A backstage entrance into the world of neuroscience and academia.

What happens after a Ph.D. ends

Artist: Tom Cheney
The New Yorker Collection / The Cartoon Bank

In the last few years there has been quite a surge of texts discussing psychological challenges of academic careers at a graduate level, particularly regarding the rates of depression among PhD students, and impostor syndrome. But what about those of us who made it through? With all the antidepressants we ended up taking, battling through our own perfectionism, feeling that what we’ve achieved is never good enough for a publication, that there is always more to be tested, analyzed and answered? What about the ones that got lucky and landed the post-doctoral position (or a permanent position, as the case may be) of their dreams?

Well, the challenges definitely do not end there. Often you end up moving countries – sometimes once again in your life. You have to adapt to how the new university may work differently from the old one. But most importantly, you’re now a grown-up. These letters prior to your name mean that you’re now an expert at what you do. And now suddenly, for the first time in your life, you have to act like one. But no one actually teaches you how.

You move to a new lab with its already established protocols and routines which you now have to learn. But – remember! – you’re a grown-up. No one has to teach you now. You don’t get your experienced tutor as some of us did back when we started our graduate studies. But at the same time, you don’t start from scratch, your colleagues don’t know what was different in your previous experience, so they don’t give you detailed overviews of inner workings of the lab. Now more than ever you need to learn to ask questions, bug for details.

You have had your share of technical problems before. You’ve been through these periods that can seem like an eternity, when your experiments don’t work, and you don’t know where to look for the cause. Is it your setup that misbehaves for no reason? Or is the solution worn out? Is there some dirt in a crucial place? A loose screw?

Being in a new lab can add some new options you could miss. You don’t come with a knowledge of how the protocols and solutions could be different here. Some things you don’t even think to question at first. And this could make you stuck without any progress way longer than before.

A couple of weeks in you start to question your skills; you get nightmares of being kicked out of your new position. And then it turns out that the whole reason you got stuck was because you didn’t think to ask.

And then you get a new visit from your old friend – the impostor syndrome. Once again, you feel like a total misfit. How could you be a grown-up scientist if you cannot even figure out that the problem could be the way this very important solution is made? How are you an expert if you cannot think to ask the right questions at the right times? You feel like you need a proper detailed tutorial of how everything works, but you’re now a postdoc, why does anyone have to teach you? 

Or maybe you changed your scientific field somewhat, as many of us do, and now you have to obtain the necessary background at an accelerated rate. Sometimes a basic concept may elude your understanding for a while, and then reading papers or talking to your supervisor can make you feel absolutely incompetent. And, once again, you are a grown-up – why does anyone have to explain the basics to you?

There is good news there though. Not only you have become a grown-up, but also many of your fellow students have become ones as well. And the more you live in the academic world, the more people you know who might know the answers to your questions. I’m not talking only of the professors high above you somewhere, but also your own peers – the people you once studied with, the ones you spoke to next to a poster at a conference, – you are definitely not alone. Use it! Dare to ask. Discuss even the little things – sometimes the little things that no one thinks of are the key to something new.

Sometimes I cannot paint a thing. At times like that, do you know what I do? I paint. And then I just stop. I take long walks, look at the scenery, doze off at noon. Don’t do a single thing. Then, suddenly, I’m able to paint again.

(Hayao Miyazaki, “Kiki’s Delivery Service”)

There are the lucky people who never doubt their self-worth. The rest of us are always at risk of another surge of impostor syndrome. It often makes it difficult to carry on. But – there are a few things to think of that may help you through.

First, the feeling of not knowing or understanding anything is very misleading. The scientific realm is constantly evolving and expanding, and the one who doesn’t learn new things eventually gets left behind. Even the best scientists often find themselves not knowing something crucial.

And even if you don’t know something, it doesn’t mean that all the years were spent in vain. You develop your way of thinking, and you obtain an intuition – this seemingly illogical understanding of how things work; when you are pretty sure of something despite not having a direct way to prove it. The thing that is called “implicit knowledge”.

Moreover, the process of gaining understanding is definitely not linear. You may spend ages reading and feeling that you don’t understand the concept at all, but then the sudden insight comes. A surprising amount of processing seems to be happening subconsciously.

Second, when your main project is stalling, whether it is a technical issue or just that your previous approach appears to have led to another dead end, this doesn’t render you totally useless. Your contribution is not limited to your main project. It’s also your expertise, your bizarre skills and know-hows. While trying to make your setup running properly for a week and a half and getting frustrated over total absence of any visible progress, you may have helped to solve someone else’s issues just by being around when they needed your help or insight, – you never know.

And third, when your progress becomes very slow, almost non-existing for a while, the one thing that helps is having something in your life that works. When I just started my PhD, I was new to both biology and experimental work in general. I studied the local language – I would get every homework done, and beyond; this was something that kept my sense of self-worth from plummeting down to hell.

The “thing that works” does not have to be totally out of your scientific scope; it could be a secondary scientific project. I find it a good rule to have at least two projects: an ambitious and exciting one, and a “backup” – something that may not interest you as much, but is less complicated both technically and scientifically, and would almost surely work out. Such a project did make my PhD in the end, and I am sure this was the case for many of us.

There is another aspect of the impostor syndrome – a more global one. In addition to feeling incompetent at what you do, you may question the very research you are conducting. Is it good enough? Is it relevant at all?

Sometimes you may feel that what you do is useless, rather than that you yourself are useless at it. What helps is to look at it from a grander perspective, “zoom out” for a moment.

If you are involved in basic research, you may feel that you are not relevant to the “real world”. If you are not directly benefiting the society, if you don’t make an impact on peoples’ quality of life, — what are you good for? The answer is rather simple, actually. All things that are directly useful can only appear when the foundation is laid, when the understanding of basic mechanisms is developed enough. One can visualize human knowledge as a pyramid of sorts – if too many blocks in the bottom rows are missing, the tip is likely to fall over.

Many of us are motivated by sheer curiosity rather than the good of the people. It may be perceived as rather selfish, but – what does the motivation matter if the outcome is beneficial anyhow?

Research is often focused at a very tiny aspect of a general problem; and if you concentrate too much on this tiny aspect, you may forget the grand context, without which your research may seem superficial and not good for anything. Try to make time to “zoom out”. Think about the general problem, read papers on broader aspects of your research. This also often helps to further your own projects by bringing you new ideas.

Sometimes your frustration spreads beyond your work. Especially when your research is not going too well, you may start doubting the validity of your choices. Maybe you aimed too high? Maybe you should have stayed somewhere where things are more familiar, where you have more friends around; maybe you should have taken a less demanding job…

The frustration, however, catches up with you whatever you choose to do in life. But – even if you moved far away and changed everything – you are not alone. This is something to remember when the thought of drastically changing your life – or the change that has already happened – gives you a panic feeling. Some of your old friends and acquaintances may be nearby. And don’t underestimate the power of the internet. Skype with your friends and family, with your former colleagues; use the information from local groups on Facebook – bless the technical progress.

Our professional route is incredibly tough. Things will never become easy, but I wish you to find your place – in every sense of the word.

Everything at work seems to be falling into place nicely. I’m even starting to get some confidence. There are still times when I feel sad, but all in all, I sure love this town.

(Hayao Miyazaki, “Kiki’s Delivery Service”)

P.S. I would like to thank Karen Kaplan, Senior Editor at Nature, for extensive comments that have significantly improved the tone and the structure of the piece.