangled a carrot of promised reward to the Severely and Profoundly Gifted. By 1969 when I exited high school, everything was rotted. If you are not a subsidized victim, then you are a tax-paying fool. Political delusion is crushing technological civilization into droit de prélassement.

The way of things.
Postdocs and PIs.

Life has value. The Gifted are not fungible. Bee wonderful.

Shantanu said...

Hi Sabine, Thanks for pointing this article. Very touching and sad. However I do know some people (in academia) who have gone through much worse problems and stress. one person I know didn't get a postdoc (or funding) for almost a decade.
Yet he was able to publish more than 20 papers on his own without a dime of funding and finally got a faculty job at a small university. I also some postdocs who had to leave academia because of conflicts with their bosses over scientific issues.

vladimirkalitvianski said...

I am not a postdoc , I have a permanent position in a private company, which a subcontractor. I do researches "for others" in different subjects, depending on a subcontract we conclude. It is also very stressful as the subjects change each time and I have to do my best to satisfy the clients in due time. I have no time/force for my personal research subject and there is no way to get a permanent job in academia. Currently I work part-time, because of depression and thus invalidity.

nicolas poupart said...

Sabine, I am both agree on the fact that higher education is extremely painful and that the conditions of studies, lecturer salaries and benefits are deplorable. For cons, I believe that the sacrifice of his life (without bad puns) for science or art is what makes these so noble activities. It is this detachment from earthly values to devote himself to the pursuit of a few absolute truths that truly elevates the researcher above the ordinary mortals. It is truly distinguished by the mind and refuses by his choice of life the comfort of materiality.

That said, to lighten the mood and return to our sheep (the physics) or rather our cats in this case, it seems that Schrödinger's cat does not like the heights: « Universal decoherence due to gravitational time dilation », Nature Physics (http://www.nature.com/nphys/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nphys3366.html)

FledgelingResearcher said...

I'm still working on my PhD, but I wonder if doing research as a hobby might not be where I end up. There are just too many things about being a post-doc I can't ask my wife and children to go through. The problem, though, is that if you only do research as a hobby I wonder how seriously your work will be taken by others. I can see it might even be difficult to find collaborators, and working by yourself seems like a good way to produce work that no one else will ever read.

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

Einstein chose Oliver's path: a steady, reasonably well-paying day job and nights/weekends for one's true passion of theoretical physics.

If one gets lucky and solves the right enigma at a time when people are ready to listen to a radical answer from a "non-player", as Einstein did, then one can drop the day job and transition to academia, or continue to enjoy maximized freedom.

Tony Smith said...

Bee, thanks for your article on suicide and depression and theoretical physics.
Here are some personal comments that I hope might be helpful to others.
I have depression for which I have been treated by Yale-trained therapist psychiatrist.
He offered me a choice of drugs or therapy or combination, and I chose therapy.
Years ago I took a path recommended by Oliver: “... it is possible to do research as a hobby ...” by making a living in another field (law). That way, I could try to balance two things - theoretical physics and law - so that when one was getting me down I could fall back on the other from time to time.
My theoretical physics has been idiosyncratic (Clifford Algebras, E8, geometry of complex domains, etc - see vixra 1405.0030 if you care about details) and is neither understood nor accepted by the physics community, and it, plus the way I have presented it, has led to me being blacklisted by the Cornell arXiv and subjected to a lot of ad hominem criticism on the web.
I could say that the blacklisting and criticism made me depressed, thus blaming the physics community for my depression, but I think that is wrong.
I think that my depression is from a deeper place INSIDE me and is NOT the fault of blacklisters or critics (although I will say that they do hurt my feelings, which is probably what they wanted to do).
When my cousin did commit suicide a few years ago, me being in therapy for depression, my psychiatrist and I discussed suicide.
He asked me if I thought of suicide, and I said almost every day and I have planned a quick way (head shot) to carry it out. Then he asked why I had not yet done that, and I said that I was too curious to find out what might happen next.
He then said that he would not worry about me with respect to suicide because my reason to live comes from a deep desire INSIDE me to see what happens next..
He also said that the people he really worries about are those who say that they have not yet killed themselves because they want to take care of children or spouses, etc., or to do things like make money, win games, climb mountains, etc., all of which are EXTERNAL to their inner selves.
It is sad that Francis could not continue his therapy. If he had, maybe his therapist would have explained to him (as mine did to me) that if he were to look INSIDE himself he might see that his innate drive to understand how Nature works would lead him to stay alive to see what happens next (with the LHC or gravity waves or whatever ignited his passion for physics in the first place).
Tony Smith

Matti Pitkanen said...

Thank you for writing about this. It is a scandal that the most gifted and devoted people in the planet are treated as if there were dirt. The power holders of universities have the heaviest responsibility and should behave ethically. Unortunately this is not the case always.

I have myself worked 7 days a week for more than 37 years in theoretical physics with only half dozen years in university and have been fighting against depression induced by the realisation that there is absolutely no hope of anything better. When some power holders at the top of the local science hierarchy have decided to put an end on my professional career, there is nothing that one can do. God can forgive but demigods not.

An Onymous said...

Dear Sabine,

I want to thank you for bringing up the issue of depression in such a public manner, both highlighting the tragic suicide of Francis Dolan as well as your own personal struggles. I have followed your excellent blog for many years, but this is the very first response I am posting.

As a single non-white male with disabilities in my mid 30's, struggling for survival in the US theoretical physics community, I hope I can add my own personal experiences here as a comment. I hope, if anything, it would help others finding themselves in a dark place to recognize they are not alone, and motivate them to seek help if necessary. Of course, this is your blog, so feel free to do whatever you deem fit with my extremely long comment. Because it is not my intention to shame anyone publicly, and because I do not want to create enemies nor end my career prematurely, I have no choice but to remain anonymous -- I apologize.

My downward spiral actually began in graduate school. I came to the US for my bachelor's degree because I thought doing so would open up more opportunities, increase my chances of getting into a good graduate school, etc. Even though I performed decently as an undergraduate -- I definitely worked hard! -- I got admitted into only one graduate school, out of the ~14 I applied to. Once there, the very first theory faculty I spoke to told me he would take me "over all other students" at that institute, stringing me along for at least 1+ semesters. By the end of my 2nd year, he had taken a student from a completely different graduate school, whom he got to know from his time as a postdoc.

I ended up working with his next-door-office neighbor, who got me to TA his graduate level course and simultaneously work on my very first research project. Early on, he told me that I not only had to work independently, he hinted that my name would not appear on the paper if I could not keep up with him. (I was his only graduate student at the time.) After the initial couple of weeks, he got extremely impatient answering my questions, and I learnt very little from him after that. The relationship quickly worsened dramatically, and being a loner like you, I became ever more withdrawn. He would say things like "You should know this by now!" or "I'd be way ahead of you if I didn't have 100 other things to do!" when I asked him research-level questions related to our project. Later on, he even ridiculed me for having "eccentricities" in understanding physics. Once, he was still fuming mad at me 2 days after I wrote down a very simple Dirac spinor identity which he mistakenly thought was incorrect; another time, he raised his arm at me in a "I'm about to whip you" posture, to push me to work harder; yet another time, I overhead him asking the student I mentioned above, who transferred from another graduate school, whether I was giving him a hard time in the graduate course I was TA'ing.

Eventually, I did finish the research project. Apart from a factor of 2 error, I fixed a number of his computational mistakes when we compared the results we had arrived at independently. While we were writing up the paper, however, he accused me of not contributing much to the project! He then fired me slightly more than a month after we put that paper out on the arXiv, essentially forcing me to drop out of school for an entire year, living off the little savings I accumulated during my 3 years there. Despite that, I still managed to pull myself together and put out another paper with a postdoc before I re-applied to graduate school.

An Onymous said...

Fortunately I found a new graduate school to finish my PhD. Overall I was treated very well by the faculty there. However, my main adviser essentially went on sabbatical for 3 years, returning to double teach every other semester after his first year away; he also had another student to mentor. (To his credit he did warn me, before I went there, he would be away for the first year.) I ended up writing a paper alone, whose genesis was sparked during my previous graduate school. This introduced me to a topic I eventually wrote a paper on, with my second adviser at this same school. In retrospect, however, the topic was a poor choice -- an experienced physicist interested in effects that have non-zero observational consequences should not work on it, especially given the technical difficulties involved -- and I really never had the physical motivation to follow up on that paper, despite repeated prodding from my 2nd adviser to this day. Nevertheless, I did write a number of papers with my main adviser. One paper involved another faculty whom I would consider my 3rd adviser -- the curious story here was, this 3rd adviser, his own graduate student, and my main adviser wrote the first paper in a 2-part series and I got my name only on the sequel, because I was also working on another of my main adviser's projects. Subsequently I found out that the graduate student of my 3rd adviser actually did very little work, whereas in the follow-up paper I appeared in, nearly every calculation there was due to me and me alone. Some time later, my main adviser sought my help with a project he was working on with a postdoc, and I proceeded to write down the core strategy we then employed to calculate the main results in the paper; but in the first draft, my main adviser tried to put my name at the very end of the author list.

I also did spend my 2nd summer with my main adviser, at the institute where he was on sabbatical. There, I saw first hand how theoretical physics graduate students in prestigious places thought of themselves as superior human beings. "I don't talk to people" is what I recalled was uttered, during one of the ego-masturbating conversations they had among themselves. I remembered, when explaining to a graduate student there what I was working on, he asked me in a very condescending tone: "Are you any good at that?"

I'm now towards the end of my 5th year as a postdoc, with no end in sight, and with no clue what a Plan B might look like.

An Onymous said...

In the previous postdoc I spent my first year with an office mate -- the star senior postdoc there -- who hardly spoke to me at all, despite my efforts to trigger interactions. (Through my own deliberate effort, I have tried hard to become more social since my years at the first graduate school.) This postdoc and I were on a project with a senior faculty and his graduate student. The project itself began at least months before I arrived, but when the going got rough I saw the senior postdoc "fell off the bandwagon" so that he could work on the plethora of other papers he was on, while I kept up with my responsibility of helping mentor the graduate student -- who, I wish to highlight, really was the primary sufferer here. We got so stuck, even after multiple hoops I helped us jumped through, I proposed taking a detour, which luckily did lead eventually to publication. The results in the paper really contained a substantial amount of material this senior postdoc was not part of at all, including some technology I invented in an earlier paper. (Because of the length of the project I also found it hard to take on others.) Despite all that, I felt some backlash requesting that the senior postdoc take his name off the paper. For instance, the senior faculty turned to me, during the end stages of the work, and said the senior postdoc was "such a big part" of the project. The other faculty in the theory group, whom I am guessing heard about my request, turned to me during a group meeting for another project -- and while explaining a technical result, emphasized it was computed/discovered by this senior postdoc in one of their earlier projects.

Once, a graduate student gave a talk at a conference regarding a paper this senior postdoc was supposedly involved in. I asked the latter a question about it, and one day later did receive an answer. But he also clearly grew uncomfortable with the results -- I don't claim to understand why -- and eventually took his name off that paper. One cannot help but wonder, how much work/effort did he put into it in the first place? And, why do some postdocs experience so much privilege, to be able to pick and choose projects like that? More importantly, why is this behavior even scientifically acceptable? I think an equally serious question to pose here is: why are senior scientists in leadership positions not exercising some authority in keeping the support/reward system truly fair and merit based? What sort of scientific norms are we maintaining as theoretical physics grows in size, the number of jobs dwindle, and the competition intensifies?

An Onymous said...

Needless to say I grew increasingly uncomfortable during my time there. I wrote a second paper with the senior faculty, only to be scooped and left feeling rather unsupported, even though both the ideas in it and bulk of the lengthy calculations were my effort. I was told not to "fight" with our competitors -- whom this senior faculty knew quite well -- when all I thought we were doing was pointing out (fairly minor) errors with their paper. I felt coerced into taking out portions of a certain clarifying footnote. To protect my ailing mental health, I decided I had to begin writing papers on my own, to at least feel happy I was exploring my own tiny corner of physics, regardless of how much time I had left doing it. After all, where's the next postdoc going to come from? Unfortunately, as a result, on the one project with the other faculty, while I did begin some preliminary work/reading, I admittedly did not move quickly enough -- he thought I wasn't interested at all, and at one point, got visibly angry with me for accidentally missing the PhD defense of the graduate student I mentioned above. (Actually, I simply got too engrossed in scientific discussions with a visitor.) This only served to place more stress on me.

Even my other colleagues were not always kind to me. This phenomenon, I think, speaks to the deep insecurities we all face as un-established theoretical physicists. While embarking on my own ideas I would share it with my next-door-office postdoc neighbor, and he had definitely lashed out at me at least once for no good reason -- though, he did apologize right afterwards. Once, while having beer with my other postdoc colleague, whom I regarded as a friend, he told me -- without provocation from me whatsoever -- he thought my supervisors would probably rank me lower than the star senior postdoc discussed above. Another time, I invited a seminar speaker whom I knew from graduate school, and shared with him some thoughts on my current research directions, hoping he would provide some good advice. Instead, some time later, he went off writing a (probably wrong) paper with my academic relative on that very topic.

An Onymous said...

When I accepted my current postdoc position, I was told by the faculty that the other postdoc he hired and I, would be treated roughly as equals with him. Currently, however, I bear the brunt of the work in a project whose ideas we jointly came up with -- without involving any of the graduate students we do have in the group. This is only taking away time I am trying to invest in my own research. On the other hand, the faculty got a graduate student to work with the other postdoc on a topic related to the latter's research direction -- partly, of course, because it is a much more fashionable topic. Ironically, this graduate student ended up spending hours consulting me on the many technical/theoretical issues they were facing.

I am currently living in the 6th distinct city/6th distinct state in the US, since moving here from half way across the globe roughly 1.5 decades ago. Because I have been moving constantly, together with my fairly introverted personality, it has been very difficult to maintain close supportive friendships. Because of my race and disabilities, it has been extraordinarily difficult to date women; and loneliness is a daily struggle. I constantly feel the severe lack of support from my direct supervisors -- because I strive to make evidence-based inferences on life events, this is why I have taken pains to detail my experiences above -- despite the fact that, as a researcher, I can confidently assert I have made major contributions to each and every one of the projects I have my name on. The reward structure is very unclear to me, and my academic experience on a whole has left me very disillusioned. In a vicious downward cycle -- depression and anxiety have taken a very serious toll on my ability to concentrate. As a consequence, my productivity both as a person and a physicist has dropped a great deal. I worry, even if I were able to find a second career, the toll has already sucked so much out of me that it will be difficult for me to perform well. It is likely I will struggle to learn, navigate the politics, and grow in the new environment.

An Onymous said...

On the more positive side, since graduate school -- precisely because of my negative personal experiences -- I have definitely developed into a more thoughtful person, with a heightened sense of empathy for others It is a choice I have made, to not let demoralizing life experiences turn myself into a perpetually bitter person, but rather use it to challenge myself to behave much better than those who had treated me poorly. To paraphrase my undergraduate adviser, we are human beings trying to become physicists -- not the other way around. I do not want to forget to be kind, understanding, and supportive of others -- universal human values, I believe -- just because I am a theoretical physicist who perhaps knows a tiny bit more about the fundamental workings of Nature than the typical person on the planet.

To you and others suffering from depression -- I sincerely hope brighter days lie ahead for your minds and hearts!

Hermannus Contractus said...

Thanks a lot for this truthful, moving, magnificent and sensitive post that quite sharply reflects the state of affairs.

I think we all consider reasonable that a person who works hard and advances in understading through her work, should occupy in society a position where she and others can benefit of the fruits of her work. However, the academia is in a capitalist system and capitalism, as Marx scientifically proved, is not reasonable and does not defend human interests (but the satanic irrationality of accumulating capital and power).

A good person who is drawn to depression and then to suicide is a victim of the capitalist system, a victim of the devil. The latter takes full possession of her mind and compellingly shows its destructive kernel, drawing the person to depression and suicide.

Marx teaches that an individual alone cannot oppose society and its workings, which act as an 'objective' force. If all what we have were materiality I would fully agree with marxism but... Let us contemplate also our human nature, and then also our fears, our ignorance, our forgetfulness, our laziness in the quest for the truth. If we were only interested in the truth we would never lack anything.

As a Christian person, I can easily speak about the truth. The truth is that the most perfect, truthful and good person (the human being that we all want to be) was once on earth and He was crucified because of that (because of being good!!!). Before of this, he was publicly mocked, prosecuted, tortured. He, who was God on earth, and who could have swept all human beings with his hand -if that had been his wish- did not do that. Instead, he took his cross and died on the cross, so that every human being could understand the meaning of love. And he said, we should love like that and we shall live in all eternity if we do that. Certainly: He died two thousand years ago and, paradoxically for the logical minds, he still lives and cannot fail to live. He is the burning flame in the hearts of those like me, who believe in him.

What does hard work mean? One can work hard in her profession. But if one truly enjoys her profession -although it is, of course, good and desirable to enjoy- this is no longer hard work.

I think, what hard work means is out of love be able to bear everything we deeply dislike, to forgive others (and how truly nasty can be almost everything) and ourselves. We truly need help from above for that if we see how much corruption and how many injustices are committed here on earth. Should shall we humble ourselves and ask for that? Otherwise, we almost certainly shall be drawn into desperation, depression and perhaps to commit suicide. Then, we are truly lost for this earth and for all eternity. Because we have failed to forgive ourselves and the others: And we are no longer a sign of life, encouragement and joy here on earth. And shall God forgive us? For him everything is possible and his generosity is infinite, but I think that if we love, we do not have the right to take our life (as most elementary love to him: we are his words). We belong to the Universe and we should love (and we have to obey in order to love). We shall perish, when the time comes. And we shall never perish, if we love. This is a dychotomy that the logical human mind is not able to disentangle.

Hermannus Contractus said...

@Tony Smith: I totally agree with your existential conclusions and with that of your therapist.

@Matti Pikanen: "The power holders of universities have the heaviest responsibility and should behave ethically." This is impossible by definition, because such 'powerful people' belong to the prince of this world and the prince of this world can never fail to be essentially unethical. He thinks that he makes justice. But, in reality, he always washes his hands.

"God can forgive but demigods not": Well, if you are able to cope with depression, you are somehow forgiving as well because, even when you do not realize it, you are letting God speak within you. I think, our major work should be in any case to avoid (self)destruction.

Nayara said...

Let me also talk about the mental health of partners of the post docs. If you are not a physicist and also not in academia, then it is so hard to even understand what is going on. The constant moving and financial insecurities, the not knowing of what is happening after 2 years, the inability to make long term plans ... all these has a toll on the mental health of the partner. Specially if the partner him/herself has a separate career which he/she happens to love. There is also the shame of not being able to understand or cope with the life of a theoretical physicist! Often time one hears, if others can do it, why not you!

Carsten Führmann said...

Coming from British computer science rather than physics, it seems to me that docs and post-docs are treated quite differently depending on the discipline, and maybe country.

For example, my post-doc years in the UK where plain sailing, despite the fact that I moved around a lot. I think the state of PhDs and post docs has much to do with the standard of mentoring in the discipline and country. I always found a supportive environment. (Ironically, things got harder once I had a permanent lectureship, because the workload went through the roof. But that was teaching, admin, and reviewing.)

As for other disciplines: While I did my PhD in Edinburgh, I knew biologist PhD who had a much harder time than my computer science pals. (The biologists where used as lab slaves.) Similarly, when I was in Birmingham UK, I knew physics PhDs who had a much harder time than my computer science pals because of bad supervision.

So, maybe physics is one of the harsher environments?

Hermannus Contractus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Thomas said...

As a British person, I have to agree with Carsten's experience. Post doc work is extremely cushioned and low-stress in this country, I found. Too much so, maybe. We're not a very competitive people.

Erin Macdonald said...

I am currently making a film about this very subject... called PhD For Hire. You can find more information here: www.phdforhire.com and feel free to get in touch. I would love to interview you or anyone you know.

I'm an ex-postdoc/researcher and can definitely appreciate what we go through.


nicolas poupart said...

It is difficult to imagine that an institution as employer, subject to market forces, will adopt more socialist policies as the state to which it belongs. Such a situation would never have occurred in my nation, Quebec, socialist land of America.

Here is the official text of the governance of health insurance:

« Some people staying in Québec temporary, who are coming from outside Canada, may also be entitled to a Health Insurance Card if they:

are in Québec temporarily to work, have received a study or training scholarship
are the spouse Spouse ; two persons (of the opposite sex or the same sex) are considered spouses...
are a dependant of the worker or trainee and are accompanying that person. »

We unfortunately do not pay veterinary care to pets.

We also have agreements with other socialist countries (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Sweden) for citizens of these countries to benefit from our services free of charge and vice versa.

In Quebec, it is possible to do some really cool postdoc as with Dr. Hans Larsson of McGill University, who through epigenetic changes in chicken embryos modifies them to they again become dinosaurs.

It is my pleasure as a taxpayer without PhD to allow any foreigner wishing to make a Postdoc in my beautiful country to enjoy these services because... because... because... Oh! Yes, it is a matter of human dignity, we often forget because it is very expensive.

Chris Mannering said...

Even if this was the only problem in Science at this time, it would still be enough degrade the greater fabric of the enterprise to the point of destruction. It isn't the only problem.
Breakthrough insights are hard. Very hard. You need peace and quiet and a lot of time, and a lot of security. Skills...you need those too, but they're useless without the cocoon.
The postdoc's are the discoverers of tomorrow and the next day. But if they get damaged along the way, the way described, then 2 things:

- The wrong postdocs, on average, will make it through. Because the system is effectively selecting for a range of traits that haven't a lot to do with extending the lease on the scientific miracle.

- The right postdocs that make it against the odds, are going to be damaged property. And that ain't no good niever.

Henning said...

xav1977 I sincerely hope you will find the strength to pull through.

Henning said...

An Onymous if you are seriously considering a change in career I'd love to talk to you. Can't guarantee anything but I am looking for theoretical physicists who could see themselves working in quantum computing (of course will keep this absolutely confidential). You can contact me at my blog wavewatching.net.

Phillip Helbig said...

"I'm still working on my PhD, but I wonder if doing research as a hobby might not be where I end up. There are just too many things about being a post-doc I can't ask my wife and children to go through. The problem, though, is that if you only do research as a hobby I wonder how seriously your work will be taken by others. I can see it might even be difficult to find collaborators, and working by yourself seems like a good way to produce work that no one else will ever read."

Speaking as someone who worked in academia for a while and, due to circumstances beyond my control, had to leave (whether I could have landed a permanent job at some point---under the condition that I would want to live there---I'll let others decide), but still does some real research, I don't think that it is a problem getting it taken seriously, at least if you publish in high-profile journals. These days, one can work as good, or better, at home in many respects. The only thing missing, and it is an important thing, is face-to-face contact on a regular basis. This is difficult to establish starting from scratch, but most people who leave academia can keep it up at some level if they want to. Many don't want to, some want to but find it is too hard, some want to but get depressed wondering about what might have been. There is so much literature today that getting noticed is perhaps a bit difficult; if one is still within the system, colleagues can provide a seed of crystallization to get a paper noticed. For this reason, going to conferences and presenting something there is a good idea.

So, putting my money where my mouth is, allow me to advertize my latest published work.

There are many people who have some sort of institutional affiliation, but no paid position. Probably more than you think. Most don't loudly advertize the fact, but you can find them if you look. This does make it a bit easier.

It depends on what you want. For some, the opportunity to do research is enough. Others want money, fame, power---maybe even more than the opportunity to do research. If you are content to be able to do research, then rather than trying to hang on until you perhaps get a permanent job at 40 or, if not, have to look for something else and (rightly or wrongly) being considered too old by many, why not get your degree, then get a high-paying non-academic job. It is not unrealistic to work for, say, 10 years at such a job and earn enough money to survive at postdoc-level salary until you die. Or, if you are not as ambitious and/or have other interests, live comfortably and in security, do enough research to stay in the field, then take early retirement and spend more time on it.

Brian May is, I suppose, an extreme example. :-)

Phillip Helbig said...


The basic problem, though, is that short-term contracts are the norm. Readers of the Physik Journal (the member magazine of the German Physical Society) will note that there is some indication that things might change a little bit. Tenure-track positions are actually being considered, as are minimum lengths for fixed-term positions. In this context, it is usually mentioned that, while promising candidates should get a permanent job earlier, others should be made to leave, rather than keeping them around for the employer's convenience while knowing that they will never have a successful research career. There is something to be said for this, but I think it would work only if all appointments were completely transparent; otherwise some good person might be passed over for non-academic reasons and be forced to leave while in the present system he at least has a chance to hang on. This would mean making public who applied for a position as well as ranked list by experts who have no personal stake in the matter (i.e. experts in the field but from another country and not involved in close collaboration with the candidates). Something like this has existed for a while in some countries, at least for some jobs, but I think it would be difficult to get it to be the norm everywhere.

Phillip Helbig said...

"Einstein chose Oliver's path: a steady, reasonably well-paying day job and nights/weekends for one's true passion of theoretical physic"

Einstein didn't choose to work at the patent office. The other three who graduated with him got academic positions, so it wasn't that difficult back then, and it is definitely what Einstein wanted. But he wasn't the easiest person to get along with.

He was always grateful that he got his job at the patent office through a relative of a friend. As we have known for a while now, he already had a child at this time and needed a steady job.

As it turned out, many patents at that time had to do with electromagnetism (as did the work of his parents), and it was a lucky coincidence that this was not too far removed from special relativity.

Chris Mannering said...

that and Poincare, Lorenz, mach, Hilbert

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

Einstein originally planned an academic career, but faced considerable resistance because of his contempt for mere authority and because of his heritage. See Abraham Pais' book 'Subtle is the lord' for details.

He went with Plan B rather than continuing his initial run at the academic gauntlet. He worked in the Patent office from 1904 until 1909. Some of his most important and fundamental insights were developed before he left the patent office for academia.

As he made the transition to academia he wryly commented to his friend Conrad Habicht: "So now I am an official in the guild of whores."

Always the rebel, always the outsider, more comfortable as a loner and steadfastly contemptuous of the pompous and arrogant tendencies of academia.

Bar said...

An Onymous. You have said it al and al and all. I advise all of you depressed and stressed to listen to the song Dear Abby by John Prine and take its advice.
I know it is fashionable to try and help so I have a song for those more proactive. Don Hert's Swift Kick in the rear.

Hermannus Contractus said...

An Onymous. Your humbleness is the key to overcoming all problems one faces and you do well in reporting here on your many experiences. In your existential conclusions you show that, in spite of being pissed off and really sucked, you are able to forgive others and yourself and you strive for peace, respect and harmony. That is the path: For if one seeks the righteousness of the kingdom of God, everything shall be added. And the Lord protects the path of those who are righteous. Those who are arrogant and who say "I do not talk to people" shall perish, and they forget that in this life. When their life comes to an end , they shall have no other. What a disgrace they suffer, and they are blind to it! But they can choose, and they choose evil instead of goodness. "The arrogant man shall not stand in the eyes of God". What shall then be of all those who thought so well of themselves so as to neglect others?

Phillip Helbig said...

He didn't really "choose" to work at the patent office. He was happy to get the job. It did turn out that things could have been worse, but he didn't know it at the time. He wouldn't have had any success in continuing to apply for academic positions, and he knew it.

Still more or less true up until:

"Always the rebel, always the outsider, more comfortable as a loner and steadfastly contemptuous of the pompous and arrogant tendencies of academia."

Rebel in some sense, yes, but not out of a sense of rebellion but because he knew what was right. In many respects, Einstein was conservative, hence is scepticism of quantum theory. He certainly wasn't always the outsider. While at the patent office, yes, to some extent, and in his later years he was something of an outsider to the physics world, but not to the world at large. From 1910 to 1925 or so he was the internationally recognized leader of the physics community, hardly an outsider. Loner? Academically in some sense (no-one ever got a doctorate for working with Einstein, and he didn't like teaching), but he had a few very good friends with whom he spent much time, and, after he became famous, many groupies (in the same sense that, say, Robert Plant had (and has) many groupies). Yes, he had little time for formalities, whether in academia or elsewhere.

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

“I am truly a ‘lone traveler’ and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart. In the face of all this, I have never lost a sense of distance and the need for solitude.”
—Albert Einstein --- From “The World As I See It” (1930), reprinted in Ideas and Opinions, 99.

“I lived in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.”
—Albert Einstein

One can claim that Einstein was not a rebel by choosing a particular definition of that word. But the fact that Einstein was never a team-player, that he steadfastly questioned authority, and followed his own intuition to bold new discoveries in spite of considerable opposition is indisputable.

Helbig may know the facts of Einstein's life, but I do not think he knows the man.