Academic comfort levels

July 23, 2013

I have a question for you, Dear Reader.

During what fraction of the time you spent at each major career stage in academics – undergrad, grad school, postdoc, faculty level (TT or no, plz specify) – did you feel comfortable?

Not did you feel it was easy exactly, but did you feel as though you had it handled? As though there was little doubt you were doing a good job of what you were expected to do.

For me, undergrad all 4 yrs, grad school 3 yrs, postdoc maybe a scattered 2 yrs total time.

At the faculty level maybe my first three years and again for maybe 6 mo last year.

For faculty, make special note of the tenure decision- were you feeling comfortable in the few years leading up to that?

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37 Responses to “Academic comfort levels”

  1. proflikesubstance Says:

    Towards the end of my Ph.D. and the last two years of my postdoc (except for times scattered around hearing back about aps). As for now, maybe the last 18 months out of 5 years as tt faculty, and not uniformly. Maybe that’s just the glow of summer coloring my view, as well. Submitting my tenure packet in a month or so and feel decent about it. The first 3 years were like running in quicksand.

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  2. bashir Says:

    Didn’t feel comfortable last 2.5 years of graduate school. Then felt a little bit for 2 years of postdoc. The last two years, not so much. This year will probably be the most uncomfortable.

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  3. Last year of my PhD and now (three years into postdoc). First few years of PhD were absolute nightmare and start of postdoc was kind of tricky since I was moving to a new subfield.

    On a side note, I don’t feel very comfortable when getting rejections from TT apps., but I have kind of accepted it as a part of the game.

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  4. Dave Says:

    I don’t think I have felt comfortable since I moved to the US for a post-doc. Probably put too much pressure on myself, but it also has a lot to do with just not trusting academic research as a career.

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  5. Dr. Noncoding Arenay Says:

    First 2-3 years of grad school felt comfortable. Last couple years the pressure was on to complete the story and graduate. The first postdoc was comfortable – got some good data and a couple papers. This second post-doc is in a new(ish) area and I’m learning a variety of new things. Feels like I’m back to year 1 of grad school, so the comfort level is low. But I think a few months down the line I might have a better handle on things and expect the comfort meter to go up.

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  6. Michael Says:

    Enjoyed first 2 years of grad school (too young and dumb to realise difficulties to come) and last 6 to 12 months (writing/dissertation put things in focus). Currently 6 mos onto first postdoc and feeling good though i anticipate that will change as fellowship wraps up and pressure is on to preparenfor next step.

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  7. Neuro-conservative Says:

    It takes me about 2 years after each major transition before I am feeling comfortable. At my career stage, I could probably stay in my comfort zone for a while, but I am deliberately pushing myself back into that uncomfortable feeling in order to try to ramp up my operation.

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  8. DrugMonkey Says:

    N-c:
    But do you figure you have it *handled* even if it is new and exciting? Or do you feel as though if this uncertain next step goes south, you could wash out of the career? That is what I was trying to get at…..

    This all started with an assertion on the Twitts that young faculty shouldn’t worry so much about tenure and should just focus on doing good science.

    I think our career / academics sets an environment in which you are constantly told you aren’t doing quite enough, aren’t quite excellent/brilliant enough and gee, we could probably get along without you, chumpie.

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  9. fjordmaster Says:

    3 of 4 years of undergrad. 2nd year was pretty rough.

    4 of 5 years of graduate school. The last year was easily the worst year of my life. Luckily the horrors were all related to school.

    2 of 3 years of postdoc. This last year has been very uncomfortable.

    I really struggle with the transition phases of my research career. I tend to obsess over things I should have done better or differently without even acknowledging successes.

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  10. Geologist Says:

    Last 2 yrs of undergraduate mostly felt good – I knew I was smart/strong/and would be successful and had faith in myself, but I was also experiencing significant gender bias from my professors, made it frustrating but I (mostly) kept faith in myself and my abilities.

    Grad School – MS was mostly awesome, and sort-of most of PhD was great. Was sexually harassed at end of PhD (actually was sexually harassed most of grad school but was able to not let it ruin my life until the end of PhD where it became really horrible).

    Self-funded postdoc – short lived as I immediately got tenure track job. Was great.

    Tenure Track Prof – 1st job – very miserable but I felt I had to take it as tenure jobs are so rare. 2nd tenure track job – First semester was the best of all. I felt on top of the world that I had managed to get away from the first job and found a better university. Really thought that I had achieved my “dream”. Since then it has steadily become worse and worse.

    Knew I had everything and more for tenure when I went up but I had so many bullies in my department that the ordeal was miserable. Same for promotion to full professor.

    I think it took 2 yrs after full professor before I started feeling ‘comfortable’, or at least I learned to let go of a lot of frustration and pain caused by bullies and other horrible people and let go of many dreams I had of working with my colleagues and building something great. I finally realized there were enough people in the dept willing to hurt the dept as a whole in order to bring me down as a way of making them look better (or something along these lines??). And the other faculty were just glad that they were not the focus of the bullies so they did nothing to help those of us that were hurting. Administration was worse, so there was no help anywhere. I was beyond miserable and searched for solutions everywhere.

    Eventually, I found a way around the bullies and the roadblocks and succeeded beyond all my original dreams. But even though I was so successful and had achieved all and more than I ever wanted, none of it felt like I thought it would. The price I had to pay to get here was too much. I feel bruised, beaten, and no longer alive (e.g. numb). And, although I”m “comfortable”, I still have to work in a hostile work environment and that just isn’t enjoyable most of the time. And society no longer supports science, at least where I live, so that also is depressing.

    I often wonder if I should have taken a different path in life. ?? Would industry or government been a better experience? I feel like it is too late now and I”m just trying to make the best of it before retiring, which … is still a very long way away…

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  11. Jim Thomerson Says:

    Mixed at the undergrad level, mostly horrible at MS level. Mostly comfortable through PhD. No postdoc. Early tenure after 3 years. Took about 10 years to get really comfortable in the faculty job.

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  12. Neuro-conservative Says:

    I don’t think we ever have it truly “handled” in this environment (and I think that is true for many careers in this economy). I have built up enough career equity that I am not acutely anxious about washing out of the career, but I could easily imagine being in my mid-50’s and out on my ear.

    I think our career / academics sets an environment in which you are constantly told you aren’t doing quite enough, aren’t quite excellent/brilliant enough and gee, we could probably get along without you, chumpie.

    With a handful of exceptional rockstars (looking at you, Karl D!), this is probably objectively true for everyone.

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  13. DJMH Says:

    What Neuro-conservative said. Each time I transition, the first 2-ish years are very hard, and it continues for long enough that the self-doubt creeps up to significant levels, even knowing that it was a transition. Then I get traction and feel more comfortable again. Then I move.

    This was why that long-ago post on FSP about “feeling stupid” was so resonant.

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  14. Jen Says:

    I felt comfortable in my senior year of undergrad and in the final two years of PhD. I never felt comfortable scientifically as a postdoc (but did feel comfortable from a teaching/lab mentor perspective during the last three years). I am just starting the 2nd year of a TT position at a PUI, and I am far from comfortable – and do not expect to be for another 4 yrs, until the tenure decision is made, or I publish a paper with undergrad co-authors, whichever comes first.

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  15. GM Says:

    I only felt good about where I am and about the future as an undergrad.

    At the end of it though I was already aware of the nature of the academic Ponzi scheme and I have not felt so again at any point since then. And I don’t expect to in the future. I doubt even tenured PIs can given that they still need to get grants and that’s not very easy these days…

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  16. flysci Says:

    The last two years of U-grad felt like I’d handled it, and weren’t too bad. I agree with DJMH, transition is hard though… Post-bac lab, <2 years, only felt confident at the end. Grad school, for ~3 years it was handled, but only after quals. As for the postdoc (t <1 year at this point), it's a bit up and down at the moment, but it is hard to separate my uncertainty with the new field with my uncertainty with a new country (moved out of the US for a postdoc), my uncertainty with loose ends from my PhD project, or my uncertainty with pursuing an academic career.

    I'm hoping/expecting/waiting for things to settle/get handled? soon. But I definitely feel the pressure and expectation that I should have hit the ground running. I'm not sure why, since I understand that most people don't. I'm confused by this disconnect.

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  17. Jim Thomerson Says:

    I was at a small, young, regional university. I coped pretty well, because I am an independent person. I got my classes developed and running OK from the beginning. I did publish a paper with two undergraduates, and started and finished a fairly large publication working in a corner of one of the teaching labs. I was uncomfortable in the sense that I thought I should be in a better place, and that I was in transit. I went on a couple of job interviews. I dropped out of contention for a major job after I talked with the friend who had resigned from the position. He told me he had an 80 hour work week. So, when asked if I was available for an interview, I withdrew my application. From discussion with other colleagues at good places, I finally understood that I had it better in many ways than they did.

    I gave up some of my more grandiose ideas as impractical. I’m only partially joking when I say because I was at a small, marginal university, I decided to focus my attention on small fishes which live in marginal habitats. Once I decided to adapt in place, it all became quite comfortable.

    Where ever you are, good advice is to suck it up, enjoy it, and do as well for your self as circumstances will allow.

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  18. GAATTC Says:

    Under grad fine. First two years of grad school ok. Then ulcer-ville through the rest of grad school, 2 post-docs, and asst. prof, assoc prof, tenure then full prof. Still stressed until about 2 years ago when I decided to cut down to 45 hrs/week and let the chips fall where they may. My family does not care if I get a glamour pub or another R01.

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  19. Crystal Voodoo Says:

    Undergrad-completely comfortable. Grad school – alternating bouts of “I’ve totally got this” and raging imposter syndrome with the downturn usually triggered by successful committee meetings. Postdoc – abject failure but it’s a zen-like sense of failure. I have transcended discomfort and achieved suckitude nirvana.

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  20. Neuro-conservative Says:

    GAATTC — Does your chair/dean care if you never get another R01? What sort of tenure protection do you have?

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  21. The only time I ever felt like “Holy crappe! Maybe I don’t have this.” was during the search for my first tenure-track job.

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  22. Nicholas Says:

    Undegrad – last 2 years (of 4)
    Postgrad – years 2 and 5 (of six), before massive descent into Severe Acute Situational Anxiety and a bunch of therapy.
    Post-postgrad – seven months in and I’m feeling pretty great

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  23. JD Says:

    The only time I ever felt, “oh crap, maybe this isn’t going to pan out” is right now. 4th year Assistant Prof. Despite significant grant funding from other sources, I feel like EVERYTHING rides on my NIH R01 applications (at least at my institution). And with funding rates where they are, I feel like I am teetering on a tightrope between spectacular success and spectacular failure.

    I always firmly believed that with hard work, perserverence and good science, everything would eventually work out. I don’t think that anymore.

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  24. meshugena313 Says:

    JD – I’m with you, in my 4th year as well, constantly working on the next R01. But I actually felt more overall stress as a postdoc and even at points in grad school. As a PI pride myself in my thick skin. I get upset for a day (or 2) and move on after getting scored and not funded, sunk costs and all. Can’t do anything about the past, just keep moving forward, 1 day at a time.

    Seriously, we’re doing great science with some cool results and great potential moving forward. It’s exciting every day, what other job has the potential for groundbreaking observations at any time? Of course most of the time the data is noise, ambiguous, or a dead end, but the thrill of discovery > stress, for me. In fact, that’s what I tell prospective grad students when they interview – the major compensation in this line of work is the thrill of discovery.

    I will say my wife is more stressed than I am, even though she earns 2X my salary…

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  25. meshugena313 Says:

    Clarification – what I meant was that my wife was more stressed about my lab and faculty position than I am.

    If you think about running a lab as if it were starting a small business, I find the stress more manageable. Basically I have an investor (or venture capital) who’s expecting revenue at some point soon. Since many (or most) small businesses fail, yet people still are driven to start them, I don’t feel as unique in this endeavor. I’ll get some customers soon…

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  26. Beaker Says:

    Undergrad. Fine, from what I can remember…
    Grad school: oscillation between “pretty good” and bliss.
    Postdoc: First project ended up in the crapper (bad), but recovered nicely. Overall, good.
    Faculty: generally unpleasant, because I get to do very little of the things that made grad school and postdoc so pleasurable. Basically, what JD said.

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  27. cmda Says:

    “I think our career / academics sets an environment in which you are constantly told you aren’t doing quite enough, aren’t quite excellent/brilliant enough and gee, we could probably get along without you, chumpie.” —- very nicely put.

    Grad school (MSTP program): fine at first when all is fresh and new, and good towards end once project is working and end is in site. Frequently uncomfortable in middle: lot’s of worrying. I make sure now to tell students that if you don’t hit a wall at some point and don’t have experiments fail big-time, you haven’t had the full-on biomedical grad school experience.

    Med school, first 2 years: highly structured; clear expectations and means of evaluation; kind of like college; very comfortable.

    Med school, last 2 years: mixed bag. Can depend on luck of draw as to who supervising attendings and residents are. Evaluations subjective.

    Fellowship/postdoc/early faculty: clinical training straightforward and comfortable. Research training comfortable once K08 in hand. Early years after R01 awarded were good: have R01 and renewal years away! Approaching tenure I was 60% ok and 40% uncomfortable, though, in retrospect, knowing what was to come, I should have been more uncomfortable (did not realize how variable university-wide promotion committees can be from year-to-year. No problem at departmental level, but file ran into trouble at university-wide level [the final committee with English, art, economics, chem, etc professors]). Bad luck: committee that year was very problematic.

    Recently tenured: 100% uncomfortable thus far due almost entirely to dire NIH funding situation: makes it hard to plan and to hire. Even with tenured salary, still rely on soft money for a good portion of income.

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  28. namnezia Says:

    I agree with Physioprof,right when I was looking for TT jobs I started to worry somewhat. Other than that undergrad and grad school were great, and I definitely felt comfortable as a postdoc (other than when I was looking for jobs). As a faculty member it’s been hit or miss, I panicked a bit when I had trouble landing my first federal grants a couple of years pre-tenure. Once those were in, I didn’t worry too much about tenure. Now, well, now I’m not sure how I feel. If my grants keep getting rejected I don’t know how I’ll be able to keep the lab running. The upside is that now, I’m much more adept and efficient at writing, can handle stress much better, and most importantly I think the science we’re doing is quite cool, and hope that it is just a matter of time before somebody notices and gives us $$$.

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  29. arlenna Says:

    5th year into TT, tenure clock extension and will go up next year. Like JD and meshugena313, feel a little teetery these days after initial funding success yet current struggle to get an R01.

    I have always had two voices in my head: one says “You are possibly the awesomest person alive, who is so smart you can understand anything, and you can do anything you want to do, show those assholes!” and another one that says “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE YOU DON’T BELONG HERE YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!!!!!” I can suppress and ignore the negative one most of the time (especially with the help of Wellbutrin, thank you pharmacology).

    So I guess you could say I have always had an underlying layer of 50:50 comfortable/uncomfortable, but it feels like 90:10 a lot of the time (if that makes any sense).

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  30. GAATTC Says:

    Neuro-conservative–

    My chairman definitely cares about funding, but understands the situation. As long as I’m trying, and publishing, he is OK. My concern is when he retires and another chairman comes along and demands/expects R01s. I’m at a hard money institution. Worse case scenario is that they take my lab away, but since I’m publishing they would not do that right away. If we get a new chairman that decides to fire all without R01s, it would take him/her several years to get rid of me because I’m trying as hard as everybody else (within my 45 hr workweek). By then my house will be paid off and the kids will be done with college, so I could take a pay cut and work somewhere else.

    There is perverted peace in learned helplessness.

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  31. RMH Says:

    “I think our career / academics sets an environment in which you are constantly told you aren’t doing quite enough, aren’t quite excellent/brilliant enough and gee, we could probably get along without you, chumpie.”

    I think that sums it up at whatever stage you are.

    My most comfortable times are the first year of the grant. After that it is “what have you done for me lately”.

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  32. Last two years of grad school, last two years of postdoc. Re the faculty gig … ask me in the New Year when I’ll find out if I get tenure or not.

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  33. Neuropop Says:

    I guess I got too comfortable: end of second year in grad school, 3 papers (one in the fanciest Physics journal). The next one took a while coming. Postdoc: fancy fellowship, switched fields and ended up glamor pub and othes. in the first 3 years. Got a little nervous during my faculty position search but got a great one. Got my first Fed. grant on the first try (NSF but hey…), got an R01 as a co-PI, another as a PI soon thereafter. Going great, right?

    And then….half the department upped and left for greener pastures, the next crop of papers were slow in coming, grad students took too long to be trained up, and tenure application went up in smoke.

    So, feel comfortable when you can for who knows what’s coming down the pike.

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  34. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Neuropop — Many people speculate that fancy postdoc positions often leave their trainees “spoiled” by all the readily available resources (both tangible resources and intellectual resources — ideas). Do you think this happened to you? Also, I am curious how your story turned out — where are you now?

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  35. Neuropop Says:

    Neuro-conservative — I was spoilt in the sense that I thought it was easy to get a pipeline of talented people but it was as you said.

    My first batch of trainees was ridiculously talented but moved on quickly due to various circumstances — student graduated quickly and the postdoc found a position. The next batch, not so much…The smoke is still clearing and I am looking for positions academic or otherwise. Having an R01 and half is not the draw one makes it out to be.

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  36. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Best of luck to you. Gotta imagine 1.5 R01’s should count for something…

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  37. Eli Rabett Says:

    Retirement is wonderful. You can go into other labs as free labor or not as you wish.

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